Category Archives: leadership

Presidents are Neither Above the Law or Criticism: Wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen A. Douglas

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find it both interesting and troubling to listen to many supporters of President Trump castigate anyone for any criticism offered about the President, sometimes going as far to say that critics are being “unfair,” “disrespectful,”or most disturbing, “disloyal” or “treasonous.” Even the President tweets out those kind of accusations on a whim.

Admittedly some forms of criticism cross boundaries and are personally insulting and disrespectful of the President. In my writings I try, even when being very critical of his policies, words, or actions, to refrain from personal insults that could be considered disrespectful to the President because I am still on active duty.  As my readers know I am a historian as well as an theologian/ethicist and when I do write about the actions of the President and his administration I do so based on careful study and comparison with historical, ethical, or legal precedents. My views are likewise informed by my education and and belief in the principles of the Enlightenment, my belief in human rights as set out in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the French Rights of Man and the Citizen, as well as my understanding of the Anglican Christian tradition of “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason” being the foundations of faith.

But it is not disloyal or treasonous to offer criticism of policies, legislative proposals, executive orders, or actions and words of the President or his advisers that could endanger the security of the United States, its citizens, and its alliances, or potentially be unlawful.

Even so I am occasionally criticized for offering historical examples that compare the President and his most ardent supporters in an unfair way, some even calling those disrespectful. I find their double standards and lack of appreciation of irony quite fascinating as most of these people have spent the last eight years or more disparaging and disrespecting President Obama with some of the most racist, vile, contemptible, and false accusations ever made against a sitting President, while at the same time condemning others for simply repeating what the President himself has said.

I found out that a couple of years when I had a couple of students criticize some of my teaching at Gettysburg when comparing the anti-immigrant Know Nothings of the 1830s-1850s to current anti-immigrant Trump supporters, and stated that some Trump Administration Civil Rights proposals to be a throwback to Jim Crow. My words then were not insulting nor disrespectful, but simply valid historical criticism; but some Trump supporters are so thin-skinned that they cannot abide any criticism of the President, despite dishing out incredibly racist and disgusting personal comments about President Obama, which were mostly devoid of any non-racially based political or ideological principles.

Last summer I experienced the threat to my career from one of my chapel parishioners who lied about the contents of a sermon and asked my Commander to have me investigated and tried by Court Martial for simply criticizing the actions of the administration on the southern border using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and History. I did not mention the President but I was accused of comparing him to Hitler and my critic, who never spoke to me and who I still would not recognize wanted me charged with Conduct unbecoming of an officer and disrespect to the President of the United States. About a quarter of the congregation was questioned and I was exonerated, but I have learned the hard way that the President’s supporters will go to any length to silence anything the believe critical,of him.

Unlike President Obama the current President is ensnared in numerous legal, criminal, and Constitutionally backed investigations which range from simply enriching himself as a public official (the emoluments clause) and his family, or more seriously collusion with not only Russian, but Saudi, and other nations to influence his election. The Senate committee investigating the Russian connection said that this actually happened and backed up the evidence submitted by U.S. law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies concerning this. The Saudi and other Sunni Arab connections were just brought to public light about a year ago. Lord knows how many other governments were involved with Donald Trump Jr., and others to seek to influence the 2016 elections and U.S. foreign policy since then.

Theodore Roosevelt had to defend himself in 1918 from such criticism from the supporters of President Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt was criticizing the Wilson administration because of how badly he thought they were pursuing the war effort against Germany. For this people were castigating him. People said that newspapers should not print what Roosevelt had to say as well as “He should stand by the President” and “He should be stood before a stone wall and shot.” Roosevelt ended up writing an op-ed in the Kansas City Star in which he noted:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

Senator Stephen A. Douglas

This is exactly how I base any criticism I offer of the President, his policies, words, and actions. I heartily agree with the words of Senator Stephen A. Douglas when he battled President James Buchanan over the pro-slavery attempt to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a Slave State in 1858. Douglas said of his encounter with Buchanan:

“God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!” 

Sadly, there are very few GOP Senators who would have the moral courage to do what Stephen Douglas did in 1858. He did so even though it doomed his chances to be President.

I admire Stephan Douglas but there is a difference. Now there is a difference, I am not a Senator or elected Representative, I am an officer and must carry out the orders of the President. However, if I ever come to believe that I cannot in good conscience carry them out, or if I believe that they are un-Constitutional I will retire from the military in order to allow myself the freedom to speak out more openly. To ‘this point in time I have not to have been forced to Carr out any illegal or unconstitutional orders, and as a Chaplain I have been able to speak my thoughts openly, though I am careful in how I say them at least in order to maintain my respect for the office of the President.

General Ludwig Beck

One of my examples is the German General Ludwig Beck, who resigned as head of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s aggression and his plan to attack Czechoslovakia. He wrote something that I hold particularly important in my service at this point in history:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

Unlike the current President who sought numerous deferments from entering the military in a time of war: Stephen Douglas put his political career on the line to follow the Constitution, Theodore Roosevelt resigned from his office as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Since to go to war and place himself in harms way, Ludwig Beck would die in the failed attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944. All three men were far more honorable than President Trump, and their words should be heeded by Americans regardless of their political affiliation.

Over the past few weeks the President and his media cohorts have been suggesting unconstitutional and illegal actions against his critics Following the end of the Mueller investigation. His administration members are refusing Congressional subpoenas, and he is hiding behind executive privilege. In a different era his own party members in Congress would hold him to account, but these are different times. The actions of the President and his administration members, supported by the GOP majority in the Senate will likely bring about a Constitutional Crisis that will test the very foundations of the Republic, at the same time he is sending significant military assets to confront an undisclosed threat from Iran, while increasing sanctions on that country, while readying economic tariffs on China. I could go on, but I won’t.

Theodore Roosevelt was absolutely correct. Presidents are not beyond criticism, rebuke, or the law. Any real patriot understands that.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Americans should Always “Choose a President Wise, Well Read in History and Exceedingly Slow to Draw the Sword” Wise Words from the Late General Hal Moore in the Trump Era

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LTG Hal Moore as a Colonel in Vietnam

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Even since I was a child I was an avid reader of history, especially military history and biography. I idolized the military men that I read about and many of the things that they said and did, and almost always skewed them into an almost perverse form of patriotism. After the attacks of 9-11-2001 and during the run up to the invasion of Iraq I got into a internet argument with a man who later became the Presiding Bishop of my former denomination. He was and still is a very honorable man. He opposed the war on good historical, social, and moral grounds.

While he was very conservative theologically he had a strong sense of social justice and having come to adulthood during Vietnam war era he had a certain sense of distrust about military adventurism that I, an officer who at that time had some twenty years of military service did not fully appreciate. I responded to one of his comments with a quote from one of my favorite American Naval heroes, Captain Stephen Decatur who once remarked:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

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There is some truth in what Decatur said, but his words should not be used to justify imperialistic nationalism, racism, or militarism. Sadly back then that was exactly how I used it to attempt to shut down the arguments of an honorable man. If he ever reads this I hope that Bishop Craig Bates accepts my heartfelt apology for how I treated him back then.

It took me two combat tours, one at sea where I was a member of a boarding team, and the other in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, and a lot more military and historical education that I realized how wrong that I was in doing this. Using patriotic quotes to buttress immoral, illegal, unconstitutional, and un-Christian policies is damnable. G. K. Chesterton noted: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

But, I am afraid that my former understanding of patriotism is exactly what many Americans follow today, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology seem to automatically defer to the decisions of the President, no matter what his party in launching military strikes. This has been largely true since the end of Second World War until now with the exception of the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the bankruptcy of American policy became evident.

No one wants to be “against the troops” and I am still one of those troops, but opposing nationalism, imperialism, and militarism is not the same as “supporting the troops.” The late Army Lieutenant General Hal Moore, who led his battalion into the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965 and was memorialized in the film We Were Soldiers told West Point Cadets in 2005:

“The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

I remember reading General Moore’s back words then and despite my respect for him I didn’t see their truth, I still believed the lies of Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush Administration, and the Right wing media. I was wrong, and within two and a half years I would discover just how right that he was.

Today, some eleven years after I returned from Iraq I find that we now have a President whose historical, ethical, and policy blindness is subjected to his narcissistic and paranoid personality. He is a man who dodged the draft, avoided military service, condemned men and women wounded. killed, or captured in combat as losers while bragging that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s was his Vietnam. Even now he is rushing a Carrier Strike Group and heavy bombers to challenge Iran for as of yet undisclosed threats to American interests in the Middle East, as well as suggesting military options to deal with the failing and flailing government of Venezuelan President Maduro.

War is a great way to distract from other real concerns, especially if it gives the President, any President, a chance to divert attention from his own malfeasance and criminality. Our Republic is in danger and I do not think that the danger will soon pass. I only wish that it would. Sadly, Hal Moore passed away in February of 2017. If he were alive today I am sure that he would be sounding the alarm.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dien Bien Phu: The Soldiers and the Lessons Forgotten and Unlearned 65 Years Later

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France. Last year, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial

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General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, on May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 18 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Commanders Must Make the Sacrifice Of Overcoming their Personal Scruples” the Wehrmacht, Police, and Einsatzgruppen in Russia: 1941-1944

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another part of my article on the actions of Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen and their campaign of mass murder in Eastern Europe. This section is about the campaign in Russia. It is even more troubling than the previous sections, because in Russia, all pretense of civilization was dropped and even the German Army was heavily engaged in committing some of the grossest and most evil atrocities ever committed by a supposedly civilized and allegedly Christian people.  Likewise, it is important to remember that much of what happened occurred before the decision to implement the Final Solution and the operations of the massive extermination camps such as Auschwitz.

The tragedy is that in so ways that Americans, British, French and the Belgians, as well as the Spanish, not to mention the Russians, Turks, Japanese and so many other have committed genocide. The actions, if they were simply limited to just the Germans of that period could be explained away as a exception, but it is not. That is what makes these heinous crimes so troubling, as the people who committed them were not that different than us, or our own ancestors.

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Padre Steve+

einsattzgruppen map

The Nazi war against Russia was the ultimate test of Hitler’s ideological race war. Planning for the war with the Soviet Union began after the fall of France and during the beginning stages of the Battle of Britain. On 21 July 1940 Hitler made“his intentions plain” to the Army leadership and “von Brauchitsch set his planners to work.” 119 The staff at OKH began preparations for the offensive in the winter of 1940-41 following the Luftwaffe’s failure against Britain and postponement of Operation Sea Lion, the proposed invasion of Great Britain.

Despite the fact that Britain was still in the war and had opened a new front in the Middle East against Italy which required German troops, Hitler decided to open another front and announced his intention to “crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign which was to begin no later than March 15, 1941, and before the end of the war with England.” 120 Field Marshal Keitel noted the final decision came in “early December 1940” and from then he had “no doubt whatsoever that only some unforeseen circumstance could possibly alter his decision to attack.” 121

The military plan initially focused on the destruction of “the Red Army rather than on any specific terrain or political objective,” 122although the political and geographic objectives would arise in later planning and in the campaign. Hitler stated: “What matters is that Bolshevism must be exterminated. In case of necessity, we shall renew our advance whenever a new center of resistance is formed. Moscow as the center of doctrine must disappear from the earth’s center….” 123

Besides preparations aimed at the destruction of the Red Army and overthrow of the Soviet State, the “war against the Soviet Union was more openly ideological from the start.” 124 Hitler set the stage on March 3rd 1941 by announcing, “the forthcoming campaign is more than a mere armed conflict; it is a collision between two different ideologies…this war will not be ended merely by the defeat of the enemy armed forces” and that “the Jewish-Bolshevist intelligentsia must be eliminated….” 125

ordungspolizie officers

Ordungspolezei Officers

Hitler realized that the task of eliminating the Jews was one that had to be done by his SS men. He noted, that “this is a task so difficult that it cannot be entrusted to the Army.” 126 Reichskommissars, civilian overlords from the Nazi Party would be appointed to administer conquered areas, but since normal civilian powers would be insufficient to eliminate the Bolshevists, Hitler noted that it “might be necessary “to establish organs of the Reichsführer SS alongside the army’s Secret Field Police, even in the operational areas….” 127 The “primary task” of the SS Einsatzgruppen and Police battalions was to liquidate “all Bolshevist leaders or commissars” if possible while still in the operations zones,” 128 yet the orders were vague enough not to offend the sensibilities of Army leaders and did not contain “a syllable that in practice every Jew would be handed over to the extermination machine.” 129

As with almost all German operations which involved cooperation between the Army and the SS, the parties ensured that existing agreements between the agencies, German laws, and army doctrine were followed. On 13 March an agreement was reached between the Army represented by General Wagner and the SS, which stated in part, that “the Reichsführer SS has been given by the Führer special tasks within the operations zone of the Army…to settle the conflict between two opposing political systems.” 130Likewise the agreement dictated that Himmler’s SS units would “act independently and on his own responsibility” while ensuring that “military operations are not affected by measures necessary to carry out his task.” 131

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Rounding up Jews in Russia

A further instruction was issued by Wagner on 26 March which gave the Army’s agreement for the use of the Einsatzgrüppen in the operations zone. The agreement spelled out the coordinating instructions between the Einsatzgruppen and army authorities in the operational zone and communications zones to the rear. Cooperation between the Army and the SS was based on already existing agreements between the SS and the Army, notably the “principals for co-operation between the State Secret Police and the Field Security organization of the Wehrmacht agreed with the Security branch of the War Ministry on 1 January 1937.” 132

The most significant agreement that the Army reached with the SS was the Commissar Order. This order, sometimes known as the “Criminal Order” was used war as evidence at Nuremberg as against Keitel, Jodl and High Command of the Wehrmacht during the later Generals Trial. The order specified that the Army would cooperated with the SS and kill Soviet Political Commissars attached to the Red Army who were taken prisoner, as “they were not prisoners of war.” Another order specified that “in the event that a German soldier committed against civilians or prisoners, disciplinary action was optional….” 133 The order noted regarding political commissars that “in this struggle consideration and respect for international law with regard to these elements is wrong.” 134 The Army’s “Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in Russia” issed on May 19, 1941 called for “ruthless and vigorous measures against Bolshevist inciters, saboteurs [and] Jews.” 135

einsatzgruppen executions

Shortly before the Commissar Order was issued, Hitler previewed it to the generals saying that the war in Russia “cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion” and that the war against the Soviet Union would have to be waged with “unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness…” 136Hitler told the generals that they would have to “dispense with all of their outdated and traditional ideas about chivalry and the generally accepted rules of warfare: the Bolsheviks had long since dispensed with them.” 137 He explained that he understood that his orders were beyond their comprehension but insisted, “I cannot and will not change my orders and I insist that that they be carried out with unquestioning and unconditional obedience.” 138

General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH, or the Army High Command took notes on Hitler’s speech. They are chilling to read as none present could have understood them in any other way than Hitler meant:

“Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with asocial criminality….We must forget the comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before nor after the battle. This is a war of extermination….We do not wage war to preserve the enemy….War against Russia: Extermination of the Bolshevist Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia….this is no job for military courts. The individual troop commanders must know the issues at stake. They must be leaders in the fight….This war will be very different from war in the West. In the East harshness today means leniency in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.”139

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Franz Halder

Hitler’s speech was protested by some of the generals according to Von Brauchitsch. 140 Von Brauchitsch refused to protest the order to Hitler but issued an order on his own authority “threatening dire penalties for excesses against civilians and prisoners of war” which he maintained at Nuremberg “was sufficient to nullify the Commissar Order.” 141 Yet during the campaign against the Soviet Union, von Brauchitsch told his commanders to “proceed with the necessary hardness.” 142 Walter Warlimont noted that Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, who would “later emerge as an opponent of the Commissar Order…makes no special comment on the meeting or the restricted conference that followed.”143

At Nuremberg Keitel said that he “stubbornly contested” the clause “relating to the authority of the SS-Reichsführer… in the rearward operational areas.” 144Keitel blamed the Army High Command OKH under Halder, but the order came out with his signature on behalf of Hitler, which was key evidence against him at Nuremberg. Keitel stated that “there was never any possibility of justifying them in retrospect by circumstances obtaining in the Russian campaign.” 145

Some commanders refused to publish the orders and “insisted that the Wehrmacht never implemented such policies…” blaming them instead on the SS. One writer states “such protests were undoubtedly sincere, but in practice German soldiers were far from innocent. The senior professional officers were often out of touch with their subordinates.” 146 The orders were a “license to kill, although not a great departure from German military traditions….” 147 The effect was terrifying, for in a sense the Einsatzgruppen, “could commit ever crime known to God and man, so long as they were a mile or two away from the firing line.” 148 Security Divisions of the Army were “instructed to give material and logistical support to…units of the Einsatzgruppen.” 149 Even worse, other army units in rear areas “could be called on to assist Himmler’s SS police leaders” as the situation dictated, and few commanders refused. 150

For the campaign against the Soviet Union the Heydrich and the SS formed four Einsatzgruppen composed of SD, Waffen-SS and Police troops designated A-D. Einsatzgruppe A was assigned to Army Group North, Einsatzgruppe B to Army Group Center, Einsatzgruppe C to Army Group South and Einsatzgruppe D to the 11th Army.

The Einsatzgruppen were not standardized in manpower or equipment. In size they were battalion equivalents the largest Einsatzgruppe being Einsatzgruppe A in the North with 990 assigned personnel 151while Einsatzgruppe D was the smallest and had only 550 troops assigned. 152 These units had SS, SD or Police commanders. Though these units were not large, they also had the support of nine Ordungspolizei battalions, which were initially assigned to the invasion forces to supplement the operations of the Einsatzgruppen153

The police contingent would grow to be a massive force. By 1943, these Ordnungspolizei battalions would be grouped into regiments and number about 180,000 men assisted by 301,000 local non-German auxiliaries. 154 These units acted in concert with nine Army Security Divisions which handled rear area security. 155

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Himmler was so secretive that he initially did not reveal the intent and planned use of their units to the Einsatzgruppen commanders. Instead he spoke to them of a “heavy task…to “secure and pacify” the Russian area using Sicherheitspolizei and SD methods.” 156 Understanding the effect of these operations, Himmler would state that “in many cases it is considerably easier to lead a company in battle than to command a company responsible to…carry out executions, to deport people…to be always consistent, always uncompromising-that is in many cases far, far harder.” 157

The actions of these units are well documented; the Einsatzgruppen, Police, Army and locally recruited Schutzmannschaft battalions 158 ruthlessly exterminated Jews and others in the operational area. No sooner had an Einsatzgruppe unit entered a city, a “deadly stranglehold” would grip the “Jewish inhabitants claiming thousands and thousands of victims day by day and hour by hour.” 159 

Non-Jewish Russians were encouraged to conduct programs which Heydrich noted “had to be encouraged.” 160 An Einsatzgruppen D report numbered 153 noted: “During period covered by this report 3,176 Jews, 85 Partisans, 12 looters, 122 Communist functionaries shot. Total 79,276.” 161   By the spring of 1942 Einsatzgruppe A had claimed “more than 270,000 victims, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jewish.” 162 The total killed for all groups by early 1942 was 518,388 people, mostly Jews. 163 Germany’s Romanian ally acted against Jews in their operational areas as well. In Odessa, “on 23 October 1941 19,000 Jews were shot near the harbor… probably 200,000 Jews perished either at Romanian hands or after being turned over by the Romanians to the Germans.” 164

To further cloud the ethics and morality, the operations against Jews were often called anti-partisan operations. Himmler referred to Einsatzgruppen as “anti-Partisan formations” 165 while Wehrmacht Security divisions cooperating with the SS “murdered countless Soviet civilians and burned Russian settlements to the ground under the pretext of subduing partisan resistance.” 166 The attitude by 1941-1942 was that “all Jews are partisans and all partisans are Jews.” From 1943, all armed resistance was “banditry” and all Jews irrespective of circumstances were treated as “bandits.”” 167

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Walter von Reichenau

General Von Reichenau issued an order in which he stated: 

“The soldier in the Eastern territories is not merely a fighter according to the art of war but also a bearer of a ruthless national ideology and the avenger of the bestialities which had been inflicted upon German and racially related nations. Therefore the soldier must have full understanding for the necessity of a severe but just revenge on subhuman Jewry.” 168

Likewise the distinguished Panzer commander General Herman Hoth issued his own order of 17 November 1941 urging his troops to exact revenge on the Jews and Communists:

“Every trace of active or passive resistance or of any kind of machinations by the Bolshevik – Jewish agitators are [sic] to be immediately and pitilessly rooted out. The necessity of severe measures against elements foreign to people and kind must be understood precisely by the soldiers. These circles are the spiritual pillars of Bolshevism, the tablebearers [priests] of its murder organization, the helpers of the partisans. It consists of the same Jewish class of people which have done so much to harm our Fatherland and by its hostile activity…and anti-culture, which promotes anti-German currents in the whole world and which wants to be the bearer of revenge. Their annihilation is a law of self-preservation. Any soldier criticizing these measures has no memory of the former traitorous activity lasting for years carried on among our own people by Jewish-Marxist elements.” 169

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Jews digging their own graves

The commander of the Wehrmacht’s 221st Security Division endeavored to persuade his “subordinate units that the Jews were carriers of Bolshevik contamination and, therefore, the ultimate source of any sabotage or difficulty the division faced.” 170 The extermination of the Jews and partisan war were closely intertwined with the Reich’s economic policies designed to exploit the natural resources of the Russia. This included the “hunger plan” which German authorities seemed to imagine that “millionfold starvation could be induced by requisitioning off all available grain and “shutting off” the cities.” 171

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Einsatzgruppe men and Ordungspolizei above and below in action

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.” Timothy Snyder

Einsatzgruppe_A

The Wehrmacht’s complicity in these measures is demonstrated in the order drafted by Warlimont and signed by Keitel on 13 May 1941. That order, the “Decree on Exercising Military Jurisdiction in the Area of Barbarossa and Special Measures by the Troops” made it clear that international conventions regarding the treatment of civilians would not be observed in the Soviet Union. The order, relying on the historic precedent of German military law in regard to partisan activity stated

I “Treatment of crimes committed by enemy civilians”

“1. Until further order the military courts and the courts martial will not be competent for crimes committed by enemy civilians.”

2. Francs-tireurs will be liquidated ruthlessly by the troops in combat or while fleeing. “

3. Also all other attacks by enemy civilians against the armed forces, its members, andauxiliaries will be suppressed on the spot by the troops with the most rigorous methods until the assailants are finished (niederkaempfen)”

4. Where such measures were not taken or at least were not possible, persons suspected of the act will be brought before an officer at once. This officer will decide whether they are to be shot. Against localities from which troops have been attacked in or treacherous manner, collective coercive measures be applied immediately upon the order of an officer of the rank of at least battalion etc., commander, if the circumstances do not permit a quick identification of individual perpetrators.”

II. “Treatment of crimes committed against inhabitants by members of the Wehrmacht and its auxiliaries”

1. With regard to offenses committed against enemy civilians by members of the Wehrmacht or by its auxiliaries prosecution is not obligatory, even where the deed is at the same time a military crime or misdemeanor….” 172

Hitler was quite clear in his intent when he told General Halder that in 1941 that he “intended to level Moscow and Leningrad, to make them uninhabitable, so there would be no need to feed their populations during the winter.” 173Economic officials held life and death power over villages. Those that met agricultural quotas were “likely to be spared annihilation and evacuation…the culmination of this process, during 1943, would be the widespread creation of “dead zones.””174All told during the campaign against the Soviet Union the Germans killed nearly 1.5 million Russian Jews. 175

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By 1942, over two million Soviet POW’s had been killed. 600,000 shot outright, 140,000 by the Einsatzkommandos. 176Eventually about 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in German captivity through starvation, disease and exposure, 177are included in a total of over 10 million Red Army Combat deaths. 178 The distinguished German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher wrote, “The reality and irreality of the National Socialism were given their most terrible expression in the extermination of the Jews.” 179

arthur nebe

Arthur Nebe, from Jew killer to anti-Hitler plotter

Himmler and others continued to use euphemistic language to describe their efforts talking in terms of “Jewish resettlement.” 180 Terms such as special actions, special treatment, execution activity, cleansing and resettlement were used in place of the word murder. 181At the same time these operations led to problems in the ranks, one SS trooper observed: “deterioration in morale among his own men who had to be issued increasing rations of vodka to carry out their killing orders.” 182

Even commanders of the Einsatzgruppe were affected. Arthur Nebe would say “I have looked after so many criminals and now I have become one myself.” Nebe became an active participant in the July 20th plot against Hitler 183and a fellow conspirator would describe him as a “shadow of his former self, nerves on edge and depressed.” 184 Erich Bach-Zelewski, who led the SS anti- partisan operations, would suffer a nervous breakdown which included “hallucinations connected to the shootings of Jews” which hospitalized him in 1942. 185 Himmler would state in his Posen speech given in October 1943 that “to have gone through” the elimination of the Jews had “and remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten, never to be written, glorious page in our history.” 186

While while the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, the Wehrmacht Security Divisions, and locally recruited forces continued their Jew Hunts, another even more ghastly plan was being launched against the Jews in Nazi occupied territory. The Endlösung of the Jewish Problem had been set in motion.

To be continued…

Notes

119 Ibid. Megargee. War of Annihilation p.24

120 Ibid. Wheeler-Bennett The Nemesis of Power p.511

121 Ibid. Goerlitz. The Memoirs of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. P.132

122 Glantz, David M. and House, Jonathan. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. 1995 p.31

123 Trevor-Roper, H.R. Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944 with an introduction by Gerhard L Weinberg, Translated byNorman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, Enigma Books, New York, NY 2000. Originally published in Great Britain by Weidenfeld & Nicholoson, London 1953 p.6

124 Ibid. Megargee. War of Annihilation p.10 The campaign against the Soviet Union was to be much more openlyideological as compared to the campaign in Poland.

125 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.150 126 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.151

125 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.150 126 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.151

127 Ibid. Reitlinger, The SS p.175

128 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 354

129 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 354 Again another deception.

130 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.153

131 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.153

132 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters pp. 158-159

133 Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed p.56

134 Ibid. Davidowicz. The War Against the Jews p.123

135 Ferguson, Niall. The War of the Worlds: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. The Penguin Press, New York, 2006 p.442

136 Ibid. Wheeler-Bennett. Nemesis of Power p.513

137 Ibid. Goerlitz. The Memoirs of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. P.135

138 Ibid. Wheeler-Bennett. Nemesis of Power p.513

139 Hebert, Valerie Genevieve, Hitler’s Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg University of Kansas Press, Lawrence Kansas 2010 pp.77-78

140 Ibid. Wheeler-Bennett Nemesis of Power p.513 and footnote. He cites the three Army Group commanders, Leeb, Rundstedt and Bock. However Von Rundstedt’s biographer notes that “no evidence exists as to what VonRundstedt’s to this was at the time.” Messenger, Charles, The Last Prussian: A Biography of Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt 1875-1953 Brassey’s (UK) London England 1991. p.134

141 Ibid. Reitlinger, The SS p.176

142 Ibid. Megargee. War of Annihilation p.33

143 Ibid. Warlimont. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters p.162

144 Ibid. Goerlitz. The Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel p.136

145 Ibid. Goerlitz. The Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel pp.136-137

146 Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed p.56

147 Ibid. Blood. Hitler’s Bandit Hunters p.52

148 Ibid. Reitlinger The SS p. 177

149 Ibid. Shepherd. War in the Wild East p.54

150 Ibid. Reitlinger The SS p. 177

151 Ibid. Rhodes Masters of Death pp.12-13

152 Ibid. Westermann. Hitler’s Police Battalions p.167 153 Ibid. Westermann. Hitler’s Police Battalions p.164 154 Ibid. Blood Hitler’s Bandit Hunters p.141

155 Ibid. Shepherd Wild War in the East p.48. Shepherd notes the deficiencies of these units in terms of organization, manpower and equipment which he calls “far short of the yardstick of military excellence with which the Wehrmacht is so widely associated

156 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 356 Only one of the Einsatzgruppen commanding officers was a

volunteer, Arthur Nebe who was involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. It is believed by many that Nebe volunteered to earn the clasp to the Iron Cross to curry favor with Heydrich and that initially “Nebe certainly did not know that “employment in the east” was synonymous with the greatest mass murder in history.

157 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.422

158 Ibid. Blood Hitler’s Bandit Hunters p.55

159 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 360 160 Ibid. Friedlander TheYears of Extermination p.207 161 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 360 162 Ibid. Tooze The Wages of Destruction p.481

163 Ibid. Ferguson. The War of the World p.446

164 Di Nardo, Richard L. Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse. University Press of Kansas,Lawrence, KS. 2005 p.133 The Hungarians would also engage in ant-Jewish operations. Only the Italian army would not conduct operations against the Jews.

165 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 369

166 Ibid. Wette The Wehrmacht p.127

167 Ibid. Blood. Hitler’s Bandit Hunters p.117

168 Ibid. Hebert p.94

169 Ibid. Hebert pp.94-95

170 Ibid. Shepherd. War in the Wild East pp.90-91

171 Ibid. Tooze The Wages of Destruction p.481

172 Ibid, Hebert p.86

173 Ibid. Magargee. War of Annihilation p.64

174 Ibid. Shepherd. War in the Wild East pp.127-128

175 Ibid. Davidowicz The War Against the Jews from the table on page 403. This included 228,000 from the Baltic republics (90%) 245,000 from White Russia (65%) 900,000 from the Ukraine (60%) and 107,000 from Russia proper

(11%)

176 Ibid. Rhodes. Masters of Death p.241

177 Ibid. Glantz and House When Titans Clashed p.57

178 Ibid. Glantz and House. When Titans Clashed table on p.292

179 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.431

180 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorship p.430

181 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 367

182 Ibid. Rhodes. Masters of Death p.225

183 Ibid. Rhodes Masters of Death p.225

184 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 363 185 Ibid. Höhne The Order of the Death’s Head p. 363 186 Ibid. Bracher. The German Dictatorshipp.423

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Camarón: The Epic Stand of the Foreign Legion Still Honored by Mexico

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the 156th anniversary of the sacrifice of the men of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion Of the French Foreign Legion at Camarón. The war that they were fighting was in an unjust cause launched by Emperor Napoleon III to gain control of Mexico, but that takes nothing away from their heroism, heroism that even their opponents honor today. Seldom are the exploits of the soldiers of an imperialist conquering power honored by those who fought against them, but this is one of those rare exceptions.

Lieutenant Clement Maudet Leads Surviving Legionnaires in a Final Charge

Almost every Army or nation has a story of a heroic group of soldiers that fight valiantly and often die against enemies of far greater strength and quite often in unjust causes. The United States has the Texan defenders of the Alamo and Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn. The British have a number of such exploits, including that of their soldiers at the Battle of Rourke’s Drift in the Zulu War. The Germans have the nearly 300,000 men of the 6th Army lost at Stalingrad, and the dying Soviet Union had the 9th Company of the Red Army’s 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment which conducted a heroic defense against Afghan Mujahideen at Hill 3234 during Operation Magistral in 1989. All of their causes were unjust, but the gallantry and sacrifice of so many of these soldiers was undeniable, even to their opponents.

However, seldom are “the few” honored by friend and foe alike for more than a century after their defeat. Among these few, these gallant few, are the 65 men of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion Légion Étrangère (Foreign Legion). These few would battle nearly 2000 Mexican Soldiers at a small Hacienda called Camarón on April 30th 1863 while proving an advance guard escort to a supply convoy which was to relieve French forces besieging Puebla.

Captain Jean Danjou

The 3rd Company was severely undermanned due to dysentery and when they went into battle 50 Legionnaires and all of the company officers were incapacitated.  The battalion Quartermaster, Captain Danjou took command and was joined by two other officers, Lieutenant Clement Maudet and Lieutenant Jean Villian to lead the remaining 62 Legionnaires on their mission to a tragic destiny.

Beginning their March at 0100 they had marched 15 miles before stopping for breakfast at 0700. While brewing their coffee with the convoy which was now several hours behind schedule, scouts from the company saw a force of several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching.  They fought a battle with the cavalry for several hours before retreating to the Hacienda around the middle of the morning.

The Mexican forces under the command of Colonel Francisco Milan were joined by additional infantry and cavalry and now numbered over 2000 men, 800 cavalrymen and 1200 infantrymen. Milan’s Forces outnumbered the surrounded Legionnaires by a factor of forty to one, but he was neither bloodthirsty or bent on revenge. Colonel Milan realized that the Legionnaires situation was hopeless and offered Danjou the chance to surrender with honor. With his force reduced to under 50 men following the skirmishes Danjou refused. He replied: “We have munitions. We will not surrender.”

The Legionnaires defense held against several assaults but with casualties mounting, ammunition dwindling and without food or water in the scorching heat Danjou rallied his men. He had lost his left hand in Algeria 10 years before and had a wooden hand fashioned.  He went to each Legionnaire offering words of support, a sip of wine and had each man swear on his wooden hand that they would not surrender.  While doing so he was shot and killed about noon.

Lieutenant Villian, the battalion’s much disliked Paymaster who volunteered for the mission took command, and the Legionnaires fought on suffering immensely under the fierce and accurate fire from the veteran Mexican troops. Somehow as happens in battle, the formerly hated officer inspired the Legionnaires to continue the fight until he was shot dead at about 1600 hours. Before he was killed Villian responded to another demand for surrender: “We may die, but never will surrender.” 

On his death, Lieutenant Maudet, the last surviving officer took command of the few remaining Legionnaires.

Around 1700 Colonel Milan approached the now burning Hacienda to offer the surviving Legionnaires another chance to surrender. The Mexican Commander looked inside the charnel house and saw Maudet rallying about a dozen Legionnaires amid piles of dead and wounded. Despite the hopeless situation Maude refused Milan’s offer and so Colonel Milan went back to his troops and ordered another assault on the position

With only himself and 5 remaining Legionnaires Maudet surveyed the situation. The Mexican troops were massing for another attack and his troops were down to one round of ammunition each. He and his men loaded their weapons and he ordered a charge into the massed Mexican infantry.  They engaged the Mexicans in hand to hand combat, Maudet and one Legionnaire were killed and four captured. The senior surviving noncommissioned officer, a Corporal Maine, requested that the survivors be treated for their wounds and be allowed to maintain their weapons and escort the remains of Captain Danjou to France.

Acceding to the bloodied Corporal’s request Colonel Milan, who was valiant and honorable officer was overwhelmed with emotion, and said:  “What can I refuse to such men? They are devils.”Colonel Milan’s words were very similar to what the German Army called the U.S. Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.

The sacrifice of the Legionnaires enabled the relief convoy to reach the French at Puebla. Emperor Napoleon III ordered the name Camarón embroidered on the Legion’s flag and the battle became legendary in the history of warfare. The Legion came into its own after Camarón.  Danjou’s wooden hand and forearm were recovered from the battlefield and returned to France 2 years following the battle.

Today Camarón is still marked by the Legion wherever its troops are stationed much as the United States Marine Corps marks their founding.  The wooden hand of Captain Danjou is removed from its case in the museum and paraded with the assembled troops. The officers serve their troops coffee symbolizing the coffee the defenders never drank and the commander of Legion at the headquarters as well as units deployed read the account of the battle. The week before the fall of their besieged redoubt at Dien Bien Phu was overrun the Legionnaires of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion remembered the sacrifice of their predecessors at Camarón with their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lemeunier read the story over the radio to the embattled garrison.

The Mexican Army marks the courage of the Legionnaires with a parade, speeches, and visitors including French dignitaries including the French Ambassador, and Foreign Legion veterans today. It is a fitting tribute to the men that fought that day.

Likewise, it is honor that with good reason the Mexicans do not extend to the soldiers of the United States military who invaded them more than once, massacred their soldiers, and whose government took over 40% of Mexican lands, and still treat Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented as criminals or potential criminals.

Maybe the Mexicans understand the concept of honor better than us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Psychology Of Dictatorship: Why Don’t We Learn From History?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another weekend, another attack on a synagogue, and another crazed rally in which the President again made wild swings directed at his opponents and admitted it was his “sick idea” to try to send detainees from the border to Sanctuary Cities. His words, his sick idea, even as his Attorney General hints that he will not submit to testifying to Congress on the Muller Report.

Normal American Presidents and their officials do not carry on this way. Dictators do, but not American Presidents, however it is part and parcel of everything that the President and his administration says or does. So tonight I am reposting something that I wrote a while back after reading British Military Historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s little, but important book, “Why Don’t We Learn From History.”

NPG x25404; Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart by Howard Coster

B.H. Liddell-Hart

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have Read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History, several times. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda; or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; and when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. In doing this he also contrasted democracy and lure of totalitarianism.

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. He served on the Western Front in the First World War and was wounded in a German gas attack. Between the wars he was one of the theorists of armored warfare and the use of tanks in a combined arms force, and he was also quite observant of the trends toward totalitarianism in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Hart, like many others admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, however, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

There is much to ponder in his book and I will be posting some more of my thoughts on it, but when I looked at it again I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot described President Donald Trump through the his campaign and after his election and inauguration.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

Once authoritarian, despotic, or dictatorial leaders gain power through the democratic process they seldom deviate from how they behave when seeking power. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.”

So please, take a breathe for a second and think about this in terms of President Trump and his actions during his first two weeks in office. Liddell-Hart noted that once a despot achieves power that their reign is marked by the following types of events:

“On gaining power:  They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it. 

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy. They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends. 

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public. 

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality. 

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward. 

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people. 

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created. 

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.”

Now pause for a moment. This is happening all over the world. It began again in Vladimir Putin’s Russia around 2010 and under a veneer of democratic “voting” Putin has become for all intents and purposes the dictator of Russia for as long as he desires. In Turkey Recip Erdogan has done the same thing, and it has also started in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In China President Xi managed to abrogate the Chinese Communist Constitution to become ruler for life.

In the United States Donald Trump has been in office for about 27 months. Look at how he is behaving. Read his words, examine his actions, and not just during his presidency but throughout his business career and his campaign for the presidency. Then look at how his followers take it all in.

Then, take the time to let Liddell-Hart’s words sink in.

This is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Titanic Departure to Disaster and Human Presumption: a Prelude to the Great Trumpian Disaster yet to Come…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1912 the Bishop of Winchester said these words in a sermon marking the end of the R.M.S. Titanic: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption,” as well it should. Sadly, it seems that that Trump administration is doing its best to strip away vital safety, health, and environmental regulations that protect people from even worse disasters than that which befell the great ship 109 years ago, making it a a very contemporary story. But only a historian would understand that. I happen to be a historian.

The story of the Titanic has been told many times, and it should be a cautionary tale for those who in the name of profit and glory seek to dismantle safety and environmental standards. I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the story, A Night to Remember back in 7th Grade. It made a tremendous impact on me, and every so often I will go back and read it again.

Captain Edward Smith

The Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith, her was blinded by his faith in shipbuilding technology and had said about the Adriatic which he commanded previously, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” A Senator Said during the hearings about the sinking of her captain, “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.” 

The story of what happened to the great ship is as hard to believe now as it was then, but then incredible tragedies be they the loss of ships, aircraft, buildings or bridges, and even spacecraft always invoke such feelings. When I was told about the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 1986 I remarked to the young soldier who brought me the news “don’t be silly Space Shuttles don’t blow up.”  Walter Lord, who was probably the most prolific historian and author of the Titanic disaster used to talk of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic: If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…” 

Bruce Ismay

The word “if” probably the biggest two letter word that plagues human history, looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, which was the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris as much as she was that of the iceberg which sank her. The ship was heralded by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line as unsinkable, a claim that was echoed in the press.

Her builders had no such illusions and protested the claims. Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” 

Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed.  Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them.  Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.

Thomas Andrews

As far as lifeboats, the great ship carried far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 20 of which 4 were collapsible boats smaller than smaller lifeboats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which allowed just 16 boats J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line told Andrews:

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” 

If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day.  Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.

If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews would go down with the ship but Ismay ensured his own survival. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many.  He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies.

After the disaster the tragedy was investigated by the United States Senate, as well as the British Board of Trade. However, the inquiry of the latter was condemned by the White Star Line’s Archivist, Paul Louden-Brown. He noted: “I think the enquiry is a complete whitewash. You have the [British] Board of Trade in effect enquiring into a disaster that’s largely of its own making.”

Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. They often believe that rules don’t apply to them. It is a cautionary tale for us today as corporations, lobbyists, and politicians seek to dismantle sensible and reasonable safety and environmental regulations for the sake of their unmitigated profit. Today we are seeing the Trump administration doing all that it can to strip away important safety, workplace, and environmental regulations in order to maximize profits.

But the warning goes far beyond that, it applies to any of us who adopt the mindset, “this cannot happen to us.” After all, there are times when we all end up as victims of our own hubris, such is the human condition. That is especially the case now where an American President defies all precedent, ignores laws, demeans the Constitution, stands against the very proposition of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal…” and who represents the unregulated hubris of men like Bruce Ismay. Had he been a passenger on board the ill-fated ship the President would have likely saved himself like Ismay, absconding into a boat while being the President of the Line to which Titanic belonged. Walter Lord wrote about Ismay:

“This Sunday he was enough a member of the crew to see the ice message that arrived from another ship. In the bright, sunny Palm Court—just as the bugler sounded lunch—Captain Smith gave him a warning from the Baltic. During the afternoon Ismay (who liked to remind people who he was) fished it out of his pocket and waved it at Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Thayer. In the smoking room before dinner, while the twilight still glowed through the amber-stained windows, Captain Smith sought and got the message back. Then Ismay walked down to the restaurant, immaculate in his dinner jacket, very much a First Class passenger. After the crash he went back to being in the crew—up with the Captain on the bridge … consulting with Chief Engineer Bell … and now, despite the tongue-lashing from Fifth Officer Lowe, shouting orders about the boats. Then came another switch. At the very last moment, he suddenly climbed into Boat C. Down it dropped, with 42 people including Bruce Ismay—just another passenger.”

That would be President Trump. He loves playing President, and playing the role of the Commander in Chief but he would abandon the ship of state, the citizens of the United States, and even the cult of people who believed every word he said. He does that every day, so it is not unlikely that when the ultimate disaster occurs that he will abandon the country and even his Cult members who he called “the most loyal people” who he will sell out on. Sinking ship to preserve himself.

This is a hard lesson to learn, but believe me when I say it. It is the history of Donald J. Trump, and all he has done as a businessman and as President. Ask all of the loyal men and women who volunteered to serve in his administration whose lives and reputations are in tatters.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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