Category Archives: middle east

Missiles and Messages: What is Trump trying to Convey?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If nothing else the events of last week, in particular President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to Syria’s renewed use of poison gas on its own population sent a message to different leaders around the world. What that message is and how effective that it is depends on who heard it and how they interpreted it.

The actual type of strike was nothing new and it certainly was justified in relation to war crimes of the Assad regime. President Clinton used similar strikes as punitive measures against Iraq in the 1990s, President Bush used them against various targets outside of Iraq, and opting for a full invasion of that country. While President Obama tended to be more hesitant about the missile strikes he often used Special Forces and drones in many countries pursuant to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force pertaining to the War on Terror, he did use missile and air strikes in conjunction with NATO to help Libyan rebels overthrow the Ghaddafi regime.

That being said what is the message that the President was attempting to send, and how does it fit into a larger foreign policy and national security strategy? That is where my concerns lie in regard to this strike. As for me I would have loved to see a Tomahawk fly up Bashir Assad’s ass and blow him to the Hell of his choice, if Ghaddafi and Saddam deserved death, then Assad deserves it many times more. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not President because I think that those 60 Tomahawks would have been much more wisely employed by taking out Assad’s Presidential Palace and maybe taking out him in the process, but there would have been a much bigger blowback to that than striking the airfield, but I digress…

Going back to what I was saying, how does this fit into a broader foreign policy and national security strategy?

The timing of the strike, minutes after the final dinner between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly sent a message to China and North Korea who it might have been the real audience. If the strike forces China to take stronger action to assist the United States in reducing the building North Korean nuclear threat, then it will have served a worthwhile purpose. A Chinese newspaper reported that this was the intent of the strike just yesterday.

But the effect depends on the rationality of the targeted audience. The Chinese are a rational actor, but the North Koreans may not be, so we have to wait and see. In the meantime the Administration dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to Korea waters to coincide with a time of the year when the North Koreans typically become more active.

There is also the possibility that the message was also intended for Putin’s Russia, the Assad regime, and even Iran, but right now other than a few statements by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley there has not been any real follow up to the strike. Secretary of State Tillerson is going to Moscow this week so we may glean more from that meeting.

Of course there is the domestic political audience and based on how the Trump campaign and administration has dealt with truth there is the possibility that this is much more to do about Trump’s plunging poll ratings and as a distraction from the ballooning Russia-Trump election scandals.

Regardless of what message the missile strike was intended to convey, we still don’t know how it will play out and it could play out in any number of ways, good or bad, and it might even turn out to be an act of genius, I doubt the latter but it is a possibility.

That is why the Trump and his administration must determine what its policy will be, especially its diplomatic policy. The President must keep all options on the table, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, but he must be very judicious in how he uses them. Believe me, I can disagree with and distrust the President all day long, but I don’t want him to screw this up. Too much is at stake.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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War is the Unfolding of Miscalculations… Assad, Trump, Putin, and Syria 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The die has been cast. Last week the Trump administration signaled that the regime of Bashir Al Assad was not a priority for American policy in the Middle East. The comment was perplexing as the Assad regime has worked with the Iranians, and Hezbollah, both enemies of the United States to crush a revolt against his regime that began during the Arab Spring. Assad’s methods included the use of Sarin nerve agent and relentless attacks on civilians and were condemned by much of the world. In 2013 President Obama attempted to gain political support for military action against the Assad regime but was rebuffed by congressional Republicans as well as anti-war Democrats. The Syrian rebels were joined by radical Sunni Muslims of various Al Qaeda affiliates and later joined by the so called Islamic State. The Syrian army was on the point of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.

From 2013 on President Trump constantly said that military action in Syria was against U.S. national interests, something that continued until last week. Then Assad, apparently emboldened by the Trump Administration’s statement that changing his regime was not a priority for the U.S. launched a aerial attack using chemical weapons against civilians. The images which were shown throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle evidently made an impression on the President. Within hours of suggesting that military action was possible it began.

From Mar-a-Largo where the President is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, the President said:

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched… It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

I agree that it is the vital interests of the United States to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons, but why this and why now especially since it did not seem to be a priority less than a week ago?

Right now we know precious little about the action, except that it was sudden and done without any congressional consultation, and little consultation with allies. Will Congress do its duty and demand details before allowing the administration to commit us to another war that in no way is covered by the 2001 authorization for use of force that has been used for all the actions involving the war on terrorism conducted by the Bush and the Obama Administrations, or will Congress roll over and do nothing, thus allowing the executive branch to take the nation to war with no oversight?

The genie of war is now out of the bottle. We do not know what will happen next, the potential branches and sequels to this action are many, and few of them promise anything in the way of peace in Syria. There is now danger that the U.S. will become entangled in a complex war that has no good outcome.

The question, what will happen next is unknown. Can President Trump work with Russia’s President Putin, Turkey’s President Erdrogan, as well as well as other regional leaders to bring something resembling peace to the region? I hope that can happen but I wouldn’t bet on it as history shows that all too often that these things take on a life of their own.  As Barbara Tuchman noted: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

I have a couple of articles that I will post soon about the dangerous nature of what we are witnessing. But for tonight I will pause and try to get some sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, US Navy

Everything Has Changed: The Aftermath of 9-11-2001 and Fifteen Years of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I posted a reflection yesterday on some of my reflections on the 9-11-2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, today a continuation of those thoughts. Yesterday morning after chapel and taking care of things I needed to for the opening day of our new class at the Staff college this morning I went to breakfast with Judy. We talked about how it was hard to believe that it had been fifteen years since the attacks of 9-11-2001. Judy mentioned that everything had changed since then.

As I recalled yesterday I can still remember the day like it had just happened, the images are burned into my memory and will never go away. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym. I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning. I thought to myself, “Some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.”

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well-deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer. Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I was stunned and I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn. I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when the South Tower went down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed. I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times. I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the right wing media, politicians, preachers, and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could. I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but eight years after going to war I am decidedly liberal. However, despite many allegedly conservative talk pundits, politicians and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom. After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before Iraq I was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnam when liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.” In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.” As a result I had little love for the Left. After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before. The emotions that they stirred up were primal. But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present. Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

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A man (C) identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State. Islamic State warned in the new video on November 16, 2015 that countries taking part in air strikes against Syria would suffer the same fate as France, and threatened to attack in Washington. The video, which appeared on a site used by Islamic State to post its messages, begins with news footage of the aftermath of Friday's Paris shootings in which at least 129 people were killed. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TVATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

I rejoiced when our SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah. They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. I feel the same way about ISIS and ISIL who are killing the Iraqis that I served alongside and their families, and if that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are all too personal and as far as the extremists of ISIl, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates around the world I am unapologetic, we should annihilate them. I would apply the words of the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent concerning the Confederates to the supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIL wherever the are:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step. We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.”

This will sound hard, but the life of every supporter of ISIL or Al Qaeda is of no value whatsoever to freedom and democracy.  I would apply that standard to any supporter of authoritarian dictatorship in any guise, not just militant Islamists, lest there be any doubt.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in we conducted in Iraq which seems to me has opened the gates of hell. I still think that the words that T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1920 about the British in Iraq are as applicable today as when he penned them; only the empires are different:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

The British who Lawrence wrote about, gave their people reasons for going into Mesopotamia which were similar to those of the Bush administration over 80 years later. They cloaked their intentions in the words of liberation and protection, the British from the Turks, and the Americans from Saddam. Lawrence noted in words that are hauntingly familiar to those that paid attention to the American war in Iraq:

“Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.”

At the fifteen year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed. On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down in Pennsylvania. One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner who I had served with at the Academy of Health Sciences Brigade in 1987-1988.

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Since then about 4500 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq and another 2400 in Afghanistan. NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost about another 1300 military personnel and that does not count the soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan who fought at our side. More than 45,000 American servicemen an women have been wounded in this fight. I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died. The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars; many of whom were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day. Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily. I have known too many of them as well, heroes who could not make the adjustment coming home. Likewise I cannot forget the devastation that I saw in Iraq, the deaths of so many, some estimates of over a million civilian casualties, not county what has happening during the current ISIS/ISIL era.

That is why I am in favor of a hard war against these people. Some would say that a hard war would endanger civilians, and yes I agree with that. But then what is the alternative? To leave those same people under a regime that crushes them, enslaves them, takes their children and schools them to be child soldiers and Islamic Kamikazes? William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

That may seem hard, but I have been changed by that tragic event and the wars that have followed. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down on that September day fifteen years ago.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world. While we yearn to return to the day’s before 9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge to go back, and those who advocate the same ideology as the attackers of 9-11 will not go back either.

As for me, I know that I can’t go back. But as much as I wish that I could I will have to live with reality, as I have for the last fifteen years, and I will continue to learn to live with it.  To live with the reality that this war will not end anytime soon and that far too many more people will die before this war ends. For those that find my opinions about this war repulsive or less than informed, I would actually hope and pray that you are right. But as my Iraqi friends say,

“Inshallah (إن شاء الله)”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, terrorism, War on Terrorism

There Lies a Gulf Between that Time and Today: Remembering 9-11-2001

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Fifteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 35 years of service. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire in about four years.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared this a of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq.

I will quietly reflect as I conduct my chapel services today, and as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. I will also try to get a good run in and then spend some time with Judy, and then have a few beers with some friends at Gordon Biersch.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, PTSD, remembering friends, terrorism, War on Terrorism

Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy

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Manifest Destiny

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again I return to the text that I am working on, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, and Ideology in the Civil War Era because however much we long to escape our history, it is still very much present. Have a great night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism

The foreign policy of the United States nearly always reflects to one degree or another a quasi-religious belief in the continued importance of the United States in spreading democracy around the world.

The United States was an anomaly among western nations in the early 1800s. During that time the percentage of people in Europe who were active churchgoers was shrinking and the number of skeptics rising as the industrial revolution, and advances in science, and the philosophies and theology of classic Liberalism permeated the elites of the continent. But in the United States, the situation was different. The Second Great Awakening helped shape and define the purpose of the nation, and by the “mid-nineteenth century, from North to South, was arguably Christendom’s most churchgoing nation, bristling with exceptionalist faith and millennial conviction.” [1] This was especially true of American Protestantism were “church attendance rose by a factor of ten over the period 1800 to 1860, comfortably outstripping population growth. Twice as many Protestants went to church at the end of this period as the beginning.” [2]

This exceptionalist faith kindled a belief in the nation’s Manifest Destiny in large part was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening which was particularly influential among the vast numbers of people moving into the new western territories. As people moved west, Evangelical religion came with them, often in the form of vast revival and camp meetings which would last weeks and which would be attended by tens of thousands. The first of these was at Cane Ridge Kentucky in 1801, organized by a Presbyterian others, including Baptists and Methodists joined in the preaching, and soon the revivals became a fixture of frontier life and particularly aided the growth of the Methodist and Baptists who were willing to “present the message as simply as possible, and to use preachers with little or no education,” [3] and which soon became the largest denominations in the United States. These meetings appealed to common people and emphasized emotion rather than reason. Even so the revivals “not only became the defining mark of American religion but also played a central role in the nation’s developing identity, independence, and democratic principles.” [4]

The West came to be viewed as a place where America might be reborn and “where Americans could start over again and the nation fulfill its destiny as a democratic, Protestant beacon to inspire peoples and nations. By conquering a continent with their people and ideals, Americans would conquer the world.” [5] The westward expansion satiated the need for territorial conquest and the missionary zeal to transform the country and the world in the image of Evangelical Christianity.

The man who coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” New York journalist John O’Sullivan a noted that “Manifest Destiny had ordained America to “establish on the earth the moral dignity and salvation of man,” to disseminate its principles, both religious and secular abroad,” [6] and New York Journalist Horace Greely issued the advice, “Go West, young man” which they did go, by the millions between 1800 and 1860.

But the movement also had a dark side. Americans poured westward first into the heartland of the Deep South and the Old Northwest, then across the Mississippi, fanning westward along the great rivers that formed the tributaries of the new territories. As they did so, the “population of the region west of the Appalachians grew nearly three times as fast as the original thirteen states” and “during that era a new state entered the Union on the average of three years.” [7]

The combination of nationalism fueled by Evangelical religion was combined with the idea from revolutionary times that America was a “model republic” that could redeem the people of the world from tyranny,” [8] as well an ascendant rational nationalism based on the superiority of the White Race. This, along with the belief that Catholicism was a threat to liberty was used as reason to conquer Mexico as well as to drive Native Americans from their ancestral homes. “By 1850 the white man’s diseases and wars had reduced the Indian population north of the Rio Grande to half of the estimated million who had lived there two centuries earlier. In the United States all but a few thousand Indians had been pushed west of the Mississippi.” [9] The radical racism used pseudo-scientific writings to “find biological evidence of white supremacy, “radical nationalism” cast Mexicans as an unassimilable “mixed “race “with considerable Indian and some black blood.” The War with Mexico “would not redeem them, but would hasten the day when they, like American Indians, would fade away.” [10]

Manifest Destiny and American Foreign Policy

Just as the deeply Evangelical Christian religious emphasis of Manifest Destiny helped shape American domestic policy during the movement west, it provided similar motivation and justification for America’s entry onto the world stage as a colonial power and world economic power. It undergirded United States foreign policy as the nation went from being a continental power to being an international power; claiming as Hawaii, and various former Spanish possessions in 1890s, and which would be seen again in the moralizing of Woodrow Wilson in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War One.

The belief in Manifest Destiny can still be seen in the pronouncements of American politicians, pundits, and preachers who believe that that this message is to be spread around the world. Manifest Destiny is an essential element of the idea of American Exceptionalism which often has been the justification for much recent American foreign policy, including the Freedom Agenda of former President George W. Bush. Bush referenced this during his 2003 State of the Union Address, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” [11] Bush frequently used language in his speeches in which biblical allusions were prominent in justifying the morality of his policy, and by doing this “Bush made himself a bridge between politics and religion for a large portion of his electorate, cementing their fidelity.” [12]

Throughout the Bush presidency the idea that God was directing him even meant that his faith undergirded the policy of the United States and led to a mismatch of policy ends and the means to accomplish them. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and historian Michael Oren wrote:

“Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers.” Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war.” [13]

Policy makers and military leaders must realize that if they want to understand how culture and religious ideology drive others to conquer, subjugate and terrorize in the name of God, they first have to understand how our ancestors did the same thing. It is only when they do that that they can understand that this behavior and use of ideology for such ends is much more universal and easier to understand.

One can see the influence of Manifest Destiny abroad in a number of contexts. Many American Christians became missionaries to foreign lands, establishing churches, colleges, schools, and hospitals in their zeal to spread the Gospel. As missionaries spread across the globe, American policy makers ensured their protection through the presence of the United States Navy, and missionaries frequently called upon the United States Government for help and the naval strength of the United States during the period provided added fuel to their zeal. In 1842, Dabney Carr, the new American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire “declared his intention to protect the missionaries “to the full extent of [his] power,” if necessary “by calling on the whole of the American squadron in the Mediterranean to Beyrout.” [14] Such episodes would be repeated in the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and Central America over and over again until the 1920s.

The White Man’s Burden, Imperialism, Business, and Faith: Manifest Destiny and the Annexation of the Philippines

If one wants to see how the use of this compulsion to conquer in the name of God in American by a national leader one needs to go no farther than to examine the process whereby President McKinley, himself a veteran of the Civil War, decided to annex the Philippine in 1898 following the defeat of the Spanish. That war against the Filipinos that the United States had helped liberate from Spanish rule saw some of the most bloodthirsty tactics ever employed by the U.S. Army to fight the Filipino insurgents. The Filipino’s who had aided the United States in the war against Spain were now being subjugated by the American military for merely seeking an independence that they believed was their right. While the insurgency was suppressed in a violent manner and American rule was established, some Americans came to see the suppression of the Filipino’s as a stain on our national honor which of which Mark Twain wrote: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .” [15]

William McKinley was a cautious man, and after the United States had defeated the Spanish naval squadron at Manila Bay and wrestled with what to do with the Philippines. McKinley was a doubtless sincere believer, and according to his words, he sought counsel from God about whether he should make the decision to annex the Philippines or not. For him this was not a mere exercise, but a manifestation of his deep rooted faith which was based on Manifest Destiny. Troubled, he sought guidance, and he told a group of ministers who were vesting the White House:

“Before you go I would like to say a word about the Philippine business…. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them…. I sought counsel from all sides – Democrat as well as Republican – but got little help…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for guidance more than one night. And late one night it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was but it came….” [16]

He then went on to discuss what he supposedly heard from God, but reflected more of a calculated decision to annex the archipelago. He discussed what he believed would be an occupation of just a few islands and Manila, ruled out returning them to Spain as that would be “dishonorable,” ruled out turning them over to France or Germany because “that would be bad for business,” or allowing Filipino self-rule, as “they were unfit for self-government.” [17] The last was a reflection of the deep-rooted opinion of many Americans that the dark skinned Filipinos were “niggers.”

Barbara Tuchman described McKinley’s comments to the ministers:

“He went down on his knees, according to his own account, and “prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance.” He was accordingly guided to conclude “that there was nothing left to do for us but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos. And uplift and civilize and Christianize them, by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.” [18]

But the result, regardless of whether McKinley heard the voice of God, or took the advice of advisers with imperialist, business, or religious views, he made the choice to annex the Philippines, believing it to be the only rational course of action, and something that he could not avoid. In a sense McKinley, of who Barbara Tuchman wrote “was a man made to be managed,” and who was considered spineless by Speaker of the House Thomas Reed who said “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” [19] It appears that McKinley was more convinced by the arguments of those who desired to annex the Philippines for military reasons, a business community which saw the islands as a gateway to the markets of Asia, and by Protestant clergy, who saw “a possible enlargement of missionary opportunities.” [20] He rejected a proposal by Carl Schurz who urged McKinley to “turn over the Philippines as a mandate to a small power, such as Belgium or Holland, so the United States could remain “the great neutral power in the world.” [21]The combination of men who desired the United States to become an imperialist and naval power, business, and religion turned out to be more than McKinley could resist, as “the taste of empire was on the lips of politicians and business interests throughout the country. Racism, paternalism, and the talk of money mingled with the talk of destiny.” [22] Though there was much resistance to the annexation in congress and in the electorate, much of which was led by William Jennings Bryant, but which crumbled when Bryant with his eyes on the Presidency embraced imperialism.

The sense of righteousness and destiny was encouraged by magazine publisher S.S. McClure, who published a poem by Rudyard Kipling addressed to Americans debating the issue entitled The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To
cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you…
[23]

McKinley’s decision and the passage of the peace treaty with Spain to acquire the Philippines sparked an insurrection led by Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo who had been leading resistance to Spanish rule on the island of Luzon for several years prior to the American defeat of Spanish naval forces at the Battle of Manila Bay, and the subsequent occupation of Manila. The following war lasted nearly three years and was marked by numerous atrocities committed by American forces against often defenseless civilians and it would help to change the nature of the country. After American troops captured Manila, Walter Hines Page, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly believed that Americans would face greater challenges and difficulties in the coming years than they had known in previous years. He wrote:

“A change in our national policy may change our very character… and we are now playing with the great forces that may shape the future of the world – almost before we know it…. Before we knew the meaning of foreign possessions in a world ever growing more jealous, we have found ourselves the captors of islands in both great oceans; and from our home staying policy of yesterday we are brought face to face with world-wide forces in Asia as well as Europe, which seem to be working, by the opening of the Orient, for one of the greatest challenges in human history…. And to nobody has the change come more unexpectedly than ourselves. Has it come without our knowing the meaning of it?” [24]

Within the span of a few months, America had gone from a nation of shopkeepers to an imperial power, and most people did not realize the consequences of that shift. Manifest destiny and American Exceptionalism had triumphed and with it a new day dawned, where subsequent generations of leaders would invoke America’s mission to spread freedom and democracy around the world, as President George W. Bush said, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

Notes

[1] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.143

[2] McGrath, Alister Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2007 p.164

[3] Gonzalez, Justo L. The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper and Row Publishers San Francisco 1985 p.246

[4] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First p.164

[5] Goldfield, David America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York, London New Delhi and Sidney 2011 p.5

[6] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[7] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.42

[8] Varon, Elizabeth R. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC 2008 p.183

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era p,45

[10] Ibid. Varon. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 p.183

[11] Bush, George W. State of the Union Address Washington D.C. January 28th 2003 retrieved from Presidential Rhetoric.com http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.28.03.html 10 June 2015

[12] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.252

[13] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.584

[14] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[15] Twain, Mark To the Person Sitting in Darkness February 1901 Retrieved from The World of 1898: The Spanish American War The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html 12 December 2014

[16] Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States Harper Perennial, New York 1999 pp.312-313

[17] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[18] Ibid. Tuchman Practicing History p.289

[19] Tuchman, Barbara The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, New York 2008 originally published 1966 by McMillan Company. Amazon Kindle edition location 2807 of 10746

[20] Hofstadter, Richard The Paranoid Style in American Politics Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1952 and 2008 p167

[21] Ibid. Tuchman The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 location 3098 of 10746

[22] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[23] Kipling, Rudyard “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” 1899 retrieved from https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/world_civ/worldcivreader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html 6 August 2016

[24] Ibid. Hofstadter The Paranoid Style in American Politics pp.183-184

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Talking Turkey


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have just a few thoughts tonight as I decided to wait on writing this until I spent some time with a Turkish-American friend of mine who has been an American citizen about thirty years, married to an American woman, but who had served as a junior officer I the Turkish Army, and still has relatives in Anarka. 

I have known a good number of Turks, most who were Turkish military due to my time in the military working with NATO. I have always held the Turks in good regard and had the distinct pleasure of visiting Turkey in 2002. I admired the political system set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which set Turkey on the road to being Muslim nation with a secular constitution and government. Turkey, nor its leaders were not perfect, and the Turkish military and courts were the bastion of secularism for most of Turkey’s existence. 

In 2003 Recip Erdogan became prime minister. Erdogan  is a very conservative Islamist who as the head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He served three terms and then was elected President, a post which had been more of a symbolic figurehead with little real power. Over the years that Erdogan served as Prime Minister he has ruled with a simple majority of the vote, not a large majority by any means, elections in Turkey have been very close. But over the years Erdogan has shown that he and his party are not generally actually interested in democracy except as it benefits them. Opposition parties have suffered at the hands of the government, democratic institutions including the judiciary, the media, and educators, have been silenced, and Erdogan has worked hard to bring the military under the control of his party. Erdogan has shown that he has a very thin skin, internal opponents have been harassed, persecuted, and jailed, and foreign critics condemned. A German comedian who dared to satirize Erdogan was condemned, and Erdogan demanded the the German government apologize for the actions of a private citizen. It led to a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Germany that has lasted much of the year. 

On Friday, elements of the Turkish military handed Erdogan, who was growing less popular by the day a gift. With the intention of stopping the country’s drift into a single party religious state, some parts of the military attempted a coup in order to remove Erdogan from power. I believe that their motives were honorable, but their method was wrong, and its execution inept. Military coups are not the right way to remove an elected leader from office, in a democracy, even one that is under seige, the ballot box must be the first choice to change a government. 

The coup attemp not only failed, but it gave the decidedly unpopular Erdogan the advantage. He can now purge the government and military of all opposition with impunity. Even his political opponents were against the coup. But now, although the Erdogan government remains in power, the country’s divisions are even more starkly in evidence. 

My fried said that his brother said that people, even people who did not support the coup, are afraid the Erdogan will use it as an excuse and justification for more anti-democratic measures. 

The face is what is happening in Turkey matters to all of us. Turkey is one of the most strategic countries in the world based on its geographical location. It is a key ally against the Islamic State, and for most the last three decades Turkey has been a model of stability, and progress in the Muslim world. What happened this weekend is disturbing as it could usher in more instability and maybe bring about a civil war in Turkey, which believe me would be really bad. I hope that Erdogan will not act out in revenge seeking to exact retribution on his political and religious opponents, but personally I do not think that he is capable of that. He seems to me to be driven by his religious ideology more than realpolitik, but I can hope. 

So anyway, I said this would be brief, so until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Celebrating 20 Years as a Miscreant Priest 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. July 7th 1996, it really is hard to believe that it has been that long, and this year it kind of snuck up on me. I had pretty much forgotten until I noticed an old friend from Camp LeJeune was wishing me well on it. If you are reading this Ray, thank you. 

Since Being ordained I have served in a lot of places as an Army and now Navy Chaplain, and I have served some of the most wonderful people ever, and in turn they have done more for me than I can ever imagine or repay. One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand is that the true joy in the priestly ministry is people, all kinds of people, regardless of who they are or what they believe. 

Over the years I have come to value that more than anything else. For me this is not about any kind of ecclesiastical power or desire for advancement. I do not desire to be a bishop, nor for that matter be in charge of anything. I prefer just to serve and care as I can, be with real people, and try as I might to show people God’s love by being real and caring for them. Now that doesn’t mean that I always do it well, I can be so stupid and insensitive sometimes, even when I am not trying to be. Judy tells me that it is because the male hormone causes brain damage. I won’t argue. 


Over the past twenty years I’ve have times of extreme faith, actually bordering on pious certitude bordering on arrogance. But I have also had doubts, very real doubts. In fact for almost two years after my tour in Iraq I can honestly say that at best I was an agnostic just praying that God existed. Eventually faith returned, and it has to be called faith, because it is not based on how much I think I know, but how little I do know. St. Anselm of Canterbury, the great Scholastic theologian described his task as “faith seeking understanding.” I used to think that way, but I don’t think that understanding the great mystery that is God is really possible, and that’s not a bad thing. I have faith in Jesus the Christ, I believe, and as one of the men Jesus encounters exclaimed, “I believe, help my unbelief.” 


I guess that is all part of the journey. When I look back at all of my time as a priest was my high point, it was my time in Iraq. In the midst of all chaos that I felt closest to God, even when I was struggling. As T.E. Lawrence wrote, “We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of the wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for…”  It was the richest time of my life, but also the most disappointing, personally and professionally. I found like Lawrence, that most people really don’t care about the Iraqis, and that most of my fellow clergy really didn’t care about me. No wonder Lawrence said, “the fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.” 

But all of that aside, despite everything, I have rediscovered faith, life, and joy in ministry. So at twenty years I am good, and hopefully I’ve got at last twenty more good years to serve God and the people of God, wherever they are and no matter what their faith or lack of faith is, and interestingly enough my idea of ministry has broadened. So I don’t think that the form of my future ministry will be in the traditional parish setting. That too is okay as I am still fond of the sweep of open places, and the ideas, often inexpressible and vaporous are still there to be fought for. 

So until tomorrow, have a great day, and as the wonderful and grace filled conclusion off the rite of penance says, “pray for me a sinner.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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