Category Archives: middle east

What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“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.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, 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.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN” The Writing is On the Wall: Trump and Iran

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to break the word of the United States in regard to the Iran Nuclear deal I have done a lot of reading and reflecting. His decision seems to be bereft of any real strategy or strengthening of the overall United States position not just concerning Iran but which will have repercussions around the world; perhaps most importantly with the coming summit with North Korea. The President  made his decision to withdraw from the accord despite opposition from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department and it appears that there is no real plan for what happens next.

The deal was a flawed instrument but it was the only thing keeping Iran from moving forward on its nuclear program. Inspectors on the ground and the constant monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities were the best way of ensuring that Iran could not restart its nuclear program. Did the deal keep Iran from playing a part in Syria or Yemen? Of course not, but absent it the Iranians might already be nuclear capable.

The President went against are oldest and most reliable allies and gave the Iranians, as well as the Russians an edge to exploit. The Iranians have already moved to exploit this by pledging to remain in compliance. Whether they meant it or not it gave them the rare opportunity to make themselves look more reasonable than the United States. Likewise it inserted the United States directly into the Iranian – Saudi/ Shia – Sunni divide and emboldened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to launch attacks on Syria military and Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions in Syria under the premise of preventive strike by the Iranians on Israel.

The players in this deadly game of brinksmanship are so numerous that you can’t keep track of them without a scorecard. There are the major players; the Iranians, Saudis, the United States, Russia, Israel, the EU, and NATO, as well as the lesser but also important players; Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the war ravaged Yemen, the fragile Iraqi state, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, various Syrian rebel groups, ISIL, Al Qaida, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and possibly even Egypt, Pakistan and India.

All of these players have their own agenda and capabilities to throw a monkey wrench into anything that the President is attempting to do and both the Pakistanis and Israelis have nukes that they can deliver. Many of these nations or groups have well tested short and intermediate ballistic missile systems as well as well as vast asymmetrical warfare capabilities.

As far as new sanctions the Iranians who have the support of both the Russians and Chinese have many ways to circumvent them.  The President’s strategy, if you can call it that appears to be more about reinforcing his base in American domestic politics by playing fast and loose with the truth while moving towards war.

Let me be fair, I hope against hope that whatever the President is trying to do actually works to deescalate the tensions in the region and maybe even free the people of Iran from the Mullahs. But I really do not think that peace is his intention, not that I trust the Iranians as far as I can throw one, and I certainly believe that Vladimir Putin is doing his damnedest to split the Western alliance and NATO and that President Trump is playing right into his hand.

Do I know what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months? Not really, but I can read the writing on the wall. “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” It is something that I think that the President should take seriously because he is steering the nation and the world towards a disaster. I don’t want that but I can see it coming with the Four Horsemen, and the President will be the man most responsible when everything comes crashing down. The President lives in a world of self-deception and fantasy and as much as I hope that he gets this right I know in my heart that he will not because he is unwilling to have his beliefs checked by facts. Facts are his enemy.

Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly: 

“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

Mission Accomplished? Trump Evokes Memories Of Defeat and Shame

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote:

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.” 

Friday night President Trump unleashed United States Navy and Air Force assets in a coordinated strike against alleged Syrian chemical weapon sites in Damascus and at an air base outside of Homs. A total of about 110 weapons were fired from U.S. and French Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and from USAF, Royal Air Force, and French Air Force aircraft at these targets. It was the second time he conducted an isolated strike against the Syrians for using poison gas. In each case he seemed visibly upset about the pictures of the dead children, but cannot seem to understand that Assad does such things every day even when his forces don’t use chemical weapons, and that his lack of coherence on Syria is only helping Assad.

As the strikes proceeded the President announced his decision and reasoning for the attack. Honestly in his speech Mr. Trump said all the right things, but the well telegraphed actions gave time for the Syrians with probable Russian assistance move key components of their program out of the areas stuck by the military. They were also disconnected from any coherent military and diplomatic strategy for success which is a recipe for failure. If the President bothered to study history, especially the military history of the United States since the Second World War he would understand this, but he doesn’t.

The unfortunate thing was that his previous words pressing the military for a withdrawal from Syria had set the stage for the Syrians to launch their deadly gas attacks. The fact is that President, in thought, word, and deed has not cared enough about what happens in Syria or what Bashar Assad does when it doesn’t involve chemical weapons; nor what happens to the people who fought alongside us after we leave.

The President’s policy of stopping Syrian refugees, be they Muslim or Christian from finding refuge in the United States shows his callous heart. Not only did he prevent them from coming; he demonized them and urged other nations to reject them. It was a shameless reprise of the 1930s and 1940s America First movement that shut out the Jews and defended the Nazis.

His only consideration was the defeat of ISIS which from the time of President Obama the U.S. Military was doing. Unfortunately the decision to withdraw not only has emboldened Assad, but will help Iran, Russia, and yes even ISIS, which once free of U.S. Military pressure will rebuild and rebound from defeat just as Al Qaeda Iraq, its predecessor did in 2011.

Likewise the President began openly telegraphing his intentions days before the attack which gave plenty of warning and time for the Assad regime to work with the Russians to move anything of real importance away from the targeted sites. To add insult to injury the French Foreign Minister admitted that the Russians had been warned and given details of what was to be attacked and the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked about how we had worked to “de-conflict” in regard to battle space and air space to ensure that Russian units were not hit.

In terms of military effects the Pentagon described the attack as a “one off” and admitted that despite supposedly setting back the Syrian chemical weapons program by years that the Syrians still had the capacity to use them. While U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the United States is “locked and loaded” to resume strikes the language of the White House is somewhat ambiguous and equivocal. In Syria Assad’s supporters were overjoyed by the lack of force and American allies and opponents of Assad saw their hopes crushed. In Moscow pro-Putin demonstrators burned effigies of President Trump who on Saturday morning proclaimed “Mission Accomplished!!” on Twitter as he praised the actions of the military forces involved.

I’ve been in the military since 1981 and I am still serving, and I think that mission for mission we do our job very well, but our successes are tactical and not strategic. A “one off” missile strike is not a strategy for success. It may have been executed perfectly, but a multitude of tactical successes in absence of a clear strategy for victory and for what happens after it are meaningless in a strategic sense. The sacrifices for soldiers and national treasure for no reason other than to create a distraction from domestic problems is immoral, unethical, and under U.S. and international law illegal.

Meanwhile official Russian Troll and Bot propaganda activity on social media has increased by some 2000% since Friday. Many of those posts and tweets are being shared and spread by Trump supporters as well as insane leftist whose hatred of the United States and the West ensures that they cannot differentiate between truth and fiction. That is dangerous and it gives the Russians an upper hand because Putin’s intelligence services have succeeded in dividing Americans and the West far more effectively than the Soviets in the Cold War.

I believe that the manner in which the President launched the strike, the contradictory messages that the President sends in his tweets, the lack of coherent policy and strategy goals, and the failure to consult makes the decision to strike unwise and illegal and were more a product of his unformed mind and desire for self-preservation at all costs. When I think about these strikes and what might happen in the coming months as political pressure mounts I think of the words of the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart:

“I used to think that the causes of war were predominantly economic. I came to think that they were more psychological. I am now coming to think that they are decisively “personal,” arising from the defects and ambitions of those who have the power to influence the currents of nations.

Don’t get me wrong, I despise Assad and his regime and believe that Assad deserves far worse that Gaddafi or Saddam ever got, he is as the President noted an “animal.” But these strikes in the absence of a comprehensive strategy do nothing to remove him, weaken his power, or help those people he and his Russian, Iranian, or Hezbollah allies oppress and terrorize; especially when the President advertises that the United States has no desire to remain in Syria, even to protect the people that the U.S. Military has shed blood to save. The President’s policy and actions bring dishonor to a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” I strongly believe that this attack was a result of the President’s personal moral defects as his policies do not seem to be linked to any coherent strategy.

Simply doing one off strikes do nothing to redeem him or his policies; his ignorance of history and national security policy should concern and disturb even his most devoted supporters. Unless he decides to couple military power with a coherent approach to overall national security and foreign policy rooted in American values, respect for law, and human rights then regardless of how long he serves as President he will be remembered as a disingenuous fraud who used a foreign crisis to divert attention from his own crimes. Even Hitler didn’t do that.

The situation remains terribly dangerous and no the mission, whatever it is, was not accomplished unless it was to divert attention from his present political problems. If so that lasted about twenty minutes if that. When I watch him and read the President’s tweets I can only think of Lord Balfour’s words about one of his opponents in the House of Lords “If he had a little more brains he would be a half-wit.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Are the Lamps Going Out Again? Trump Strikes Syria

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I knew that it was coming. I knew that despite the resistance of James Mattis and the Joint Chiefs that President Trump would hit Syria this week, especially as multiple domestic crises engulf his presidency.

I’m not going to say a lot tonight because we don’t know the full measure of the military strikes nor do we yet know the response of the Russians, Syrians, Iranians, or their Hezbollah allies will be.

That being said the U.S. policy towards Syrian has been confused and contradictory for years and that goes back to the Obama administration’s “Red Line” which turned out to be little more than empty words. However the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS by backing the Kurds and Arabs in Syria and Iraq was successful enough for President Trump to claim credit for it and then announcing that he wanted a quick withdraw from Syria, despite threats to the people that we had spent lives and treasure to protect, and no ISIS still exists and has the capability of recovering; something that it did in 2012 after the U.S. left Iraq.

I did read the President’s statement about the strikes against Syria. While he left out some details the President was telling to truth about Russia and Syria.

That being said we have to be concerned when a habitual liar involved in the midst of scandal tells the truth about something that previously he showed deep ambivalence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie…. There is a truth which is of Satan. Its essence is that under the semblance of truth it denies everything that is real. It lives upon hatred of the real world which is created and loved by God.” Now we wait to see what happens next; the response of the Russians, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, not to mention the Turks, Israelis, Saudis, Iraqis, Kurds, ISIS and others with a stake in the game.

He also failed to get consent of Congress, instead relying on the same, tired, Authorization for the Use of Force that Congress granted President Bush after September 11th 2001. While I despise Assad and his barbaric regime and wouldn’t mind him getting the full Gaddafi treatment from the people that he has persecuted for decades, and I totally oppose the Russian assistance to his criminal regime, I believe that this attack was illegal under international law and a violation of the Constitution and and American law. Congress should have been consulted and given consent in a new authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.  Instead he ordered the strikes on his own and sadly even though what he said was correct his decision will now be regarded more in light of the swirling scandals surrounding him than the righteousness of the cause, especially when he has fought to ensure that the same people he is defending are denied entry into the United States as refugees.

As the world went to war in August 1914 “Sir Edward Grey, standing with a friend at the window as the street lamps below were being lit, made the remark that has since epitomized the hour: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Never Again? Holocaust Days of Remembrance 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

April 8th to 15th are the Holocaust Days of Remembrance in the United States. I am glad we do this but sadly I don’t think that the vast majority of Americans really care about the Holocaust or its eternal precedent because frankly we live in an age where history, unless it is being bastardized to fit the propaganda message of political ideologues matters not a wit.

Historian Timothy Snyder refers to the current trend of history being cherry picked and perverted in support of ideology as the  politics of eternity. Over the past two decades this concept has replaced the politics of inevitability  which defined the immediate ear after the Cold War. Inevitability presumed that no-matter what happened that the future would unfold in a manner that ultimately benefited everyone.

That understanding lasted until the disastrous American war against Iraq, the collapse of the banking system, and the politics of inequity that by 2010 made most Americans feel that they were being shortchanged. The social contract that had buttressed society has given way much in the way that it had in Europe following the First World War. Many, regardless of where they lay on the political spectrum feel victimized and angry. Their victimhood and anger require scapegoats who in turn become victims and many times the scapegoats are those who were traditionally exploited and persecuted based on race or religion, or new immigrants who have taken the place of the previously persecuted peoples that now embrace the very ideologies used to persecute their ancestors.

Snyder noted that the politics of “eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”

To those that practice the politics of eternity, no matter what nation they hail from the precedent of the Holocaust looms large.

Snyder correctly observed that “The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

That is something that we must never forget lest the would be architects of annihilation of our day; the politicians, preachers, propagandists, and profiteers, who demonize the Jews, Muslims, dark skinned immigrants, LTBTQ people and other inconvenient elements and prepare people to do evil or ignore it: the ordinary men who just obey orders. Primo Levi wrote:Primo Levi wrote, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” 

Levi was right, the common men, those that don’t think but simply follow orders or turn their heads and ignore the evil who are the most dangerous.

But of all of the people victimized by the politics of eternity it has to be the Jewish people  who have suffered the greatest from often disparate enemies. Anti-Semitism knows few boundaries and is not just one prejudice among many, even though the purveyors of it often persecute and massacre others. Christopher Hitchens noted about the Nazi crimes in Eastern Europe which were often aided by local militias: “We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

That is one major reason why I fear the surge in the politics of eternity in the United States, Europe, and other nations. I fear that the Jews will again be a sacrificial victim especially because a part of the American electorate which allegedly supports Israel, Evangelical Christians only do so because their theology requires the sacrifice of the Jews and Israel at the hand of the Anti-Christ during Christ’s Second Coming.  Sadly, these are the same people who unabashedly support a President that mocks their faith and Christ in word and deed, and whose often disparaging tone toward American Jews is well known. As such I cannot help but think that it could indeed happen here. If this is what it means to make America Great again then we are deep trouble. Snyder wrote: “When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan “Make America great again”? Hint: It is the same “again” that we find in “Never again.”

Milton Mayer wrote in his book They Thought They Were Free about a German colleague during the 1950s that had lived through the Hitler years as an academic. The man tried to explain how changes were so gradual that people like him who should have known better did not take action, if they did at all until it was too late. The man asked Mayer:

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.”

With what is happening on the border of Israel in Syria I am very much afraid that there will be a backlash against American Jews, as well as American Muslims from both the political left and right. The precedent of the Holocaust is indeed eternal and it is incumbent on us to ensure that it does not happen again. That being said if it does and some of us have the courage to resist and even risk martyrdom it will not be the martyrdom of the innocent. Sadly, most of us regardless of our ideological or political point of view have contributed to the situation that we see today. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke these words as the Nazi Party became the largest and most powerful in Germany before Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg:

“the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” 

I am one of those unprofitable servants because for some thirty years I supported the party and policies that brought about Trump and turned a blind eye toward the consequences until I saw the terrible results of the polices that I supported when I went to Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Soldiers, Politics, and Empty Tombs: The Strange Experience of Longinus the Centurion

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow my writings know that I struggle with faith. Since my return from Iraq in 2008 I have found a certain kinship with soldiers who have been assigned the unthankful and trying tasks of dealing with occupation duties or fighting insurgencies. 

In the case of the story of Easter it is all too common that writers, theologians and others focus on the story of Jesus and his disciples, or conversely, if they explore anyone else, they focus on the Jewish religious leaders of the time. 

After Iraq I had a harder time relating to Jesus and his followers, or the religious leaders of Jerusalem. That being said, coming home from Iraq, struggling to believe, I find a tremendous affinity with the officers of the Roman Legions serving in Judea and Samaria in the 1st Century A.D. 

This is the final chapter of a series that I wrote several years ago about the Roman Centurion known as Longinus, who according to tradition, was at the cross when Jesus was crucified. I have tried to weave other characters from the Gospel narratives, including the Centurion whose “beloved servant” was healed by Jesus an account mentioned in both Matthew and Luke, where the Greek word for servant “Pais” is only found in these accounts and is different from the word commonly used in the New Testament “Doulos.” The difference leads to some interesting and potentially powerful understandings about the people that Jesus interacted during his earthly ministry.

The reason I am doing this is because I believe that many Christians cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the Roman occupiers of Judea in a time where they were hated and deep divisions, religious, cultural and political complicated the lives of Roman officers like the Centurion known as Longinus.

I do hope that you enjoyed the series and that it and the Gospel narratives challenged you whether you are a Christian or not. I know from my time in Iraq serving with our advisors to the Iraqi forces that what the Roman officers dealt with was more difficult than any of us could imagine, unless you have been a soldier or officer of an occupying power, which I have been.

By the way, at the point this article posts I will be preaching at the Easter Sunrise Service at my base proclaiming the triumph of life over death and the universal love of God for all people. As the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s … Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.”

Peace and Happy Easter…

Padre Steve+

The pounding on his door awakened Longinus before he expected on this day after the Jewish Passover. He was hoping perhaps beyond hope that the worst was over and that in a few days he could take his soldiers back to the confines of Caesarea and away from the troubled city of Jerusalem. He was tired of this duty and longed for service with a real Legion with real Roman soldiers.

The pounding continued and the weary centurion wiped the sleep from his eyes, rolled out of his bed and went to the door of his quarters in Fortress Antonia. He opened the door to find his Optimo, or second in command Decius standing there, his fist ready to continue pounding, with a look of near panic on his face.

Startled, Longinus asked the young officer to come into his quarters and take a seat at his table. They like the other officers had seen events that they could barely explain over the past week, and some of those events had troubled Longinus in a manner in which he was not accustomed to, or prepared for.

Longinus took a wineskin and poured the contents into two cups. He asked Decius what was so urgent and frightening that he had to be at his quarters well before the duty day began. The young man took off his helmet to reveal a crop of blondish brown hair common to the Tyrol in the northern part of Italy.

The young officer took the cup of wine and downed it in one motion. Longinus, pureed and another as the young Tyrolean told an almost unbelievable story. Wiping his brow and taking a drink from the cup he explained that there was trouble at the tomb of the itinerant preacher named Jesus.

Longinus listened to his report:

The two guards from Longinus’s unit who had relieved the previous watch at the tomb had evidently fallen asleep. While they were asleep there had been a break in. The soldiers claimed that they had been overcome when some kind of “angelic being” descended in front of them. They reported that some of the women who had been at the execution site previously had been near the tomb. They said that when they awakened the body of this Jesus was no longer in the tomb.

The story seemed preposterous, but Longinus could not believe that his soldiers had fallen asleep on duty, as such an act could be punished by a death sentence. Adding to the confusion was a report that two of the preacher’s “disciples” had reportedly entered the tomb and claimed that the body was gone as had some of the women that had been there at the crucifixion.

Longinus took a drink from his cup of wine and thought for a moment. He had to admit that the story was unbelievable, but yet in light of the strangeness of the man and the events surrounding his execution Longinus, was no longer surprised at anything. Longinus looked at his young executive officer and said:

“Optimo, there has to be a logical explanation for what happened, and we need to find the truth. I do not like to think that our soldiers were asleep on duty, and I don’t think that the High Priest would not attempt to use this against us. Please have the soldiers and the Sergeant of the Guard report to me.”

Longinus had Decius bring the two soldiers to him along with the Sergeant of the Guard to explain what had happened.

The two soldiers, one a Samaritan and the other a Greek had good reputations in the unit. Neither had given him cause for concern and the terrified expression on their faces as they explained what happened at the tomb gave Longinus reason to believe them. Yes, it was possible that they were lying but Longinus believed their story because in spite of his threats they stuck to it. He threatened them with death if they had fallen asleep and were lying. When that did not produce results he promised a light punishment if they only told the truth, but despite his efforts to get them to testify to something rational they stuck with this outrageous story.

Longinus was not much of a believer in miracles angels or any sort of magic hocus-pocus purveyed by seers, magicians or fortunetellers. He did not believe in the state “gods” of Rome and likewise had little respect for the Jewish God, not so much because he understood the theology of the Jews, or even might believe in some sort of all-powerful being, but because he was disgusted by their use of their god for their political purposes.

All that being said, Longinus was inclined to believe his solders. When his friend Flavius had told him about his servant being healed by the Jesus fellow he found it hard to accept. That being the case here he was now beginning to believe this outlandish story. It was preposterous, but he could not accept the alternative. To disbelieve his men would mean that there was a serious breakdown of discipline by two outstanding soldiers. Longinus had some soldiers that he wouldn’t believe for an Athenian minute if they told him such a tale, but he believed these men. The terror on their face as they told the story led Longinus to believe that they had to be telling the truth as improbable as it was.

Longinus again thought of his words as the darkness enfolded the city and the earth quaked preacher hung dying on the cross on that evil hill just two days before. He dismissed the soldiers and as they left he prepared himself to tell the scheming governor they latest “good news.” If only Rome had let these people stew in their own mess. Longinus shook his head as he wondered about the wisdom of attempting to police such fouled up lands.

After he washed and put on his uniform, Longinus went to Pilate’s headquarters where he and the other Centurions, including his friend Flavius participated in a meeting with Pilate and his staff, the Jewish High Priest and his representatives and two of Herod’s people.

The meeting reminded Longinus  of a meeting of criminals. The High Priest and his representatives were livid at the report he delivered and demanded that Pilate take immediate action to solve their problem. Herod’s henchmen voiced their displeasure regarding the lapse of the Roman soldiers that allowed this to happen.

Longinus spoke up for his men and said that as improbable as the story was, that he believed his men. That only made the non-Romans angrier and they began not only calling for punishing the soldiers, but Longinus as well. Longinus thought that they were engaging Pilate in yet another histrionic episode in order to force Pilate to do their bidding, if not today, in the future.

The High Priest and Herod’s men insisted that Longinus’ soldiers had to have fallen asleep and or that they had conspired with the preacher’s followers to remove the body from the tomb. This angered Longinus to the point that he interrupted their ranting to defend his men’s honor. Pilate finally ordered Longinus and the High Priest to be silent. He asked the non-Romans to step outside while he conferred with Longinus and the other Centurions. The High Priest objected, but decided not to press the point and left the room.

Pilate explained his dilemma. He was afraid that if he sent the High Priest away by supporting his soldiers that there would be a revolt in the streets. He had seen the tumult on the streets by the supporters of the High Priest when he tried to release the “King of the Jews” and felt that this would be worse for security. He advised the Centurions that while he had no reason to doubt them or their men that he had to placate the High Priest and Herod in order to avoid chaos, chaos that could lose him his job if he wasn’t careful. Likewise he did not feel that he had the military manpower in the city to handle a full-fledged revolt and that he would have to call for reinforcements from the Legions based in Syria. Pilate was loath to do as this as it would get back to the Emperor, and the Emperor did not take kindly to governors who could not manage their provinces.

Longinus thought back to the day of the execution. Pilate had agreed to place a guard at the tomb at the urging of the High Council. Longinus had argued against placing any soldiers at the tomb as he felt that since the “King of the Jews” was the problem of the Jews and since man that he had called the so called  “son of God” was dead that Rome’s obligation was over. Let the Jews handle their own problems.

The whole thing reeked of politics and Longinus did not like it, but on Friday Pilate had overruled him. Then Pilate explained that Roman soldiers needed to guard the tomb because the High Priest insisted that Jesus’ followers would attempt to steal the body and then claim that he this Jesus had been raised from the dead. That insisted the High Priest would lead a revolt against the Jewish council and eventually Rome itself.

Another actor who added to the Judean witches’ cauldron was the Herod Antipas, the corpulent and corrupt “King” of Judea. If Longinus detested Pilate and the Jewish High Priest he hated Herod and all that he stood for even more. The presence of Herod made Longinus wonder why Roman lives and treasure were spent to solve the problems of this God-forsaken land; a land that Longinus believed would still be trouble two millennia from now if the world lasted that long.

Longinus believed that as long as Rome allowed the High Council and Herod to rule the region by proxy that the troubles would never end. He believed that it was only a matter of time before these people, mobilized by the passion of the Zealots would revolt as they had against the Seleucids nearly 200 years before. He knew if that happened that Rome would mobilize more the  enough legions to crush the revolt, and when they were done would not leave as much as a house standing. Longinus hated this occupation and all that it stood for, especially when he saw a good and innocent man like this Jesus fellow killed for no good reason other than the politics of it all. It sickened him.

When Pilate was done explaining his decision to Longinus and the other Centurions Pilate called the quite irate non-Romans back into the proceedings. He told the High Priest and Herod’s men that he would discipline the soldiers involved. He also explained that he would assist them in finding just what parties removed the body from the tomb. In the mean time he would suppress any stories coming from the soldiers about this supposed “resurrection” of this Jesus character from the dead.

The High Priest and Herod’s men agreed that this would suffice and thanked Pilate for his time and effort. Longinus and the other Centurions quietly seethed as this took place. When the non-Roman parties had left Pilate, knowing how his officers hated his decision called them to him. He told the officers that no action would be taken against the men and that he would not actively assist the Jews in trying to find the perpetrators of the event. He had in fact deceived the High Priest and Herod’s men.

Pilate then let the officers know that they and their units would remain in Jerusalem for another week to allow the multitude of pilgrims to leave the city. Once the Jewish festivities were over and the people had departed, they would return to Caesarea. Longinus thought about it and for a brief moment he admired Pilate’s duplicity. Pilate the consummate politician had again found a way to defuse the situation, deceive the local leaders and protect his soldiers, and as much as Longinus and the other Centurions despised the deal it was better than trying to deal with a full fledged rebellion with so few troops available in Jerusalem.

Longinus left with the others and met Decius and Flavius when he stepped into the court of the fortress. He was very unhappy with the deal that Pilate made with the High Priest and Herod even though he understood the reality of the politics behind it. Longinus felt that he had dishonored his soldiers and the unit for the sake of political expediency. He felt ashamed of the Empire for what Pilate had done in cooperating with these people from beginning to end during this affair. He would not forget.

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When Longinus returned to his quarters he again looked at his blood stained lance and thought about the man who was put to such an ignominious death for such putrid reasons. Surely something had to be different about him and there had to be some purpose to this injustice. Longinus again mused quietly, “truly this was the Son of God…”

Whatever that meant…

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“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes…” Reflections on the Invasion of Iraq in Light of Nuremberg

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing to write about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an invasion that by any standard of measure fit the definition of War Crimes as defined by the American who headed the prosecution of the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg. Justice Robert Jackson stated in his opening:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

In March 2003 I like many of us on active duty at the time saw the nation embark on a crusade to overthrow an admittedly thuggish criminal head of state, Saddam Hussein. The images of the hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still relatively fresh in our minds. The “evidence” that most of us had “seen,” the same that most Americans and people around the world were shown led many of us to believe that Saddam was involved in those attacks in some manner and that he posed a threat to us.

Now it wasn’t that we didn’t have doubts about it or even the wisdom of invading Iraq. It didn’t matter that there was also credible evidence that maybe what we were being told was not correct, and it didn’t matter that some of our closest allies voted against a mandate to invade Iraq in the United Nations Security Council. We were emotionally charged by the events of 9-11 and “we knew” that Saddam was a “bad guy.” We also believed that we could not be defeated. We had defeated the Iraqis in 1991 and we were stronger and they weaker than that time.

We really didn’t know much about Iraq, its history, people, culture and certainly we paid little attention to the history of countries that had invaded and occupied Iraq in the past. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia wrote in August of 1920 about his own country’s misbegotten invasion and occupation of Iraq, or as it was known then Mesopotamia.

“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 sad thing is that the same could have been written of the United States occupation by 2004.

But even more troubling than the words of Lawrence are the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Somehow as a historian who has spent a great deal of time studying the Nazi period and its aftermath I cannot help but look back in retrospect and wonder what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and the other Nuremberg prosecutors would have done had they had some of our leaders in the dock instead of the Nazis.

In his opening statement before the tribunal Jackson spoke words about the the Nazi plan for war that could apply equally to that to the United States in 2002 and 2003:

“This war did not just happen-it was planned and prepared for over a long period of time and with no small skill and cunning.”

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The indictments against the Nazis at Nuremberg are chilling if we were to be held to the same standard that we held the Nazis leaders at Nuremberg. True, we did not have massive death camps or exterminate millions of defenseless people, nor did we run slave labor factories, but we did like they launched a war of aggression under false pretense against a country that had not attacked us.

At Nuremberg we charged twenty top Nazi political officials, as well as police and high ranking military officers with war crimes. The indictments included:

Count One: Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War: This count addressed crimes committed before the war began, showing a plan by leaders to commit crimes during the war.

Count Two: Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace” which included “the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, and assurances.”

Count Three: War Crimes. This count encompassed the more traditional violations of the law of war already codified in the Geneva and Hague Conventions including treatment of prisoners of war, slave labor, and use of outlawed weapons.

Count Four: Crimes Against Humanity, which covered the actions in concentration camps and other death rampages.

While count four, Crimes Against Humanity would be difficult if not impossible to bring to trial because there was nothing in the US and Coalition war in Iraq that remotely compares to that of what the Nazis were tried, some US and British leaders could probably have been successful prosecuted by Jackson and the other prosecutors under counts one through three.

The fact is that none of the reasons given for the war by the Bush Administration were demonstrated to be true. Senior US and British officials knowing this could be tried and very probably convicted on counts one and two. We also know that some military and intelligence personnel have been convicted of crimes that would fall under count three.

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Saddam Hussein was a war criminal. He was also a brutal dictator who terrorized and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. But we went to war over his alleged ties to Al Qaeda and WMDs and he had not attacked us. Looking back at history and using the criteria that we established at Nuremberg I have no doubt that had Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld been in the dock that Justice Jackson would have destroyed them and the court would have convicted them.

So 15 years later we need to ask hard questions. The war cost nearly 5000 US military personnel dead, 32,000 wounded, over 100,000 afflicted with PTSD, and other spiritual and psychological injuries; an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide every day.  Somewhere between 1 and 2 trillion dollars were spent, helping to bankrupt the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded and displaced from their homes; their country was destroyed and they have not recovered. Yet somehow those that decided to take us to war roam free. They write books defending their actions and appear on “news” programs hosted by their media allies who 15 years ago helped manipulate the American public, still traumatized by the events of 9-11-2001 to support the war.

Despite all of this and the passage of 15 years with which to reflect a new poll revealed that some 43% of Americans still believe that the war was worth it.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No06Lwk_TAg

Saddam and many of his henchmen are dead or rotting in Iraqi prisons for their crimes against the Iraqi people. However good this may be one has to ask if how it happened was legal or justified under US or International Law, if it was worth the cost in blood, treasure or international credibility. Likewise why have none of the men and women who plotted, planned and launched the war been held the standard that we as a nation helped establish and have used against Nazi leaders and others?

If we cannot ask that and wrestle with this then we as a nation become no better than the Germans who sought to minimize their responsibility for the actions of their leaders.  If we downplay, minimize, or deny our responsibility regarding Iraq we will most certainly enable future leaders to feel that they can do the same with impunity. That is a terrible precedent and one that may very well lead us into disaster.

Today we have a President who may very well act on his worst instincts and thrust the nation into even worse wars.  To ensure that war occurs Trump fired General H.R. McMaster yesterday as his National Security Advisor and replaced him with John Bolton. Bolton is one of the most responsible and unapologetic of the Iraq War planners and he has made multiple attacks on the International Criminal Court, a court established in light of Nuremberg. He should be rotting as a war criminal rather than be appointed as National Security Advisor. This is truly a lawless and reprehensible regime that will destroy the United States and bring disaster upon the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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