Category Archives: national security

“Calm Before the Storm… You’ll Find Out” The President’s Cryptic Message

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night President Trump met with high ranking military officers at the White House. After the meeting where he pressed them, without being specific to his intent, pressed the leaders to be faster at providing him with “military options” when needed. He said: ““Moving forward, I also expect you to provide me with a broad range of military options, when needed, at a much faster pace. I know that government bureaucracy is slow, but I am depending on you to overcome the obstacles of bureaucracy.”

After the meeting at a photo op prior to dinner he quipped to reporters “You guys know what this represents?” Then remarked “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.” When a report asked “What storm” the President said “you’ll find out.”

After all of the President’s saber rattling with North Korea and Iran I truly am afraid. Could it be more bluster? Yes, but I always go back to history and history shows that words like Trump’s often bring about war.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Thought from Afar about President Trump’s UN Speech

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still in Munich, and apparently based on the German newspapers that I have seen over the past day or so, President Trump made a speech at the United Nations. A speech that when I read it was frightening and not because he was threatening to obliterate North Korea and threatened Iran. Except from being over the top on his comments about North Korea, much of the speech could have been written by the speech writers of about every U.S. President since Harry Truman. There were appeals to human rights and condemnations of totalitarian states, but there was a major difference that I noticed that basically negated all the norms boilerplate in the speech.

What I mean was the American President basically laid down a new, or let us say an old rule down for nations. He basically said look out for your own interests and only work with nations that agree with your point of view. Of course if you look at history the worst times have come when nations have done exactly than. His words were not the smart or intelligent words of a leader committed to the principles of American Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, or even the Presidents who had been a part of the generation that brought forth the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. Instead they were the words of Manifest Destiny and a green light for nations to follow their own manifest destiny regardless of whether it is just or squares with the principles of generations of American Presidents, statesmen, and diplomats. They were nothing more than the American President telling the world that I am going to do what I want to do and if you are with me then fire, but if not, prepare to be destroyed, and his words basically gave every despot in the world, even those in North Korea and Iran to do what they feel is right.

That is what I took away from his speech. It was over the top and frightening in terms of his threats to North Korea and Iran, but it unsettled long term and stable allies, while empowering Russia and China to do what the want. By every measure of diplomacy and statesmanship the President’s speech at the United Nations was a disaster. Of course neither he or his most devoted supporters will see this, but it is true, one only has to look at his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General John Kelly during the speech to see exactly what I am saying today.

Since it is late my time and I am fairly tired after a pretty good day in Munich I will save my musings on what I saw today in Munich until tomorrow.

So have a great day,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Of Hubris, Hurricanes, Hydrogen Bombs, and Harder Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I got five mile walk in with my dogs Minnie and Izzy along the Potomac River and has a good amount of time to enjoy them, to take in the woods and wildlife, and to do some thinking. As I walked in the quiet with my girls I thought about what I wrote yesterday about the blessings of solitude. Going out with them meant that I had time to think and ponder a number of crises that have the possibility of impacting all of our lives in major ways and the hubris, arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence of the so called leader of the free world. Max Hastings description of Kaiser Wilhelm II is frighteningly descriptive of President Trump: “a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.”

First, there was the catastrophe of Hurricane Harvey with the massive destruction to Houston and much of East Texas to which despite two visits to the region the President still seems emotionally untouched by. Then, after North Korea tested a missile that could hit the United States I conducted a test of its largest nuclear weapon to which after he made his obligatory angry tweets to North Korea, President Trump then both threatened and scolded South Korea.

Now there is the real possibility of another natural disaster as Hurricane Irma bears down of the Southeastern or Gulf Coast of the United States as a major, possibly category four or five storm capable of massive destruction and loss of life, and the realization that we have a President that only seems to see these crises in the light of self-promotion and how they make him appear, and the realization that most people do not prepare themselves for worst case scenarios.

This is nothing new, Barbara Tuchman wrote of an earlier generation “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Likewise over the weekend I have been doing a lot of reading. I finished Max Hastings book about the opening months of the First First World War, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Bradley Gottfried’s annotated atlas of the Battle of Antietam, The Maps of Antietam, which was helpful as I walked the battlefield on Thursday, Meg Groeling’s The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial,of the Civil War Dead, and Breaking Point of the French Army: the Nivelle Offensive of 1917 by David Murphy. All three books to some extent dealt with the hubris of leaders and the human cost of war. Likewise, my walk of the Antietam battlefield was a good way for me to put both hubris and the human cost of war into perspective.

While natural disasters cannot be avoided they can certainly be mitigated if leaders and people are willing to do the hard thing prepare for worst case scenarios. What happened with Hurricane Harvey is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and even for the region to partially recover. Houston will rebuild, and recover but many of the poorer small towns down the Gulf Coast of Texas will not. As I write this the potential damage and loss of life to whatever section of the East Coast or the Gulf Coast that Irma hits will be substantial.

As for North Korea, it seems that the President is determined to provoke the already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula by not only threatening North Korea, but our ally South Korea as well. I don’t know about you but my training as a young officer on the Fulda Gap during the peak of the Cold War taught me to prepare for the worst and I don’t see the leaders of our country or for that matter most people planning, or even thinking about how bad this could get. My motto is that of Hannah Arendt “Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes,” to which I would add be flexible.

My hope is that Irma will turn away from land and head into the vast reaches of the North Atlantic, but with every new update I see the possibility that as with Harvey, millions of real people are going to have their lives upended. The same is true if the situation on the Korean Peninsula comes to war. It’s just the way I think, and I would rather be ready and have done my best to prepare for the worst case scenario hoping that it never comes to pass, than through a lack of planning, inaction, and careless words or gestures make things exponentially worse.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“It’s the People Stupid” The Need for Professional Mariners 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m holding off finishing the last part of my series Statues with Limitations until tomorrow. Of the past day I have been consumed with the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore that quite likely has claimed the lives of ten U.S. Navy sailors. It was the second fatal collision in less than three weeks involving some of the most technologically advanced warships in the world with merchant ships. The other was that of the USS Fitzgerald which was at fault in a collision with a container ship near Tokyo bay. 

Today I have been in contact with our regional casualty assistance coordinator and chaplains who are already or might be called to go to the home of a sailor’s next of kin to inform them that their sailor is dead. If you have never had to make such a notification you are lucky. They are not easy and they never get easier. Between the military and my time as hospital emergency and trauma department chaplain I have been involved in far too many of them, I lost count around the 350 point, I’ve probably been involved in close to 500 such notifications of all types. 

Frankly there are no words that can adequately convey how hard that news is on the loved ones of those who died, especially when their deaths were most likely preventable. Last week I read the preliminary report on what happened aboard Fitzgerald. It was damning and showed some systemic cultural issues that need to be fixed. I am sure that the Navy will fully investigate the incident involving McCain too, and the report will likely be just as damning. It is bad enough that the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, to which Fitzgerald, McCain, and the cruiser Antietam which had a grounding incident near Yokosuka Japan, and the cruiser Lake Champlain which collided with a Korean fishing boat, was relieved of his command just before his scheduled retirement.

But the problem is bigger than simply relieving and replacing officers proved to be at fault in these incidents, the Navy is very good at that. The problem is that about 15 years ago the Navy shut down its Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island as a cost cutting measure. Instead of going to a school after being commissioned from the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, to learn the basics of navigation, seamanship, damage control, engineering, and combats systems operations, these tasks were pushed onto the commanding officers of the ships the new officers were assigned. That began in 2002 and I remember discussing the detrimental effect this would have with fellow officers about the USS Hue City. Some 15 years later these are the officers who are becoming the commanding officers and executive officers of our ships. Most of them don’t spend enough time at sea to be truly professional mariners, and many of them spend years between sea assignments. As such they really don’t know their ships that well, the don’t know the sea that well, and as a result they have become addicted to technology at the expense of doing the basics like looking out the window and taking action to avoid collision. It comes down to in the words of my former Commanding Officer, Captain Rick Hoffman said about these incidents: 

“I am feeling a sense of increasing outrage. The more I write and get replies from so many great shipmates and long time friends, the more I feel a sense of urgency to see if we can’t take these tragedies to force a larger conversation about our SWO culture…or rather the demise of the culture. Help build a path forward that restores the professionalism and focus necessary to have a strong Surface Navy. Perhaps our ships are complex enough to look at the Royal Navy model. Professionals on the bridge, professionals manning the Combat Systems, professionals manning the engineering plant. Not this mongrel program that trains everyone up to the minimum level of competence just long enough to survive your tour and go ashore. Ten years later you go back to sea…in command. I guess I am just feeling frustrated.”

It is not a matter of technology being the answer, we have amazing technology, but as one former officer wrote “Technical solutions don’t solve cultural issues. We need to refocus on our capabilities as mariners.” Captain Hoffman noted: 

“I am pondering the value of sparking a larger discussion about our systemic challenges with basic maritime skills. We are ship drivers, we have technical skills but we are not mariners as a community. We don’t cherish the necessary focus on knowing and feeling the ship, the sea and the larger maritime environment. Just look out the window!!!! The CNO just called for industry to provide more solutions. THAT IS INSANE. It is the people, stupid. We have enough tools, we have forgotten how to use them. Eyeballs and brains. Engage the eyeballs and brains.”

The fact is that for more than a decade the men and women that officer our ships have been pulled many different directions, by various factors, many of our own doing. Quite a few were pulled off of ships at critical points in their career to serve in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Our Navy has stopped doing the basics of being professional mariners first so that they can get their ships safely from place to black and be ready to sail into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. 


As Captain Hoffman and so many other men who have commanded ships whose comments I have been reading have noted, the issue is cultural and it is a need to return to the basics. 

Until we do that we are going to keep getting sailors killed, and causing great damage to ships that cost billions of dollars in avoidable incidents. 

As for me, I hope that I don’t have to make another death notification, especially for a death that needn’t happen. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy

Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short couple of thoughts today since I was hoping that yesterday would see a ratcheting down of the war rhetoric coming out of President Trump, some of his advisers, and the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea. But that has not been the case. On the American side the President upped the ante with his rhetoric even as some cabinet members seem to be trying to moderate those comments. Of course the North Koreans are upping the ante by threatening the American bases on Guam. 

With every new threat uttered by President Trump and the North Korean regime the stakes get higher and the chances of miscalculation that lead to war grow. Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam, “To those who think them selves strong, force always seems the easiest solution.” That sums up the behavior of President Trump and Kim Jong Un, although the Korean despot is the one who is putting the American President on the defensive, in a sense allowing President Trump to back himself into a corner where if he doesn’t resort to force he will lose face. Both sides are playing with fire while standing in gasoline. North Korea would certainly be defeated, but the cost will be dreadful, especially to South Korea, and probably Japan, and yes, even to the United States, and we cannot assume that other nations will not become involved in a war should it occur. 

Over a decade before the first atomic bomb was used, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war: “What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations…” Those words have a greater significance in the nuclear age than when he wrote them. 

There have been many times in history where leaders of nations allowed their rhetoric to take them to war when other options we still viable, but not between nuclear armed powers. It is the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons and the real possibility that their use would be not be limited to so-called surgical strikes. The destructive power of this technology and lack of impulse control of the American President and the North Korean dictator are a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder that over a half-century ago General of the Army Omar Bradley said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.” 

In writing about the 14th Century Tuchman wrote: “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” Things have changed very little in regard to the humanity involved and we can only hope that cooler heads prevail. 

Anyway, that is all for today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Great Illusions and the Threat of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been reflecting on the words and actions of President Trump, Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and their sycophants over the past day and a half. I wrote some of my thoughts down yesterday before continuing to read and reflect. While I was doing so the words of William Shirer wrote in his forward to his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as some thought from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. While they deal with different eras, they also deal with the one constant in history, that of fallible human beings. I think that they are quite appropriate to reflect upon today. Shirer wrote: 

“In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.”

There are some people who think that globalization and the interdependence of the economies of the world on international commerce and trade will ensure that nuclear war never occurs. They believe that realists will ensure that it never happens. That is a nice thought. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union maintained a tenuous balance of terror that never resulted in a nuclear exchange, but they did come close, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But we no longer live in that world where the leaders two heavily armed yet rational powers did not succumb to the temptation of using them. 

In 1914 the realists of the world believed that if a war broke out among the great powers of Europe that it would of necessity be short. Inspired by the writings of Norman Angell whose book The Great Ilusion drove home the message that war as no longer profitable and therefore capitalists would resist appeals to war and nationalist fervor, Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“By impressive examples and incontrovertible argument Angell showed that in the present financial and economic interdependence of nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished; therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore no nation would be so foolish as to start one.” 

The book had a cult like following in Europe and when Europe went to war in August 1914 many people and governments believed that any war would have to be short, and as such none of them prepared for the long and catastrophic war that ensued. The Germans did not follow Angell, but Clausewitz who preached a dogma of short and decisive wars. Sadly, both authors were misunderstood by their most devoted disciples and as Tuchman wrote: “Clausewitz, a dead Prussian, and Norman Angell, a living if misunderstood professor, had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy; the economic impossibility of a long war was everybody’s orthodoxy.” 

There are political, business, and military leaders around the world today who see the world much the same as the generation of leaders who took Europe to war in 1914. Now a chubby little madman in North Korea has his finger on the button and the American President seems to be goading him on and threatening preemptive war, and policy makers are scrambling. 

I don’t pretend to know what will happen in the coming days, weeks, or months, but I do know that this is a very dangerous time. 

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“The Unfolding of Miscalculations” With Fire and Fury…


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…” 

Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles. 

The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.” 

Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.” 

Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party. 

Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said:  “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”

In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury. 


By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted. 

Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other. 

The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:

“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”

Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.” 

Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.” 

I only wonder what miscalculation will be next. 

Until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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