Category Archives: Tour in Iraq

There Lies a Gulf: Reflecting on 9-11-2001 Nineteen Years Later

 

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 have decided to take the time tonight to share that day and what followed in my life and with the people that I served, including those who died.

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.

Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner, Medical Service Corps, US Army

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.

Nineteen 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 with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines.

Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman, US Army, former US Marine, KIA, Afghanistan 26 May 2011

One of the Marines I got to know well at 3/8 was Corporal Ergin Osman. He eventually left the Marines enlisted in the Army and was serving with the 101st Airborne Division when he and 6 members of his platoon were killed on May 26th 2011 by an Improvised Explosive Device, while hunting down a Taliban leader.

Father (Chaplain) Tim Vakoc

Another man I knew was Father Timothy Vakoc, an Army Chaplain I knew when he was a seminarian going through the Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course with in 1990. He was horribly wounded by an IED when traveling in a HUMMV to say mass for his troops near Mosul, Iraq in 2004. At the time he was a Major in the Chaplain Corps. He never made a full recovery from his wounds but was inspirational to all he met and served until he died in 2009 after having eithe been dropped, or fallen in a nursing home.

On the morning of 9-11-2001 I was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida, to deploy in January 2002 to support operations against the Taliban and take part in the UN Oil Embargo against Iraq.

 


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 pilot had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

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.

LutjensHonors

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. One thing that I do remember that for a brief moment in time we were united as Americans. Say what you want about him now and some of his later decisions, but President George W. Bush was inspirational in the days after the attack. He provided both rallied us and led us in our grief in a way the current President, who lied about what he saw and did that day, never could.

hue city boarding party

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.


In 2008 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 who 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 39 years of service, and unless something incredibly strange occurs I will retire on December 31st and this will be my last year, and last observance of 9-11 on active duty.

But that being said there are still U.S. Military personnel in harm’s way in many places around the world. I wish I could say that they will be safe and that there will be no more killed or wounded, but I know that will not be the case. Now we have young men and women serving in wars that began before they were born.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting.  Today I provided the invocation at our Navy Shipyard’s ceremony marking that day. As I gave them I could feel the emotions, see the faces, and remember all the people I knew and served alongside who died that day or in the following wars.

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, and even more importantly that amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic and the damnable political division and violence in our country, much of it brought on by the President and some of his White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi followers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Christian theocrats whose message and goal is little different than the people who attacked us nineteen years ago.

On the good news side my wife Judy was pronounced cancer free and cured on her five year follow-exam today. Every exam, after her surgery was a anxiety laden exercise, now she doesn’t have to go back for a year.

Hopefully next year this time I will be teaching and writing, and we will have made the transition to civilian life with our three Papillon babies, Izzy, Pierre, and Maddy Lyn.

Peace, Shalom, and blessings,

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, iraq,afghanistan, national security, Photo Montages, Political Commentary, terrorism, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, War on Terrorism

When Heroes Return from War: Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain and the Complicated Lives of those Changed by War

fannychamberlain1

                     Fannie and Joshua Chamberlain (Dale Gallon) 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been catching up one work around the house, working on my book so hopefully I can have it ready to send to my agent no later than this time a week from now. So tonight I am reposting a portion out of one of my incomplete Gettysburg series dealing with an American Hero and icon with feet of clay, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  He became one of my heroes when I first read about his stand with the 20th Maine at Little Round Top back in Junior High school. At that time I only knew the basics of his biography, which did not include the struggles he had after the war dealing with combat trauma, a marriage on the rocks, his disappointment at not being retained in the post-war downsizing of the Army, and his attempts to serve in other ways, which did nothing for his health or marriage.

The impact of war on those who go to war and the loved ones that they return to is often incredibly difficult, I know from experience. I am lucky, first I survived war, then I at least until now have survived its aftermath, finally, I have a wife who survived it with me and in spite of all the trauma our marriage not only survived but has become better. I hope that you appreciate this account of the post-war life of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Joshua Chamberlain’s accolades were at Little Round Top certainly earned but others on that hill have been all too often overlooked by most people. This list includes Gouverneur Warren who was humiliated by Phillip Sheridan at Five Forks, Strong Vincent, who died on of wounds suffered on Little Round Top and Paddy O’Rorke, the commander of the 140th New York of Weed’s Brigade on Vincent’s right who was mortally wounded that day. Of course their were his subordinates that get little attention. But today is about what happened to Chamberlain and his wife Fannie after he came home.

After the war like most citizen soldiers, Chamberlain returned to civilian life, and a marriage that was in crisis in which neither he or Fannie seemed able to communicate well enough to mend.  The troubled couple “celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary on December 7, 1865. He gave her a double banded gold-and-diamond bracelet from Tiffany’s, an extravagant gift that only temporarily relieved the stresses at work just below the surface of their bland marriage. Wartime separation had perhaps damaged it more than Chamberlain knew.”  [1]

When he came home Chamberlain was unsettled. Fannie quite obviously hoped that his return would reunite them and bring about “peaceful hours and the sweet communion of uninterrupted days with the husband that had miraculously survived the slaughter” [2] and who had returned home, but it was not to be.

Army life had given Joshua Chamberlain a sense of purpose and meaning that he struggled to find in the civilian world. He was haunted by a prediction made by one of his fellow professors when he left his professorship at Bowdoin College to serve as Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Maine. His colleague told him that “he would return from war “shattered” & “good for nothing,” [3]

Upon his discharge, Chamberlain began to search for something to give his life meaning. He began to write a history of V Corps and give speeches around the northeast, and “these engagements buoyed his spirit, helping him submerge his tribulations and uncertainties in a warm sea of shared experience. [4] In his travels he remained apart from Fannie, who remained with the children, seldom including her in those efforts. She expressed her heart in a letter in early 1866:

“I have no idea when you will go back to Philadelphia, why dont you let me know about things dear?….I think I will be going towards home soon, but I want to hear from you. What are you doing dear? are you writing for your book? and how was it with your lecture in Brunswick- was it the one at Gettysburg? I look at your picture when ever I am in my room, and I am lonely for you. After all, every thing that is beautiful must be enjoyed with one you love, or it is nothing to you. Dear, dear Lawrence write me one of the old letters…hoping to hear from you soon…I am as in the old times gone bye Your Fannie.” [5]

In those events he poured out his heart in ways that seemed impossible for him to do with Fannie. He accounted those wives, parents, sons and daughters at home who had lost those that they loved, not only to death:

“…the worn and wasted and wounded may recover a measure of their strength, or blessed by your cherishing care live neither useless nor unhappy….A lost limb is not like a brother, an empty sleeve is not like an empty home, a scarred breast is not like a broken heart. No, the world may smile again and repair its losses, but who shall give you back again a father? What husband can replace the chosen of your youth? Who shall restore a son? Where will you find a lover like the high hearted boy you shall see no more?” [6]

Chamberlain then set his sights on politics, goal that he saw as important in championing the rights of soldiers and their well treatment by a society, but a life that again interrupted his marriage to Fannie and brought frequent separation. Instead of the one term that Fannie expected, Chamberlain ended up serving four consecutive one year terms as Governor of Maine, and was considered for other political offices. However, the marriage continued to suffer and Fannie’s “protracted absence from the capital bespoke her attitude toward his political ambitions.” [7]  Eventually Chamberlain returned home and. “For twelve years following his last term as governor, he served as president of Bowdoin College, his alma mater. [8]

He then became a champion of national reconciliation who was admired by friend and former foe alike. However, he was filled with bitterness towards some in the Union who he believed did not care for his comrades or their families, especially those who had lost loved ones in the war. While saluting those who had served in the Christian and Sanitary Commissions during the war, praising veterans, soldiers and their families he noted that they were different than many Northerners, willing to forgive the South, admire it’s heroes and despise their own, and the cause for which they fought:

“Those who can see no good in the soldier of the Union who took upon his breast the blow struck at the Nation’s and only look to our antagonists for examples of heroism – those over magnanimous Christians, who are so anxious to love their enemies that they are willing to hate their friends….I have no patience with the prejudice or the perversity that will not accord justice to the men who have fought and fallen on behalf of us all, but must go round by the way of Fort Pillow, Andersonville and Belle Isle to find a chivalry worthy of praise.” [9]

His experience of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era North, was felt by many Union Veterans as the twin myths of The Noble South and The Lost Cause swept the whole country. Thus his bitterness, not toward the enemy soldiers he faced, but the citizens that he suffered so much to defend and the causes that they fought. Today his bitterness towards his countrymen, political and business leaders, academics and others, through their foul treatment of Union soldiers and fawning admiration of Heroes the Confederacy and the South, would be called Moral Injury. 

Chamberlain’s post-war life, save for the times that he was able to revisit the scenes of glory and be with his former comrades was marred by deep personal and professional struggles and much suffering. He struggled with the adjustment to civilian life, which for him was profoundly difficult. He “returned to Bowdoin and the college life which he had sworn he would not again endure. Three years of hard campaigning however, had made a career of college teaching seem less undesirable, while his physical condition made a permanent army career impossible.” [10] The adjustment was more than even he could anticipate, and the return to the sleepy college town and monotony of teaching left much to be desired.

These are not uncommon situations for combat veterans to experience, and Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top who was well acquainted with the carnage of war, suffered from immensely. His wounds which nearly killed him on the front lines at Petersburg never fully healed, and he was forced to endure the humiliation of wearing what would be considered an early form of a permanent catheter and bag. In 1868 he was awarded a pension of thirty dollars a month for his Petersburg wound which was described as “Bladder very painful and irritable; whole lower part of abdomen tender and sensitive; large urinal fistula at base of penis; suffers constant pain in both hips.” [11] Chamberlain struggled to climb out of “an emotional abyss” in the years after the war. Part was caused by his wounds which included wounds to his sexual organs, shattering his sexuality and caused his marriage to deteriorate.

He wrote to Fannie in 1867 about the “widening gulf between them, one created at least in part by his physical limitations: “There is not much left in me to love. I feel that all too well.” [12] Chamberlain’s inability to readjust to civilian life following the war, and Fanny’s inability to understand what he had gone through during it caused great troubles in their marriage. Chamberlain “felt like hell a lot of the time, morose in mood and racked with pain.” [13] His wounds would require more surgeries, and in “April 1883 he was forced to have extensive surgery on his war wounds, and through the rest of the decade and well into the next he was severely ill on several occasions and close to death once.” [14]

By 1868 the issues between he and Fannie were so deep that she threatened him with divorce, and went about accusing Joshua of domestic abuse, not in court, but among her friends and in town; a charge which he contested. It is unknown if the abuse actually occurred and given Chamberlain’s poor physical condition it is unlikely that he could have done what she claimed, it is actually much more likely, based on her correspondence as well as her issues which included:

“chronic depression, her sense of being neglected of not abandoned, and her status as an unappreciated appendage to her husband’s celebrated public career caused her to retaliate in a manner calculated to get her husband’s attention while visiting on him some of the misery she had long endured.” [15]

The bitterness in their relationship at the time was shown in his offer to her of a divorce; a condition very similar to what many combat veterans and their families experience today. After he received news of the allegations that Fannie was spreading among their friends around town, Chamberlain wrote to her:

“If it is true (as Mr. Johnson seems to think there is a chance of its being) that you are preparing for an action against me, you need not give yourself all this trouble. I should think we had skill enough to adjust the terms of a separation without the wretchedness to all our family which these low people to whom it would seem that you confide your grievances & plans will certainly bring about.

You never take my advice, I am aware.

But if you do not stop this at once it will end in hell.” [16]

His words certainly seem harsh, especially in our time where divorce, be it contested or uncontested does not have the same social stigma it did then. Willard Wallace writes that the letter “reflects bewilderment, anger, even reproof, but not recrimination; and implicit throughout is an acute concern for Fanny, who did not seem to realize the implications of legal action. The lot of a divorcee in that era in a conservative part of the country was not likely to be a happy one.” [17]This could well be the case, but we do not know for sure his intent. We can say that it speaks to the mutual distress, anger and pain that both Joshua and Fannie were suffering at the time.

The marriage endured a separation which lasted until 1871 when his final term of office expired they reconciled, and the marriage did survive, for nearly forty more years. “Whatever differences may have once occasionally existed between Chamberlain and Fanny, the two had been very close for many years.” [18] The reconciliation could have been for any number of reasons, from simple political expedience, in that he had been rejected by his party to be appointed as Senator, and the realization that “that politics, unlike war, could never stir his soul.” [19] Perhaps he finally recognized just how badly he had hurt Fannie over all the years of his neglect of her needs. But it is just as likely that deep in his heart he really did love her despite his chronic inability for so many years to demonstrate it in a way she could feel. Fannie died in 1905 and Chamberlain, who despite all of their conflicts loved her and grieved her, a grief “tinged with remorse and perhaps also with guilt.” [20] The anguished widower wrote after her death:

“You in my soul I see, faithful watcher, by my cot-side long days and nights together, through the delirium of mortal anguish – steadfast, calm, and sweet as eternal love. We pass now quickly from each other’s sight, but I know full well that where beyond these passing scenes you shall be, there will be heaven!”

Chamberlain made a final trip to Gettysburg in May of 1913. He felt well enough to give a tour to a delegation of federal judges. “One evening, an hour or so before sunset, he trudged, alone, up the overgrown slope of Little Round Top and sat down among the crags. Now in his Gothic imagination, the ghosts of the Little Round Top dead rose up around him….he lingered up the hillside, an old man lost in the sepia world of memory.” [21] He was alone.

Chamberlain died on a bitterly cold day, February 24th 1914 of complications from complications of the ghastly wound that he received at Petersburg in 1864. The Confederate minié ball that had struck him at the Rives’ Salient finally claimed his life just four months shy of 50 years since the Confederate marksman found his target.

Sadly, the story of the marriage of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain is all too typical of many military marriages and relationships where a spouse returns home changed by their experience of war and struggles to readjust to civilian life. This is something that we need to remember when we encounter those changed by war and the struggles of soldiers as well as their families; for if we have learned nothing from our recent wars it is that the wounds of war extend far beyond the battlefield, often scarring veterans and their families for decades after the last shot of the war has been fired.

The Battle for Little Round Top which is so legendary in our collective history and myth was in the end something more than a decisive engagement in a decisive battle. It was something greater and larger than that, it is the terribly heart wrenching story of ordinary, yet heroic men like Gouverneur Warren, Strong Vincent, Chamberlain and Paddy O’Rorke and their families who on that day were changed forever.

Chamberlain, ever the romantic, spoke about that day when dedicating the Maine Monument in 1888; about the men who fought that day and what they accomplished:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” [22]

The one thing none of us who return changed by war and military service seem to really master, is how to fully be present in the lives of those we love when we return.

                                                             Notes 

[1] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.282

[2] Ibid. Smith Fanny and Joshua p.182

[3] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180

[4] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.260

[5] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua pp.178-179

[6] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.181

[7] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain p.

[8] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.245

[9] Ibid. Smith, Fanny and Joshua p.180 It is interesting to note that Chamberlain’s commentary is directed at Northerners who were even just a few years after the war were glorifying Confederate leader’s exploits. Chamberlain instead directs the attention of his audience, and those covering the speech to the atrocities committed at the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864 and to the hellish conditions at the Andersonville and Belle Isle prisoner of war camps run by the Confederacy.

[10] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.203

[11] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.289

[12] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.259

[13] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.288

[14] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.285

[15] Ibid. Longacre Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.268

[16] Chamberlain, Joshua L. Letter Joshua L. Chamberlain to “Dear Fanny” [Fanny Chamberlain], Augusta, November 20, 1868 retrieved from Bowdoin College, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Documents http://learn.bowdoin.edu/joshua-lawrence-chamberlain/documents/1868-11-20.html 8 November 2014

[17] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.227

[18] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.297

[19] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.290

[20] Ibid. Longacre  Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man p.290

[21] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond PPP.342-343

[22] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Chamberlain’s Address at the dedication of the Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3rd 1888 retrieved from http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/maineatgettysburg.php 4 June 2014

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Filed under christian life, civil war, faith, Gettysburg, History, marriage and relationships, mental health, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, Veterans and friends

A New Thread in the Tapestry of My Life: Serving People in the Age of COVID-19


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding their lives, career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decisions that I made, again for better or worse.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us, the struggle with the effects of PTSD even ten years after my return from Iraq is still very real.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

If only my knees hadn’t been too badly injured and slow to recover I would have been out of the Navy, probably teaching history (now online) at the college level while relegating my calling as a priest to the background. But after that I  couldn’t retire, but due to a administrative error in calculating my statutory retirement date as I expected in April. I am now scheduled to retire in August, but with Coronavirus there is even uncertainty about that, and frankly I couldn’t care less, because I would rather serve and be in the thick of the fight than sitting on my ass or doing something that provides for me and Judy, but does not help in the time of crisis.

Between last spring when I first put in my voluntary retirement  paperwork working in the most miserable tour of all my time in the military, and doubting my call as a Priest, something miraculous happened. The screwed up knees and administrative mistakes ended up renewing my call and ministry among people I would never have expected to be serving. But even with that I never expected that I would still be serving on active duty at the age of 60, providing needed and valued ministry to people of all faiths, including atheists, in the midst of the novel Coronavirus 19 pandemic that is infecting some of them, or infecting and killing their family members, friends, or others that they know. Of course I take all of the guidance seriously to protect those I serve as well as Judy and me, but a new thread has been woven into the tapestry of my life. I felt the renewed call not long after I arrived, but this has solidified it.

I love the television series Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes is called Tapestry. In the episode Captain Picard is killed. He is then met by the being known as Q, played by John De Lancie for a do-over, a second chance to reverse a choice that he made as a young officer.

On Q’s promise that his choice will not alter history Picard takes the chance and he ends up regretting it. In his second chance to avoid the incident that allowed him to be killed he alienates himself from his friends, and turns him in to a different person, unwilling to take chances and doomed to insignificance. When he returns to his new present he finds himself alive but a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates as an assistant astrophysics officer.

tapestry2

Distraught Picard complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads of my tapestry are in a sense, precious and even holy.

I’ll keep all of them, but of all I will remember this thread, as well as my combat tours, and life and death in ICUs and ERs the most. Suddenly at the age of 60 life has begun again. As the late great Sid Caesar once said:

“A great NOW will be a great WAS! A bad NOW will always be a bad WAS, and all you can hope for is a Great GONNA BE!”

As old as I am and as long as I have served, my future is yet to be written, and the tapestry of my life continues, even as new threads are woven into it. Every experience in my life has helped make me the person that I am. A friend of mine from my high school years sent me an email after I explained the experiences behind my writings, and noted “maybe all of that prepared you for such a time as this.” It was an affirmation by someone who doesn’t always share my political, social, or interpretation of the Christian faith that I am doing what I need to be, in such a time as this.

Value the tapestry of your life, and always find something good to life for and work towards.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, Coronavirus, faith, life, Military, ministry, philosophy, star trek, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Courage is Not the the Province of Ideologues, Right or Left: The Attack of the Ideological and Religious Zealots

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Salman Rushdie once wrote: “The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

We seem to be at another crossroads in Western civilization, a crossroads where the classic liberalism that was the basis for democratic societies is being stampeded by zealots of various persuasions who guided by the supposed infallibility of their ideological belief systems, deliberately and without remorse seek to destroy the institutions that are the guardians of liberty.

We have seen the results of such movements in history before and each time they succeed in gaining power they have brought disaster to nations, and sometimes the world.

Proponents of ideological purity assume that their ideological bias is equivalent to sacred truth, be it a religious or secular truth. The promoters of such systems promote something more than their opinion, as Hannah Arendt noted: “For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”  As such, ideology is not based on knowledge, but is distinct from it and the enemy of knowledge for it binds the mind in a straitjacket in which all thought must be submitted to the truth of the ideology. As Arendt noted such ideologies must be handled with caution as they “pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”  An ideology protects the believer from having to think for himself, it allows the insecure to grasp at the protection that it allegedly provides, and allows the believer to deny reality, and to by definition declare everything that contradicts the ideology to be heretical, and opponents to be aligned with the devil himself, allowing the believer to hate the opponent. As Eric Hoffer noted, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, and even a willingness to admit we are wrong, or somebody else has a better idea, or knows more than we do. This is something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing.

As for me I consider myself to be a left-leaning progressive. I am pro LGBTQ rights because I believe that they too, like everyone else are created by and loved by God, and as the preamble of the Declaration of Independence states, that we are all “created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I have to believe that Thomas Jefferson and the others who collaborated on that document would be run out of the country on a rail by today’s ideologues, especially those of the Christian Right.

Likewise, despite being against abortion in principle,  I believe that Roe v. Wade and the right of a woman to have an abortion must be upheld. I believe in equality for women, even in the Church, and believe that women are held to a much higher standard than men, especially in politics, religion, and business. I know from experience that women face far greater discrimination in the workplace, academia, and the military than do men.

I believe that racial prejudice, especially against blacks is still a major problem, but it is not certainly not confined to blacks, but Hispanics, Arabs, and Asians. Once again these prejudices are mostly the provence of the political Right, but not confined to it, there are examples of liberal and progressive Whites who intentionally segregate themselves and their families from darker skinned people, especially the less well off ones.

Likewise, there is classic Anti-Semitism, a very specific prejudice and hatred of Jews, and it spans the political and ideological spectrum. I can say that as a historian of the Holocaust and as a gentile Christian.

That being said, to offer criticism of the Government of Israel in its dealings with its Arab and Druse minorities that happen to be Israeli citizens, and to Palestinians who have been the victims of the Pan Arab nationalism of the 1950-1970s is mostly the province far left, who blame all Jews for the actions of the State of Israel, and Neo-Nazis who just hate Jews and would collaborate with anyone to destroy them and Israel.  The sad thing that to state the truth that  most of these Arabs, regardless of their religion find themselves abandoned by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf States is not anti-Semitic, but rather an observation of the victimization of people caught in the middle of a far greater political, military, religious, and ideological struggle.

In 2007 I came across a Palestinian refugee camp at the border of Iraq ans Syria at Al Waleed. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs were marooned there, dependent on th U.N. for food and shelter, and the good graces of Americans and Iraqis for security as they had no place left to go. The new Iraqi government didn’t want people who were allies of Saddam Hussein in their country and drove them to their farthest reaches. Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States didn’t want them either. Likewise, the government that should accept them, the Palestinian Authority didn’t want them and they were not welcome anywhere else in the Arab world. Of course, the Israeli government didn’t want them either. This is an irefruable fact. They were abandoned by all.

As far as Anti-Semitism goes, you don’t have to look hard to find it. Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers have cottage industries that attemp to disprove or minimize the Holocaust. Most reside on the political Right, such as in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and in some parts of the German political spectrum. But some too make their home of the Left, the Labour Party in Britain has come under the spell of Jeremy Corbin, a Left Wing anti-Semitic leader if one existed at all. Much of the current anti-Jewish and and Israel propaganda from both the Right and Left is often lifted straight out the same source documents, such as The Protoclals Of the Elders Of Zion. Of course the polcies of the Netanyahu government are helping anyone, including most Jews outside of Israel.

I happen to be a liberal and progressive realist, but I cannot be an ideologue. That being said I think that the Presdency and policies of the Trump administration exemplify the worst of American racism and exceptualism. Barely educated racist demagogues hold power over a President whose supporters would support him even if he murdered someone on 5th Avenue. Likewise, I think that there are some progressives who are just as incapable of seeing both sides of an argument and who are as historically as blind, deprived, and ignorant as the most myth bound Christian Conservatives, or other Right Wing anti-Semites. The irony is both sad and rich. I truly must be a progressive realist in wonderland.

It takes no courage to be an ideologue, and once a person surrenders to an ideology as his or her reason for existence, they sacrifice the ability to reason, the ability to think critically, and the capacity to acquire knowledge. That is the danger of the blind ideologies that are consuming our world today. As the late great Manager of the Baltimore Orioles once remarked: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  Ideologues never learn that lesson.

Quite obviously, a lot of ideologues from across the spectrum will disagree.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under anti-semitism, authoritarian government, civil rights, culture, ethics, faith, History, holocaust, laws and legislation, leadership, LGBT issues, middle east, News and current events, Political Commentary, racism, Tour in Iraq

“How Hollow is the Sound of Victory without Someone to Share it with? Honor Gives Little Comfort to a Man Alone in his Home… and in his heart.” Thoughts on Valentine’s Day from a Klingon Perspective

 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Well it is Valentine’s Day and I think that it completely appropriate to talk about love. Now I know that this particular day brings up a lot of good as well as bad memories. If someone is in the middle of a divorce, break up, or just simply is alone it can be a painful experience. On the other hand if you have discovered love, are in love, or even hopelessly infatuated by someone despite the reality that you might be rejected by them it can be a special, and maybe even an expensive day.

However, some of us get lucky and Cupid, the flying naked kid armed with a bow and arrow, shoots us in the ass one day and we discover that one true love. That happened to me in September of 1978 when I met Judy. I fell in love with her that night, but it took a while to develop. We are coming up on our 37th marriage anniversary this June, 6 days after my projected retirement ceremony, which is exactly 37 years after I was commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant on June 19th 1983. My career in the military, in the Army and Navy has been difficult on her, especially after I came home from various deployments and combat deployments. Though I am now, and have been a chaplain since 1992, I have always been a warrior and soldier at heart, even when unarmed on combat deployments and getting shot at. Thus I find that I am very much attracted to the Klingons in Star Trek the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, because it is in those series we discover just how complex Klingon culture, traditions, and religious beliefs are. Thankfully for me Judy shares my love of Star Trek, especially DS9. 

So I was thinking about what to do for her this Valentine’s Day as for much of my life I have been pretty lousy at giving her the attention and honor she is due, especially things like Valentine’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries. No doubt, though a faithful husband, I pretty much have been at the Mendoza Line when it comes to romance. Part of this is because of the fact that for close to half of our marriage I have been away from home, and came back pretty messed up from war.

When I was going through my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas following Seminary, that my CPE Supervisor, Steve Ivy was able to connect my compartmentalization of my emotions with Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon Security Officer of the Enterprise in Star Trek the Next Generation played by Michael Dorn, who reprised the role in Star Trek Deep Space Nine. For me that was an eye opening experience. Though I was by that time an ordained minister, and two years later a Priest, I was always a warrior at heart, wanting, desiring, and volunteering time and time again for dangerous assignments. My first 17 1/2 years in the military were in the Army National Guard, active Duty Army, and Army Reserve, and even though I was mobilized to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia Peace Enforcement mission, but in a purely support role. I was not until I entered the Navy, taking off my rank as a Major in the Army Reserve to return to active duty as a Navy Lieutenant in February 1999, and the attacks of 9/11/2001 that I got my chance for action at sea in 2002 in Operation Enduring Freedom and the UN Oil Embargo on Iraq in 2002, where I served as an “advisor” to a boarding team, numerous trips to Marine Security Forces in the Middle East from 2003 to 2006, and service in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 with the Advisors of the Iraq Assistance Group in Al Anbar Province, from the Syrian Border to Fallujah and about everywhere in between. It was an amazing combat tour, mostly outside the big bases, working with small teams of American advisors and Iraqi Army, Police, and Border forces. It was the best and most rewarding of tours of my career, but I came back changed. Since I have written about those experiences many times, I won’t go into details, but if I could have remained in Iraq supporting the advisors I would have stayed on indefinitely, and would have gone back given the chance. I left a lot of my soul in Iraq and I pray for the Iraqis, soldiers and civilians alike, who befriended me as the man they called the American Imam. But I digress…

But back to the Klingons, love, marriage, and Valentine’s Day. In one of the early Next Generation episodes Lieutenant Worf is asked by young Wesley Crusher what Klingon courtship is like. Worf replied:

I will sing Klingon love poems while she throws furniture. I duck a lot.

So today I posted a quote from DS9 on my Facebook timeline this morning while waiting at the Medical Center pharmacy. It was from an episode titled Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places where the Ferengi Bartender, Quark ends up helping his Klingon ex-wife Grilka to deal with the financial situation of her House, which he helped her to gain following the death of her husband. Quark is forced to do battle with Grilka’s bodyguard who cannot abide a Ferengi being part of her house. The bodyguard issues a challenge which Quark could never match without help, which Worf and Jadzia Dax give him, but there is a technical glitch and to stall for time Quark issues a supposed Ferengi tradition, which he invented on the spot, The Right of Proclamation, a speech about his love for Grilka:

To this end my blade soars through the
aquarium of my soul seeking the
kelp of discontent which must be cut so that the
rocky bottom of love lies in waiting, with fertile
sand of the coming seed of Grilka’s
affection.
And yet, does this explain my need for her? No. It is like
oh, a giant cave of emptiness waiting for
the bats of love to hang by –

Judy responded by telling people that she would look at my medication list and look for side effects, and that people could direct message her. It was a perfect riposte.

But Quark’s words are those are the words of a Ferengi, not a Klingon, though Quark gave it his best. As Worf gets ready to marry Jadzia, she has to be approved by the matriarch of the House of Martok, and she makes Jadzia’s life hell.

But Martok encourages Worf, saying:

We are not accorded the luxury of choosing the women we fall in love with. Do you think Sirella is anything like the woman I thought that I’d marry? She is a prideful, arrogant, mercurial woman who shares my bed far too infrequently for my taste. And yet… I love her deeply. We Klingons often tout our prowess in battle, our desire for glory and honor above all else… but how hollow is the sound of victory without someone to share it with? Honor gives little comfort to a man alone in his home… and in his heart.” 

When Jadzia successfully passes the tests of Martok’s wife Sirella, the traditional Klingon wedding takes place in Quark’s bar on DS9. The traditional Klingon marriage includes the Klingon creation story, which is enacted by the bride and groom. It certainly is not a Christian understanding of creation, but it does encapsulate the depth of love between two people:

With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound, that the gods cried out, ‘On this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens. None can stand before it without trembling at its strength.’ But then the Klingon heart weakened, its steady rhythm faltered and the gods said, ‘Why have you weakened so? We have made you the strongest in all of creation. And the heart said ‘I am alone.’ And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and brought forth another heart. But the second heart beat stronger than the first, and the first was jealous of its power. Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom. ‘ If we join together, no force can stop us.’ And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee, but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts… 
After either courting each other or being married for over forty years I think that Judy and I are a lot like Klingons. I am the proud, yet damaged warrior, she is the proud and faithful wife, and after all these years our hearts beat together.

This may not make a lot of sense to some readers, unless you are true Star Trek nerds, not that there is anything wrong with that.

The thing is that for all its commercialization, and despite the pain that often accompanies love, that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love between two people, when their hearts beat together. One of my office mates lost his wife of 38 years two and a half years ago. If someone had not told me that he was a widower, it would be hard to guess it. When we talk about life, music, television, life, and family, he speaks of her in such a way that I know that his love for her did not die when she did. Their hearts still beat as one, and I love that, I wish I had actually met her. But, he has his son and other relatives in the local area and still lives a rich life, he is happy, and is still in love with her.

I hope and pray that everyone gets to experience that kind of undying love.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq, life, marriage and relationships, Military, PTSD, star trek, televsion, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Navy, War on Terrorism

“They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary” Coming Home From Iraq 12 Years Later

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am a bit tired and going to post something that basically is a rerun with a few edits. Twelve years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t home, the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD”. While I am doing much better now than even two years ago, in large part due to a change in duties when I was informed that the Navy had miscalculated my retirement date, moving it four months further out. I love my new billet and I am enjoying the ministry of caring for people without pretense, regardless of their faith, or if they don’t believe at all.

Now I still deal and suffer from PTSD, but, the fact that I am a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of men who I never met, have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”  By the way I see my sleep doctor next week.

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from Iraq. I didn’t get a chance to re-read it today, but a while back I read a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary, which he wrote in the time shortly after the First World War. The title is a reference to the song It’s a Long, Long Way, to Tipperary which was written by Henry James “Harry Williams and co-credited to his partner Jack Judge as a music hall song in 1912. It became very popular before the war, but became a world wide hit when George Curnock, a correspondent for the Daily Mail saw the Irish Connaught Rangers  Regiment singing it as they marched through the Belgian port of Boulogne on August 13th 1914 on their way to face the German Army. Curnock made his report several days later, and soon many units in the British Army adopted it. It became a worldwide hit when Irish Tenor John McCormack recorded it in November 1914.

Interestingly enough the song, like the German song Lili Marlene is that it is a call back to home, not a call to battle.

I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano. In a number of later comic strips, Charles Schulz, had Snoopy refer to it a number of times, in one strip, exhausted by his march, a tired Snoopy lays down and notes: “They’re right, it is a long way to Tipperary.” I do understand that.

But, back to Santayana’s soliloquy, he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the current American President make wild threats of war, and the cavalier attitude of his predominantly Evangelical Christian sycophants toward it, I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war. As a historian I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“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.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past dozen years, when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself. Likewise, I still deal with terribly physical nightmares and night terrors, more than one a month.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. In a sense I have been reprieved, although I observe things every day that take me back to Iraq. The news from that unfortunate country, the indifference of a government and President that talk much about the military, but in their actions often demean military personnel and have no problems with gutting the medical and mental health systems of the military and the Veterans Administration, but that is an article for another time. In fact I spent this evening writing this and watching anything but the State of the Union Address, I cannot bear the lies. When I see and hear them I remember the words of T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia:

“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.” 

But as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go,” as do I, for it really is a long, long, way to Tipperary.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Gettysburg, History, Military, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq, world war one

What You Leave Behind: Thoughts on Leaving Iraq 12 Years Ago and Star Trek Deep Space Nine

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, Judy and I finished a several month marathon of Star Trek Deep Space Nine. The final episode was titled What You Leave Behind. It so happens that today is the twelfth anniversary of my last full day in Iraq. To me those memories are bittersweet. As Charles Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, and the worst of times.”

I left a significant part of my soul in Iraq, and truthful, only part of me came back. I don’t know what part, I am still trying to figure that out, maybe I’ll figure it out someday and maybe I won’t, but does it really matter? Honestly, after twelve years does it really matter? For me everything changed after Iraq, just like in an imaginary science fiction show everything changed for every character. I am not going to try to describe the entire two part episode, but the great folks at Memory Alpha have done that very well. If you like any Star Trek series you need to visit that sight.  https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/What_You_Leave_Behind_(episode)

The episode is set at the end of great and costly war, political, and social change. In a sense DS9 is the perfect series for someone like me. It is my favorite Star Trek series, because it demonstrates the complicated nature and gray areas of life, faith, politics, relationships, alliances, power, and even love.

For the past week I have been having troubling nightmares and terrors, some of which almost seem like visions of the future. Some are directly related to my time in Iraq, evidently in one of them Judy had to deflect an attack from me. I have a neurological condition that when I am in REM sleep, my body still acts out my dreams and nightmares. I have had three incidents where I hurt myself bad enough to go to the ER, or medical clinic, including a broken nose.

But these have been different from past ones. They are a combination of Iraq experienced transposed into the future, a future where I watch our military mobilizing and going to war, and the. evacuating bases, destroying computers, and burning or shredding documents, and I am there in the middle of it. In these nightmares I see cities burning, people dying by the millions, and the United States, like the Federation in DS9 is not entirely innocent, just like Vietnam and Iraq. Of course the Federation was fighting a superior power, the Dominion and tried to conduct genocide against the Founders of the Dominion; although the Dominion Founders had no problem with genocide either, including their allies in the Alpha Quadrant. But I digress, I am struggling, and vulnerable; and despite my attempts to be strong, and fight rather than resort to flight, I am pissing people off. I seem to be coming across as overly sensitive and defensive, ready to fight and unwilling to compromise when I see people who have helped me attacked by friends on the right and the left. It seems that there are very few safe spaces left, so given the choice of whether to run away, go underground, or fight, I usually choose the latter.

Near the end of the episode, Dr. Bashir, and the former Cardassian Intelligence Agent and exile Garak, stand victorious in the ruins of Cardassia Prime, Garak and Bashir have the following conversation:

Bashir: “Eight hundred million dead.”
Garak: “And casualty reports still coming in. Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me, Doctor? My exile is now officially over. I’ve returned home. Or rather, to what’s left of it.”
Bashir: “Listen, I know that this must seem bleak.”
Garak: “Some may say that we’ve gotten just what we deserved. After all, we’re not entirely innocent, are we? And I’m not just speaking of the Bajoran occupation. No, our whole history is one of arrogant aggression. We’ve collaborated with the Dominion, betrayed the entire Alpha Quadrant. Oh, no, no. There’s no doubt about it. We’re guilty as charged.”
Bashir: “You and I both know that the Cardassians are a strong people. They’ll survive. Cardassia will survive.”
Garak: “Please, Doctor. Spare me your insufferable Federation optimism. Of course it will survive, but as not the Cardassia I knew. We had a rich and ancient culture. Our literature, music, art were second to none. And now, so much of it is lost. So many of our best people, our most gifted minds.”
Bashir: “I’m sorry, Garak. I didn’t mean…”
Garak: “Oh, it’s quite all right, Doctor. You’ve been such a good friend. I’m going to miss our lunches together.”
Bashir: “”I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
Garak: “I’d like to think so, but one can never say. We live in uncertain times.”

I have to say that I now really understand that conversation, especially when the President of the United States openly consorts with the enemies of the United States, defames long time allies, and treats his senior military and foreign policy advisors as traitors, and incompetents.

But that is enough for the night. I have learned not to trust ideologues of the far right or the far left who promote scorched earth policies with anyone who offends them without trying to understand their opposites. I try to understand, but then I see people who I thought were safe condemn me. By being me and attempting to retain a sense of honor All of my life, I might end up achieving a place in Sto’Vo’Kor, the Klingon afterlife for the honored dead.

But as the Ferengi bartender Quark noted: “It’s like I said: the more things change, the more they stay the same.” But the fact is that the world that we think we know is not linear.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Light, Life, and Love: Christmas in the Hell of Stalingrad, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and that man was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth. I wonder if the Christians currently swearing their fealty to President Trump will be capable of such reflection when his regime finally collapses, regardless of how and when it does. Twenty or so years ago I would have likely been part of Trump’s cult of “Christian” followers.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

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Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office since then, until I moved to my new assignment. It is now in my storage space. I will have to bring it and a few other items to my new office at the shipyard. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. I miss looking on it every day. To me the print is a symbol of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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December 23, 2019 · 23:45

Joyeux Noel: the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the Personal Reflections of an Old Chaplain

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been twelve years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe China, and Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. Two years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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I expect that in the final months of my service before I retire in August of 2020, I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die. Likewise I will do what I can to be a vessel of God’s love to all that I serve, many of whom have not seen a chaplain of any kind in their work areas for over a decade.

I am watching that film again tonight, and praying for the peace that it hopes will become real. It is hard to stop the tears as I watch it.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, film, History, Military, Political Commentary, spirituality, Tour in Iraq, world war one

Civilization Is Tissue Thin Because of the Evil Directed and Committed by Sociopaths, People Without Empathy: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War Crimes, then and Now, How Do You Choose to Burn?

 

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The Rape of Nanking

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

This week I finished a series of articles on American Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s opening and closing arguments at Nuremberg, followed by one last night asking the question “Who Were the Victims? Does Anyone Care? The Holocaust and War Crimes Today.” For me the article was difficult to write because I have served in wars that under the rules of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg and the subsequent U.S. trials in the same courtroom could be rule as wars of aggression, and in which American servicemen and women committed crimes that can easily be classified as war crimes, and even crimes against humanity. Likewise I have taught military ethics at Major American military Staff College.

I think one of our problems is that we want to believe that evil is simply done be evil people. That is why when we see a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the monsters of the so-called Islamic State, we are often strangely comforted. This is often  because we can point to a single person with a wicked ideology and say “they are evil,” all the while forgetting that they are, or were, like us, also human. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the folly of that type of thinking, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

A few years ago I took a break from my Gettysburg text and dusted off an old academic paper dealing with the one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. I did that because I felt that I needed to reexamine the nature of evil in the modern world. Doing that brought me to do much more study of war crimes and the Holocaust. Since then I have visited Nazi Concentration Camps, Euthanasia Centers, the Wannsee House, where the coordination of the Final Solution was conducted, as well as memorials to the German resistance at the Bendlerstraße headquarters from which the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944 was launched; the Sophie Scholl and White Rose Resistance Memorial and Museum in Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center, also in Munich.

As I wrote my articles I have been binge reading books about the Japanese War Crimes from the “China Incident” to the end of the Second World War. I started those at the behest of a reader of this blog. While I knew the wave tops of those crimes and was vaguely familiar with the Tokyo Trial I was not as well informed about the complexity of those crimes and the participation of Japanese officials at every level of government in them.

That leads me to today, not long after the American President pardoned convicted war criminals and the fired his own Secretary of the Navy to keep one of those men from losing his SEAL Trident at a peer review conducted by other SEALS.

When I ponder the evil committed by supposedly civilized men and women of Germany and Japan in the Second World War, as well as other war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by other nations and people’s, I realize that they are little different than others who share the culture of the West. These people were the products of a culture of learning, and of science. They were part of a culture formed by the Christian tradition, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, the age of Reason. As I pondered this I came to remember something said by the late Iris Chang, “civilization is tissue thin.”

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Lynching in the American South

My original series of articles several years ago which dealt with the Nazi Eunsatzgruppen dealt with the ordinary men, and the bureaucratic systems that implemented an ideology so twisted and evil that it is unimaginable to most people. While most people in the United States know a little about the Holocaust, most do not fully comprehend how devilish and insidious the crimes of the Nazis were. More frightening is the fact that 46% of people worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust, and of the 54% who are aware some 32% think it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated. That was about five years ago. I will have to take a look at the current numbers, but I believe that the numbers wills only get worse as younger people are far more likely to believe that the Holocaust is a myth or or exaggerated.

We typically know about the extermination camps like Auschwitz, but the lesser known dark side of the Holocaust, perhaps the scariest part, is the story of the men of the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and affiliated units, including those of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS, the mobilized battalions of the Order Police, and locally recruited units, rounded up massive numbers of people and killed them up close and personal. In all these units murdered over two million people, about 1.3 million of whom were Jews.

My study of the Holocaust began in college as an undergraduate. My primary professor at California State University at Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler had been an interpreter and interrogator at the Nuremberg trials. I was able to take a number of lecture classes from him a large amount of research and independent study courses in a year of graduate work while finishing my Army ROTC program at UCLA. It was an immersion in the history, sociology, and the psychology of evil, during which I was able to meet and talk with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

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Einsatzgruppen

Since then I have continued to read and study. I lived in Germany for over four years, and made many other visits, during which I went to a number of Concentration Camp sites. I visited the rebuilt synagogue in Worms which had been destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht, and other museums and Holocaust memorial sites in Germany. I visited the Zeppelin field, the site of Hitler’s massive Nazi Party rallies in Nuremburg, as well as the graveyards which contain the victims of other Nazi crimes, including the Nacht und Nebel or night and fog actions, where people simply disappeared and were murdered by the Gestapo. When I think about the men and women who were the perpetrators of those crimes as well as those who were bystanders, who knew about those crimes and did nothing to stop them I am reminded of Captain Gustave Gilbert, an American Psychologist who interviewed and got to know the major German War Criminals at Nuremberg. Gilbert wrote:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

For me, those visits were sobering, maybe even more so because I understood exactly what happened in those sites. These are uncomfortable places to visit, and I can understand why many people would not want to visit them, or even study them.

The darkness that they remind us of  is a part of our human condition. Traces of the evil on display in those places is present in every human being. Frankly, most people cannot bear looking into that abyss, for fear that they might be swallowed by it.

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Nanking

I can understand that and I have to admit that it is hard to do so. I am a historian as well as a clinician with much experience dealing with death and trauma. With my training I do a pretty good job of keeping my emotional distance to maintain objectivity when confronted with evil. However, it is hard for me not to have some emotional reaction when visiting these places, or reading about the events and people, and in writing about them.

Likewise, I am very troubled by the growing lack or awareness or denial of the Holocaust. It is very hard for me not to have a virulent reaction when I see books and websites dedicated to Holocaust denial, or that minimize other well documented genocides, and crimes against humanity.

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Soviet Genocide in Ukraine

My sensitivity to human suffering and the terrible indifference of people in this country to it was greatly increased by my experience of war, and my post-war struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, which at points left me very close to committing suicide. A non-chaplain friend, a now retired Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer that I served with at EOD Group Two remarked that I am a tremendously empathic person, and that I have a large capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others. This capacity for empathy and the ability to feel the suffering of others is part of who I am. It is a good thing, but it makes my work studying and writing about the Holocaust, other genocides, crimes against humanity, and subjects like American slavery, racism, and Jim Crow a sometimes difficult and often very emotionally consuming task. This sometimes leaves me even more sleepless and anxious than normal; especially when I see the indifference of so many people to the suffering of others today.

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The Killing Fields

It is that indifference which motivates me to write; because if these events are not recalled and retold, they, like any part of history will be ignored and then forgotten. The statistics bear this out. There are people today, who say that we should stop talking about these events, that they are old news, and they cannot happen again; but history tells us different, and not just the Holocaust, but indeed every genocide. Then there are those who shamelessly use the Holocaust imagery to spread fear among their followers even as they openly demonize minority groups and religions as the Nazis did to the Jews.

I have to agree with Elie Wiesel who said, “Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”

The late Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II wrote something that is pertinent to almost every modern episode of genocide, or other crime against humanity. It is the ability of leaders, be they political, military, or religious to convince people to rationalize actions that they normally would find repulsive.

“After reading several file cabinets’ worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.”

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The Islamic State

What we call civilization, to use the words of Iris Chang, is tissue thin. That is why we must never forget these terrible events of history, and that part of human nature, and in a sense part of every one of us, that makes them so easy to repeat. That is why we must periodically take the time to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, other genocides and crimes against humanity. Historian Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny wrote:

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


Sophie Scholl, the 22 year old leader of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany I think gives those who still retain a sense of empathy, ethics, and self-decency a plumb-line of what the real issues are.

Sophie wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

Yes, these are terribly uncomfortable subjects, but we cannot allow this generation to allow them to be forgotten, lest they be repeated. That is why that I must continue to write about them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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