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Wacht am Rhein: The Battle of the Bulge at 75, Still So Much to be Learned

battle-bulge

Friend’s of Padre Steve’s World,

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the German offensive known as Wacht am Rhein, but better known as the Ardennes Offensive or it’s popular name The Battle of the Bulge. The battle was for all intents and purposes a suicide mission for the remnants of the German Wehrmacht, Waffen SS, and Luftwaffe Paratroop divisions.

The offensive was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler, who over the objections of many military leaders, who wanted to conserve their last remaining Panzer and infantry reserves for holding back the final Soviet attack in the East, while preserving just enough strength to hold the West Wall defenses, while preserving fuel reserves to counter Allied incursions into the heart of the Reich. It was an all or nothing gamble by the German dictator, who had succeeded in many of his military gambles earlier in the war. However, now desperately trying to change the course of the war, he threw his best forces into a battle with almost no chance of success; but such is how despots in dire situations react. They become even more desperate to win.

Such could happen today with the United States. After 18 years of war our forces, though considered the strongest in the world are functionally broken. The numbers of Army combat brigades, Air Force and Navy Air Wings, and Navy ships and battle groups unable to deploy remains staggering, and forces remain stretched to meet peacetime missions and deployments, even while still engaged in parts to the Middle East and Central Asia. There is also the real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf with Iran, or on the Eastern areas of NATO. None of these need necessarily happen, but could through mistakes caused by wrong intelligence, misguided policy, or unstable authoritarian leaders looking to shore up support at home by engaging in war. Any such war will not necessarily lead to the end of the United States, as Hitler’s did the Third Reich’s, but any would make the wars of the past 18 years look like child’s play. The human and material casualties will dwarf those wars and the very real threat of physical and cyber terrorism could destroy the economy and give whoever remains in charge the opportunity to create a police state and dictatorship.

Since President Trump has for the most part torn down the Constitutional and institutional guardrails against such an action, whether by him or any subsequent President, nothing can be regarded as impossible. As Trump feels the pressure of impeachment or the possible loss of office in the 2020 elections, his behavior may become more erratic, and either intentionally or unintentionally bring about an American Götterdämmerung.

So until tomorrow, and maybe some more from Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, I wish you a good night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Hitler’s Decision 

 

Adolf Hitler gathered with the Chiefs of Oberkommando des Wehrmachton September 16th 1944 at his “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters in East Prussia.  The situation was critical; he had recently survived an assassination attempt by Army officers led by Colonel Klaus Von Staufenberg at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia.  When the assassination attempt took place the German situation in Normandy was critical.

The Americans broke out of the Normandy Bocage at St. Lo and spread out across Brittany and the interior of France with Patton’s 3rd Army leading the way.  Even as his commanders in the West pleaded for permission to withdraw to the Seine Hitler forbade withdraw and ordered a counter attack at Mortain to try to close the gap in the German line and isolate American forces. When the German offensive failed the German front collapsed. 40,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and thousands of vehicles were eliminated when the Americans and Canadians closed the Falaise pocket.

Despite this cadres of decimated divisions including SS Panzer, Army Panzer and elite Paratroops made their way out of Normandy.  With the Germans in full retreat the Allies advanced to the border of the Reich itself. On the Eastern Front as well disaster threatened when the Red Army launched an Operation Bagration which annihilated the German Army Group Center, wiping out over 300,000 German troops. The Red Army advanced to the border of Poland before outrunning supply lines and stalling on the Vistula River just shy of Warsaw.

Tiger II Advancing in the Ardennes

Since Normandy Hitler had wanted to counter attack but had neither the forces nor the opportunity to strike the Allied armies. As the Allied offensive ground to a halt due to combat losses, lack of supplies and stiffening German resistance Hitler maintained a close eye on the situation in the West.  He believed that despite their success that the Americans and British alliance was weak and that a decisive blow could cause one or both to drop out of the war. During a briefing an officer noted the events of the day on the Western Front including a minor counterattack by kampfgrüppen of the 2nd SS Panzer and the 2nd Panzer Divisions which had made minor gains in the Ardennes, Hitler rose from his seat ““Stop!” He exclaimed. “I have come to a momentous decision. I shall go over to the counterattack….Out of the Ardennes, with the objective Antwerp.””[i]

 Thus began the planning for the last great German offensive of WWII.  Hitler “believed that sufficient damage could be inflicted to fracture the Anglo-American alliance, buy time to strike anew against the Soviets, and allow his swelling arsenal of V-weapons to change the course of the war.”[ii]  It was a course of born of desperation, even admitted by Hitler in his briefings to assembled commanders in the week prior to the offensive, one officer noted his remarks: “Gentlemen, if our breakthrough via Liege to Antwerp is not successful, we will be approaching an end to the war which will be extremely bloody. Time is not working for us, but against us. This is really the last opportunity to turn the war in our favor.”[iii]

US Soldiers manhandling a 57mm Anti-Tank Gun into Position

Despite shortages of men and equipment, continuous Allied assaults and over the objections of General Guderian who argued to reinforce the Eastern Front[iv], the OKW staff secretly developed detailed plans. The planning was so secretive that the “Commander in Chief West and the other senior commanders destined to carry out the attack were not informed.”[v] The plans were submitted to Hitler on October 9th [vi] and presented to Field Marshalls Von Rundstedt and Model at the End of October. General Hasso Von Manteuffel, commander of 5th Panzer Army commented that: “The plan for the Ardennes offensive…drawn up completely by O.K.W. and sent to us as a cut and dried “Führer order.”[vii]  Likewise Model and Von Rundstedt objected to the scope of the attack. Von Rundstedt stated: “I was staggered…It was obvious to me that the available forces were way too small for such an extremely ambitious plan. Model took the same view of it as I did….”[viii]  Model, who is sometime referred to as “Hitler’s Field Marshall”, reportedly said to General Hans Krebs: “This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.”[ix] And “you can tell your Führer from me, that Model won’t have any part of it.”[x] Sepp Dietrich, the old SS fighter and commander of 6th Panzer Army expressed similar sentiments.[xi]  Despite the objections by so many senior commanders Hitler scorned Model’s attempt to float a less ambitious plan to reduce the Allied salient at Aachen. Likewise Von Rundstedt’s desire to remain of the defense and wait for the Allies to attack using the armored forces to launch against any breakthrough was rejected.[xii] Hitler’s mind was set and the preparations moved forward.  The plan was complete down to the timing of the artillery bombardment and axes of advance, and “endorsed in the Führer’s own handwriting “not to be altered.””[xiii] Such a plan flew in the face of the well established doctrine of the Auftragstaktik which gave commanders at all levels the freedom of action to develop the battle as the situation allowed and opportunities arose.

SS General Sepp Dietrich Commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army

The Allies also made mistakes in calculating German capabilities because of their success after Normandy. The Germans who the Allies presumed to be at the brink of collapse made a miraculous  recovery following their ghastly losses in Normandy. Kampfgrüppen and remnants of divisions bled the Americans at the Huertgen Forrest and blunted the British attempt to leapfrog the Northern Rhine at Arnhem decimated the British First Airborne division and causing heavy casualties among other British and American units during Operation Market Garden.

The German 15th Army avoided disaster when the British failed to close their escape route from Walchern island allowing 60,000 troops and much equipment to escape.  The Germans we’re able reform, reorganize, and stabilize the front by October. They pulled back many units of the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies for re-fitting and diverted nearly all tank, armored fighting vehicle and artillery production to the West at the expense of the Eastern Front.

The Germans called up 17 year olds and transferred young fit personnel from the Navy and Luftwaffe to the Army and Waffen SS.  Here they were trained by experienced NCOs and officers and brought into veteran units alongside hardened veterans who showed taught them the lessons of 5 years of war.[xiv]  However the rapid influx of new personnel meant that they could not be assimilated as quickly as needed and thus many were not as well trained as they might have been with more time.[xv] Many infantry and Parachute units had received inexperienced officers, taken from garrison duty, simply because so many experienced officers were dead, to fill key positions a problem that would show up frequently during the offensive.[xvi]

Panzer IV Ausf H of an SS Panzer Divsion in the Bulge

 The Germans were aided by the caution displayed by the Allies throughout the campaign in France which allowed the Germans to reconstitute formations around veteran headquarters staffs.[xvii]  The Germans built up the 5th and 6thPanzer Armies as the Schwerpunkt of the offensive giving them the lion’s share of reinforcements and pulling them out of the line during the fall battles along the Seigfried line and in the Alsace and Lorraine.  The plan was for the two Panzer armies and 7th Army to punch through the Ardennes, cross the Meuse, drive across Belgium, capture Antwerp and severe the link between the British and the Americans.

The spearhead of the assault was 6th Panzer Army Commanded by SS General Sepp Dietrich. It was composed of 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Corps and Army’s LXVII Corps.  The 6th SS Panzer Army included some of the best formations available to the German Army at this late stage of the war including the 1st  SS Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the 2nd  SS Panzer Division Das Reich, the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen and the12th  SS Panzer Division Hitler Jügend. It’s ranks were filled out by the 3rd Parachute Division, the 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion (attached to 1st SS), the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division and the 12th, 246th, 272nd, 277th and 326th Volksgrenadier or Infantry divisions. The 6th Panzer Army would be the northern thrust of the offensive and its ultimate objective was Antwerp.  The 6th Panzer Army would be aided by a hastily organized parachute battalion under Colonel Von Der Heydte[xviii] and the 150th Panzer Brigade under SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny which included teams of American dialect speaking soldiers in American uniforms and equipment that were to spread confusion and panic in American rear areas.[xix]

Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton at Bastogne

 To the south was the 5th Panzer Army commanded by General Hasso Von Manteuffel.  The 5th Panzer Army was to advance alongside of the 6th Panzer Army with Brussels as its objective.  Composed of the XLVII and LVIII Panzer Corps and LXVI Corps the major subordinate commands included the best of the Army Panzer divisions including the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr, 9th and the16thPanzer division. It also had the elite Führer Begleit Brigade composed of troops from Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland and commanded by Otto Remer who had help crush the coup against Hitler in July.  The 5th Panzer Army also included the 18th, 26th, 62nd, 560th and later the 167th Volksgrenadier divisions.

The south flank was guarded by 7th Army commanded by General Erich Brandenburger composed of LIII, LXXX and LXXXV Corps.  It included the Führer Grenadier Brigade and later the 15th Panzergrenadier division.  It was the weakest of the three armies but eventually included 6Volksgrenadierdivisions of varying quality and strength[xx] and the veteran 5th Parachute division.[xxi]  However with only 4 divisions at the start of the offensive the 7th Army was the equivalent of a reinforced corps.

While this force seemed formidable it had a number of weaknesses beginning with tank strength.  The 1st and 12th SS Panzer divisions were only at approximately half their established tank strengths and faced severe shortages in other vehicles.[xxii]  2nd SS and 9th SS of II SS Panzer Corps reported similar shortages.[xxiii]The shortage of other motorized vehicles, even in Panzer divisions was acute.  “Even the best equipped divisions had no more than 80 percent of the vehicles called for under their tables of equipment, and one Panzergrenadier division had sixty different types of motor vehicles, a logistician’s nightmare”.[xxiv] Panzer Lehr was so short in armored half tracks that only one battalion of its Panzer Grenadiers could be transported in them while others had to use “trucks or bicycles.”[xxv]

Limitations on equipment as well as fuel were not the only challenges that the Germans faced. The US V Corps launched an attack on the Roer River Dams just before the offensive making it necessary for the Germans to divert some of the  6th SS Panzer Army’s infantry divisions and Jagdpanzer units to be used by 6th SS Panzer Army away from the offensive.  One regiment of 3rd Parachute Division and over half of a second division could not take part in the initial 6th Panzer Army attack. Likewise some Jagdpanzer and Sturmgeschutzen units did not arrive until three days after the offensive began.[xxvi]

Allied Response: Before the Battle

While the German commanders sought to implement Hitler’s plan Allied commanders looked only to completing the destruction of Germany not believing the Germans capable of any major operation.  The Allied commanders with the exception of Patton did not believe the Germans capable of any more than local counter attacks.  Patton’s 3rd Army G-2 Colonel Koch was the only intelligence officer to credit the Germans with the ability to attack.[xxvii]  Most allied commanders and intelligence officers discounted the German ability to recover from disastrous losses, something that they should have learned in Holland or learned from the Soviet experiences on the Eastern front.  Bradley noted in his memoirs “I had greatly underestimated the enemy’s offensive capabilities.”[xxviii]  Carlo D’Este noted that “there was another basic reason why the Allies were about to be caught with their pants down: “Everyone at SHAEF was thinking offensively, about what they could do to the enemy, and never about what the enemy might do to them.””[xxix]   This mindset was amazing due to the amount of intelligence from Ultra and reports from frontline units that major German forces were no longer in the line.[xxx] Additionally nearly all commentators note that American units in the Ardennes did not conduct aggressive patrols to keep the enemy off balance and obtain intelligence.[xxxi]  One describes the efforts of 106th Division as “lackadaisical” and notes that enemy before the offensive was not the Germans but the cold.[xxxii] Max Hastings noted that: “the Allies’ failure to anticipate Hitler’s assault was the most notorious intelligence disaster of the war.”[xxxiii]

The Allies also were in the midst of a manpower crisis. Eisenhower did not have enough divisions to establish a clear manpower advantage as “there were not enough Anglo-American divisions, or enough replacements for casualties in the existing divisions.”[xxxiv]  No more American Infantry divisions were available as the Army had been capped at 90 divisions and infantry replacements were in short supply.  This shortage meant that Eisenhower could not pull divisions out of line to rest and refit. He could only transfer divisions such as the 4th and 28thInfantry divisions to the relative quiet of the Ardennes. He had no ability to “create a strategic reserve unless he abandoned the broad front strategy.”[xxxv]The Germans knew of the allied weakness and believed that they could achieve local superiority even if they did not believe they could reach Antwerp. Model believed that “he was sure that he would reach the Meuse in strength before the Americans could move sufficient reserves to halt his armies or even head them off.”[xxxvi]

The German Breakthrough and American Response

German-Troops-at-the-Battle-of-the-Bulge

The German assault began on December 16th. Some breakthroughs were made especially in the vicinity of the Losheim Gap and the Schnee Eifel by the southern elements of 6th Panzer Army and Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army. However the Germans could not break through around Monschau and Elsenborn Ridge held by the inexperienced but well trained 99th Infantry division and elements of the veteran 2nd “Indianhead” Division.  In the far south near Diekirch the 4th Infantry Division held stubbornly against the attacks of 7thArmy’s Volksgrenadiers. The Germans achieved their greatest success at Losheim where SS Colonel Josef Peiper and his 1st SS Panzer Regiment had driven off the US 14th Cavalry Group and penetrated 6 miles into the American front.  5th Panzer Army made several breakthroughs and isolated two regiments of newly arrived 106th Infantry Division in the Schnee Eifel. Manteufel also pressed the 28th Division hard along the Clerf River, Skyline Ridge and Clairvaux.

Yet at ‘no point on that first day did the Germans gain all of their objectives.”[xxxvii]  The credit goes to US units that stubbornly held on, but also to the poor performance of many German infantry units.  German commanders were frustrated by their infantry’s failure even as the panzers broke through the American lines.  Manteuffel noted his infantry was “incapable of carrying out the attack with the necessary violence.”[xxxviii]

US Airborne Commanders James Gavin (R) and Matthew Ridgeway (L)

 The initial Allied command response to the attack by senior commanders varied.  Bradley believed it was a spoiling attack “to try and force a shift of Patton’s troops from the Saar offensive back to the Ardennes.”[xxxix] Courtney Hodges of 1st Army agreed with Bradley and refused to allow General Gerow, commander of V Corps to call off 2nd Infantry Division’s attack against the Roer dams on the 16th in order to face the German offensive.[xl]  Gerow was one of the first American commanders to recognize the scope of the German attack but Hodges, perhaps the least competent senior American commander in Europe failed to heed Gerow’s advice. Soon after making this decision Hodges “panicked” and evacuated his headquarters at Spa fearing that it would be overrun by the advancing Germans.[xli] Eisenhower when informed of the news realized that something major was occurring and ordered the 7th Armored Division from the 9th Army and 10th Armored Division from 3rd Army into the Ardennes. On the 17th he made other dispositions and released the 82nd and 101stAirborne Divisions from SHAEF reserve at Rheims to the Ardennes under the command of XVIII Airborne Corps.[xlii]  However during this short amount of time Mantueffel’s panzers had advanced 20 miles.

SS Panzer Troops of Kampfgruppe Knittel on the advance.  Photo has often been identified for decades in books and other publications as Waffen-SS Colonel Joachim Peiper the commanding officer of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment and Kampfgruppe Peiper. This has been refuted by recent study.  Peiper is pictured below.

At the command level Eisenhower made a controversial, but correct decsion to divide the command of the Bulge placing on a temporary basis all forces in the northern sector under Montgomery and leaving those to the south under Bradley.  Montgomery according to one commentary initially “had been astonishingly tactful in handing his American subordinates.”[xliii] However he quickly made himself obnoxious to many American commanders.[xliv]Following the battle Montgomery made the situation worse by claiming to have saved the Americans and giving credit to British units which scarcely engaged during the battle.[xlv]  Eisenhower also ordered Patton to launch a counter-attack along the southern flank of the German advance.  However Patton was already working on such an eventuality and promised to be able to launch a counterattack with three divisions by the 22nd.[xlvi]  Bradley praised Patton highly in his memoirs noting: “Patton’s brilliant shift of 3rd Army from its bridgehead in the Saar to the snow-covered Ardennes front became one of the most astonishing feats of generalship of our campaign in the West.”[xlvii]

The Americans Hold the Shoulders 

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The 99th Division’s position was precarious, its right flank was subject to being turned and it was suffering severely at the hands of 12 SS Panzer and several Volksgrenadier divisions.  Gerow reinforced the 99th with elements of the 2nd Infantry division even before he had the final authorization to end its attack.  The two divisions stubbornly held Elsenborn Ridge and the villages of Rockerath, Krinkelt and Büllingen. By the 20th the 9th and 1st Infantry divisions arrived to strengthen the defense and lengthen the line to prevent it from being rolled up by the Germans.  The stubborn resistance of the Americans and arrival of reinforcements meant line was proof “against anything Sepp Dietrich might hurl against it”[xlviii]  By the 23rd Dietrich and 6th SS Panzer Army conceded defeat at Elsenborn and “turned its offensive attentions to other sectors.”[xlix]  German commanders like General Priess the commander of 1st SS Panzer Corps believed that terrain and road network in this sector was unfavorable to the German offensive and had proposed moving the attack further south.[l]  The Panzers could not deploy properly and the German infantry was not up to the task of driving the Americans out of their positions before the reinforcements arrived.

In the south the 4th Infantry Division held the line though heavily pressed by Brandenburger’s 7th Army.  The division was reinforced by elements of both 9thand 10th Armored divisions on the 17th and generally held its line along the Sauer River around Echternach “largely because the left flank of the enemy assault lacked the power-and particularly the armor-of the thrust farther north.”[li]

Turning Point: The Destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper

While V Corps fought the 6th Panzer Army to a standstill, to the south 1stSS Panzer Division led by Kampfgrüppe Peiper split the seam between V Corps and VIII Corps. The Kampfgrüppe moved west leaving a brutal path of destruction in its wake, including massacres of American POWs and Belgian civilians.[lii]  However its advance was marked with difficulty. On the night of the 17th it failed to take Stavelot. After clearing the American defenders from the town after a hard fight on the 19th it failed to capture a major American fuel dump a few miles beyond the town.  When the Germans approached the American commander ordered his troops to pour 124,000 gallons down the road leading to the dump and set it on fire, depriving the Germans of badly needed fuel.[liii]  Combat Engineers from the 291st Engineer Battalion blew a key bridge across the Ambleve at Trois Ponts and another bridge across the Lienne Creek which left the Germans bottled up in the Ambleve River valley.  This bought time for the 30th Infantry Division to set up positions barring Peiper from the Meuse.  The 30th would be joined by Combat Command B of 3rd Armored Division and elements of 82nd Airborne. These units eventually forced Peiper to abandon his equipment and extricate some 800 troops by foot by the 23rd after a hard fight with the Americans who had barred his every effort to break through to the Meuse.

Turning Point: The Crossroads: St Vith & Bastogne

American_7th_Armored_Division_Shermans_taking_up_positions_outside_St._Vith,_1944

The battle rapidly became focused on key roads and junctions, in particular St. Vith in the north and Bastogne in the south.  At St. Vith the 7thArmored Division under General Hasbrouck, who Chester Wilmont calls one of the “great men of the Ardennes”[liv] completed a fifty mile road march from Aachen to St. Vith.  On his arrival he deployed his combat commands around the town which was the key to the road network in the north and also to the only rail line running west through the Ardennes.[lv]  Hasbrouck gathered in Colonel Hoge’s Combat Command B of 9th Armored Division and the 424th Infantry Regiment of the 106th Division into his defensive scheme as well as the survivors of the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division which had escaped the German onslaught after holding as long as possible along the Clerf River and Skyline Drive.[lvi]  With these units Hasbrouck conducted “an eight-day stand that was as critical and courageous, as the defense of Bastogne.”[lvii]  After holding the Germans at St. Vith the units were withdrawn to another defensive position along the Salm and Ourthe Rivers and the village of Viesalm.  This was done at the behest of Montgomery and General Ridgeway of XVII Airborne Corps whose 82nd Airborne had moved into that area on the 19th.  The arrival of the 82nd greatly assisted Hasbrouck’s force holding St. Vith whose defenders had lost an estimated 5000 casualties.[lviii]

The stand at St. Vith confined the “confined the Sixth Panzer Army’s penetration to a chokingly narrow corridor.”[lix]  It also posed a problem for German command and control which because it was out of the 6th Panzer Army’s area of operations Dietrich was unable to lend his weight into the fight.  “Hitler himself had strictly prohibited deviations from the zonal boundaries”[lx] which left the fight for St. Vith in the hands of 5th Panzer Army who felt the impact of the stand as the Americans “also choked off one of the Fifth Panzer Army’s best routes to Bastogne, almost nullifying the significance of the captured road junction at Houffalize.”[lxi] 

EA-48892

To the south of St. Vith lay Bastogne, another key road junction needed by 5thPanzer Army for its advance.  On the night of the18th Panzer Lehr division came within two miles of the town before being checked by resistance by units of the 10th Armored division, remnants of 28th Division and misdirection by “friendly” Belgian guides onto a muddy path that helped halt their advance.[lxii]  This gave the 101st Airborne just enough time to get to the town and prevent its capture. The siege of Bastogne and its defense by the 101st elements of 9th and 10thArmored Divisions and 28th Division became an epic stand against Manteuffel’s Panzers which had surged around the town.  Wilmont comments that “had the Germans won the race for Bastogne, Manteuffel’s armor would have had a clear run to Dinant and Namur on December 19th and 20th” [lxiii] when there were only scattered American units between them and the Meuse. Manteuffel b bypassed Bastonge after the failure to capture it and masked it with 26thVolksgrenadier Division and a regiment of Panzer Lehr.  The remainder of Panzer Lehr and the 2nd Panzer Division moved to the west. [lxiv]  The garrison endured numerous attacks and on the 22nd one of the most celebrated incidents of the war took place when Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe responded to a demand for the surrender of the town with the reply; “Nuts.”  The town would continue to hold until relieved by 3rd Army on the afternoon of December 26th.[lxv]

The American Counterattack

 

The Allied counterattack began with 3rd Army in the south on 21 December.  Patton’s initially proposed to attack toward the base of the Bulge in order to cut off the largest number of Germans possible.  Eisenhower dictated an attack further west with the goal of relieving Bastogne.  Eisenhower wanted to delay the attack to concentrate combat power while Patton wanted to attack sooner in order to ensure surprise. Patton got his way but attacked on a wide front.  The attack lost its impetus and bogged down into a slugging match with 7th Army’s infantry and paratroops along the southern flank. [lxvi]  Patton’s failure to concentrate his forc forces for the advance to the north diminished his combat power.[lxvii] While Patton attacked from the south the 1st Army dealt with the advanced spearhead of 2nd Panzer Division which had reached the town of Celles and ran out of gas just four miles from Dinant and the Meuse. The 84thInfantry Division stopped the 116th Panzer division from being able to effect a relief of the 2nd Panzer the US 2nd Armored Division and allied fighter bombers chopped up the virtually immobile 2nd Panzer division completing that task by the 26th.[lxviii]  

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To the north Montgomery launched a cautious counterattack which slowly and methodically took back lost ground but allowed many Germans to escape. While Montgomery moved south Patton faced heavy German resistance from elements of 5th Panzer Army, reinforced by 1st SS Panzer Corps and 7th Army.  The rupture in the American front was not repaired until 17 January when the American forces met at Houffalize.[lxix] Bradley took over for Montgomery and the Americans pushed the Germans slowly back across the Clerf River by the 23rd.  The advance was hampered by tough German resistance and terrible weather which forced much of the attack to be made by dismounted troops as the roads had completely frozen over.[lxx]

The Allied counter attack has been criticized for allowing too many Germans to escape what could have been a major encirclement.  Patton recognized the incompleteness of the victory in the Ardennes stating: ““We want to catch as many Germans as possible, but he is pulling out.” The “but” clause, the note of regret, the awareness of the imperfection of his victories typified Patton.””[lxxi]  Patton in his memoirs noted: “In making the attack we were wholly ignorant of what was ahead of us, but we were determined to strike through to Bastogne.”[lxxii] Max Hastings simply said: “the Allies were content with success.”[lxxiii]  Murray and Millett place blame on Bradley and Hodges for choosing “merely to drive the enemy out of the Ardennes rather than destroy him.”[lxxiv]

Analysis: Could Wacht Am Rhein Have Worked?

Could Wacht am Rhein worked?  If much was different, yes. Success of the operation depended more on ifs that the Germans could not control, than events they had the power to influence. If the German had been stronger in tanks and vehicles and had adequate stocks of fuel; if their infantry was better trained, and had the Americans not resisted so stubbornly it might have at least got to the Meuse.  Perhaps if the the bad weather held keeping Allied air forces away from the Germans, or had St. Vith and Bastogne been taken by the 18th or 19th, they might have reached the Meuse. Likewise, had the Germans executed their plan and coordinated their assault better[lxxv] in the 6thPanzer Army sector, and had the 7th Army enough strength to conduct offensive operations in depth and secure the left flank the attack might have succeeded. But only revisionists and fiction writers could construct such success.

Because the Americans held the shoulders and road junctions, Manteuffel’s 5thPanzer Army, the only force besides the regimental sized Kampfgrüppe Peiper to actually threaten the Meuse was forced to advance while attempting to take Bastogne and defeat 3rd Army’s counterattack. Whether they could have made Antwerp is another matter.  Nearly all German commanders felt the offensive could not take Antwerp but did believe that they could inflict a defeat on the Allies and destroy a significant amount of allied combat power.

The German offense was a desperate gamble.  Too few divisions, scant supplies of petrol and ammunition, formations that had recently been rebuilt and not given enough time to train to the standard needed for offensive operations coupled with Hitler’s insistence on an unalterable plan kept them from success. It was a part of Hitler’s Cloud Cukoo Land.

At the same time the Allies were so weak in troops and overstretched because of their losses during the Normandy Campaign, Market Garden, and the Huertgen Forrest, Eisenhower had no strategic reserve save the two American Airborne Divisions.  All reinforcements to the threatened sector had to come from the flanks and by the middle of the battle the 9th Army was drawn down to two divisions.

Russell Weigley noted how the constraints imposed by the 90 division Army, and of the limited stocks of artillery ammunition hurt the allies.[lxxvi] If the Germans had more forces they might have inflicted a significant defeat on the Allies had they been able to reinforce their success in depth. Despite this they still inflicted punishing losses on the Americans though suffering greatly themselves.  Hastings noted that the real beneficiaries of the Ardennes offensive were the Russians.[lxxvii]  In the end the conclusion had to be that German success was unlikely and that the offensive could have never achieved Hitler’s goals of taking Antwerp and fracturing the British-American alliance.

A Postscript About other Parts of the Campaign in France

The Riviera and Rhone

The campaign in south France was strategically wise although opposed by the British to the last minute because they felt it would take away from Overlord.[lxxviii] Though delayed the campaign was well executed by 7th Army, particularly Lt. General Lucian Truscott’s VI Corps of 3 American divisions. Truscott believed “destroying the enemy army was the goal”[lxxix] managed the battle well and skillfully maneuvered his small forces against Blaskowitz’s 19thArmy inflicting heavy losses, though some German commanders noted the caution of American infantry in the attack.[lxxx]  Only Blaskowitz’s tactical skills and the weakness of the American force prevented the Germans from disaster. The seizure of Marseilles and Toulon provided the allies with sorely needed ports that were invaluable to sustain the campaign.[lxxxi]

The Lorraine Campaign

Patton attacked in the Lorraine with the goal of crossing the Moselle river and attempting to break into Germany. He doing so he ran into some of the strongest German forces on the front and his troops became bogged down in the poor terrain and mud of the region.[lxxxii]  Patton was convinced that he was delayed in making his assault due to his place “at the far end of the logistics queue.” during Market Garden. [lxxxiii] Despite Patton’s efforts, German forces skillfully defended the ancient fortress of city Metz forcing the Americans into a protracted campaign to clear the area with the last strongpoint surrendering on 13 December.  Patton is criticized for his failure to concentrate his forces[lxxxiv] but American tactics were less to blame than the weather, German resistance and shortages of infantry.[lxxxv] In some cases American infantry units performed admirably, particularly 80th Division’s assault on the Falkenburg Stellung.[lxxxvi]Liddell Hart criticized the Allies for failing to attack through the then weakly defended Ardennes, commenting: “By taking what appeared to be the easier paths into Germany the Allies met greater difficulties.”[lxxxvii]

The Huertgen Forrest

The Huertgen Forrest was the worst managed American fight Western European campaign. [lxxxviii] General Courtney Hodges leadership was poor.[lxxxix] In the Huertgen he fed division after division into a battle that made no strategic sense.  American infantry performed poorly and took extremely heavy casualties leaving four divisions shattered.[xc]  Poor American tactics demonstrated by attacking into a forest in poor weather without concentration negated all of Hodges’ advantages in tanks, artillery and airpower. The forest contained no significant German forces capable of threatening any American advance[xci] and its gain offered little advantage.[xcii] Hastings noted that the gains the only saving grace was that it made it easier for the northern shoulder of the Bulge to hold[xciii]  General Model and his subordinates expertly handled their handful of excellent but weary divisions in this battle using terrain, weather and prepared defensive positions to contest nearly every yard of the Forrest.[xciv]

Conclusions

The lessons of the Bulge and the other campaigns on the German-French border are many and can be gleaned from Allied and German mistakes. On the Allied side the most glaring mistakes were assumptions prior to the German attack that the Germans were incapable of any serious offensive and ignoring the fact that the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940.  Likewise the self limitation of the American Army to 90 divisions for world-wide service meant that there were no more divisions in the pipeline and that worn out divisions would have to be reinforced with inexperienced troops while in the front line which ensured a lack of cohesiveness in many divisions, especially the infantry.  Allied intelligence failures as well as their reliance of forces much smaller than they should have had for such a campaign ensured that they would suffer heavy losses in the Bulge while poor planning and execution by Hodges wasted many good troops in a senseless battle.  The Germans were hamstrung by Hitler’s fantasy that the Western Allies could be forced out of the war or the Alliance split by a defeat in the Ardennes.  Likewise German forces, even those so quickly reconstituted were often short troops, tanks and vehicles.  German commanders were forced by Hitler’s rigid insistence on not altering the plan to not be as flexible as they might have been in earlier offensives to adjust according to the situation on the ground.

None of these attitudes is exclusive to the Allied and German commanders during the campaign in France and the Battle of the Bulge. They are common throughout history and have been repeated in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan by the United States military. It would be easy for Americans to believe that in future conflicts we will be victorious when despite our massive military budgets many if not most of our combat forces could not be deployed to a conflict at short notice and those in theater could be overwhelmed by enemies who exploit our weaknesses rather than directly engage our strengths.

Notes


[i] Dupay, Trevor N.  Hitler’s Last Gamble: The Battle of the Bulge December 1944-January 1945Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY 1994 p.2.

[ii] Hastings, Max. Armageddon:  The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred A Knopf, New York NY 2004 p.197.

[iii] Reynolds, Michael. Sons of the Reich: II SS Panzer Corps; Normandy, Arnhem, Ardennes, and on the Eastern Front.  Casemate Publishing, Havertown PA 2002 p.186

[iv] Ibid. p.198

[v] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 translated by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, San Francisco, CA 1964. p. 480

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Liddell Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. Originally published 1948, Quill Publishers Edition, New York 1979 p.274.

[viii] Liddell Hart, B.H. The History of the Second World War G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York NY 1970. p.646.

[ix] MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge William Morrow and Company, New York, NY 1985 p.35.

[x] [x] Newton, Steven H. Hitler’s Commander: Field Marshal Walter Model, Hitler’s Favorite General.DeCapo Press, Cambridge MA 2005. p.329

[xi] Ibid. Hastings p.198.  Hastings quotes Dietrich: “All Hitler wants me to do is cross a river, capture Brussels, then go on and take Antwerp. And all this at the worst time of year through the Ardennes when the snow is waist-deep and there isn’t enough room to deploy four tanks abreast let alone armored divisions. When it doesn’t get light until eight and it’s dark again by four and with re-formed divisions made up chiefly of kids and sick old men-and at Christmas.”

[xii] Ibid. Liddell-Hart The German Generals Talk p.276

[xiii] Wilmont, Chester. The Struggle for Europe Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, NY 1952 p.576

[xiv] Ibid. p.557.

[xv] Ibid. Hastings. p.199. Hastings notes that Manteuffel said: “It was not that his soldiers now lacked determination of drive; what they lacked were weapons and equipment of every sort. Von Manteuffel also considered the German infantry ill trained.”

[xvi] Ibid. Dupay.p.47  Dupay notes that in 3rd Parachute Division that most of the regimental commanders had no combat experience.

[xvii] Weigley, Russell  F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign in France and Germany 1944-1945. Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1981 p.432.  Weigley speaks of Allied caution and predictable strategy, caution in logistical planning which did not allow the Allies to provide the fuel needs for a rapid drive into Germany and caution of operational commanders.

[xviii] Liddell Hart discusses the issue of paratroops at length in discussions with Manteuffel and General Kurt Student. At the time of the operation there were very few jump trained paratroops available for the operation as most of the 6 organized Parachute Divisions were committed to battle as infantry during the 1944 battles in the East, Italy and in the West. German Generals Talk pp.282-285.  Although Liddell Hart makes note of the employment of these troops and talked with Model and student about why they were not used to seize bridges and other critical terrain featured ahead of the Panzers instead of the use as a blocking force, I have found no one who questioned why the Germans did not use small glider detachments for the same purpose.  The Germans had demonstrated with Skorzeny when they rescued Mussolini from his mountain prison that they still retained this capability.  The use of the SS Paratroop battalion which could have been assigned to Skorzeny as a glider borne force could have been decisive in capturing the key bridges and terrain ahead of 6thPanzer Army.

[xix] Skorzeny’s operation was Operation Greif designed to sow confusion in the Allied Ranks.  His brigade numbered about 3500 men and had a good number of captured US vehicles including some tanks and tank-destroyers on hand to confuse American units that they came in contact with.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings.  p. 199.  Hastings quotes the Adjutant of 18th Volksgrenadier Division who “felt confident of his unit’s officers, but not of the men “some were very inexperienced and paid the price.”  MacDonald notes that the division had many Navy and Air Force replacements but was at full strength. p.646.

[xxi] See MacDonland pp. 644-655 for a detailed commentary on the German Order of Battle.

[xxii] Reynolds, Michael. Men of Steel: 1st SS Panzer Corps;  The Ardennes and Eastern Front 1944-1945 Sarpendon Publishers, Rockville Center NY, 1999. pp.36-37.  Reynolds notes that the 1st SS Panzer Regiment only had 36 Panthers and 34 Mark IV Panzers to begin the operation (excluding the attached 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion).  He also notes that many of the tank crew replacements had no more than 6 weeks of military training and some of the tank crews had never been in a tank.  Similar problems were found in all the Panzer Divisions.  Severe shortages of armored half tracks, reconnaissance vehicles and other vehicles meant that Panzer Grenadier and Motorized battalions lacked the lift needed and some went on foot or on bicycles.

[xxiii] Ibid. Reynolds. Sons of the Reich. P.183

[xxiv] Ibid. MacDonald. p.44.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid. Dupay pp. 27-28.

[xxvii] Ibid. MacDonald. p.52.  MacDonald notes that Koch warned that the Germans were not finished, that “his withdraw, though continuing has not been a rout or mass collapse.” He calls Koch a “lone voice” in the Allied intelligence world.

[xxviii] Bradley, Omar  N. A Soldier’s Story Henry Holt and Company, New York NY 1951. p.459.  Weigley makes some poignant calling Bradley’s comments  “contradictory” and states that: “his apologia is hardly a model of coherence. (p.461)

[xxix]  D’Este, Carlo. Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York NY 2002. p.638

[xxx] Dupay and others talk about this in detail. See Dupay pp. 35-44.

[xxxi] Ibid. p.38.

[xxxii] Ibid. Hastings. p.201

[xxxiii] Ibid. Hastings. p.199

[xxxiv] Ibid. Weigley. p.464

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Wilmont. P.581.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.583

[xxxviii] Ibid. Hastings. p.223

[xxxix] Ibid. Weigley. P.457

[xl] Ibid. p.471

[xli] Ibid. Hastings. pp.205-206

[xlii] Ibid. Wilmont. pp.583-584

[xliii] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London England, 2000 p.470 The authors must base their conclusion on the fact that Montgomery who mentioned to Eisenhower that Hodges might have to be relieved, did not do so and by the next day told Eisenhower that the action was not needed.  A  few other American commanders in the north were favorable to Montgomery but this appears to be a minority view.

[xliv] Ibid. Weigley. pp.504-506.  Weigley and Wilmont both note the comment of a British Staff Officer the Montgomery “strode into Hodges HQ like Christ come to cleanse the temple.” (Wilmont p.592)

[xlv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.230-232.  Hastings is especially critical of Montgomery.  Weigley, equally critical notes regarding  the January 7th press conference, Montgomery’s “inability to be self critical at any point.” p.566.

[xlvi] Ibid. Weigley. p.500.

[xlvii] Ibid. Bradley. p.472  Other commentators differ in their view of Patton’s movement.  Wilmont notes that Patton had no “equal in the on the Allied side in the rapid deployment of troops. (p.589) Weigley urges readers that “it should be kept in appropriate perspective; it was not a unique stroke of genius.” And he compares it to Guderians disengagement with Panzer Group 4 and 90 degree change of direction and assault against the Kiev pocket in the 1941 Russian campaign (p.500)  Hastings notes that “Patton had shown himself skilled in driving his forces into action and gaining credit for their successes. But he proved less effective in managing a tough, tight battle on the southern flank.” (p.230)  Regardless of the perspective and criticism Patton’s movement was unequaled by any Allied commander in the war and had he not moved so quickly the 101st Airborne might not have held Bastogne. Admittedly his attack north was dispersed along a wide front but part of the blame for this must be assigned to Eisenhower who dictated the attack toward the west vice the base of the Bulge where Patton desired to make it.  A note I would make is that being a cavalryman Patton thought like one and when faced with the tight battles in close quarters was not at his best.  Similar comparisons could be made to J.E.B. Stuart at Chancellorsville when he had to take command of Jackson’s Corps.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.475

[xlix] Ibid. p.474

[l] Ibid. Reynolds Men of Steel pp.51-52.

[li] Ibid. Weigley. p.470

[lii] The worst of these took place at the village of Malmedy where Battery B 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion of 7th Armored Division was captured and about 150 soldiers were rounded up and machined gunned in a field with survivors killed with pistol shots in the head.

[liii] Ibid. Weigley. pp.478-479.

[liv] Ibid. Wilmont. p.584

[lv] Ibid. Weigley. p.487

[lvi] Ibid. Weigley. pp.486-487

[lvii] Ibid. Hastings. p.215. Hastings gives most of the credit to Brigadier General Bruce Clarke of CCB 7th Armored Division for the stand.

[lviii] Ibid. MacDonald. 481-487.  MacDonald notes that following the war that the commanders of the units involved “would be grateful to Field Marshal Montgomery for getting them out of what they saw as a deathtrap for their commands. (p.487)

[lix] Ibid. Weigley. p.487

[lx] Ibid.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Ibid. Hastings. p.217 Also  MacDonald. p.289 who talks of the confused situation east of Bastogne both for the Americans and Germans.

[lxiii] Ibid. Wilmont. p.598

[lxiv] Ibid. Liddel Hart. The German Generals Talk. p.288

[lxv] The defense of Bastogne would continue until after the 1st of January as Hitler renewed the attempts to secure the town in order to push on to the Meuse. Other German formations including units of 1st SS Panzer Corps shifted south from their original attack would make determined efforts to dislodge the stubborn American defenders.

[lxvi] Ibid. Weigley. pp.500-501.  Bradley gives Patton more credit than later commentators. Wilmont notes that the Germans though “amazed at the speed with which Patton had disengaged from the Saar and wheeled them northward…they received due warning of his movement by monitoring the radio net which controlled American traffic, and they were braced to meet his assault. (p.599).

[lxvii] Ibid. Weigely. Pp.520-521

[lxviii] Ibid.  pp.535-537

[lxix] Ibid. pp. 558-561

[lxx] Ibid. pp.563-564

[lxxi] Ibid. p.566.

[lxxii] Patton, George S. War as I Knew It  Originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company NY 1947, Bantam Paperback Edition,  Bantam Books, New York, NY 1980 p.364

[lxxiii] Ibid. Hastings. p.230

[lxxiv] Ibid. Murray and Millett p.471.

[lxxv] Hastings notes that “Tactically, the Ardennes was one of the worst-conducted German battles of the war, perhaps reflecting that none of the generals giving the orders saw any prospect of success. (p.236)

[lxxvi] Ibid. Weigley. pp.567-572

[lxxvii] Ibid. Hastings. p.236-237.  Hastings believes that the employment of the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies in the East “made the task of Zhukov and his colleagues much harder.”

[lxxviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.236. I find it interesting that neither Hastings nor Liddell Hart mention the Riviera and Rhone campaign.

[lxxix] Ibid. Weigley. p.236

[lxxx] Giziowski, Richard. The Enigma of General Blaskowitz  Hippocrene Books Inc. New York NY, 1997. p.328

[lxxxi] Ibid.  Weigley comments on how much the overall supply situation was aided by the operation and capture of the ports and notes that the pace of the Cobra breakout had created a crisis in supply and “without the southern French ports the crisis would have been insurmountable.” (p.237)

[lxxxii] Ibid. p.397.  Weigley notes: “The immobilizing mud and the enemy’s recalcitrant resistance had fragmented the battle into affairs of squads, platoons, companies and battalions….and Patton’s juniors more than he controlled the course of action, to the extent that control was possible.”

[lxxxiii] Ibid. p.384

[lxxxiv] Ibid. p.390 Weigley states: “The American disinclination to concentrate power was rarely more apparent.” comparing the frontages of 1st, 9th and 3rdArmies and notes that Patton attacked along his entire front.”

[lxxxv] Ibid. Weigley. pp.400-401.  Weigley spends a fair amount of time on American infantry shortages in 3rd Army.

[lxxxvi] Ibid. Weigly. P.400.  Weigley notes a German General Wellm attributed part of that victory to the “prowess of the American infantry.”

[lxxxvii] Ibid. Liddell Hart. The History of the Second World War p.560

[lxxxviii] Hastings and Weigley both note how many American division and regimental commanders were relieved of command for their failures in the Huertgen.

[lxxxix] Ibid. Hastings. p.179.  Hastings notes that “instead of recognizing the folly of attacking on terrain that suited the Germans so well, Courtney Hodges reinforced failure.”

[xc] Ibid. Weigley. p.420.  Weigley notes the high numbers of ballet and non battle casualties in the 4th, 8th, 9th and 28th Divisions as well as CCR of 5thArmored and 2nd Ranger Battalion.

[xci] Ibid. Hastings. p.275.  Hastings notes that defending 275th Division “were poor grade troops who-like the garrison of Aachen posed no plausible threat to the flanks of an American advance to the Roer.”

[xcii] Weigley compares the battle in its effect on the American army to Grants “destruction of the Confederate army in the Wilderness-Spotsylvania-Cold Harbor campaign expended many proud old Union army formations…” (p.438)

[xciii] Ibid. Hastings. p.215

[xciv] Ibid. Newton. p.324

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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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“To Pay any Price, to Bear Any Burden” Remembering John F. Kennedy on the 56th Anniversary of His Assassination

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fifty-six years ago President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas Texas. Despite his many flaws he was an inspiring American hero. Today I am taking the time to remember something that he said that is so lacking in our political discourse today.

Kennedy said:“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”


Some fifty-six years ago a young, handsome Irish Catholic from Massachusetts took the oath of office of the President of the United States. President John F. Kennedy had won an exceptionally close Presidential Race against Republican Voce President Richard M. Nixon, a race that some believe was decided by votes of the dead in places like Chicago and West Virginia. Despite the contested nature of the election Nixon was gracious and conceded the race to avoid deeper division.

Fifty years ago today that young President was gunned down in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald. It was an event that shattered our nation which helped in many ways to foment the deep and abiding cynicism that is the hallmark of our recent political landscape.

The Kennedy administration had a wonderful vision but was not always successful. In fact there were time its policies and actions in the case of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem, were mired in controversy. Decisions made by Kennedy to send more advisors to Vietnam would be followed by the Johnson Administration sending combat troops. Kennedy played a high stakes game of chess with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis where the world came perilously close to nuclear war.

That being said he also inspired and energized Americans and our Allies to greatness. Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall where he identified himself with the city saying “Ich bin Ein Berliner”inspired many in Germany who realized that in Kennedy they had a friend who would not abandon them.

Kennedy challenged us as Americans to put a man on the moon by 1970. He  supported NASA as they began to develop the Apollo program which did achieve that lofty goal when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 11th 1969.

Kennedy was a visionary. He supported the establishment the Army Special Forces, or the Green Berets.  He helped to found and promote the Peace Corps.  His economic policies were fiscally conservative but did not ignore the poor. He pushed for equal rights for African Americans against a much divided nation.

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As I said, Kennedy was a flawed man. A deeply flawed man. I have written about that before. He was not known for his sexual morality and the stories of him with various mistresses including Marilyn Monroe abound. At the same time he was a hero. He volunteered to serve on PT Boats in the Second World War when his political connections would have ensured him a billet in a non-combat area and his physical condition would have exempted him from any military service.

Kennedy died 56 years ago today. I was three and a half years old. He was the victim of an assassin’s bullet in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas with his wife Jackie at his side. His death stunned the nation and in a sense ended our innocence.  Since that time American politics has been on a slow but steady descent into darkness which both parties have aided and abetted to the point that they view each other as mortal enemies and along with it have devastated our body politic.

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In our divided state it seems that the nation has become nothing more than a collection of special interest groups. Each group is driven by their own wants and needs above that of others goaded into a frenzy by politicians who cater to those needs whether they be tax breaks, entitlements or “pork barrel” projects which only benefit the political benefactors of the politicians. I know that American politics has always had such elements but I don’t think that my parents or those other young people who heard and responded to this speech ever imagined that we would come to this.

While Kennedy still has critics, and was a flawed man, I find him still to be a great and compelling President, especially compared to Donald Trump. His greatness was not in his achievements, his Vice President and successor Lyndon Johnson has the courage to defy Southern Democrats and work with Republicans to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well Medicare, and equal housing laws. These were things that Kennedy paid lip service to, but did little to change by aggressively pushing legislation that would help average as well as disadvantaged Americans. This was a point of frustration for more progressive Democrats. He was too civil to rock the boat with the old Southern Democrats and the Dixiecrats. That didn’t mean that he lacked courage or commitment, he was, and that was proven in war, but Lyndon Johnson was a better master of the legislative process than Kennedy.

Despite his flaws, John F. Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents in large part because he understood that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” In our current poisonous political environment this is something that all of us need to take to heart, especially people of faith are the least civil and most hateful in our society.

Kennedy was one of those rare leaders who called us to better as individuals and as a nation. Today we remember his life and the tragedy of his death.

But today I think about Kennedy’s inaugural address. It is a speech that in my opinion calls us as Americans to higher and better ideals. It is a speech that if we actually listen to it can still help point us away from the abyss which we are staring into. I have posted the text of the speech as well as a link to the video of it here.

In the hope that we can learn at home and abroad from John F Kennedy I print his inaugural address.

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge – and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do; for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom; and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress; to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support, to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course – both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.

So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms – and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the Earth the command of Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.”

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.

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I do hope that we can after a half a century finally learn something from John F Kennedy.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

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

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“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.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Armistice Day at 101 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Forty years after the guns went silent in on November 11th 1918, General Omar Bradley, spoke these words on the eve of Armistice Day, 1948:

Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…”

It was supposed to be the “War to end all war,” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However, the war to end all war birthed a series of wars which far exceeded the losses of the First World War as ideological wars, exponentially more powerful weapons, and systematized mass murder and genocide birthed new horrors.

Winston Churchill wrote:

“The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.”

In the First World War there were over 22 million military casualties including over 8 million dead of which over 126,000 were Americans. Close to 20 million civilians also were casualties of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed 45 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954.

In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” 

Because of that, I will remember all who served tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day, but I will not forget Armistice Day.

It is important not to forget the horrors and results of the First World War because both it and the Second World War, have faded from memory. Most people today cannot fathom killing on such a large scale, the overthrow of powerful nations and dynasties, the creation of new nations built from diverse, and often rival ethnic and religious groups such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or the re-establishment of ancient nations such as Poland.

Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today. Edmond Taylor accurately noted in his book, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922:

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”

The cost in human lives alone is incomprehensible. In the short time that United States forces went into action in late 1917 on the western front and the armistice, 126,000 Americans were killed, 234,000 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 8.2% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. More Americans were killed in the First World War than Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

But American losses were small in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war, one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of the nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. The Russians also lost over 73% of 12 million, Romania 71% of 750,000, Germany 65% of 11 million, Serbia 47% of 707,000, tiny Montenegro 40% of 50,000, Italy 39.9% of 5.6 million, Great Britain 36% of almost 9 million, the Ottoman Empire 34% of 8.5 million. But the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary which began the war in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lost 90% of the 7.8 million men that it sent to war.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million military casualties alone. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated and in the following months and years, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires were displaced. A Civil War in Russia killed many more people and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Germany too was torn apart by civil war that left it bitterly divided and planted the seeds of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds broke out. A flu pandemic spread around the world killing millions more. Economic disasters culminating in the Great Depression and social instability led to the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another, even more costly World War and a 40 year Cold War. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who gained fame during the Arab revolt looked at the results of the war with a great deal of melancholy. He wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

The his epic war poem, In Flanders Fields, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolized the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we Americans now call Veteran’s Day, and the British refer to as Remembrance Day let us blood shed by so on the battlefields of Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, the Somme, Galicia, the Balkans, Flanders Fields, at sea and in the air.

President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Kennedy was right, that our appreciation is not just to utter words, but to live by them. Sadly, the current American President has no understanding of such nuances. He continued thump his chest and spit in the face of allies while, courting nations hostile to the very ideals of the United States. Likewise, the President, a man who never served in the military, and spent the Vietnam War avoiding service and dodging the draft while later comparing avoiding sexuality transmitted diseases to combat again dishonored the men who spilt their blood in the First World War. Donald Trump does not understand anything about history, war, courage, or honor. Sadly, he is all too representative of a generation that neither knows or cares about those things. He and others like him will be the ones that lead the world into another disaster.

“Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I write in the hope of peace and an end to war. I will write about Veteran’s Day later today.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Shō-Gō 1: Introduction to and the Beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; the Greatest Naval Battle of All Time

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year it seems that I return to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the largest and most expansive naval battle in history. Thousands and ships and aircraft, including the largest battleships ever constructed. Tens of thousands of sailors and Marines on both sides died in the battle. The Japanese first employed the Kamikazes aviators determined to sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks to save their country, as great storms, typhoons did against the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. It is a battle that should not be forgotten, and one which the lessons of should be remembered, even 75 years later.

This is the first of a five article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. I may add a sixth this year. The battle was the largest in history both in terms of the number of ships involved and the amount of area covered. The action was triggered by the American invasion of the Philippines causing the Japanese to initiate their Shō-Gō 1 (Victory Plan 1) to attempt to defeat the Americans. The plan relied heavily on land based air power which most of unfortunately for the Japanese was destroyed during the American carrier air strikes on Formosa earlier in the month.

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The battle was necessitated by the absolute need for the Japanese to hold the Philippines in order to maintain their supply lines with the oil resources in Southeast Asia, and in the process defeat the Americans at all costs. As Admiral Soemu Toyoda the Chief of the Combined Fleet explained under interrogation after the war

Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.

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                                              Atago Class Cruiser 

The battle was comprised of 5 battles, the Battle of Palawan Passage, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All told about 70 Japanese warships and 210 American and Australian ships were engaged. A further 300 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based and 1500 American carrier aircraft took part in the battle.

The Japanese order of battle included 1 Fleet and 3 Light Fleet Carriers with a minimal air group, 9 Battleships including the two largest ever built the Yamato and Musashi, 14 Heavy and 6 Light Cruisers and about 3 destroyers. They were divided into four task forces, the Northern Force under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa which had all of the Carriers including the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack the Fleet Carrier Zuikaku plus the converted hybrid Battleships Ise and Hyuga; the Southern Force which was two distinct and independent task forces. One was under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and was built around the ancient battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and 3 Heavy Cruisers; and the Center Force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kuritawhich had the Battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, 10 Heavy and 2 Light Cruisers and 1 destroyers. The Center force was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait and converge on the American landing forces off Samar with the Southern Force which as to come through the Surigo Strait. The Japanese also planned for the first use of Kamikazes as part of the action.

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                                            Heavy Cruiser Atago

The American fleet was comprised of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral William Halsey which was built around the Fast Carrier Task Forces and Fast Battleships of Task Force 38 under the Command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and the Battle Line Task Force 34 under the Command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee; and the 7th Fleet under Vice Admiral William Kinkaid which was the naval support for the landings.

The 7th Fleet had under its control the old Battleships West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado and Pennsylvania and 18 Escort Carriers which provided the close air support for the Invasion. All told the Americans had 8 Fleet and 8 Light Fleet Carriers, 18 Escort Carriers, 12 Battleships, 24 Cruisers and 141 Destroyers as well as submarines, PT Boats, Transports, Landing Ships and Auxiliaries. 7th Fleet was not the glamour Navy, its task was the protection and support of the amphibious landings by Douglas McArthur’s Army units.


                                                            Maya

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle.

This section will focus on the action of the Submarines Darter and Dace against the Center force in the Palawan Passage. The next will be the sinking of the Musashi during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it will be followed by the revenge of the Old Battleships at Surigo Strait. The next will be the great decision of Admiral Halsey to pursue the Northern Force and leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, followed by the Battle off Samar and last the death of the Japanese Naval Aviation at Cape Engaño.

takao

                                                         Takao

                                  The Battle of Palawan Passage

Admiral Takeo Kurita and the powerful Center Force departed their anchorage at Brunei on 20 October 1944. The task force entered the Palawan Passage on the night of 22-23 October where they were sighted by the American Submarines Darter and Dace which had been posted at the strait for such a possibility. Darter made radar contact at 30,000 yards at 0018 hours on the 23rd and sent out contact reports. The two submarines shadowed the Center Force on the surface to gain an intercept position and submerged just before dawn.

Darter struck first at 0524 firing a spread of 6 torpedoes scoring 4 hits on Admiral Kurita’s flagship the Heavy Cruiser Atago. She reloaded and stuck the Heavy Cruiser Takao with 2 torpedoes at 0634. At 0554 Dace hit the Heavy Cruiser Maya with 4 torpedoes.

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                                                    USS Darter

The blow was severe. Atago was mortally wounded she capsized and sank at 0553 with the loss of 360 crew members. She sank so rapidly that Kurita had to swim and was rescued with his Chief of Staff by a destroyer, but many of his staff members were lost with the ship. Though Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato, he was now without the advice and counsel of experienced and trusted staff officers that might have prevented his later mistakes during the Battle off Samar.

 Takao suffered heavy damage and though she did not sink she had to proceed crippled to Singapore under the guard of two destroyers. Though she survived the war she never saw action again. Maya, struck at 0554 by 4 torpedoes suffered much damage and was wracked by powerful secondary explosions. By 0600 she was dead in the water and sank five minutes later with the loss of 337 crew members.

The attack of the two submarines was significant; the Japanese lost 3 powerful Heavy Cruisers and had to send two of their destroyers away to guard Takao as she limped away from the action. Likewise the loss of Kurita’s experienced staff hindered his conduct of the battle on the 24th. The cruisers were a big loss, at 13,000 tons and armed with ten 8”guns they could steam at 35 knots and would have been a significant help during the action off Samar.

                                            The Wreck of USS Darter
Darter
 and Dace conducted a pursuit of the crippled Takao which had to be broken off when Darter ran aground on Bombay Shoal. Despite the best efforts of her crew and that of the Dace to free her she was hopelessly stuck. Her crew was unable to scuttle her and the Japanese were able to board her after she was abandoned and for the first time get a look at the details of a Gato class submarine.

Kurita’s force would continue on into the Sibuyan Sea where they would be attacked again, this time by the aircraft of Admiral Bull Halsey’s carriers. But that is the subject of the next article.

To be continued…

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The Bloodiest Day In American History: The Battle Of Antietam, September 17th 1862

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have visited the battlefield of Antietam, at Sharpsburg, Maryland numerous times going back to the 1990s. Apart from Gettysburg, I have been to it more than any other battlefield in North America. It it a haunting place, not nearly as commercialized as the outskirts of Gettysburg have become. Yet on it, more Americans were killed or wounded on any single day in American history, and it was Americans killing other Americans. Though the battle itself was a draw in terms of tactical terms, it turned out to be one that helped decide the course of history. Historian Stephen W. Sears wrote:

“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation’s history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind’s eye the very landscape around him turned red.” 

Captain Emory Upton, of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and later one of the men who helped modernize the tactics of of the Army in the 1880s wrote:

“I have heard of ‘the dead lying in heaps’, but never saw it till this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”

Another officer, Lieutenant Frederick L. Hitchcock Of the 132nd Pennsylvania at the Bloody Lane:

“We were in the very maelstrom of the battle. Men were falling every moment. The horrible noise was incessant and almost deafening. Except that my mind was absorbed in my duties, I do not know how I could have endured the strain.” 

To the west of Frederick Maryland a small town named Sharpsburg sits on the west side of a creek. Named Antietam the creek’s headwaters are in Franklin County Pennsylvania and it meanders south where just to the south of Sharpsburg it empties into the Potomac River.

It is a peaceful place, rolling hills and agricultural country with some well preserved stone arch bridges, including one just outside of Sharpsburg. It is hard to believe that 150 years ago the town and the creek were the scene of the bloodiest single day of battle in American history.

On that indian summer day of 1862 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, commanding made a stand against the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding.

Lee had invaded Maryland following a string of successes in Northern Virginia during that summer of 1862, defeating McClellan outside of Richmond in the Seven Days, and in a campaign of maneuver bested a newly formed Army, the Union Army of Virginia commanded by Major General John Pope defeating it at the Second Battle of Bull Run between 28-30 August 1862. With Northern Virginia’s crops and livestock depleted and his opponents in crisis Lee moved his army north into Maryland. The decision was driven partly by the need to provision his army, but also had the hope of drawing Maryland away from the Union mistakenly believing that public sentiment in that state was pro-Confederate. If the people of Maryland rose up to support Lee it would be disastrous to the Union and endanger the capital itself. A final consideration was the hope that a Confederate victory on Northern soil would bring about the foreign recognition and possibly the intervention of Great Britain on the side of the Confederacy.

                                                   The Lost Order

Lee crossed the Potomac on September 3rd and sent his Second Corps west with some elements seizing the Union armory in Harper’s Ferry, others to secure the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg the rest of the Army was in the area of Frederick. He was pursued by the very cautious McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac.

On September 9th Lee issued General Order 191, the infamous “lost order” which a copy of which was found by Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars at a campground recently occupied by Lee’s rear guard element, the division of D.H. Hill on September 13th. The order detailed the disposition of Lee’s army and McClellan seized the opportunity. On the 14th the Army of the Potomac attacked part of Lee’s army at the Battle of South Mountain. The Union won that battle forcing the outnumbered Confederate forces to withdraw, though the delay allowed Lee to concentrate more of his army at Sharpsburg on the 15th.

Although he outnumbered Lee McClellan believed the reports of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which provided intelligence to the army. Those estimates which credited Lee with more than 100,000 troops. He delayed his attack until he had drawn up his full army on the on the 17th.

                            The Dead Near the Dunker Church

When he did attack on the 17th his attacks were uncoordinated and though he came close to decisive breakthrough Lee’s army desperately clung to its positions. The action began to the north of the town in the morning and both sides showed incredible ferocity at the Cornfield, where in the space of about three hours nearly 8000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The fighting shifted to the center of the line opposite the town by mid-day. Amid the destructive storm of artillery the armies fought around the Dunker Church and a sunken lane now known as “Bloody Lane.” In the confines of that 800 yard stretch of road over 5000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the course of about four hours. The Union forces broke the Confederate line but reinforcements were not sent and when the the division commander, Major General Israel Richardson was mortally wounded the attack lost its verve and the Confederates under Lieutenant General James Longstreet were able to restore the line.

The south remained quiet as McClellan ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps to hold off on attacking. Burnside did not receive his orders to attack until 1000. He finally attacked across the south bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge in the afternoon. It was another tough fight and Burnside, after several attempts move to the south to flank Confederate forces in the late afternoon with the intention of cutting Lee from off his only escape route.  The Confederates were in a desperate condition. It was at this point, about 3 PM when the division of Major General A.P. Hill arrived and immediately counterattacked breaking up Burnside’s attack. Burnside requested reinforcements from McClellan who refused saying that he had none available. This was not the case, McClellan had two full corps of infantry uncommitted to the battle but still believing that he was outnumbered and that Lee was attempting to trap him.

The actioned ended by 530 PM with both sides rested and reorganized for action the next day. Lee prepared to defend but no Union attack was offered on the 18th. An informal truce was observed to allow the evacuation of the wounded and Lee began his withdraw across the Potomac into Virginia that night. Despite being goaded by Lincoln to pursue McClellan did not and the Union lost the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army n Union territory.

Casualty estimates vary but according to Stephen W Sears in his book Landscape Turned Red that the Army of the Potomac lost 2108 dead, 9540 wounded and 753 missing. He states the best estimate of Confederate casualties are 1546 dead, 7752 wounded and 1018 missing. Most of the missing were likely killed and buried in mass graves or discovered and buried by civilians after the battle. In the space of 12 hours 22719 Americans were killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest single day in American military history.

Though the battle was inconclusive in that Lee’s army survived but had to break off its offensive it had more influence than expected. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd and though it did not take effect until January 1st 1863 it marked a turning point in the war.

McClellan failed to take up the offensive in the next tow months and Lincoln relieved him of command giving the Army of the Potomac to Burnside who goaded by Lincoln took the army into battle at Fredericksburg where it met with defeat.

I have been to the battlefield a number of times, on my own in 1997, once as part of a “staff ride” with the Marine battalion that I was assigned in May of 2000, and a couple of other times on my own. The last time I was there in 2017, I walked over 17 miles on the battlefield.

Each time I go I take the time to ponder the great losses endured by both armies and the individual courage of the soldiers involved. Some of the units that I served with in the Army National Guard in Texas and Virginia trace their lineage and honors to regiments that fought at Antietam and I have felt a connection to the battle because of that. It is hard to imagine the amount of death and carnage taking place in such a placid location in such a short amount of time.

It is something to ponder when some Americans openly suggest another civil war if their party does not win the next Presidential election.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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