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Decoration Day or Memorial Day 2020: Their Spirits Gather Round Me, as I Muse of Poppy’s, Dreaming of Home Oceans Away

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is, or should be the most solemn and reflective of holidays that we observe in the United States. It is the one day a year that we specifically put aside to remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank a living veteran for their service, be they active military  personnel, veterans or retirees,, we have our own days, Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Likewise, and even worse, most Americans completely forget and turn it in to a day to kick off the summer holiday season. Not that has been harder to do this year in the midst of the Coronavirus 19 Pandemic, with its related shutdowns and travel restrictions, and since we will probably mark the 100,000th official death in this country later today, it should be a more reflective time.

But the holiday itself it is more interesting, because when it began it was called Decoration Day. It was a day where the families and friends of the soldiers, North and South who died in the war of the Southern Rebellion (the term that Union Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic called it) or the War of Northern Aggression (as it was called by many Southerners) to the less divisive term the American Civil War. Personally, though most of my family fought for the Confederate side despite the fact that their counties of West Virginia had gone to the Union, because they were slave owners, I land pretty hard on calling it the War of the Southern Rebellion, because I am a historian.

Now as a kid I absorbed a lot of the revisionist views of the Southern historians who mythologized the cause, The Lost Cause, their honor and culture, The Noble South, and the hagiography surrounding their heroes like Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, when one looks at their writings, beliefs, and actions, it is far better to label them as rebels and traitors, and the cause that they fought for as evil, but I digress, because even then the truth is more complicated. There were Southerners who never renounced they Union, and close to 40% of Southern graduates of West Point and others that remained loyal to the Union. These included men like General Winfield Scott (Virginia),  George Thomas (Virginia) , General John Buford (Kentucky where his family supported the Confederate Cause) General John Gibbon (North Carolina), Admiral David Farragut (Tennessee) the Union’s master logistician, General Montgomery Meigs of Georgia. Meigs is known for his deep hatred Former U.S. Army officers who fought for the Confederacy, especially Robert E. Lee. He used his position to select Lee’s mansion and plantation property in Arlington, Virginia as the Union’s first, and premiere national cemetery.

But back to Decoration Day. It predates the end of the war in some towns in the south and north where families would go to play flowers on the graves of their relatives or friends who died during the war. In 1865 the newly freed Black population of Charleston, South Carolina dedicated a cemetery to the Union soldiers who had died in Confederate prisons there at the old racehorse track. In 1868, General John Logan, the head of the Union’s largest and most influential veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, called for it to become a National day of remembrance to be held on May 30th. Soon Michigan became the first state to make the day a holiday and they were rapidly followed but most other states. Logan and the G.A.R. headquarters issued the the Decoration Day Order:

GENERAL ORDERS No. 11

I. The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the commander in chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By Command of –
John A. Logan,
Commander in Chief

Over the years Decoration Day began to be know as Memorial Day, especially as the members of the G.A.R. became fewer, but the name was not officially changed until 1967. In 1968 Congress passed an act to move four holidays, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day (Formerly Armistice Day), and Washington’s Birthday (now President’s Day) to Monday’s to allow for three day weekends. There have been attempts by Veterans organizations to have Memorial Day moved back to a set date over the past two decades in order to bring emphasis to the solemnity that it should be observed. I would support that, but business leaders and lobbyists have ensured that Congress has take no action to make that change. Thus for most people the day is the kick off of the summer holiday season.

After the end of the American Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman reflected on the human cost of it. Whitman wrote,

“Ashes of soldiers South or North,

As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies.

Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves,

In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

Memorial Day is always an emotional time for me, especially since I returned from Iraq in 2008. It is a weekend that I always think about the men and women that I knew who died in action or died after they left the service, some at their own hand, unable to bear the burdens and trauma that they suffered while at war. I was reminded of them again at the memorial service that we conducted for all of our fallen at the Naval Shipyard where I serve.  In an age where less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, I think that it is important that we take the time to remember and reflect on the human cost of wars.

For me I think that is the lives lost that hit me hardest. They were friends who I knew, and also family members that I never met because they lost their lives before I was born.

I think of the battlefields that I have served on in Al Anbar Province, the one my father served on at An Loc, Vietnam, or the battlefields and the graveyards I have been to, Verdun, the Somme, Paschendaele, Waterloo, Arnhem, Normandy, Belleau Wood, Luxembourg, the Shuri Line, the Naktong River, Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Stone’s River, Bentonville, Gettysburg, the wrecks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, and so many more, I think about the men and women who never returned. To me all of these places are hallowed ground, ground that none of us can hallow, the sacrifices of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion have done that better than we can ever do.

There are some songs that are haunting yet comfort me when I reflect on the terrible costs of war, even those wars that were truly just; and yes there are such wars, even if politicians and ideologues demanding revenge or vengeance manage to mangle the peace following them. Of course there are wars that are not just in any manner of speaking and in which the costs far outweigh any moral, legal, or ethical considerations, but I digress…

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg wrote something that talks about the importance and even the transcendence of the deeds of those who lost their lives in those wars fought and died to achieve.

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

Elton John wrote and performed this song, Oceans Away on the centenary of the First World War. It speaks of the men that never came home, and he related it to those who continue to go off to war today.

I hung out with the old folks, In the hope that I’d get wise

I was trying to bridge the gap, Between the great divide

Hung on every recollection, In the theater of their eyes

Picking up on this and that, In the few that still survive

 

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

 

They bend like trees in winter, These shuffling old grey lions

Those snow-white stars still gather, Like the belt around Orion

Just to touch the faded lightning, Of their powerful design

Of a generation gathering, For maybe the last time, Oceans away

Where the green grass sways,And the cool wind blows

Across the shadow of their graves, Shoulder to shoulder back in the day

Sleeping bones to rest in earth, oceans away

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

Likewise I find myself thinking about all those times alone overseas, and realize that many did not come home. The song I’m Dreaming of Home or Hymne des Fraternisés from the film Joyeux Noel which was adapted by French composer Philippe Rombi from the poem by Lori Barth I think speaks for all of us that served so far away, both those who returned and those who still remain oceans away.

I hear the mountain birds, The sound of rivers singing

A song I’ve often heard, It flows through me now, So clear and so loud

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

It’s carried in the air, The breeze of early morning

I see the land so fair, My heart opens wide, There’s sadness inside

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

This is no foreign sky, I see no foreign light, But far away am I

From some peaceful land, I’m longing to stand, A hand in my hand

… forever I’m dreaming of home, I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home.

The Canadian physician, John McCrea, served in Flanders with the British Army. There he wrote his  immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: 

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.

The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history. If we and our leaders are not careful, the peace and international institutions that guarded that peace will be destroyed in a cataclysm of Nationalism, Racism, and renewed wars over contested living space. In short, the 21st Century is setting up to be every bit as bloody as the 20th.

The Armistice Day Poppy which became an international symbol of remembrance for the dead of the First World War was introduced to Decoration Day in 1922. Its roots lie in McCrea’s prom, and that of an American woman volunteering with the YMCA to support the troops in France. In 1918 Moina Michael, a professor on sabbatical from the University of Georgia vowed to always wear a red poppy to remember those who died in the war. Her poem We Shall Keep the Faith expressed her feelings:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Please take the time to remember those who whose spirits still linger around the battles fields of the Civil War, and those who beneath Crosses, Stars of David, and Islamic Crescent Moons, or plain headstones denoting no religion, who fought for the Allied cause in the First and Second World Wars, and all of the wars since, who still dream of home, oceans away.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Dien Bien Phu, Bad Strategy, Bad Assumptions, & Defeat: COVID 19 and Worse than Bad Outcomes

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Sixty-six years ago the ragged and starving remnants of a French expeditionary Force was dying an excruciating death at Dien Bien Phu. They were the victims of a wrong war, a failed strategy, and the arrogance of their high command. They were sacrificed on the false belief that if they defeated the Main Force of the Viet Minh in a conventional battle, that they would win the war and dictate the terms of peace. But it was a battle in which they chose bad ground, and could not receive the full benefit of their more advanced weaponry because they were sent to fight in an area too far from their supporting forces. Likewise they were fighting a far more resourceful and better led adversary, that was not fighting for empire, but independence. Something that Americans who really know our history should understand.

Dien Bien Phu was an epic battle in a tragic war. Sadly, most people today neither know or care what happened in the valley where the small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with futile and forgotten sacrifice.

Over the years fewer and fewer remembrances took place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.  In 2018, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial

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General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, on May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.

That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year, especially since COVID 19 has ensured that no significant public memorials are possible, but even before this year the ranks of few men left from the battle pretty much have doomed such ceremonies,

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn. We didn’t learn them in Iraq, or Afghanistan.

 

Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was based on what the French called the “Air-land base.”  It involved placing strong forces in an easily defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.

At Na Son the plan worked as intended. The French were on high ground, had superior artillery, and air Support close at hand. Likewise they were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults against their fortress, which made the Viet Minh troops cannon fodder for the French defenders. Despite that, Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and attempted to repeat what they thought was success at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground that they chose at Na Son, they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went into the battle light on artillery, and the air head they established was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Nevertheless,  he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and their American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, and had more powerful artillery. They also placed their units in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting, and were under constant surveillance by the Viet Minh. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this, many of their positions were not adequately fortified, and their artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery, which were not hardened against artillery fire, and were completely exposed to the enemy once they opened fire.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of French and Vietnamese paratroopers, known as Paras, Foreign Legion parachute and infantry units, French Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle on a better choice of battle, these forces would have done well. But this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of General Giap and his crack divisions on such a battlefield. This was not a counterinsurgency campaign, but a conventional battle in which the French discovered that they were in no position to win.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower, effectively used from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.

Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring my point, the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. However, one after another French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French vainly hoped for U.S. air intervention, even to the possibility of the United States would uses nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. President Dwight Eisenhower was a realist, and despite the advice of men like General Curtis LeMay refused to exercise either a conventional or nuclear response to rescue the French from a debacle of their own making. Eisenhower understood that the American people were not about to enter another Asian war so soon after the armistice in Korea.

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French Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through the Viet Minh and the severer terrain which limited their movements and prevented the use of armored and mechanized units. Thus, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries.

The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.”

General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Despite the torture they endured, few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French leaders, units and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release from Viet Minh Captivity. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began. The film Lost Command, and the novel The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy exposed this brutal truth, as did Alistair Horne’s Classic A Savage War of Peace did as well.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained serving NATO in France or Germany. This created bitter enmity between soldiers who had already endured the aftermath of the First World War, the defeat of 1940 by Germany, the division of Free French Forces, and those of the Nazi allied Vichy government.

Those divisions in the French military and society remained well after the war and those divisions were fully on display in Indochina and Algeria. 

As a result France would endure a failed military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called “The Centurions” by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government. By military Standards they had successful used counterinsurgency tactics to win the war in a military sense, although their opponents still remained.  These men were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and when President De Gaulle declared that Algeria would be granted independence, the men who had sacrificed so much mutinied against their government.

But the mutiny had little popular support, the people rallied around De Gaulle, and it failed. Many of the leaders, including senior generals and admirals who took part in, supported, or knew about the mutiny were tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. The Colonial troops from Indochina, or North Africa who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. many Algerians fled to France as they were French citizens. Those from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fled to wherever they could find refugee.

The French and their colonial ally survivors of Dien Bien Phu saw the battle as a defining Moment in their lives. . “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like General Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of Major Marcel Bigeard reflected on his thoughts to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make, and not just military when it comes to the novel Coronavirus Pandemic. 

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of The French Algeria. It was an arrogance for which Americans paid dearly. I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations, so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, their administrations, the military high command, the Congress, and the civilian population of the United States which remained for the most part in a state of peace, despite a few inconveniences in domestic and international air travel. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 19 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad outcomes.  I do not know how the President who calls himself a “Problem solver” or ”Wartime President” who will define winning, in war, or in the midst of a pandemic which has killed more Americans than were lost in combat in every military operation since the 1958 Lebanon Intervention. Bur now, in 2020, how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define? Likewise, how many Americans will have to die from a virus because their President and many other leaders minimize its potential for mass death, social and economic disruption, and division?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

Sadly, most of the leaders in the Trump Administration, Congress, business, the greater civil population, and even some in the military ignore about COVID 19. The battle is not a conventional war. It is a battle against an unseen enemy that is not fighting a conventional war. We haven’t even understood how to wage such a war over the long term, much less how to deal with a non ideological, non religious, or non nationalistic enemy, such as a virus during a pandemic.

Now humanity is waging an asymmetrical conflict between an inhuman virus which adapts, infects, and kills without thinking, while human beings are divided between their desire to preserve life and those who do not care how many people die so long as their way of life is preserved, in the way that they knew it. However, the keys to defeating the virus, are similar to counterinsurgency doctrine. The Virus has to be identified, its victims quarantined, their contacts tracked, effective treatments developed, especially a vaccine that will protect people, and allow the resumption of normal life.

This isn’t rocket science. Until virologists and epidemiologists can develop effective vaccines and medicines to alleviate and mitigate the worst symptoms, governments and citizens must be willing to do practice non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as social distancing and wearing face masks, which are proven by history and science to slow rates of  infection and death, whether compliance is voluntary or mandated by criminal law. No person has the right to prioritize their personal freedoms over the lives of others. This is part of the social contract developed in the earliest of human civilizations, and in the teachings of Jesus the Christ who told his disciples This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

If the Trump Administration choses to ignore science and history regarding the COVID 19 pandemic, it will experience the same humiliation that France encountered in Indochina and Algeria, as well as the American experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If it does so for purely economic reasons, being willing to sacrifice people for comics and profits, than its immorality and vice is too great to reconcile with any human understanding of the sacred value of all human life.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else, but then we already have doe so, since COVID 19 has already claimed as many American lives as were lost in every conflict since the 1958 intervention in Lebanon and every war, conflict, incident, or operation since.

Whether you understand it or not, the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu isn’t something that we cannot learn from today. One can never underestimate one’s enemy, or overestimate their ability to defeat it. Nor can they ignore the advice of historians, scientists, sociologists, physicians, and military leaders. Sadly, it seems to me that Donald Trump and his Administration and followers are more than willing to follow in the footsteps of all who in their interest willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent, be they soldiers, Medical personnel, civilians, or others deemed life unworthy of life. So why not lead more people to death in order to maintain power and profits.

I won’t say anything else tonight, as Imam tired but anxious about the results of a COVID 19 test that Judy and I took late Monday afternoon as a result of a possible exposure Judy might have had last Friday. While I do not think that either of us will test positive, the current situation where so many Americans do not seem to give a damn about the lives of others in the midst of a highly infectious and deadly pandemic are now personal. As are the histories of those who promote their stupidity:  leaders who dodged the draft, or never served at all, either on the front lines of combat or in the battle against infectious diseases decide that human lives are worth less than short term profits of their corporations or economic interests.

I am not a man of violence, but I agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Likewise I believe like General Ludwig Beck who died in the attempt to kill Hitler and seize control of Germany from the Nazi regime that those entrusted with high office must live up to it. Beck said:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

For me the testimony of both men is relevant today.

How can I be silent and retain any sense of morality today? My heart goes out to all the French, and their Colonials, and Foreign Legion Troops who died for an awful cause in Indochina, including those who fought for South Vietnam and lost everything by doing so, as well as the Americans sent their to prop up a regime that had little popular support, and was based on power religious and economic elites more than its own people.

Now we are faced with a pandemic that kills without discrimination. A pandemic that kills without remorse because it is not human, and which adepts itself to killing  more people. This is especially true when human beings and their governments ignore or willingly break the basics of non pharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing and face masks because they value their personal convenience over the life of others.

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.

JOHN F KENNEDY FUNERAL

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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Lest We Forget: Memorial Day 2019

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After the end of the American Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman reflected on the human cost of it. Whitman wrote,

“Ashes of soldiers South or North,

As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies.

Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves,

In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

Memorial Day is always an emotional time for me, especially since I returned from Iraq in 2008, and this weekend I have been thinking about the men and women that I knew who died in action or died after they left the service, some at their own hand, unable to bear the burdens and trauma that they suffered while at war. I was reminded of them again at the memorial service that we conducted for the sailors and soldiers from our base who have died in action since September 11th 2001. In an age where less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, I think that it is important that we take the time to remember and reflect on the human cost of wars.

I think of the battlefields that I have served on in Al Anbar Province, the one my father served on at An Loc, Vietnam, or the battlefields and the graveyards I have been to, Verdun, the Somme, Paschendaele, Waterloo, Arnhem, Normandy, Belleau Wood, Luxembourg, the Shuri Line, the Naktong River, Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Stone’s River, Bentonville, Gettysburg, the wrecks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, and so many more, I think about the men and women who never returned. To me all of these places are hallowed ground, ground that none of us can hallow, the sacrifices of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion have done that better than we can ever do.

There are some songs that are haunting yet comfort me when I reflect on the terrible costs of war, even those wars that were truly just; and yes there are such wars, even if politicians and ideologues demanding revenge or vengeance manage to mangle the peace following them. Of course there are wars that are not just in any manner of speaking and in which the costs far outweigh any moral, legal, or ethical considerations, but I digress…

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg wrote something that talks about the importance and even the transcendence of the deeds of those who lost their lives in those wars fought and died to achieve.

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

Elton John wrote and performed this song, Oceans Away on the centenary of the First World War. It speaks of the men that never came home, and he related it to those who continue to go off to war today.

I hung out with the old folks

In the hope that I’d get wise

I was trying to

bridge the gap

Between the great divide

Hung on every recollection

In the theater of their eyes

Picking up on this and that

In the few that still survive

 

Call em up

Dust em off

Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones,

they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,

The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

 

They bend like trees in winter

These shuffling old grey lions

Those snow-white stars still gather

Like the belt around Orion

Just to touch the faded lightning

Of their powerful design

Of a generation gathering

For maybe the last time

Oceans away

Where the green grass sways

And the cool wind blows

Across the shadow of their graves.

Shoulder to shoulder back in the day

Sleeping bones to rest in earth, oceans away

Call em up

Dust em off

Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones,

they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,

The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross

Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

 

Likewise I find myself thinking about all those times alone overseas, and realize that many did not come home. The song I’m Dreaming of Home or Hymne des Fraternisés from the film Joyeux Noel which was adapted by French composer Philippe Rombi from the poem by Lori Barth I think speaks for all of us that served so far away, both those who returned and those who still remain oceans away.

I hear the mountain birds

The sound of rivers singing

A song I’ve often heard

It flows through me now

So clear and so loud

I stand where I am

And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

It’s carried in the air

The breeze of early morning

I see the land so fair

My heart opens wide

There’s sadness inside

I stand where I am

And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

This is no foreign sky

I see no foreign light

But far away am I

From some peaceful land

I’m longing to stand

A hand in my hand

… forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home.

 

I close with the words of John McCrea’s immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: 

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.

The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history. If we and our leaders are not careful, the peace and international institutions that guarded that peace will be destroyed in a cataclysm of Nationalism, Racism, and renewed wars over contested living space. In short, the 21st Century is setting up to be every bit as bloody as the 20th.

Please take the time to remember those who whose spirits still dream of home, oceans away.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Dien Bien Phu: The Soldiers and the Lessons Forgotten and Unlearned 65 Years Later

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France. Last year, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial

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General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, on May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 18 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Though Poppies Grow: Buddy Poppies & Memorial Day 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is Memorial Day Weekend, a weekend where we remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank the living veterans, that day is Veteran’s Day. Nor is it the day to thank those men and women who currently wear the uniform and fight the wars of our country. This weekend I am reposting a number of articles from past years to remind my regular readers and those new to my writings about how important this remembrance is, not just to me, but to all of us. I do not say that lightly. Memorial Day is the offspring of the families of the American Civil War dead, when people who lost loved ones in the cause of liberty and the defense of the Union honored their loved ones.

While the Buddy Poppy was something that came out of the First World War, and Armistice Day, which after the Second World War became Veteran’s Day. In time it has also become connected with the original Memorial Day. So today’s post is my first reflection of this weekend on the Buddy Poppy and Memorial Day.

I write this in the disastrous aftermath of President Trump’s high stakes game of chicken with North Korean Leader Kim Jung Un in which he bailed after aggressively praising Kim and pushing for direct talks. When I read the President’s letter to the North Korean I realized that the chances of a catastrophic war have gone up.

I also have been watching Ken Burns’ series The Vietnam War while reading Robert K. Massie’s Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. Both are filled with stories of hubris and tragedy.

No matter what your political views, ideology, or religious beliefs, please take time to remember the high human cost of war this weekend, especially on Monday when we observe Memorial Day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

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.

Besides the American Flag the Buddy Poppy is perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of Memorial Day. This poppy as we know it came about when Mrs. Moina Michael read McRea’s poem and inspired wrote this verse:

We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

She then had the inspiration to begin wearing Red Poppies on Memorial Day and sold the poppies to friends and others with the money going to those in need. A French woman visiting the United States, a Madame Guerin discovered the new custom and took it back to France where she began to make artificial red poppies to sell with the proceeds going to the widows and orphans of the First World War. The custom spread to other countries and in 1921 the Franco-American Children’s League sold the poppies but disbanded in 1921. Madame Guerin approached the newly formed Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, the VFW in 1922 for assistance and in 1922 the VFW became the first American organization to sell poppies. Two years later the Buddy Poppy program began. The artificial poppies were made by disabled veterans who were paid for their work in order to provide them some form of income and distributed by other veterans across the country. Today the VFW continues to distribute the Buddy Poppies which are still produced by disabled Veterans at the nation’s Veteran’s Administration Hospitals.

I remember the first Buddy Poppy that I every received. It was just before Memorial Day 1970, before it became a 3 day weekend falling on the last Monday of May. We were living with my Grandparents in Huntington West Virginia as my dad sought suitable housing for us in Long Beach California while he was in the Navy.

Our initial move from the small town of Oak Harbor Washington, where my dad had been stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to Long Beach had not gone well. The first place we lived was in a dangerous neighborhood and with my dad traveling frequently to Naval Shipyards around the country to help commission new ships the stress on the family, especially my mother in dealing with that and two young boys was too much. Dad sent us back to Huntington where my Grandparents and numerous other relatives still lived for the duration of the school year as he sought better housing.

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Memorial Day then was filled with visits to cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of departed relatives as well as flags on the graves of relatives who had served in the military. We made a number of stops that day at the Bowen and Dundas cemeteries as well as others where relatives were interred. Afterward we had a home cooked meal prepared by my maternal grandmother Christine and then made a trip on a city bus to to the other side of town to see my paternal grandmother Verdie.

Holidays, were much like that for us during that time that we lived in Huntington, until my dad came back and brought us back to Long Beach in June. Just before my dad arrived to take us back to Long Beach my mom, her cousin Valerie and I were shopping downtown, which at the time before I-64 took traffic around the town and led to a new mall and shopping complex being built just out of town, was a bustling place of commerce and activity. Major retailers all had their stores downtown, while the best movie theaters and restaurants were there as well.

We were coming out of the old SS Kresge store on Fourth Avenue and an elderly man wearing a VFW cap approached us and handed me a poppy. He had to be in his 70s so I presume that he was a Veteran of the First World War. He chatted briefly with my mom and Valerie and I am sure my mom gave him a bit of money for the poppy. I kept it for many years and it was eventually lost in one of our moves. But I will not forget it and any time I see a Veteran distributing them I make sure that I get one.

But I haven’t seen anyone passing them out for years, maybe I will need to start getting them and giving them out myself. Maybe I’ll start that as Veteran’s Day approaches.

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Babe Ruth and President Warren G Harding with the first official Buddy Poppy of 1923

For me the Buddy Poppy is a symbol of thanks for the sacrifices made by so many, those who did not come home from wars being killed or missing in action, as well as the wounded and the families of the dead and those that came home forever changed by their time in war. This year marks the 90th anniversary of it being the official flower of remembrance for those who died in our nation’s wars.

The poppy has even more significance for me now having served in Iraq. Seeing war’s devastation and knowing so many who have either been killed or wounded in the wars that we have engaged since September 11th 2001 has impacted me in ways that I could not have imagined before the war. Likewise having come back changed by my experience and having to deal with the affliction of severe PTSD I sense a camaraderie with those men who came home changed from war and in many cases returned to a country that did not understand them.

I will be observing the “Go Silent” moment at 12:01 Monday with the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association to honor those who have given the last full measure.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Forgotten Soldiers: Remembering the Men of Dien Bien Phu 64 Years After the Battle

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 17 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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My Country Right or Wrong?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Even since I was a child I was an avid reader of history, especially military history and biography. I idolized the men that I read about and many of the things that they said and did, and almost always skewed them into an almost perverse form of patriotism. After the attacks of 9-11-2001 and during the run up to the invasion of Iraq I got into a internet argument with a man who later became the Presiding Bishop of my former denomination. He was and still is a very honorable man.

While very conservative theologically he had a strong sense of social justice and having come to adulthood during Vietnam war era he had a certain sense of distrust about military adventurism that I, an officer who at that time had some twenty years of military service did not fully appreciate. I responded to one of his comments with a quote from one of my favorite American Naval heroes, Captain Stephen Decatur who once remarked:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

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There is some truth in what Decatur said, but his words should not be used to justify imperialistic nationalism, racism, or militarism. Sadly back then that was exactly how I used it to attempt to shut down the arguments of an honorable man. If he ever reads this I hope that Bishop Craig Bates accepts my heartfelt apology for how I treated him back then.

It took me two combat tours, one at sea where I was a member of a boarding team, and the other in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, and a lot more military and historical education that I realized how wrong that I was in doing this. Using patriotic quotes to buttress immoral, illegal, unconstitutional, and un-Christian policies is damnable. G. K. Chesterton noted: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

But, I am afraid that my former understanding of patriotism is exactly what many Americans follow today, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology seem to automatically defer to the decisions of the President in launching military strikes. This has been largely true since the end of Second World War until now with the exception of Vietnam. No one wants to be “against the troops” and I am still one of those troops, but opposing nationalism, imperialism, and militarism is not the same as “supporting the troops.” The late Army Lieutenant General Hal Moore, who led his battalion into the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965 and was memorialized in the film We Were Soldiers told West Point Cadets in 2005:

“The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

I remember reading General Moore’s back words then and despite my respect for him I didn’t see their truth, I still believed the lies of Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush Administration, and the Right wing media. I was wrong, and within two and a half years I would discover just how right that he was.

Today, some ten years after I returned from Iraq I find that we now have a President whose historical, ethical, and policy blindness is subjected to his narcissistic and paranoid personality. He is a man who dodged the draft, avoided military service, condemned men and women wounded. killed, or captured in combat as losers while bragging that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s was his Vietnam.

War is a great way to distract from other real concerns, especially if it gives the President, any President, a chance to divert attention from his own malfeasance and criminality. Our Republic is in danger and I do not think that the danger will soon pass. I only wish that it would.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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The Most Dangerous Error… Vietnam, Iraq, and Wars to Come

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned yesterday that I was going to do some more writing about the Iraq War. This article discusses the war in the context of strategy and the fact that Americans seldom learn the lessons of war and repeat our mistakes regularly. I sense that under the leadership of Donald Trump that we will find ourselves in new and vastly more bloody and destructive wars that will make the wars of the past 15 years seem like child’s play.

We need to learn from history and we seldom do, as B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is the failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That error is a common affliction of authority.” 

In 1986 an Army Major working at the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote a book about the history of the US Army in the Vietnam War, and it turned out to be a work of military prophecy. The young officer, Andrew Krepinevich wrote in his book, The Army in Vietnam: 

“In the absence of a national security structural framework that address the interdepartmental obligations associated with FID operations, and considering the lack of incentives for organizational change within the Army, it is presumptuous for the political leadership to believe that the Army (or the military) alone will develop the capability to successfully execute U.S. security policy in Third World countries threatened by insurgency. This being the case, America’s Vietnam experience takes on a new and tragic light. For in spite of its anguish in Vietnam, the Army has learned little of value. Yet the nation’s policy makers have endorsed the service’s misconceptions derived from the war while contemplating an increased role in Third World low-intensity conflicts. This represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy.” (The Army in Vietnam, Andrew F Krepinevich Jr., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986. p.275)

Krepinevich retired from the Army in the 1990s as a Lieutenant Colonel and has been busy in the world of think tanks and national security policy. Unlike his book, which is probably one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War and as I said before a book that is somewhat prophetic his later work has not been as well received. He has his critics. But despite that criticism once cannot deny the accuracy of his predictions concerning the Army’s subsequent operations in low intensity, or counter-insurgency campaigns beginning in Somalia and encompassing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Krepinevich had been alone in his criticism, or his book not been widely read one might excuse policy makers of the 1990s and 2000s who sent the Army and the military into counterinsurgency campaigns involving massive numbers of troops and the commitment of blood and treasure that had practically no value to the national security of the United States. Instead thousands of American and Allied lives were sacrificed, tens of thousands wounded and one nation, Iraq that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11-2001 left devastated and crippled empowering Iran the sworn enemy of the United States no regional rival. The exhaustion of the war and the subsequent war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria allowed Vladimir Putin’s Russian to become a major player in the Middle East for the first time since the days of the Soviet Union.

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One cannot say that the Iraq war was worth the lives and treasure spent to cover the lies and hubris of the Bush Administration. Nor can one say that the effort to change the tribal structure of the fiercely independent Afghan peoples after driving Al Qaeda from that “Graveyard of Empires” been worth the expenditure of so many American lives and treasure. In fact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the United States in more ways than their proponents could every admit. The military, now drained by years of war is hamstrung and will be hard pressed to meet legitimate threats to our national security around the world because of the vast amounts of blood and treasure expended in these wars.

In 1920 T.E. Lawrence wrote about the follies of the British government in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq. His words could have been written about the Bush Administrations 2003 war in Iraq. Lawrence wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times:

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

Krepinevech, like Lawrence before him was right, but he was not the only one. In 1993 Ronald H Spector wrote in his book After Tet:

“Americans dislike problems without solutions. Almost from the beginning of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam they have attempted to find “lessons” in the war. The controversy about the appropriate lessons to be learned continues with the same vigor and lack of coherence as the debates about the war itself.

Lessons are controversial and fleeting but lessons long. The memories of 1968 have remained and served to influence attitudes and expectations well into the 1990s. The ghosts of Vietnam haunted all sides of the recent deliberations about the Gulf War. In the wake of that war, President Bush hastened to announce that “we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” 

Doubtless many Americans would like to agree. It is easier to think of the Vietnam War as a strange aberration, a departure from the “normal” kind of war, like World War II and the recent war in the Gulf, where the course of military operations were purposeful and understandable and the results relatively clear cut. Yet the Vietnam War may be less of an aberration than an example of a more common and older type of warfare, reaching back before the Thirty Years’ War and including World War I. A type of warfare in which a decision is long delayed, the purposes of the fighting become unclear, the casualties mount, and the conflict acquires a momentum of its own. In a world which had recently been made safe for conventional, regional and ethnic wars, Vietnam rather than World War II may be the pattern of the future.” (After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, Ronald H Spector Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 1993 pp. 315-316

That is certainly the case in the wars that the U.S. has waged since Vietnam, with the exception of the First Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm which was an anomaly. While there is a good chance that such wars will continue, it is also possible that major wars between nuclear armed powers or those armed with other weapons of mass destruction or those using cyber warfare to cause mass casualties and disruption to the world.

After serving in Iraq with the advisors to the Iraqi 7th and 1st Divisions and 2nd Border Brigade in 2007-2008 and seeing the results of the great misadventure brought upon our nation and Iraq by the Bush administration I cannot help but recognize how disastrous the wars unleashed after 9-11-2001 have been. I have lost friends and comrades in them, I have seen the human costs in our Navy hospitals and still deal with men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by war.

I believe that had we actually accomplished anything enduring it would be another matter. But the human, economic, strategic and even more importantly the moral costs of this war have been so disastrous to our nation as to make the loss of the Twin Towers and the victims of 9-11-2001 pale in significance.

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It is tragic that these wars have gone on so long that many of the young Marines and Soldiers fighting them have no understanding of why they deploy and deploy to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and they are far more knowledgeable than the population at large, many of whom are untouched by the personal costs of the war. We as Americans love to say “we support the troops” but most don’t even know one. For the most part big bases from where our troops train and deploy are far from where most Americans live and might as well be on a different planet. We are invisible to most of the country, except when they see a color guard at a sporting event or bump into one of us in uniform at an airport.

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The sad thing is that we don’t learn from history. Krepinevech, Spector and Lawrence could have written what they wrote yesterday. Instead they all wrote many years before the 9-11 attacks and our military response to them. As a historian, a career officer and a chaplain I cannot help but think of the terrible costs of such wars and how they do not do anything to make us more secure. The fact is that we do not learn from history much to our detriment despite the great human, spiritual, moral and economic effects of such wars.

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What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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