Category Archives: War on Terrorism

Remembering the Men of D-Day: In the Era of Trump who Will We Channel?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find the days around Memorial Day and the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landings to be a time when I become quite reflective about what it means to be a career American military officer, combat veteran, and the son of a Navy Chief who was also a combat veteran.

When he spoke on Omaha Beach during the ceremony marking the 70thAnniversary of the D-Day landings President Barak Obama said:

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”

All of my adult life I have striven to uphold those values that those men were prepared to die for, and for almost 37 years of Army and Navy service that I have been prepared to do so at a moment’s notice. I still am, against all threats, foreign and domestic. I just hope that I will never have to repeat the words of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg: “I’m a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience.”

Seventy-four years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France. In his D-Day message to his troops General Dwight Eisenhower reminded them that their mission was the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” There are still those in the world who subject their people to tyranny and attempt to destabilize and overthrow the governments of liberty loving peoples, likewise Eisenhower knew that security for ourselves meant close alliances with those who have our values and not isolating ourselves from the world.

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers; the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize these veterans, but it was a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

Had the Germans been able to hold out. Had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front. Had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially the elite paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, the German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr, and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground. In doing so they were ground to dust, their casualties massive, but Hitler forbade his commanders to withdraw his troop to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers, but many of them too shared in the crimes of the Nazi regime. Their courage and sacrifices were forever tarnished by the cause that they fought for and the way their country and many of them waged war, on the Eastern Front, and in some case on the Western Front.

For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation. As President Trump continues to go his own way to make the United States a pariah nation we have to be very aware of the costs of it and also remember that the Americans who went ashore on D-Day did so to help defeat a pariah nation that had flaunted every standard of justice in attempting to make Germany Great Again. When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday and it is possible that our day may come sooner than we think. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private RyanThe Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we who serve often strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Masters of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will meet. I hope that he is still alive and maybe he will see this.  I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

The survivors of the D-Day landings and those on the other side of the hill are continuing to pass from the bonds of this earth and into eternity. We owe it to them and to the world to make what they sacrificed themselves to do into reality, battling tyranny and striving for peace and security.

But that being said, what good will that be if we allow freedom to die at home? I wonder if like Claus von Stauffenberg who came to understand that serving Germany was not the same as serving Hitler, if we who serve today will have to make that same choice in regard to President Trump. In light of his actions and his words which indicate that he believes that he is above the law, can that point not be far away? Likewise will we who serve more embody the Americans, British, Canadians, and French at D-Day or the Germans?

Both are good questions to ask as we remember the men of D-Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, us army, War on Terrorism, world war two in europe

Are the Lamps Going Out Again? Trump Strikes Syria

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, War on Terrorism

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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Filed under History, iraq, leadership, Military, national security, philosophy, Political Commentary, vietnam, War on Terrorism

Thoughts on the Sum Total of Life Amid Hurricanes and the Anniversary of 9-11-2001

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is hard too believe that in just a couple of weeks that the United States has been impacted by two category four hurricanes, Harvey in southeast Texas and Irma in Florida and Georgia. Of course the remnants of both storms will also end up dumping a lot of rain on much of the American South and in some places causing flooding. The cost of both storms will be in the billions and it will take months to years for the towns, counties, cities, most affected by these killer storms, and most importantly, the people who call those places home to recover.

While these things have been going on it is hard to imagine that the Korean Peninsula sits on the razor’s edge of a potential war, possibly a nuclear, the likes that has not been seen since the Second World War, or imagined since the tense days of the Cold War. Likewise, the fact that today is the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But I have been thinking about both even as we deal with Harvey and Irma.

I have served on the Korean DMZ, I was there just seven months before the attacks of September 11th 2001, but that was during the reign of Kim Jung Un’s father, Kim Jung Il. In retrospect the elder Kim, while a maniacal despot who starved millions of his own people, didn’t seem to have the same need to prove his manhood by testing missiles and nuclear devices as Chubby Son Number One does. In my view both are bad, but Kim Jung Un seems to be serious bent on provoking our own American wannabe despot into shooting first, but I digress…

But today I will be taking part at a remembrance at our base commemorating the attacks and resembling the victims of the 9-11 attacks. I remember the day well and I will never forget the nondescript memo on the Yahoo News homepage that morning as I logged off my computer to go to the gym at Camp Lejeune that stated “plane crashes into World Trade Center.” I saw that and thought that some dumb ass in a private plane had goofed up or had a medical emergency. Then I heard a radio talk show host screaming “oh my God, an airliner just crashed into the other tower.” I rushed to the gym to see what was on their televisions and saw Marines and Sailors standing and watching the burning towers. I went back to my office, showered, got my uniform on and went to my battalion headquarters. After twenty years in the military my war had begun, and it hasn’t ended yet. In fact I doubt that it will end before I retire, and I think that there is a strong chance that Korean, and maybe the Persian Gulf will blow up before my time of service ends.

Last night I watch Bridge on the River Kwai. In it, Sir Alec Guinness, playing Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, the commander of a battalion surrendered at Singapore, in a reflective moment looking at the bridge that his soldiers built, tells his Japanese, captor, Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa:

I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I’ve been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than 10 months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!

Regardless of what happens over the remaining part of my now 36 year long military career, the fact is I am nearer to the end than the beginning of it, and I over the past few years I have asked myself the same questions that Nicholson poses to Saito.

So here I am, after 36 years my career is stalled and I believe that I am serving in my last billet before I retire. There are certainly others who have gone father than me, but I think I’ve had great career, and truthfully I am happy and regardless of what the last few years of my career bring, I hope that those who have served alongside of me in peace and war will be able to say that I made a difference. I don’t think that is for me to decide what the sum total of my life will represent, that is for others, their memory of me, and history.

But even so, as I finish this article and schedule it to post, my thoughts and prayers are with the people in Florida and elsewhere, especially my friends whose pieces are being disrupted by Irma, and those who are trying to recover their lives in Texas.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, Military, News and current events, War on Terrorism

To Take Increased Devotion: A Solemn Memorial Service

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday at the base where I serve as command Chaplain we conducted a solemn memorial service for the ninety-four sailors and soldiers from our base that have died while serving at war since September 11th 2001. I knew some of them and their families from when I was assigned to EOD Group Two from 2006-2008. As each name was read, a picture of our fallen comrade was shown, a pause followed by the tolling of a bell. The steady cadence of the names, the silence, and the bell tolling continued for each of these men and women who died all too young serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Horn of Africa, and other places during this war. Ninety-four names, ninety-four lives, ninety-four tolls of the bell.

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The majority of our fallen are SEALS, others in the Special Warfare Community, and EOD techs. As long as these wars continue young men and young women will continue to die and families will be left without husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. The human cost of war cannot be minimized as we honor the fallen this Memorial Day. This is a day that we set aside to remember them, not the living. It is a day for us to remember their sacrifice and commit ourselves to as Abraham Lincoln so stated in his Gettysburg Address:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, US Navy, War on Terrorism

Troop Increases with No Plan: Afghanistan and Dien Bien Phu

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As always back from Gettysburg on Monday brought to my mind the terrible human cost of war and the consequences of poor choices in matters of strategic and operational military decision making.

Tuesday morning I left my house to read the headline of the Virginia Pilot which stated that a decision had been made to increase troop strength in Afghanistan yet again after over 15 years of war in which the United States and its allies have lost over 3500 troops killed in action and the United States alone over 17,000 wounded without destroying the ability of the Taliban to recover from military defeats, or to ensure that the government of Afghanistan and its military could survive without massive US and NATO support.

The numbers of this new “surge” are massively smaller than that of President Obama, 3000 as compared to 100,000, and even the number of troops committed to the Afghanistan surge of Obama were insufficient to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. Once the US and NATO troops were withdrawn the corrupt Afghan government and military forces were unable to keep the Taliban down even as elements of the Islamic State moved into Afghanistan.

The situation reminded me of what the French faced in Indochina in 1953, and the battle of Dien Bien Phu which sealed the doom of the French colonial efforts in Indochina, at a terrible human cost. I wonder if we will even learn anything from history, but at least the French had a plan, albeit a terribly flawed one in 1953 and early 1954 where since 2002 the United States has had no real plan in Afghanistan.

Dien Bien Phu 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.


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. Until his death in 2013 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 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 lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies have been in the following years.

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.

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.

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. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They elected to go 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 the General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements elected to continue the operation.

French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Likewise 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 and 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 exposed positions.

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.

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 positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also 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.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post 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 using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

French Wounded Awaiting Medivac from Dien Bien Phu 

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.

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)

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.

Legionaires 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 close to 3500 in Afghanistan, not counting vast numbers of wounded. There are those even as we have been at war for 15 years who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. How many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen and our allies will need die without “victory” however badly we might try to define it?

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.”

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 Dienbeinphu 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. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he 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 and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell. But I don’t think it is possible for us to learn anymore, only send more young men and women to die in an already lost cause. As the late Edwin Starr sang in his song War, what is it good for? 

Peace, love and understanding. Tell me, is there no place for them today. They say we must fight to keep our freedom, But lord knows there’s got to be a better way. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again… 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Everything Has Changed: The Aftermath of 9-11-2001 and Fifteen Years of War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I posted a reflection yesterday on some of my reflections on the 9-11-2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, today a continuation of those thoughts. Yesterday morning after chapel and taking care of things I needed to for the opening day of our new class at the Staff college this morning I went to breakfast with Judy. We talked about how it was hard to believe that it had been fifteen years since the attacks of 9-11-2001. Judy mentioned that everything had changed since then.

As I recalled yesterday I can still remember the day like it had just happened, the images are burned into my memory and will never go away. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym. I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning. I thought to myself, “Some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.”

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well-deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer. Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I was stunned and I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn. I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when the South Tower went down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed. I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times. I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the right wing media, politicians, preachers, and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could. I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but eight years after going to war I am decidedly liberal. However, despite many allegedly conservative talk pundits, politicians and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom. After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before Iraq I was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnam when liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.” In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.” As a result I had little love for the Left. After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before. The emotions that they stirred up were primal. But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present. Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

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A man (C) identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State. Islamic State warned in the new video on November 16, 2015 that countries taking part in air strikes against Syria would suffer the same fate as France, and threatened to attack in Washington. The video, which appeared on a site used by Islamic State to post its messages, begins with news footage of the aftermath of Friday's Paris shootings in which at least 129 people were killed. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TVATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

I rejoiced when our SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah. They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. I feel the same way about ISIS and ISIL who are killing the Iraqis that I served alongside and their families, and if that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are all too personal and as far as the extremists of ISIl, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates around the world I am unapologetic, we should annihilate them. I would apply the words of the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent concerning the Confederates to the supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIL wherever the are:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step. We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.”

This will sound hard, but the life of every supporter of ISIL or Al Qaeda is of no value whatsoever to freedom and democracy.  I would apply that standard to any supporter of authoritarian dictatorship in any guise, not just militant Islamists, lest there be any doubt.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in we conducted in Iraq which seems to me has opened the gates of hell. I still think that the words that T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1920 about the British in Iraq are as applicable today as when he penned them; only the empires are different:

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

The British who Lawrence wrote about, gave their people reasons for going into Mesopotamia which were similar to those of the Bush administration over 80 years later. They cloaked their intentions in the words of liberation and protection, the British from the Turks, and the Americans from Saddam. Lawrence noted in words that are hauntingly familiar to those that paid attention to the American war in Iraq:

“Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.”

At the fifteen year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed. On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down in Pennsylvania. One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner who I had served with at the Academy of Health Sciences Brigade in 1987-1988.

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Since then about 4500 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq and another 2400 in Afghanistan. NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost about another 1300 military personnel and that does not count the soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan who fought at our side. More than 45,000 American servicemen an women have been wounded in this fight. I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died. The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars; many of whom were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day. Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily. I have known too many of them as well, heroes who could not make the adjustment coming home. Likewise I cannot forget the devastation that I saw in Iraq, the deaths of so many, some estimates of over a million civilian casualties, not county what has happening during the current ISIS/ISIL era.

That is why I am in favor of a hard war against these people. Some would say that a hard war would endanger civilians, and yes I agree with that. But then what is the alternative? To leave those same people under a regime that crushes them, enslaves them, takes their children and schools them to be child soldiers and Islamic Kamikazes? William Tecumseh Sherman told the mayor of Atlanta after ordering the civilian population expelled that “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make the old and young, the rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

That may seem hard, but I have been changed by that tragic event and the wars that have followed. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down on that September day fifteen years ago.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world. While we yearn to return to the day’s before 9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge to go back, and those who advocate the same ideology as the attackers of 9-11 will not go back either.

As for me, I know that I can’t go back. But as much as I wish that I could I will have to live with reality, as I have for the last fifteen years, and I will continue to learn to live with it.  To live with the reality that this war will not end anytime soon and that far too many more people will die before this war ends. For those that find my opinions about this war repulsive or less than informed, I would actually hope and pray that you are right. But as my Iraqi friends say,

“Inshallah (إن شاء الله)”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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