Tag Archives: 9-11 2001

“I imagined leave would be different from this” September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Seventeen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

LutjensHonors

Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

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

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 37 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. As I mentioned last night I did not take place in this year’s commemoration of the event at my base because I had been asked by name to do a funeral for a retired Navy Chief at a local veterans cemetery followed by more planning and preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, ethics, History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, Political Commentary, 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

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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Filed under afghanistan, Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, terrorism, War on Terrorism

There Lies a Gulf Between that Time and Today: Remembering 9-11-2001

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Fifteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

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

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 35 years of service. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire in about four years.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared this a of prayer and remembrance which is also good. I will not attend the ceremonies because I still get too emotional, but I will be there in spirit, even though much of me is still in Iraq.

I will quietly reflect as I conduct my chapel services today, and as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. I will also try to get a good run in and then spend some time with Judy, and then have a few beers with some friends at Gordon Biersch.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Eve of 9-11-2001 and War Without End

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few days I have been quite busy but despite that I have not been able to take my mind off of the events of September 11th 2001. As I was walking my dogs around the lake near our house tonight I was struck by the calm, except when they went chasing the ducks, the geese, and a lone Crane. Papillons with a Napoleon complex are fare too funny not to enjoy, but I digress…

I cannot get that day out of my mind, it changed millions of lives including my own.

On the night of September 10th 2001 my mind was as far from war and terror as it could be. I was much more interested in the MLB Pennant Race than I was anything going on in the world, after all the only issues we faced were occasional, if deadly terrorist attacks on foreign installations and deployed ships like the USS Cole. But as to the security of the Continental United States, or as it has been referred to since 9-11 as “the Homeland” I wasn’t concerned. Somehow, despite my knowledge, understanding and study of terrorist groups I just never thought anyone could pull off an attack of this magnitude. The next morning I discovered just how wrong I was as the first reports came in while I was on my way to a late PT session at Camp LeJeune North Carolina where I was serving with the Second Marine Division.

That day changed all of our lives and ushered in years of war which has cost the United States military almost 60,000 casualties including nearly 7,000 dead or died of wounds including a number of friends and others who I served alongside at various points in my career. Of course that does not count non-DOD agency casualties, or those of the contractors who have been a big part of the war effort. Nor does it count hundreds of thousands of other lives in the Middle East that were a result of our response to 9-11, and the unending attacks by terrorists who trace their inspiration to the attacks of September 11th 2001 in so many places; France, Germany, Britain, Spain, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon, Australia, Belgium, Africa, Asia, and so many other places that I have a hard time naming them all.

Whether we wanted it to or not the war which began on 9-11, which was so stupidly expanded into Iraq by the Bush Administration, opening the door to Al Qaeda Iraq and now the Islamic State, and which greatly strengthened Iran by eliminating their worst enemy, Saddam Hussein have made our task most difficult.

Fifteen years after 9-11-2001 we are not only still at war, but it is becoming a war without end. Fifteen years ago I figured that after a few months Al Qaeda would be no more, and the war that they had unleashed upon us would be over. however I was wrong. I do not know what September 11th 2016 will bring, but there is one thing that I know it will not bring… peace.

Have a good night, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Lamps are Going Out: Paris & the End of the Illusion of Peace

Lamplighter

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is barely a day and a half after the massacre committed by Islamic terrorists in Paris, and the shock is still being felt around the world. In watching the images and listening to the words of various leaders I feel that something has changed; that the illusion of peace that we have lived under, has been shattered.

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In two weeks the self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed credit for the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, an attack in Beirut Lebanon, and, on Friday night the horrific series of attacks in Paris. The combined death toll for the three attacks is close to 400, almost all of who were innocent civilians doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Hundreds more were wounded in Beirut and Paris. ISIL has promised to conduct more attacks on all nations that oppose them in Syria and Iraq. The attacks have awakened people to the fact that ISIL is not just a threat to the Middle East, but around the world.

Some are now calling this war, and in fact it is, a war that most of us have ignored though it has been going on for over two decades. But in just two weeks, the hybrid terrorist state known as ISIL has changed the course of that war. The war as we know it began in the years after the First Gulf War as young Saudis returning from Afghanistan, led by Osama Bin Laden took up arms against the “infidel” Americans based in Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s the terrorism was confined to Al Qaeda attacks throughout the Middle East, and included attacks on American military personnel, installations, and ships. Then on September 11th 2001 Al Qaeda changed the narrative by attacking the United States, killing nearly 3000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard four airliners. The United States responded by going after Al Qaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan.

Had the American response been contained to that action, the war might have taken a different course, and we might not be here today. But within months of 9-11 the Bush Administration began planning to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and propagandizing the American people to support it, with or without allied or United Nations sanction. The operation to topple Saddam opened Pandora’s box, and who knows when we will ever live in peace again. Twelve years after President Bush announced the end operations in Iraq aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner that boldly proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished” behind him, the war that he unleashed in Iraq has spread in ways that even the most pessimistic critics of Bush did not predict.

With the war now entering an even more troubling and dangerous phase we should remind ourselves of the words of Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events…. Always remember, however sure you are that you could easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”

As I observe events on I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s description of Sir Edward Gray on the eve of the First World War, “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

Sadly, I do believe that the last lamps of peace are going out around the world in the fight against the Islamic State. I have no idea when, how, or even if this conflict will end.

Praying for peace,

Padre Steve+

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Can You Live with It? War, ISIL & a Downed Airliner

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“My father used to say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I laid the first stone right there. I’d committed myself. I’d pay any price, go to any lengths, because my cause was righteous. My… intentions were good. In the beginning, that seemed like enough.” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) Star Trek Deep Space Nine, In the Pale Moonlight

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

With the increasing probability that elements of the self-proclaimed Islamic State brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai last week, it is important to ask what we are willing to do to protect innocent lives. I am not just talking about the situation in Syria and Iraq, where tens of thousands have died and millions have been displaced; but around the world from a hybrid terrorist state that knows no creed but victory or death.

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The question is not just about fighting the Islamic State as this is already happening. Though there is no formal alliance and many of the states involved have their own interests at heart, the war now involves the United States, some NATO allies, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a number of Arab states, not to mention the kaleidoscope of different warring parties in Iraq and Syria. Until last week the United States was content to fight using airpower alone. Now it appears that albeit with great hesitancy the Obama administration is slowly expanding the fight to include ground troops, although at the time this is limited to special operations troops and advisers.

As the war expands, we do have to ask hard questions, chief among them how far we will go to fight the Islamic State. The fact that no matter what course of action the United States, our allies, and the other combatants take, each one has its drawbacks, as well as benefits. Each one involves a certain amount of risk, and the fact is that the Islamic State does believe that the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and Israel are their greatest enemies and is working to attack each one. This poses a question of making alliances with disparate nations, some of which are mortal enemies of each other. But sometimes necessity makes strange bedfellows, just ask Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin.

So today, I am posing a reflection from the television series Star Trek Deep Space Nine. I think that among the Star Trek series that my favorite is Deep Space Nine. Of course all of the Star Trek series and movies deal with ethics, philosophy and morality to some extent; but Deep Space Nine is perhaps the most interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong I think that the Original Series and Start Trek the Next Generation were and are leap years ahead of most television series when it comes to addressing ethical, moral and existential issues, but somehow living in the post 9-11 “War on Terrorism” world I find Deep Space Nine to be the most compelling. I think that is that the fact that the moral issues get blurred which attracts me to the series, and to this episode in particular.

I think that using the medium of science fiction we can think about real life issues in a new, and maybe more creative way than we might. I think it to do this is to think outside the traditional box, which sometimes limits our discussion, and consideration of all of the factors involved. But the subject is uncomfortable because it makes us face truths that we might not want to see, and parts of ourselves, our beliefs, and our values that can become clouded in times of crisis.

One of my favorite episodes is from season six and is entitled “In the Pale Moonlight.” The episode deals with the unsavory matter of contriving a reason to get the Romulan Empire to join with the Federation and the Klingons to fight the Dominion-Cardassian alliance that is threatening those entities as well as potentially the entire Alpha Quadrant. I have included a link to the conclusion of that episode here:

The ethics of this episode seem very timely as I look at the new phase of the conflict that the United States has been engaged for the past thirteen years. The fact is that in spite of our appeal to higher ideals we are having to make alliances with powers that are only slightly less unsavory than ISIS, powers whose polices have help ISIS grow. In a sense it is the classic scenario of making a deal with the devil to defeat one’s enemy. Of course this is not a new phenomena, individuals and nations have made such deals, sometimes with mortal enemies throughout history.

Unfortunately we usually judge such decisions based on their results, rather than wrestle with the ethical issues involved and how we might behave in similar situations. For me the philosophical and ethical issues involved in such alliances have a special interest and as such I tend to notice or recall instances where I saw, read or heard something that makes a connection to an ethical or moral dilemma faced by policy makers and planners today.

Some of the issues involved for policy makers are related to the traditional Just War Theory, and what is called the “Supreme Emergency” exemption. This exemption basically posits that when faced with a supreme and existential emergency a person or state may engage in behaviors that ordinarily would be considered unethical if the situation were not of a supreme emergency.

Of course such decisions in the real world are difficult. Those who have a system of beliefs that help them define right and wrong behaviors, even if they are not codified in law may struggle with such decisions, while those who act according to what they deem necessary or expedient, unbridled by religious, philosophical or other similar codes may not, instead making their decisions based on what appears to be necessary at the time.

This Deep Space Nine episode is remarkable because we get to see an actor playing a military commander dealing with the morality of the course of action that he is taking. In one of the early scenes Captain Sisko expresses his doubts relating to the morality of a decision that he is making in a war that has already consumed the lives of tens of millions of people.

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After an incident where a Federation starship was destroyed, Sisko went to Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson), an exiled Cardassian intelligence officer to uncover any evidence about Dominion-Cardassian collusion to attack the Romulans. When none was uncovered and Garak’s sources on Cardassia were compromised he agreed to allow Garak to manufacture evidence in order to get the Romulans into the war on the side of the Federation and Klingons. Sisko compounded the situation by having the Klingons release a master forger who was on death row to help Garak. Sisko knew it was wrong and confided in his log:

“Why I didn’t listen to the voice in the back of my mind telling me not to believe a word he said, I’ll never know… But it didn’t take long for me to come face to face with the fact that I’d made a mistake.”

When the former prisoner gets drunk and attacks the owner of a tavern on the space station Sisko was in a bind. He wanted no evidence that the man had been on his station and in order to keep Quark, the bar owner quite had to bribe him. Sisko again expressed his doubts in his personal log:

“Maybe I should have put a stop to it right there. Maybe I should have said, “Thank you very much for your input, Mister Garak, I will take your suggestion under advisement,” and then gone back to my office and forgotten the whole thing. But I didn’t. Because in my heart, I knew what he was saying made sense.”

Even so Sisko still had doubts:

“That was my first moment of real doubt, when I started to wonder if the whole thing was a mistake. So I went back to my office. And there was a new casualty list waiting for me. People are dying out there every day! Entire worlds are struggling for their freedom! And here I am still worrying about the finer points of morality! No, I had to keep my eye on the ball! Winning the war, stopping the bloodshed, those were the priorities! So I pushed on. And every time another doubt appeared before me, I just found another way to shove it aside.”

When nations feel they are engaged in a life and death struggle, those who serve as policy makers, planners and military commanders often make uncomfortable compromises with their own religious, ethical or philosophical codes. Sisko continued down the path despite his doubts but justified his actions by the fact that Starfleet had approved them:

“Maybe… I was under more pressure than I realized. Maybe it really was starting to get to me, but I was off the hook. Starfleet Command had given the plan their blessing and I thought that would make things easier. But I was the one who had to make it happen. I was the one who had to look Senator Vreenak in the eye and convince him that a lie… was the truth.”

The forgery was completed and the Romulan Senator secretly arrived on the station to examine the evidence and as he did so all Sisko could do was wait, confiding in his log:

“So all I could do was wait… and see how masterful Tolar’s forgery really was. So I waited… tried to catch up on my paperwork, but I find it very difficult to focus on criminal activity reports, cargo manifests… So I went back to pacing, staring out of the window. I’m not an impatient man, I’m not one to agonize over decisions once they’re made. I got that from my father. He always says, “Worry and doubt are the greatest enemies of a great chef. The soufflé will either rise or it won’t – there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so you might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.” But this time the cost of failure was so high, I found it difficult to take his advice. If Vreenak discovered that the data rod was a forgery, if he realized that we were trying to trick them into the war it could push the Romulans even farther into the enemy camp. They could start to openly help the Dominion. If worst came to worst they could actually join the war against us. I had the distinct feeling that victory or defeat would be decided in the next few minutes.”

It did not work, Vreenak discovered that the data rod was a forgery and threatened to expose Sisko’s deception and possibly bring the Romulans into alliance with the Dominion. When Sisko’s actions blew up in his face and his deceit was revealed he was not happy and resigned himself to face the consequences:

“So it all blew up in my face. All the lies and the compromises, the inner doubts and the rationalizations – all for nothing. Vreenak was furious. I can’t say I blamed him; I’d have reacted the same way. After telling me in no uncertain terms that he intended to expose this “vile deception” to the entire Alpha Quadrant, he got back in his shuttle and headed home. There didn’t seem to be anything more to do… so I went back to work. Two days later we got the news.”

Sisko learned in a Starfleet communication that Vreenak’s shuttle had blown up and that is was suspected to be the work of the Dominion. When Sisko found that Vreenak was dead he went to Garak and forcefully confronted him, striking him in the process. He accused Garak of sabotaging the senator’s ship and killing him as well as the forger, Tolar. Instead of backing down Garak confronted the results and the ethical issue. The heated exchange between the two men is fascinating:

Garak: If you can allow your anger to subside for a moment, you’ll see that they did not die in vain! The Romulans will enter the war!

Captain Sisko: There’s no guarantee of that!

Garak: Oh, but I think that there is. You see, when the Tal Shiar finishes examining the wreckage of Vreenak’s shuttle, they’ll find the burnt remnants of a Cardassian optolythic data rod which somehow miraculously survived the explosion. After painstaking forensic examination, they’ll discover that the rod contains a recording of a high-level Dominion meeting, at which the invasion of Romulus was being planned.

Captain Sisko: And then they’ll discover that it is a fraud!

Garak: Oh, I don’t think they will! Because any imperfections in the forgery will appear to be a result of the explosion. So – with a seemingly legitimate rod in one hand, and a dead senator in the other, I ask you, Captain – what conclusion would you draw?

As Sisko’s anger subsided Garak continued:

“That’s why you came to me, isn’t it, Captain? Because you knew I could do those things that you weren’t capable of doing? Well, it worked. And you’ll get what you want: a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant. And all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a bargain.”

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Shortly thereafter Sisko found out that the out that the deception was successful as Garak had said it would be. The Romulans who recovered the damaged data rod believed that it was genuine and declared war on the Dominion-Cardassian alliance and had entered the war on the side of the Federation. He completed his personal log:

“At oh-eight-hundred hours, station time… the Romulan Empire formally declared war against the Dominion. They’ve already struck fifteen bases along the Cardassian border. So, this is a huge victory for the good guys! This may even be the turning point of the entire war! There’s even a “Welcome to the Fight” party tonight in the wardroom!… So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover up the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all… I think I can live with it… And if I had to do it all over again… I would. Garak was right about one thing – a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it. Computer – erase that entire personal log.”

My guess is that before this war is over, there will be men and women serving in positions of responsibility in our or allied militaries, policy makers and government officials who will make similar deals, violating their own moral codes and even laws in order to defeat the Islamic State and prevent acts of terror against their citizens. Most, like Sisko will not be happy but will live with their decisions. The fact is that long asymmetrical wars in which nation states have to fight non-state terrorist entities get really ugly and the longer and more bloody that they become the more decent and honorable people will make decisions like Sisko and resort to actions that in normal times they would never countenance.

This is nothing new. Those who have fought in such wars throughout history have found ways to “live” with actions that they would not approve of had things been different. Wars such as the one that we are fighting and continue to fight in the years ahead have a corrosive affect on the human spirit. They corrupt and destroy even when they are “successful.”

The question is: Can we live with it? Sadly, as much as I hate to admit it, in a similar situation I think like Sisko, that I could condone or be complicit in something like this. I too could probably convince myself that the end justified the means and that I could live with it, against ISIL. If in fact an ISIL bomb downed the Russian airliner, it is a watershed, and points to worse things to come, and we will have to ask the question, “can you live with it?”

Of course it is possible that this was an accident, truthfully, I do as tragic as it would be, hope this it the case. 

Of course there is always the possibility that ISIL or one of its allied groups did it. But another possibility cannot be ruled out; that a bomb was planted bye third party, possibly the Russians themselves, hoping to implicate ISIL. That my friends is far to frightening to contemplate as there are too many nations that have both the capability and a motive to do this. 

There are some other issues that I want to discuss about this war using the Star Trek motif, and like this they will be unsettling.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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