Tag Archives: 9-11-2011 attacks

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.

9-11 jumpers

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

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

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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.

hue city boarding party

 

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. 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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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, PTSD, remembering friends, terrorism, War on Terrorism

Iraq, ISIS and Al Qaeda: Sowing the Wind…

In recent days I have been reading the statements, speeches and documents of senior members of the Bush administration justifying the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Until it invaded Kuwait in August 1990, that regime was considered an ally against the Iranian Mullahs. But that changed when he invaded Kuwait, following an American diplomatic miscalculation which he interpreted as our acquiescence to his plans.

Of course like Paul Harvey used to say, we know “the rest of the story.” The administration of George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition and obtained the support of the United Nations Security Council to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Interestingly enough the coalition included Sunni and Arab, Shia regimes including that of Syria. Twelve years later following the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the son-of-Bush, George W. Bush and his administration desperately tried to link the most disparate group of nations to the actions of Al Qaeda; Iran, a mortal enemy of the Sunni Al Qaeda extremists, North Korea, a rogue nation in its own right, but with no proven contacts with the terrorist group, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a rather unique regime which managed under a secular mantle to unify a disparate country well enough that hundreds of thousands of Shia Arabs gave their lives in nearly decade long war with Shia Iran.

The imbecilic decision to attack Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the knowledge that the previous Bush administration rejected the idea of overthrowing Saddam and occupying the county was disastrous. Likewise the decision to lump the Shia regime of Iran, which realized the militant Al Qaeda threat and was working through back channels to cooperate with the United States against it, was stupid. The decisions destroyed the balance of power in the region and eliminated the one relatively, though admittedly despotic secular state that opposed both Al Qaeda and Iran ran contrary to an sane understanding of geopolitics and national security.

After eight years of struggle the United States withdrew its military forces pursuant to an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration with the Shia dominated government of Iraq. The rest is history. That government under Prime Minister Maliki did all that it could to keep itself in power while marginalizing the largely secular Sunnis who rose to drive out Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening helped bring about the resurgence of the Al Qaeda terrorist extremism, in its new and more lethal form of the Islamic State.

Too late the Iraqi government, Iran, the United States, Europe, the United Nations, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have woken up to the threat. ISIS now controls large chunks of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it is dismantling Al Qaeda and supplanting it as the terrorist organization of choice for young Jihadists around the world. The brutality and single minded devotion of of ISIS to radical Salafi and Wahhabi Islam makes Al Qaeda and the Taliban look like the Boy Scouts. It is well funded through black market oil and through rich benefactors in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and its recruiting efforts are bringing in volunteers around the world.

Now the world is faced with a beast that need not have been created. But, the hubris of the Bush administration to destroy the long standing balance of power in the region, eliminate Saddam and alienate Iran, just when we needed both; as well as the short sighted religious devotion of Sunni- Wahhabi and Salafist fundamentalists who funded Sunni militants and terrorists with petrodollars for two decades has opened the door to Pandora’s box. The beheading of American Photo-Journalist James Foley, the killing and persecution of Christian and Yadizi minorities who have lived in Iraq for millennia and the slaughter of Shia Moslems by the ISIS Caliphate demonstrate the level to which ISIS will go to achieve their ends.

There will be no quick end to this war. It will be a war of unimaginable duration, brutality and excess because it will be a war of radically opposed ideology infused with fanatical religion and even racism? The West, too long in denial of the importance of ideology in war, despite having fought ideological, religions or racial wars will be slow to appreciate this fact. However, when it does after yet another massive terrorist strike, the media will whip Americans and Europeans into a frenzy and the gloves will come off and the battle will be joined. The war will take years, maybe decades and the effects will be felt around the world. The brutality will drive moderates to the extremes and it will become a clash of civilizations, probably only rivaled in brutality and destruction by the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Of course none of this is what I want, and I do hope that I am wrong, but I sense that it will play out this way. The details are yet to be decided, but this ideological war, the offspring of the American hubris of the second Bush administration, European greed and the shortsightedness of wealthy Sunni Arabs in promoting a dangerous brand of Islam have brought us to this point. All of us have sowed the wind and now, we will reap the whirlwind.

In such a conflict I wonder about the words Joshua Chamberlain spoke at Gettysburg almost a century and a half ago: “…men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”

Peace Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, middle east, national security, Uncategorized