Tag Archives: 9-11 attacks

“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.

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.

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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

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

Explodierendes World Trade Center III

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

You Can’t go Back: The Aftermath of 9-11-2001

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote 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.

I can still remember the day like it was yesterday. 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 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 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.

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.

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 fourteen 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.

Since then 4492 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq and 2363 in Afghanistan.  NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost another 1270 military personnel. Another 45,170 Americans have been wounded.  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.

I have been changed by that tragic event. 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.  They are hard to watch and while I will observe the anniversary with prayers and a lot of reflection as I do not know how much of the continuous media coverage of the anniversary that I will be able to watch.

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 before9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge.   I know I can’t go back, but I wish that I could, so as I have for the last fourteen years I will continue to learn to live with it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under afghanistan, Foreign Policy, History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

Days Seem to Dawn: Reflections on 9-11-2001 & War

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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.

Fourteen 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 been back 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.

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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boarding team

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 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…

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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. In a couple of years I hope to retire with 36 years of service, knowing that those who I have worked with will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end.

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Today there will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. President Obama has declared a day 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 at the office today as I get ready for our incoming class at the Staff College. Afterward I will go get a beer and dinner with Judy and our friends at Gordon Biersch after catching to remainder of the Norfolk Tides vs. Columbus Clippers International League playoff game which was postponed due to rain last night. I guess that is fitting to as it was baseball that helped begin the healing in Nee York in the days after the attack. 

Have a good day, and do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Maybe things will get better… Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

Murderers, Evil & the Absence of Empathy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like so many people this week I was stunned, shocked and sickened by the execution style murders of Roanoke Virginia reporters Allison Parker and Adam Ward by former reporter Vester Flanagan. Then later in the week the same type of murder of Houston Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth by a man named Shannon Miles. The first was particularly upsetting as a local news station had a story on it early in the day with a video, which I thought was their coverage, but instead it was the live video which had been broadcast at the moment of the shooting. Then I saw the pictures published by the New York Daily News taken by Flanagan as he shot Allison Parker. Those pictures which showed Flanagan’s view down his gun sight as he aimed, fired and aimed again were chilling. They are so troubling that I will not post them here.

I think it was so because I have been on the other side of the gun barrel. Back in 1979, when I was first starting to date Judy we were out with her parents and help up at gunpoint. I had a .38 caliber revolver to my head, the criminals took our wallets, the women’s purses and as they left the one on the other side of the car ripped Judy’s glasses off of her face and ground them into the pavement. I thought about trying to get the gun from the man on my side of the car but realized that if I failed fired that Judy or her parents might have been killed. If I had my own gun, which I did not I would have probably not been able to get a shot off without getting them killed. Likewise, on a number of occasions in Iraq, serving as an unarmed chaplain, I was under enemy small arms or rocket fire. Thus when I think about what happened to the victims there is a certain amount of kinship I feel.

They reminded me of a picture that I saw of a member of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe individually killing women who had survived a mass execution in Russia during the German invasion. In one picture a woman, appears to be trying to rise up to crawl away from the piles of bodies, and a tall SS man walking up a few feet away with a sub-machinegun aimed at her.

I wondered how people of any sort could be so cold as to look someone in the eye and commit such brutal crimes. It was horrifying. I was up that night thinking about so many others that have happened in this country in just past few years. Dylann Storm Roof going to a Bible Study at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church and then murdering the people there because they were African-American and he was a White Supremacist. There was Frazier Glenn Cross, a former KKK leader and militant white supremacist that killed three people near a Jewish Community center in Overland Park Kansas on the Eve of Passover, 2014. He claimed, “I had no criminal intent, I had a patriotic intent to stop genocide against my people,” and “I hate Jews…. They are the ones who destroy us.”

Then there was Neo-Nazi Wade Page who walked into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin and killed six people in cold blood. There was James Holmes who went into a crowded theater in Aurora Colorado and killed twelve and wounded fifty-eight more in a mass killing spree. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Of course there was the Boston Marathon Bombing, and other killings committed by the Tsarnaev brothers, and twenty-year-old Adam Lanza who murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Then there is George Zimmerman, a man in a league of his own, who killed an unarmed black teenager  and got away with it, much like so many murderers of so many others, not just in this country, but others as well.

Of course this is nothing new, we can look back that the 9-11 hijackers who killed almost 3000 people; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who killed 168 and wounded hundreds more when they bombed the Murrah Federal Building; as well as the terrorists of ISIL who routinely look into the eyes of their victims and then kill them.

The list can go on and on, and the murderers span the spectrum of American. Native born and immigrants, whites, blacks, Latin Americans, Asians, well educated men such as Holmes, children of privilege, Christians, Moslems, Jews, various other religions as well as atheists and agnostics. Some seemed to be motivated by some kind of intense hatred, religion, ideology, race; others apparently with some kind of mental imbalance or sense that they, or their race were the victims of the people that they killed.

Whether people murder others in cold blood, be it in large numbers or by looking them in the eye and pulling the trigger, no matter what their motivation for doing so, there is a common factor. It is not the weapons, though I do think the easy availability of so many lethal weapons is a factor, and that we need to tighten the requirements and even limit the types of weapons and amount of ammunition one can legally have, there were over 11,000 gun related homicides in the United States in 2014, I have left out suicides, which were close to 20,000 and justified defense using a gun which are so few that they don’t hit the chart. That number for one year dwarfs the number of all Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I digress…. I am not against people owning guns, I will probably get myself a carbine for marksmanship practice someday, preferably a bolt action World War II Mauser if I can find one in good shape, but again I digress…. The easy access to guns too, is just a part of the equation.

It is not religion, ideology, or political differences, while that certainly plays a part, they are just contributing factors; the same is true of mental illness.

But there is something else, something that an American Army psychologist assigned to the major war criminals noted at the Nuremburg trials: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” 

If you look at the video evidence provided by the killers, their writings, their Internet postings, or the testimony that any of them who survived long enough to go to trial; there is one thing that comes through loud and clear. None of them, not a one have any empathy for their fellow human beings, and as such when they look the people that they are about to kill in the eye do not feel anything.

It does not matter if they are men who perpetrated genocide or killed, or enslaved hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in the name of their religion, ideology, or political-economic systems; or if they are mass murderers or terrorists not connected with a state; who kill in the name of God, race, or ideology; or simply those who hate others and kill to avenge a real or perceived wrong against them. or even those who can look their victim in the eye and then murder them, they all lack the ability to feel for their victims.

The lack empathy, the totality of narcissism, the inability to see others as valued human beings; that it the definition of evil; and there is so much of it in our world. When I saw those pictures that the New York Daily News posted I was reminded of that; and I have had a hard time sleeping since.

I realize all too well that Gustave Gilbert was right; evil is the absence of empathy. The fact is that almost anything else is solvable, but the absence of empathy is the one characteristic that cannot be solved by humanity, and it may be the instrument of our demise as a species.

I say that because there are men and women who would not hesitate to unleash the hell of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction on their enemies and the world. Despite their differences of their belief systems, religion or ideology, these people all display a certain absence of empathy; and that my friends makes them dangerous. Those who can look a single person, or a number of people in the eye and kill them are no different than those who have the ability, or desire the ability to kill millions; for none of them truly believe that their victims are worthy of life. Life unworthy of life, that is how the Nazis referred to their victims, and how those without empathy see their victims.

I’m hoping that his will not be the case and I’m hoping that I will be able to sleep,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, Political Commentary, terrorism

War is Cruelty, and You Cannot Refine it… The War Against ISIL

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The war that we are in, and please let’s call it that, which we have been in for over thirteen years now; and which has been extended indefinitely by the actions of the Islamic State and the announced intentions of President Obama to fight it will become much worse than people want to believe regardless of whether it is a long or a short war.

Americans have grown up for the past twenty years with hi-tech wars that with a few exceptions of terrorism inflicted on American civilians have been waged by a comparatively small professional military; a military that at any given time over the last 20 years has comprised less than one percent of the American population. As such war is a spectator sport for most Americans, we watch it on television, or on You Tube videos on the internet, but it is a distant thing, happening to others that doesn’t touch us too deeply because most of us think that we have no skin in the game. In fact people that bet on baseball have more skin in the game than most Americans do in the current war, but that will probably change.

Since I have written much about that military at its sacrifices in the war that began on September 11th 2001 I am not going to belabor that today. Instead I am going to go back to the nature of war, even wars that may be fought in self-defense and with just cause. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who wrote:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…

Chris Hedges wrote: “Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause,” and as Clausewitz noted of war’s nature, that it is: “a paradoxical trinity-composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…”

We try to use language to soften war; to make it more palatable, but to do so is an Orwellian charade that is deceptive and destructive to the soul. Dave Grossman, the army infantry officer who has spent his post military life writing about the psychology of war and killing wrote:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

Likewise Thucydides wrote:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any….”

Such language gives those who have never been to war but cannot live without it to bring it on, but as Sherman noted: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

President Obama in his address to the nation, and the world on the eve of September 11th talked of a war against the Islamic State, using far more diplomatic, restrained and less warlike language than did Vice President Biden who said:

“As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”

I commend the President for his humanity and desire to fight the Islamic State with a matter of restraint. That restraint will last so long as the Islamic State is unable or unwilling to strike at American civilians in the American homeland, or in a country that is not in the war zone, or an American ship or military installation at home or abroad. But once that happens, and it will the pretense of restraint will drop and what the Vice President said will become our goal, even if we do not officially say it. But once those restraints are passed, the war will get really messy. Michael Walzer wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

“We don’t call war hell because it is fought without restraint. It is more nearly right to say that, when certain restraints are passed, the hellishness of war drives us to break with every remaining restraint in order to win. Here is the ultimate tyranny: those who resist aggression are forced to imitate, and perhaps even to exceed, the brutality of the aggressor.”

The problem with this war is that it has lasted so long already, and such long wars are detrimental to the nations and peoples that fight them, as Sun Tzu wrote: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare,” as such the longer we drag this war against the Islamic State and other similar groups out, the longer the war continues, the crueler it will become and the more damage it will do to our civil liberties, our economy and even more importantly to the spirit of our nation. One can only look at the Patriot Act and related measures undertaken in the name of national security after 9-11-2001 and recall the words of President John F Kennedy who said in respect to the epidemic of loyalty oaths and restrictions on civil liberties enacted in the 1950s:

“We have also seen a sharpening and refinement of abusive power. The legislative investigation, designed and often exercised for the achievement of high ends, has too frequently been used by the Nation and the States as a means for effecting the disgrace and degradation of private persons. Unscrupulous demagogues have used the power to investigate as tyrants of an earlier day used the bill of attainder.

The architects of fear have converted a wholesome law against conspiracy into an instrument for making association a crime. Pretending to fear government they have asked government to outlaw private protest. They glorify “togetherness” when it is theirs, and call it conspiracy when it is that of others.”

Thus the place that we now find ourselves is not good. On one hand by using restraint the war goes on and on, war without end, and if we embrace Sherman’s realism and admit that “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over” is that we will imitate or exceed the brutality of the Islamic State. Either way, we lose something of ourselves. But as Abraham Lincoln said “There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.”

My hope is that somehow, when this is war is done, maybe in our time or in another generation or two, that we will be able to establish peace by making our enemies our friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

9-11-2014 War Without End…

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“We have not reached the limit of our military commitments…” T.E. Lawrence (Mesopotamia 22 August 1920 in the Sunday Times)

Thirteen years after the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in which nearly 3000 Americans were killed and the American response against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan a month later we enter a new phase of war against old and familiar as well as new and frighteningly brutal enemies.

Of course the war was extended to Iraq by the Bush Administration, pursuing the goal of toppling Saddam Hussein and his non-existent weapons of mass destruction. That extension of the war, which so reminds me of what T.E. Lawrence wrote about the British adventure in Mesopotamia in 1920 has led to the creation of a much more ruthless and capable enemy than Al Qaeda ever was and strengthened our old adversary Iran in ways that it could not have done itself. Lawrence wrote of the British effort:

“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.”

Like the Bush administration the British reasons for going into Mesopotamia were cloaked in the words of liberation and protection, only from the Turks, not 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.”

Perhaps the most poignant and relevant note on the ill thought out Bush decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was by Thucydides who wrote:

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”

Last night President Obama announced his intention to fight the brutal and extreme fighters of the Islamic State, or ISIL by building a broad coalition spearheaded by American airpower and intelligence agencies. Of course the President’s announcement was met with cries of not being enough by some on the political right, and with equal vehemence by opponents on the political left who feel that he has displayed cowardice in the face of “9/11 fear mongering” and the implementation of a policy of “perpetual war.” Of course the answer is more complex than anyone wants to admit, the critics on both sides are right in some things and wrong in some things, and the fact is there are no good answers.

Sadly because of what we and the British and others have done in Iraq and Syria the President is left with few options, mainly those that are bad, and those that are worse. So now, as the President, with a fair amount of judiciousness and caution commits the country to continue and maybe even expand the war that began thirteen years ago, it is time to remember those burning towers, the flailing bodies of our fellow Americans and others falling to their deaths to escape the surety of death in those flames and those who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan; not just Americans, but coalition partners and the people of those lands who had no say in what Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda did or what Saddam did or didn’t do; and who went from the oppression of Saddam or the Taliban, to unending civil, tribal and religious wars, in which they were caught in the middle, the Iraqis in a war that was devised by President Bush and his advisors.

There are always results and today we are dealing with the results of at least a century of incredibly short sighted decisions of Western as well as Arab leaders which have blighted the Middle East and caused immense suffering to the peoples of the region. Now because of those decisions there exists a terrorist organization which is rapidly becoming a state in the areas of Iraq and Syria that it occupies. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan described the Islamic State on CNN Monday:

“Number one, you do have to respond militarily to ISIS soldiers and fighters. These guys are fighting a war of the imagination, a war that they think is happening between the forces of good and evil. There is no negotiation. There’s no diplomacy. There’s nothing to talk about with these guys. They have to be destroyed.”

Sadly, Aslan is right in his analysis of the Islamic State. Because of that fact, on this thirteenth anniversary of the 9-11-2001 attacks we and the already suffering people of the region will see war continue without end. One wonders how many generations it will last and what the cost on lives and treasure will be.

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Peace

Padre Steve+

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