Tag Archives: afghanistan

Depression Kills: RIP Robin Williams

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Robin Williams during his 2007 USO Tour to Iraq and Afghanistan 

Tonight I found out about the unexpected death of the great Robin Williams. It was shocking and upsetting to hear that it was believed that Williams had recently suffered from severe depression and that he was believed to had committed suicide.

I guess I can say that I almost met Williams when I was in Iraq, in between missions at Ta’Qaddum airbase west of Fallujah in 2007. Williams was with a number of celebrities and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen touring Iraq and Afghanistan. I had just come in from a mission and could not see his show, but the following morning I walked by Williams as he was walking back from the dinning facility. I recognized him, but I am loathe to interrupt a person’s time alone. I simp gave him a “good morning” which he returned and both of us went on our ways. I could have stooped him and detained him, but in good conscience could not do it. My friend Fr Jose Bautista, a Navy Chaplain had Williams and Lance Armstrong sign a baseball cap for me. I treasure it.

Robin Williams was brilliant, talented and brought much you to many people. Unfortunately. like so many brilliant and caring people he was afflicted with his own personal “demons.” He struggled with depression ands substance abuse.

I understand. Since returning from Iraq in 2008 I have dealt with the effects of PTSD, including depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, nightmares and night terrors. I know why people commit suicide, and at times considered it myself. Most recently less than two weeks ago when dealing with the inhuman machine that is the Navy mental health system, something that is common to the rest of the military and VA systems.

The fact is that depression is a killer and it disproportionally afflicts the most talented, brilliant, artistic and insightful people.  Van Gogh, Hemingway, Williams and so many others, including men and women that distinguished themselves in combat, some of whom I knew, have taken their lives.

The death of Robin Williams has shaken me. I pray for his wife and children and all those who loved him, or who were touched by him.

Please, if you are suffering from anything that makes you think that suicide is the only option, please seek help. If you have no one else, contact me. I may not be able to do much but I will listen. You are not alone.

Rest in Peace Robin Williams. You brought much joy to my life and to so many others.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under celebrities, mental health, suicide

A Song of Souls Changed by War: The Minstrel Boy

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Absolution of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg by Father Corby

Friends of Padre Steve’s World. All the things going on in the world, wars, disasters, plane crashes have all have had me a bit melancholy of late. I wonder about all the tragedy, what is going on in Iraq, where so much of my heart is still invested, the situation in Ukraine and the ongoing, seemingly never ending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and in the midst of it I am reminded that even today thousands of Americans are still in Afghanistan, pretty much forgotten by most Americans.

So today I have re-done a very old article about a song that means much to me; the Irish song The Minstrel Boy. 

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone, In the ranks of death ye will find him; His father’s sword he hath girded on, And his wild harp slung behind him; “Land of Song!” said the warrior bard, “Tho’ all the world betray thee, One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain Could not bring his proud soul under; The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again, For he tore its chords asunder; And said “No chains shall sully thee, Thou soul of love and bravery! Thy songs were made for the pure and free They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray When we hear the news we all will cheer it, The minstrel boy will return one day, Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit. Then may he play on his harp in peace, In a world such as heaven intended, For all the bitterness of man must cease, And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

In February of 2008 I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisors that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisors with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the distain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the television mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned. I don’t regret that and do believe that it is a good thing. If we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

minstrel boy TNG

I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJudJ9S579A

This is dedicated to all those who have served, those still serving in harm’s way and all who have gone through the pain of war, until war shall be no more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, music, Tour in Iraq

Thoughts on the Bowe Bergdahl Controversy

bergdahl-300x270Sgt Bowe Bergdahl as a Private First Class

The case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl troubles me on a number of levels. Over the past few weeks, I like the majority of Americans have been subjected to the incessant media blitz regarding Bergdahl. As someone who has served in combat in very isolated areas of Iraq I have conflicting opinions. One is about his actions that led to him being held captive by the Taliban. The fact is that no matter what the reason he left his base he put himself and his comrades in danger. The second is that we don’t know all the facts and his return is being used by the very people who pressed hardest for it as a political issue. Finally, I am concerned for the safety of Bergdahl and his family which in the course of the mostly right wing media blitz attacks probably are in some kind of danger, especially due to the vehemence that the campaign has been waged.

While I am glad that have him back and that he is safe I am of two minds on what needs to happen.

First Bergdahl needs all the medical and psychological care he can get and once he is deemed fit to question about the incident and his captivity then that needs to happen.

Second a new 15-6 investigation needs to be started by the Army. Should that investigation provide evidence that Bergdahl deserted or collaborated with the enemy or committed treason, Court Martial proceedings should be initiated, beginning with the Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a Grand Jury determine there is sufficient merit to bring him to trial than a trial should take place and if convicted Bergdahl should be sentenced accordingly. If there is a conviction then if need be the judge and jury should take into account whatever happened to Bergdahl at the hands of the Taliban during sentencing.

Since I have given many sentences during Article 15 hearings as a company commander, assisted in the investigation of criminal cases as a personnel officer, sent soldiers to General Court Martial proceedings and testified for both the prosecution and defense in different court-martial and administrative hearings I do have some sense of justice. I am not blind.

All of that being said, my career military opinion being taken into consideration, the fact is, no matter what has been presented in the media, we don’t know the whole story. Please know I am not defending Bergdahl here, but there is something called due process, which he is not getting in the media, especially the politically motivated vultures at Foc News.

This is unfortunate and is a terrible example of “yellow journalism.” Marcus Luttrell, the “Lone Survivor” of the SEALS says that Bergdahl no matter what the outcome is “branded for life.” Luttrell is no “bleeding heart.” He knows life and death and combat, and he lost friends fighting the Taliban.

The initial 15-6 investigation was never completed because the investigating officer did not have access to Bergdahl. As far of the men from his unit who blame Bergdahl for every death that their unit experienced after his disappearance, that is understandable. It is a reasonable reaction of men who feel that they and their comrades may have been betrayed. It is something that has occurred throughout military history as soldiers seek to find an answer to battlefield misfortune and the loss of friends. One only has to look at the “Lost Cause” in the historical myth of the American South and the Civil War to see that even normal, rational and decent people can assign blame to others for defeat or the loss of friends.

This issue is important for we do know that the unit took casualties after Bergdahl disappeared, but it doesn’t look like any died actually looking for him, in fact some were killed inside their combat outposts. It does not appear that there is a direct connection between Bergdahl’s disappearance and the loss of six other American soldiers. The province where this happned was one of the most hotly contested areas of Afghanistan, when the Taliban, including the Haqqani network poured fighters into the area even before Bergdahl and his unit arrived at their combat outpost. However, that being said, if I lost friends after a soldier disappeared I might want to find a causal link between the situations.

Unfortunately, for years Congress, especially the Republicans castigating Obama now hammered him to do “all he could to secure the release of Bergdahl.” I guarantee that if President Bush, or a President McCain or Romney secured the release with the same process there would be no backlash right now. Any of them would be hailed as heroes who secured the life of an American soldier by the partisans attack President Obama.

As far the “released” Taliban, they in custody in Qatar and you can bet that the CIA is monitoring every breath they take. They were not set free, they are in Qatari custody and the government of Qatar does not want to screw this up. They want to increase their international status and influence outside of the oil markets. However, despite claims the claims of some that these five men are “the worst of the worst” the fact is they only killed Americans after we invaded their country and toppled the government and military that they were a part. Yes, they were bad guys, even potential war criminals when it came to killing Shi’ite Afghans, but they were not Al Qaeda, and President Bush released over 500 like them before he left office.The proper course wold have been to send those of killing their own people to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and treat those accused of purely military crimes against Americans as Prisoners of War, especially those who were acting in  official capacities in the military of Afghanistan.

Retired Marine Corps General Mattis, and former Commander of the US Central Command said that the exchange of those Taliban for Bergdahl was actually beneficial to the United States forces in Afghanistan. Mattis told the Military Times http://www.militarytimes.com/article/20140609/NEWS/306090040/Mattis-Bergdahl-release-makes-Taliban-vulnerable  that: “We no longer have that concern that they have this pawn they can then play against us,…. So there‘s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in captivity. So, there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy so long as they held Bowe as a prisoner.” 

Mattis is absolutely right. We no longer have to worry about the Taliban using him for propaganda purposes, or staging a public execution of him to try to embarrass us. Likewise we no longer have to endanger others trying to find him and this gives us room to more forcefully response against them as we depart the country.

As far as Bergdahl’s situation, the Army needs to conduct a new investigation, if it appears that he did desert or collaborate with the enemy he should be put on trial and if found guilty be appropriately punished.

But from my perspective there are a lot of other big questions, including what was going on in his unit in the weeks before he disappeared, which from a leadership perspective are really troubling to me as a military professional. His unit was troubled, it had a bad reputation and some of what are alleged against its members is that some members might have engaged in war crimes against Afghan civilians. I suspect that some of Bergdahl’s accusers could be covering up their own incompetence and possible crimes and using him as a scapegoat, and even if Bergdahl is guilty of what they accuse him of that behavior is inexcusable.

To add to his accusers conundrum is that all of those that have come forward to condemn Bergdahl have done so on behest of Republican political operatives, including former Bush administration staffers. Ironically, one of Bergdahl’s most forceful accusers was discharged from the army with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge. That says something about his potential creditability.

The late Michael Hastings wrote in a 2010 report in the Rolling Stone about that unit. Hastings’ article is insightful because it shows the extent of the problems going one and provides reasons why Bergdahl might have left his post. That article is linked here: http://www.rollingstone.com/…/americas-last-prisoner-of…  Now I do not believe that anything excuses desertion in war, but what if there were other extenuating factors? If his accusers are to be believed, as some say that Bergdahl to be showing indications of mental instability or possible indications that he was about to defect they should have either taken action to get him treatment or to ensure that he could not do so. They did not do this. To me their allegations are factors that good leaders would have noticed and taken precautions to prevent. Believe me, had any competent leader been in charge of that platoon this wouldn’t have happened.

Again none of what I say here excuses desertion or collaboration with the enemy. If Bergdahl did either and is convicted them he should spend as much time in prison as convicted criminal and retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North did for his actions of lying to Congress and being involved in a weapons exchange with the government of Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon. North wrote of President Reagan’s knowledge of that crime saying: “Ronald Reagan knew of and approved a great deal of what went on with both the Iranian initiative and private efforts on behalf of the contras and he received regular, detailed briefings on both…I have no doubt that he was told about the use of residuals for the Contras, and that he approved it. Enthusiastically.”

Since North has been one of Bergdahl and President Obama’s most viscous attackers, that would be just. But wait… North didn’t spend a day in jail because his conviction was overturned with the help of those “Anti-American Commies” from the ACLU. Mind you this was not because he wasn’t guilty, but because jury members might have been influenced by North’s televised but immunized and highly incriminating testimony before Congress. Another person raising hell is Senator John McCain, who along with the other US POWs in Vietnam was exchanged for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese POWs at the end of that war. Likewise, after his release McCain was accused of aiding the enemy, including some of the same people that now attack Bergdahl.  That too is ironic.

I love the irony and I am disgusted by the actions of those that seek to destroy Bergdahl before the facts are fully known and before he has a chance to defend himself. But then maybe due process of law is only applicable if you are a “conservative” accused of treason and aiding and supporting avowed enemies.

But all this being said, there is much more to know. So before we go destroying the life of an American soldier who was held for 5 years by the Taliban, as well as his family, let us get the facts right and not use them as a political bludgeon against the President for purely political reasons. Please don’t tell me that Obama broke the law because he didn’t give warning to Congress regarding the release into the custody of Qatar of the Taliban prisoners who were exchanged for Bergdahl, that was done in 2012.

All of this troubles me, and it should trouble any person that cares about due process of law and the rights of the accused in court. What has been happening in the media, particularly on Fox News in relation to Bergdahl is nothing short of scandalous and politics at its very worst. The precedent being set is terrible and those “conservatives” that attack Bergdahl and Obama should realize that what they do sets precedent and probably will be used against them and their heroes in the future.

I want justice, including for the men who might have died because Bergdahl went missing. If he actually deserted, committed treason and collaborated with the enemy he needs to be punished. But that has to happen through the process of law and not through character assassination and political posturing in the media.

The proper course right now is to get the facts straight, ensure that Bergdahl gets whatever assistance that he needs to recover, stop the political posturing and seek true justice. If we cannot do that we have disgraced ourselves as a people and as a nation far more than a guilty Bowe Bergdahl ever could.

Of course what I say will make very few happy, but it is a proper response because it weighs the best knowledge of the facts, with the actions of Bergdahl and responsibility for the lives lost. It is something that I believe is important, the qualities of truth, justice and mercy. Unfortunately, that message will probably go unheeded.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, News and current events, Political Commentary

D-Day at 70 Years and Forever: Courage, Sacrifice and Reconciliation…

d-day-opener1Omaha Beach

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” President Barack Obama at the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, June 6th 2014

Seventy years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgement area and begin the drive across France.

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

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

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

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

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

caen_ruins1The Ruins of Caen

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

Normandie, Fallschirmjäger mit MG 42

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

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinner-w-bg-sabah1Me with Iraqi General Sabah in his Quarters in Ramadi 2007

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

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

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

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, world war two in europe

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

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I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

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Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

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When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

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It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

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This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

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Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

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There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Iraq and Back: Reporting for Duty

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In July 2007 my assistant at EOD Group Two, RP1 Nelson Lebron and I began our Iraq adventure.  This is one of a series of posts which will be published periodically to tell our story.  While they will not be daily posts, they will be sprinkled in on this site on a regular basis.  Hopefully they will be something that will help those who have not been in the remote parts of either Iraq or Afghanistan what it is for Navy personnel to go to war, not as ship’s company, not with their own unit, but as individual augments to other commands.  This is a different way to go to war…this is our story.

July 2nd 2007: I rolled into the parking lot for the Naval Mobilization Processing Site (NMPS) Norfolk.  As usual parking on Norfolk Naval Station was a bitch to find.  It had been a number of months since I had to make this commute.  I transferred from the Marine Security Force Battalion where I had served from 2003 to October 2006 and had not made the trip since. Thankfully I remembered to leave early because traffic was as gooned up as ever going down I-264, I-64 and I-564 to head into the base.

As I looked for a parking space I really missed my designated parking spot back at Security Forces. I drove around for a while and finally found a spot, then after wandering around a found the NMPS offices.

I walked upstairs to the classroom in which we were to meet was located and found it empty, save for a couple of NMPS staff members.  I reported there in my DCU’s, or Dessert Camouflage Uniform issued to me by EOD Group Two. They are an older type uniform similar to the old BDUs and unlike the Marine Pattern Digital Camouflage are not wash and wear. I still have a few sets in my deployment bag but figure that if I every get deployed to such a situation again that I will be wearing whatever Army or Marine Corps uniform the Navy sailors are wearing unless serving with the Seabees, Naval Special Warfare or an actual Navy command.

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Camp Zarqa Jordan March 2007

I had worn them in March when I went to Jordan for the Jordanian Army/ UN Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi Culture, Religion, Politics and Language. Until the Marines came out with their digital uniforms they were common to all of the services. Now in 2013 I think there are 10 different camouflage uniforms in use among the armed forces and Congress is about to force us in the military to find a common uniform again. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

I looked around the empty classroom with every table stacked with folders filled with a huge amount of paperwork.  I found a seat which is not hard to do with so many to empty seats choose from and sat down. I took an aisle seat about three rows back and plunked my EOD issue Blackhawk backpack down, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and did the morning office before anyone else arrived while drinking the large cup of black coffee I had gotten across the street.

Shortly thereafter other people began to arrive in twos and threes, most enlisted dressed in utilities (the successor to dungarees) while most of the Chiefs and officers were dressed in khakis. A few Seabees had woodland BDUs on and a couple of folks wore DCUs which were obviously from previous deployments to the sandbox.  RP1 Lebron, then an RP2 then showed up and we waited for the orientation and administrative stuff to start moving.  We surveyed the situation and looking upon our fellow sailors realized that this would be a different deployment.

What we noticed as we talked the varying ranks and uniforms really jumped out at both of us.  Most of our fellow sailors had never been deployed even in peacetime in such a manner.  Most of those who had deployed had done so on ship with the exception of the Seabees and a Corpsman or two.

The sailors spanned the spectrum of age, rank and rating. There were the officers, mainly Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders and Commanders, Surface Warfare, Aviators, Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps and Medical Officers.  The highest ranking officer was a Navy Captain. I was the only Chaplain.

The enlisted sailors also spanned the spectrum of the Navy. Fire Control Technicians, Operations Specialists, Gunners Mates, Boatswains, Yeomen and Storekeepers, Intelligence Specialists, Corpsmen, and even Culinary Specialists.  They had qualifications as Submariners, Enlisted Surface Warfare, Aviation Warfare among others.  Some like me and Nelson had volunteered, others were voluntold. The one that brought us all together was that we were US Navy Sailors and going to war and not with the Navy or our shipmates. We were strangers to each other and would be strangers to Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors that we would serve with overseas.

Nelson and I have deployed a lot. We had served together in Okinawa and at EOD where I did a “drug deal” with his chaplain and the RP detailer to get him to EOD.  The guy is a hero. I think he has deployed about 10 times in his 20 year career from which he will retire this fall.

The year and a half prior to our deployment Nelson had been deployed to Afghanistan where he as an E-5 was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.  On his way back from Afghanistan he was pulled off of his flight to the states and sent back to his old ship, the USS Trenton to assist in the evacuation of Americans and others from Beirut.

I think to some extent his frequent deployments actually hurt his career since the biggest part of making rank as a Navy enlisted man is to do well on the advancement exam. Unfortunately there were many times when he was forbidden to test because he was deployed, and when eventually allowed to test during a deployment was not provided the appropriate materials to study. That would happen again during the coming deployment and lead to a pretty funny incident on one of our trips in Iraq, but that story will be told later.

Nelson is a NY Rican and both a New York Golden Gloves boxing champ, a high school valedictorian, a full contact  kick boxer, martial artist, MMA fighter and has fought on Team USA and won the 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.   He is the real deal.  Proficient in many weapons systems from his service with the 3rd Recon Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment and Naval Special Warfare he is the ideal body guard for any Chaplain going to do the job we had been given to do, to work with Marine and Army advisers supporting two Iraqi Divisions.  Our mission would evolve and expand once we got there, but we didn’t know that yet.

As people filed in a Chief Petty Officer brought us to attention and the processing site Commanding Officer came. He spoke with us a few minutes and then led us in the Sailors Creed. With that we set down and began to get our orientation to how our mobilization, training and movement would unfold as we got ready to go to Iraq.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s 2013 Down and Dirty Primer on the Muddle East

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“When you are up to your arse in alligators it is hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” Old British Colonial Saying

Note: This is an update to my 2011 Primer on the Muddle East

During the dark days of World War Two when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was making fools of a series of British commanders in North Africa people including senior British military and government leaders sometimes referred to the theater of operations as “the Muddle East.” Some things never seem to change. The Muddle East today is quite frankly speaking in a real muddled state if there ever was one with world leaders and regional leaders muddling about as if they were the New York Mets.

A large part of the muddle goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War when the victorious Allied Powers redrew the map of the Middle East and made alliances with various local tribal sheiks who many times were crowned king over other tribes who didn’t necessarily want them as king. This along with heavy handed European military actions such as the British using poison gas dropped from aircraft in Iraq and a real lack of effort to better the lives of the newly “liberated” peoples of the region was just the start. Add to the cesspool a bunch of oil presided over by major oil companies, the anti-colonial movements that flourished in the years after World War Two when the French, British and Italians had to divest themselves of their Middle Eastern holdings. The French had to fight a real war in Algeria but finally withdrew leaving Algeria’s new rulers to goof up the country and oppress their people for decades to come.  In the coming years many of these newly independent nations found that life still sucked so in a number of countries military officers overthrew the despised monarchs promising reforms but oppressing their people while blaming all their problems on the Israelis.  They got their asses kicked by the Israelis in a series of wars which did a number of things that made the Middle East Muddle even worse.

First it ensured that Palestinian Arabs ended up under Israeli rule and were used with great aplomb by the Middle Eastern despots to prop up support for their regimes while doing nothing to help the Palestinians other than to put them in camps in Lebanon.  Even when the Egyptians made a peace deal with Israel most of the Arab World ostracized them.  Then in 1979 the Shah of Iran was sent packing by a bunch of Mullahs and in 1981 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in one of the bloodier wars of the late 20th Century which finally ended in 1988. Of course the United States was pissed at the Mullahs so Saddam became our favorite Arab despot for a while.  Add to the mix the Soviet Union and the United States arming their favorite Arab dictators who were given carte blanche to continue oppressing their people so long as it didn’t interfere with their support of either party or the oil supply. Finally the Soviets went Tango Uniform in 1989 not long after being forced out of Afghanistan by the U.S. supplied, Pakistani supported and Saudi Arabian fundamentalist financed Mujahideen.

With the Soviets “Tango Uniform” and the Warsaw Pact nations trying to get into NATO the United States was now the uncontested Numero Uno country in the world Saddam presumed upon his late supporters and invaded Kuwait, albeit after thinking that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said that we wouldn’t mind.

Well he was wrong we did mind and got a lot of countries from NATO and including a bunch of Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to get on board on a mission to get Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait. It was a kick ass mission and since the United Nations didn’t authorize removing Saddam and because President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to not to drive on Baghdad to kick him out preferring the despot we knew to a quagmire Saddam was left in power.

So we stationed ground and air forces around the Gulf to keep Saddam and Iran in check and even put them in Saudi Arabia which a large number of radicals such as Osama Bin Laden equated to letting the Devil play in Allah’s Holy Sandbox.  So Osama went and set up a base with the Medieval bunch of Pashtun known as the Taliban in Afghanistan stirred up a bunch of shit killing Americans and blowing up stuff including the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996, the USS Cole in 2000 and then 2001 another attack on the World Trade Center which took down the towers with hijacked aircraft and also struck the Pentagon triggered an American response against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.  The United States then invaded in Iraq in 2003 and succeeded in taking out Saddam but also succeeded in alienating a good many Iraqis who greeted us with open arms because we goofed up the occupation and pissed a lot of them off by dissolving the Army, Police and Civil Service and letting thugs and opportunists take over. Unfortunately since we didn’t go in with enough troops to secure all the Iraqi bases, their weapons depots and actually take control of surrendering Iraqi units these newly unemployed and dishonored people launched an insurgency bolstered by Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters even as Sunni and Shi’a Moslems began to settle scores with each other. Insurgency and civil war, two great tastes that go great together, but what the heck right?

Of course it took years to get control of the situation on the ground and thankfully the United States forces in Iraq were helped when the Sunni Moslems in Al Anbar Province realized that these foreign fighters were a worse enemy than the United States and switched sides. This turned the tables in Iraq and the insurgency was brought under control and an elected government managed to start to get their stuff together and allow us to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Of course the focus on Iraq gave the Taliban a chance to regroup as the Afghani Government proved itself corrupt, incompetent and not to give a shit about the Afghani people. So the Taliban who had been hated made a comeback and made our lives much harder so that now almost 10 years into the fight we are having a really hard time.  Well enough about us there was plenty more going on in the Muddle East besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Let’s see….there was the law of unintended consequences in that by taking Saddam Down and weakening Iraq we took away Iran’s natural enemy and the key to the balance of power in the region. Iran was strengthened and began a nuclear program that everyone with half a brain knows in intended for military use and expanded its influence in Lebanon where the Iranian backed Hezbollah took power.  Now Hezbollah which actually has an experienced military force and probably owns 40,000 or so rockets and missiles a good number of which can hit deep in Israel seems to be ready for war especially because they fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2008, the first time an Arab military ever did that. Not only did they take on the Israelis but they are also helping Syrian dictator Bashir Assad turn the tide against the polyglot Syrian rebel forces which are being assisted by Sunni foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and the ever present Al Qaida presence.

Then was the effect that the wars in those countries made things harder for us in many other friendly Arab nations.  Of course there is the problem of a nuclear armed Pakistan which is about as stable as a Japanese nuclear reactor after getting hit by a tsunami and plays both sides of the street in the war on terror.  The Palestinians and Israelis continued their love affair and since Fatah which ran Palestinian Authority was so corrupt and gooned up a more militant group, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip. Hamas is a pretty bloodthirsty lot too but not the same level of threat as Hezbollah to the Israelis.  Of course the Israelis have done little to help the situation by their often heavy handed treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The witches’ cauldron of the Muddle East is getting even more muddled on a daily basis as young Arabs throughout the Muddle East are rising up against their despotic rulers and it doesn’t seem that any are safe, those allied with the United States and the West as well as those that have been a thorn in the side of the United States and the West. It just seems that despots and tyrants are no longer in vogue. The uprisings began in Iran after a disputed election where reformers were cheated of power and the revolt crushed by the Revolutionary Guard and other thugs of the Iranian regime. However with the election of “moderate” whatever that means cleric Hasan Rowhani as President hopes are that Iran, despite the machinations of many other clerics and the Revolutionary Guard might be brought to the negotiating table. That being said Iran is reportedly sending about 4000 troops to go help Assad in Syria so go figure.

Elsewhere in the Middle East things continue to boil. In December 2010 the people of Tunisia rose up and overthrew their President for Life Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising followed shortly after by the Egyptians who tossed out long term President and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a “moderate Islamist” regime has been attempting to maintain control of radicals and keep some semblance of balance in that country while in Egypt the Islamic Brotherhood was able to get majorities elected in the Parliament and elect Mohammed Morsi as President. Needless to say both countries are still in turmoil.

In Iraq the Sunni Shi’a divide is as wide as ever and that country is threatening to become engulfed in yet another civil war as sectarian violence increases and the Kurds make more moves toward independence.

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Turkey, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire is now beginning to erupt as secularist elements in the society are protesting the policies of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to repeated clashes over the past two weeks between protestors and police.

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Afghanistan though technically not part of the Middle East continues to be a problem for US and NATO consuming intelligence, economic diplomatic and military resources that could be put to play with better effect elsewhere.  What T.E. Lawrence said of the British occupation of a restive Mesopotamia  in 1920:

“We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him.” ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

In Libya the Arab Spring claimed the long time pain in the ass Moammar Gaddafi. That conflict center of the action in 2011 until Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered. Since then Libya has remained in turmoil despite elections, militias run amok and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi on September 11th 2012.

Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria, and Jordan have or are experiencing demonstrations which look to be revolts in the making and even Saudi Arabia is trying to head off a potential popular uprising.

However the real problem now, the problem that threatens to send the region into a regional war is the revolt in Syria which began with peaceful protests by reformers against the Assad regime. However the hard line response of that regime to the protests spawned a civil war which now threatens to overflow the borders of Syria. France, Britain and the US have stated that they believe that there is evidence that the Syria government has used chemical weapons, in particular Sarin nerve agents against the rebels. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people with hundreds of thousands more now living as refugees.

The conflict in Syria epitomizes one of the greatest challenges in the Middle East that many in the West are just beginning to recognize, the Sunni Shi’a divide. That divide is becoming more serious with every passing day as Iran continues to lead and assist Shi’a elements in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, as well as in Iraq where the Arab Shi’a are in the majority. The conflict in Syria is predominantly Sunni versus Shi’a though in that patchwork nation of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite Shi’a tribe of the Assad clan, various Christian and Druse groups. Lebanon which borders Syria is as divided as its larger neighbor and Hezbollah holds tremendous power in that country.

Yes my friends this is a mess and almost everybody that is anybody in the military and economic power houses of the world doesn’t have their handprints all over at least some part of this mess. All of these own some of the blame for what is going on, both the rulers of the nations in the region as well as world powers who all try to influence the nations and peoples for their own diplomatic, intelligence, military or economic gain. Almost no one is unsoiled by their involvement in the Muddle East over the past 90 years or so and so in a way all of great world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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The region is more volatile than at any time in recent history and events there could easily ignite a regional war with worldwide implications.  That is why the region has been called the Muddle East for decades.  We all hope and pray for the best and that somehow all of this that the promise of a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” will become a reality, but there are better than even odds that things get way worse before they get better. There are just too many wild cards in this deck and the swamp is full of hungry alligators.

With the announcement this week that the US would provide military aid and training to the Syrian rebels and that US forces will remain in Jordan even as US and NATO Patriot missile batteries stand ready in Turkey there is a really good chance that the conflict in Syria will not stay in Syria.

Of course there is always the wild card if what Israel may do in what it perceives to be its security interests against outward foes such as Iran and Syria but also inside its borders and occupied territories, especially if it is attacked or provoked by Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

May God help us all and bring about peaceful change, or as my Iraqi friends simply say “Inshallah, God willing.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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