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ISIL: A Generational Problem in Which the Enemy Gets a Vote

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I have been writing much in recent days about the war that we are now in against the Islamic State, or ISIL.  Today Secretary of defense Hegel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee about the developing strategy to defeat ISIL. They both echoed what I have been writing, that this is not going to be a short and easy war. It was the kind of briefing that Secretary Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others should have given Congress before launching the Iraq war in 2003.

Unlike Rumsfeld and others who plainly concocted a fairy tale about the character, length and cost of the war which they and their propagandists in the media deceived the American public into supporting that war, this was a briefing conducted by realists who did not paint beautiful picture of just how easy it will be to win this war, and how it really won’t be over until it’s over. Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis very wisely said: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”

In fact the aftermath of that 2003 invasion opened a Pandora’s box of chaos, and opened the door to what T.E. Lawrence warned about in 1919: “A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” ISIL is exactly that, a fulfillment of Lawrence’s warning.

Unfortunately no one really likes realists, they rain on people’s ideological parades and no one likes to have their parade rained on. Both men recognize that after the past thirteen years of war, as well as the massive upheaval spawned in the region in large part because of it, and the many other crises  that the American military and our NATO allies are having to confront, that American military and diplomatic options are less than optimal and as General Mattis said the enemy gets a vote. As Winston Churchill said:

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

General Dempsey cautioned the Senators that this was not going to be a short or easy effort. He noted as any realist would : “It’s a generational problem, and we should expect that our enemies will adapt their tactics as we adjust our approach.” 

They outlined a number of elements of the strategy to include the continued air campaign, coordination with the Iraqis, the advisory mission and the diplomatic efforts being made to build an alliance, as well as to build up “moderate” Syrian rebel forces that are functioning under some kind of “moderate” authority, whatever that is, and if there is such a thing in Syria I hope we find it.

The fact is there is nothing easy about any of these options, even the advisory piece is fraught with danger and the potential of being expanded into a ground combat operation. President Obama has promised not to enter into a ground war, but remember the enemy, as well as the other participants in war get a vote. General Dempsey acknowledged this when he told the committee: “If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.” Yes, the decision to commit troops in a ground combat role is ultimately that of the President as Commander in Chief, but the Congress and the American people need to be part of the decision making process and get a vote. If Congress fails to weigh in on this, and either vote for committing troops, or putting limitations on military action, they will have failed in one of their chief constitutional duties.

General Dempsey also noted the nature of the air campaign that is being conducted and which will be conducted in Syria, saying: “we will be prepared to strike ISIL targets in Syria that degrade ISIL’s capabilities. This won’t look like a ‘shock and awe’ campaign because that is simply not how ISIL is organized, but it will be a persistent and a sustainable campaign.” Part of this is due to ISIL as General Dempsey said, but also as he later noted the growing mismatch between policy ends and the means available to deal with them including the will of Congress to provide those means. Dempsey warned of the danger if the “will to provide means does not match the will to pursue ends,”  a time bomb that the austerity minded Congress foisted on the nation through sequestration in 2012. 

Dempsey was cautiously optimistic in his assessment:

“Given a coalition of capable, willing regional and international partners, I believe we can destroy ISIL in Iraq, restore the Iraq-Syria border and disrupt ISIL in Syria…ISIL will ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the populations on which they have imposed themselves reject them. Our actions are intended to move in that direction.”

General Dempsey recognized that American military power alone cannot solve this situation and that ultimately if ISIL is to be defeated and destroyed, those people that they have conquered need to rise up and reject them. I think that is possible, but it may take years of suffering and oppression at the hands of ISIL for those people to rise up against them. The Sunni did it in Anbar in 2006-2009 to help turn around the Iraq campaign, but they did so on the basis that their rights would be respected and that they would have a real voice in the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government. Instead they were tossed aside by the Maliki government making them far more apprehensive and unwilling to go all in on defeating ISIL as they did its predecessor.  The Sunni attitude is much like that of the Arabs who rebelled against the Turks, of whom T. E. Lawrence wrote:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

This is the reality and it is not pretty. Reality sucks, but as Mark Twain said

“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“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.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Free Syrian Army soldiers in Idlib

“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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The Fallacy of “Complete” Victory and the Seeds of Perpetual War and the Way to Peace

“We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.” B H Liddell Hart

The current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has brought into light the fallacy of the belief that military victories alone can bring peace. One would think that leaders would know this and understand the basic truth of this key aspect of the human condition but it seems that we are doomed in every generation for leaders to ignore this basic fact of human life and civilization.

While one can easily criticize the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs for their unremitting hostility and desire for revenge they are not unique. Europe bears the scars of over 1500 years of Christendom’s own tribal and religious hatreds, many which still simmer underneath the surface of “free and democratic society.” Asia is rife with ethnic hatred and desire for revenge for actions committed by people long dead. Africa, the same except for the most part those in the “First World” be they Americans, Europeans or Asians only care about Africa for its natural resources, otherwise we would have acted to stop the various genocides on that rich, beautiful and diverse but seemingly cursed continent. The inter-Islamic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian Moslems likewise have their hatreds, try as they might Arabs and Persians despite a common allegiance to Islam are mortal enemies with animosities that pre-date their conversion to Islam. Even we Americans are not immune to such hostility in our own country and against those that we label as our enemies overseas.

Despite this there are those that first and always resort to military force or terrorist violence to attempt to fight the “war to end all wars.”

The current episode of violence in Gaza is simple another chapter in what has been an unending series of wars since the establishment of the State of Israel. The time since has been marked by major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1981 the Palestinian Infatada as well as border conflicts between Israel, Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah that have occurred since. These wars forced exodus of Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral homes, as well as the practical end of substantial Jewish and Christian communities in Moslem dominated nations.

The Israelis have in many cases lived under threat of invasion and destruction by neighboring Arab states for much of their history even while maintaining control of territories that they occupy by brutal force in the name of their own security. In some sense the Israeli position is understandable. They occupy but a small portion of land and threats of extermination, real and propagandistic by Arab and nations and the Iranians cause them to see these threats as existential threats.

The Arabs on the other hand deal with centuries of humiliation at the hand of foreigners, many Christian and European, but also that of the Turk and Persian. The constant drumbeat of military defeats endured by them at the hands of the Israelis and the support of Israel by western nations, some of whom ran the brutal colonial administrations which divided their lands, appointed despots as surrogates and exploited their natural resources has ingrained in them a deep seated need for revenge and respect.

I know from my time in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries that the key to friendship and mutual respect is the simple act of taking time to know and appreciate the culture, history, faith and traditions of other people. I frequently in my dealings with Iraqi officers in Al Anbar Province opened doors by taking the time to learn their history, which goes back several millennia as the cradle of civilization and to be both polite and respectful in dealing with them. Iraqi officers were surprised that I knew the positive contributions of Iraqi military officers to Iraq, including the abolition of child labor, public education, the expansion of universities, universal suffrage and public works that benefited all Iraqis before the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. Likewise the fact that I could name the victories of Iraq forces against the British at Al Kut in the First World War, the largest surrender of British forces during the war as well as other victories gained me their respect and friendship as the “American” or “Christian Imam.”

However most Americans have not learned this despite over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was listening to a friend today who was upset that the government of Iraq was urging that Arabs use oil as a weapon against the United States to force the United States to change its policy in regard to the Palestinians. The argument presented on Fox News and echoed around much of the country is that the statement of the Iraqis is an act of ingratitude by a country that we “liberated.”

But that is our fiction that we create to absolve ourselves from the fact that over a period of 20 years American and other Western nations destroyed Iraq and humiliated its people. Yes we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, a man that we supported for years as an ally until he crossed a line that we determined that he should not cross when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. To Shi’te Iraqis the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 was liberation, but it was “liberation” that followed the betrayal of them in 1991 where after encouraging them to revolt against Saddam we allowed them to be slaughtered by his Republican Guard.

To the Sunni of Anbar Province who after realizing that the radicals of Al Qaeda who were bringing more destruction to them than the Americans and allied themselves with the United States military in 2007, the Anbar Awakening the withdraw of American forces was an abandonment. They made our exit from Iraq possible and helped break the back of Al Qaeda, and for their trouble they believe that they have been abandoned to a corrupt Shi’te led government in Baghdad.

In light of all of this who can blame the Iraqis for making those statements. How would be we feel if that were to happen to us in the United States, or in Western Europe? Actually we know from history how we would feel. The answer is obvious in our history as well as our current actions and attitudes. We would not rest until those that brought destruction on our country and betrayed our people were defeated.

It is no wonder that Sun Tzu said that “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Likewise Abraham Lincoln asked a question that those consumed by the need to destroy their enemies by military force should ask before ever mobilizing an army for war: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, Tour in Iraq

Padre Steve’s Primer on the Muddle East

“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

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 Mujahedeen.

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 depot we knew to a quagmire despite Saddam’s crimes against his own people who thought we would help them.  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 last year.  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.

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. But then 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.

This brought about spontaneous uprisings all over the Middle East with Libya and the long time pain in the ass Muammar Gaddafi being the current center of the action. However Yemen and Bahrain both are in trouble, Algeria, Jordan and Syria 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.

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 world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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 will bring about a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” 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.

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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“Victory” and Reality: Never think that War will be Easy

“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Karl von Clausewitz

I was talking with a friend recently and the subject came to the support of a certain church for the war in Iraq back in 2003.  My friend, who is very thoughtful, spiritual and circumspect made the comment that “they were even against the war” when we discussed the merits of this particular church.  I thought for a second and said “after the past nine years of war was that wrong?” He paused a moment and said “I see your point.” I think that in the early months and years of this war, where we quickly deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq that we made unfounded assumptions about our “successes” with the end result that we have had to fight a much more protracted, bloody and costly series of wars than we had ever imagined. Like so many nations who entered into wars believing that they would have easy victories achieved at a cheap price in blood and treasure we have discovered once again that the serpent of the fog and friction of war coupled with hasty or politically expedient decisions has come to cause us great pain as a nation and after nine years a foreboding sense that we might not win in Afghanistan.

Like most Americans after the attacks of 9-11-2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was all in favor of going after those that attacked this country wherever they were to bring those that planned these vile attacks to justice.  Within a month the United States had driven the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and put the leaders of Al Qaida on the run.  By 2002 the US Government had began making a case against Iraq, one of a trio of nations identified as the “Axis of Evil.”  In 2003 we went to war with Iraq after failing to convince many allies of the necessity of the attack. When the “shock and awe” campaign was launched, Iraq forces defeated, Baghdad captured and Saddam Hussein driven from power there was a heady feeling of success.  Even those opposed to the invasion were amazed at the speed of and apparent ease of the conquest as pictures of cheering Iraqis filled the screen as the statues of Saddam came down.  In May President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “mission accomplished.” “We support the troops” ribbons and bumper stickers were the rage, victory has many friends and some churches even ascribed the victory to God.  But as the muse would say to the returning Roman conquerors, “victory is fleeting.”

We thought that we had achieved a “revolution in warfare” in the two campaigns but within months the tide had shifted in Iraq as in a colossal mistake of epic proportions a decision was made either in Washington DC or by the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador Paul Bremer. A decision was made to disband the Iraqi Military, Police and Civil Service offices without having enough troops in place to police Iraq or civilians including NGOs and the UN available to fill the civil service gaps.  This was in direct contravention to years of CENTCOM plans. To make matters worse we had gone in so light that we had not disarmed or demobilized the Iraqi forces, thus we sent the people who could best help us restore Iraq to working order home. We sent them home and as anyone that knows Arab culture can tell you we dishonored them and created enemies out of potential friends while placing corrupt opportunists in power.  It was if we were making things up as we went rather than thinking things through and the result was a disaster.  By the end of 2004 a full-fledged insurgency had broken out an insurgency that would cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives with tens of thousands of others wounded.  It was not until late 2007 and 2008 that the tides turned in Iraq as Iraqi Sunnis realized that Al Qaida backed insurgents were more of a threat to them than the American forces were.

Over the course of the war the thrill of the early days was forgotten as American Soldiers and Marines engaged a resourceful enemy that was willing to fight us in ways that we had neither expected nor planned.  War loses its luster when the thrill of victory is gone.  With the transition of the mission in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan where the Taliban had come back with a vengeance we are now moving toward being at war for 10 years.  We have fought the war with a military force that is well under 1% of the US population.  The military has fought well. We have not been defeated in open combat despite losing many troops to IEDs and ambushes; though in Afghanistan there have been a couple of near run events where small bases were nearly overrun by Taliban forces. We should remember General Hans Guderian, the creator of the Blitzkrieg and his words about the German campaign in Russia after the Battle of Kursk in 1943: “We have severely underestimated the Russians, the extent of the country and the treachery of the climate. This is the revenge of reality.” General Heinz Guderian

Nine plus years after 9-11 most of the American public as well as the political class of both parties have soured on the wars even while others seek war with Iran and maybe North Korea. I wonder about the wisdom of taking on even more enemies when the military is stretched to the breaking point and the nation is heading into bankruptcy.

But such things are not new from a historic point of view, if only we would look to history. Back in 1940 after their victories in France and the Low Countries the Germans felt as if they were invincible. By 1941 their troops were bailing out the Italians in North Africa and the Balkans while engaging the British in the air above Great Britain and in the seas around it. That did not stop Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union where as in France and the Balkans the German Army enjoyed amazing success until winter arrived and the Soviets counter-attacked.  Thereafter the German Army would not enjoy the same success and millions of German Soldiers; not to mention at least 20 million Soviet citizens and Red Army Soldiers died. Eventually the Wehrmacht was shattered, defeated and Europe devastated.

I am not saying that this will happen to the US, but it can.  We need to learn from history and look at how good people were enticed by the aphrodisiac of the “victory disease” that accompanied supposedly easy victories.  If one looks at Germany many officers, soldiers and civilians drank the aphrodisiac of victory and had their faith in Germany, their leaders and their cause destroyed as the war turned against them and they experienced defeat even while many times getting the best of their enemies on the battlefield.  Honorable men that had served their country well were either cashiered by the Nazi government and many killed by that instrument of evil because they voiced opposition to the regime.  Initially many had been lured into the trap of easy victory.

Back in 2001 and into 2003 I was like many of those men who served in the German military.  I was excited about the apparent easy victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq.   But like some German officers of that day who realized as the campaign in Russia was going badly into the fall of 1941 by late 2003 I began to sense that something was going terrible wrong in Iraq.  I think it was the moment that I heard that we had disbanded the Iraqi Army, Security forces and Civil Service as I started my course of study with the Marine Command and Staff College program held at the Joint Forces Staff College.  The experience of serving with thoughtful Marines in my unit and my fellow students; Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Allied officers at the school helped me see the danger that was developing in our campaigns.  By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2007 the tide was beginning to turn but I saw the devastation of the country, ministered to wounded Marines and Soldiers and seen the affect of the war on Iraqis.  My duties with our advisors and their Iraqi counterparts were enlightening as I travelled about Al Anbar Province.

In the end I think that the Iraqis despite everything will do okay. I believe that most are tired of war and will not succumb again to sectarian violence on a large scale. I do not think that they have an easy road ahead but I believe the words of Brigadier General Ali as I left him for the final time: “You come back to Iraq in five years, as tourist, it will be better then.” I am not so optimistic about Afghanistan or Pakistan and I do not think we have yet seen the worst in those countries, but at least despite all of our mistakes Iraq most likely will do well.

The experience of war coupled with my study of history and military theory at the Command and Staff College as well as in my studies from my Master’s degree in Military History changed my perspective. I still serve faithfully and hope and pray for a conclusion to the wars that leaves us in better shape and brings peace to the lands that we have shed the blood of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and other Federal intelligence, diplomatic and police agencies and treasure in.  I pray for my friends serving in harm’s way and those preparing to deploy and I pray for the safety of my Iraqi military friends and their families.

I am not a defeatist should someone level that charge at me.  I agree with Ralph Peters who made this comment: “We will not be beaten. But we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.” However, I wonder if this country has the will to win and to make the sacrifices to do so and not just shovel them off on those that serve and have served throughout this war, a war which appears to have no end and which may expand to other countries.

Like the Germans we are engaged in a multi-front and multi-theater war but we have been trying to do so upon the backs of less than one percent of the population. This allows the rest of the country to live under the illusion of peace and prosperity with the bitter losses and memories of 9-11 fade into a yearly remembrance called “Patriot Day” by politicians of all stripes who often mouth empty words to eulogize the victims and thank the troops and then move on to their next fundraiser.  By doing this we have worn out the force without the full support of the nation which is absolutely necessary for the successful prosecution of a war, especially a long drawn out war such as we have now.  Unfortunately most Americans have little patience and while we mythologize a lot about World War Two one has to remember that there was a strong lobby that desired to end the war in 1944 even if victory had not been achieved.

We have a military now composed of many battle hardened and deployment weary soldiers who live in a world that the bulk of the nation does not understand nor really wants to understand.  We have seen the cost of the war multiply to the point that it has drained the ability of the military to prepare for other wars and modernize itself.  What happens if God forbid we are forced into a war with Iran or North Korea?  With what will we fight those wars?

When the Allies were cracking the German front in Normandy and the Red Army was decimating Army Group Center in the East, Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what needed to be done by a General at Hitler’s military headquarters. The old Prussian warhorse simply said “make peace you idiot.” He was fired shortly thereafter. We certainly have not reached that point but should anything else break out while we are still engaged in Afghanistan and maintain a large number of troops in Iraq that could change.

One always needs to be careful when getting into “easy” and “quick” wars as more often than not they are neither easy nor quick.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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9-11-2001: A Date that Will Live in Infamy 9 Years Later

On September 11th 2001 I was the Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division, Camp LeJeune North Carolina.  I first learned of the attacks as I was logging off of my computer to go to PT after a couple of counseling cases in the early morning.  The headline I saw on Yahoo’s home page was “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.”  I simply figured from that that a private pilot had flown a small aircraft into on e of the buildings. I got to my car and when I turned on the engine a talk radio host was screaming “Another airline has crashed into the second tower.” I don’t even remember what talk show host that it was. My mind immediately went to terrorism as the cause thinking about the bombing of the USS Cole.  I drove to the French Creek gym to see if there was anything on the televisions. When I arrived I saw the trade centers burning and Marines and Sailors crowded around in stunned silence or whispering to each other in muted tones.  I returned to my office, showered, got my uniform on and drove to our Battalion Headquarters where Colonel Richard Lake was gathering the staff. Within hours the base was locked down with combat ready Marines patrolling possible danger areas and with hasty roadblocks and checkpoints established around the base. We were locked down for almost four days as things began to settle out. By December I was the Chaplain for the USS Hue City and deployed in February 2002 to support Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Southern Watch.  In 2007 and 2008 I was deployed to Iraq serving with the Iraq Assistance Group and Marine, Army and other advisors serving with the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and other security forces fighting insurgents in Al Anbar Province.  I have many friends that have deployed numerous times between the 9-11 attacks and today, some have been wounded and others killed.  Many suffer the psychological and spiritual trauma of PTSD and Traumatic Brain injury.    Even if we were to be able to end these wars today we would be dealing with the ravages of this long war.  I still serve working among many continue to deploy and return as well as treat those traumatized by war. I will return to Camp LeJeune next month as the Command Chaplain of the Naval Hospital which takes care of the Marines and Sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, much of which is deployed to Afghanistan. I cannot forget 9-11. These are my thoughts.

Peace

Padre Steve+


I remember exactly where I was on that terrible day known simply now as 9-11.  The events of that day and in the following changed our lives and our country possibly forever.  The images of that day are seared into our individual and collective consciousness as Americans and usually conjure up deep emotions of anger, sadness, grief and pain.  The sheer magnitude of attacks, especially those on the World Trade Center towers covered on live television shocked and stunned the nation as the nation saw us transition from peace to war before its eyes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otK7c3Ushjw&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IetZuu_seb8&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lKZqqSI9-s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sczTcrRp1bY&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_irMA5umVM&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQyRjf3eumo

The attack on the Pentagon was also dramatic but because it was a military target the psychological impact on most Americans was less than the attack on the Trade Center towers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxV2X0vwSas

The images are still disconcerting and when watched show the genius of Bin Laden as he struck at great symbols of American power.  Bin Laden did what no enemy had done previously striking so hard at such symbolic targets; he destroyed our sense of safety.  Of course that sense of safety was an illusion all along as with the advent of ICBMs and long range bombers we have been within reach of our enemies.  Likewise we had seen terrorists attack us before including a 1993 attack on the WTC designed to bring the building down.  But this was different than all those that came before, for the first time Americans no longer felt safe behind the “moats” of the oceans that surround the country. For the first time since the War of 1812 a foreign enemy had struck at the heart of America on the Continental United States itself and unlike then the nation saw the attack unfold in real time together.  Only the attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy on December 7th 1941 has had such an impact on us.  We watched as near 3000 Americans and others died in the towers, at the Pentagon and aboard Flight 93.  Some would say that we need to “get over” 9-11, but those that say such things do not understand the magnitude of the affect of the attacks on the soul of this nation.

The emotions generated by these attacks even 9 years later in are almost visceral because they are symptomatic of the deep and yet unhealed wounds suffered on that day.  The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Flight 93 perpetrated in the caves of Afghanistan by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and executed by 19 terrorists who hijacked the four aircraft involved did more than destroy or damage landmarks and kill innocent people; they wounded our nation both psychologically and spiritually.

That day also created an immense desire to see the perpetrators brought to justice and set us on a course for war a war that has no end in sight even 9 years after the 9-11 attacks.  To put this in perspective from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day was just under 3 years and 9 months and even Vietnam from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the cease fire was only 8 years 4 months.  The young men and women now enlisting as 18 year olds in our armed forces were 9 years old when the attacks occurred, kids that were in 3rd or 4th grade playing little league baseball, soccer, pee-wee football and playing with their X-Box, PS-2 or Game Cubes.  Now these children serve in harm’s way with many dying as the average age of our casualties is about 20 years old.

After the attack Americans banded together as Americans for the first time that I can remember. There were remembrances, prayer vigils and rallies to show our unity to the world. Congress even banded together in a rare display of unity spontaneously breaking into “God Bless America”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybc3SnhCWGk

Three days later President Bush rallied the country from “Ground Zero” as it became known. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiSwqaQ4VbA&feature=related

He threw out the first pitch in Game Three of the World Series at Yankee Stadium to the cheers of an energized New York crowd. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/2001/worldseries/news/2001/10/30/bush_ap/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evb489N11Q4

Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan sang “God Bless America” which has become a fixture since then at Major and Minor League games. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAtRb5oY3oM&p=C7401126B05C2B6D&playnext=1&index=28

Within a month President Bush launched our military into an attack on Al Qaeda bases and those of their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.  With the help of different Afghan Mujahidin groups US Special Forces, Marines and Paratroops had driven the Taliban out of power and were searching for Bin Laden.  Although American forces came close at the battle of Tora Bora to catching Bin Laden he escaped along with the leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar.  Eventually the effort in Afghanistan became secondary as the United States focused its attention on Iraq and became involved in a bloody insurgency against Al Qaeda allies as well as Iraqi militants of various types.  Mistakes were made by the administration in disbanding the Iraqi Army, police and Civil Service following our 2003 invasion.  On the ground some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib videotaped acts of torture on prisoners and detainees which found their way into the world wide press creating a firestorm reaction which made the war that much more difficult as it made those on the fence more likely to at least give the insurgents aid and support.  That changed in 2007 the “Surge” of extra combat troops to implement a true counter-insurgency strategy aided by Iraq security forces and the Anbar Awakening where the Sunnis turned against Al Qaeda.  Iraq still has major issues but in the long run will likely do well as the Iraqis take control of the country.  I know that there are many people including some experts who doubt this but knowing a number of Iraqi senior officers of both Sunni and Shi’a Moslem factions and the history of modern Iraq which is one of secularism, I believe that Iraq will do fine.

The strategic problem with Iraq was that it diverted attention from Afghanistan where we had an early chance to drive out and keep out both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The loss of emphasis in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to regroup and reestablish their control throughout much of the country.  The other thing was that it created a situation that cost the US Military a large number of casualties and made it difficult to fulfill other commitments and contingencies.

Nine years later we are still at war, American Soldiers ream in Iraq helping the Iraqis manage their own security and American troops lead NATO and Afghan forces in a bloody war against the resurgent Taliban which has claimed as of today 1257 Americans on top of the 4404 lost in Iraq.  http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/

The war in Afghanistan has blown up over the past two years as the Taliban often aided by elements of Pakistani intelligence services take advantage of the corrupt and unpopular Afghan government. The Afghan government led by President Karzai who at best can be described as an unreliable ally in the war against the Taliban is barely able to influence events in the capitol Kubul, but less in outlying areas where the Taliban has established a formidable shadow government.

At home the United States seems to be at war with itself, no longer united but bitterly divided even as American military personnel lay down their lives overseas.  A controversy rages about an Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque to be built not far from Ground Zero while Fundamentalist Christian pastors threat to burn copies of the Koran inciting more rage against Americans deployed in harm’s way.  The President is increasingly unpopular and the Congress even less so. Sentiment is building for wholesale change with some even talking of revolution or secession.  It doesn’t seem that either the builders of the so called “Ground Zero Mosque,” its opponents and the hate filled pastors have any clue about the propaganda victories that they hand our enemies on a daily basis.  In a world-wide insurgency, which this has become propaganda is often more important than military power.

It seems that Osama Bin Laden is succeeding in his goals. In 2004 Bin Laden said on a video “All we have to do is send two mujaheddin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” Bin Laden and his allies have seen us abandon some of deepest principles of freedom of speech, movement and association as the government tries to ensure that no more attacks take place. However as any student of terrorism knows there is no way to stop every terrorist attack.  Eventually another will succeed and when it does we will see freedom curtailed even more.  If the attack is large enough the real possibility exists of Martial Law.

As this transpires American Military personnel of every race, color, creed and political persuasion do battle with the enemy.  At home other military units train and prepare for battle.   Police, security and intelligence officers from a myriad of Federal and state agencies conduct the painstaking work of trying to figure out where the next attack is coming from and try to stop it. Since 9-11 they have been successful but the law of averages says that eventually another attack will succeed because Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists while small are always seeking ways to further terrorize Americans and other westerners.

All I can imagine now is that our current state of division will last until we are shocked out of it by something worse than 9-11.  I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail and somehow we will recover our sense of who we are as Americans that sense of “e pluribus Unum” “Out of many, One” will take the place of hyphenated America and Red States versus Blue States.  Bin Laden would like for nothing more for us to continue to be at war with ourselves.

Today we mark 9-11 and I hope and pray that the lessons of 9-11 will not be forgotten and that both the losses of that day and sacrifices since will not be in vain. As for me and the rest of us in uniform we will continue to serve to preserve and defend this country and our most cherished ideals.  May God have mercy on us all.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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