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The Lingering Presence of Manifest Destiny in Trump’s America First Message

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Manifest Destiny

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a part of my yet to be published book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, and Ideology in the Civil War Era.  I have posted it before, but as I watch what is going on in the world and President Trump’s militantly isolationist America First foreign policy which often uses the words and images of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism I thought it might be good to post it again.

That past was mythologized in American history and popularized often on film and in print. Since the President admits that does little reading and engages in less critical thought it is obvious that most of what he knows of American history comes from the mythologized past.  This includes the concept of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. These concepts are the result of a racially and religiously based glorification of imperialistic conquest that resulted in the extermination or enslavement of millions of people in North America, as well as in the Philippines, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

When you have a President of such limited historical knowledge who represents a party controlled by hyper-political religionists who are convinced that God is with them it portends trouble. As true Conservative icon Barry Goldwater once noted:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” (November, 1994, in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience.)

While the President himself shows little evidence of actually believing in any God but himself he certainly does relish the accolades of these political creatures who call themselves Christian preachers. Goldwater in his later years exhibited a certain insight into the dangers of the movement that has taken over the GOP.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism

The foreign policy of the United States nearly always reflects to one degree or another a quasi-religious belief in the continued importance of the United States in spreading democracy around the world.

The United States was an anomaly among western nations in the early 1800s. During that time the percentage of people in Europe who were active churchgoers was shrinking and the number of skeptics rising as the industrial revolution, and advances in science, and the philosophies and theology of classic Liberalism permeated the elites of the continent. But in the United States, the situation was different. The Second Great Awakening helped shape and define the purpose of the nation, and by the “mid-nineteenth century, from North to South, was arguably Christendom’s most churchgoing nation, bristling with exceptionalist faith and millennial conviction.” [1] This was especially true of American Protestantism were “church attendance rose by a factor of ten over the period 1800 to 1860, comfortably outstripping population growth. Twice as many Protestants went to church at the end of this period as the beginning.” [2]

This exceptionalist faith kindled a belief in the nation’s Manifest Destiny in large part was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening which was particularly influential among the vast numbers of people moving into the new western territories. As people moved west, Evangelical religion came with them, often in the form of vast revival and camp meetings which would last weeks and which would be attended by tens of thousands. The first of these was at Cane Ridge Kentucky in 1801, organized by a Presbyterian others, including Baptists and Methodists joined in the preaching, and soon the revivals became a fixture of frontier life and particularly aided the growth of the Methodist and Baptists who were willing to “present the message as simply as possible, and to use preachers with little or no education,” [3] and which soon became the largest denominations in the United States. These meetings appealed to common people and emphasized emotion rather than reason. Even so the revivals “not only became the defining mark of American religion but also played a central role in the nation’s developing identity, independence, and democratic principles.” [4]

The West came to be viewed as a place where America might be reborn and “where Americans could start over again and the nation fulfill its destiny as a democratic, Protestant beacon to inspire peoples and nations. By conquering a continent with their people and ideals, Americans would conquer the world.” [5] The westward expansion satiated the need for territorial conquest and the missionary zeal to transform the country and the world in the image of Evangelical Christianity.

The man who coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” New York journalist John O’Sullivan a noted that “Manifest Destiny had ordained America to “establish on the earth the moral dignity and salvation of man,” to disseminate its principles, both religious and secular abroad,” [6] and New York Journalist Horace Greely issued the advice, “Go West, young man” which they did go, by the millions between 1800 and 1860.

But the movement also had a dark side. Americans poured westward first into the heartland of the Deep South and the Old Northwest, then across the Mississippi, fanning westward along the great rivers that formed the tributaries of the new territories. As they did so, the “population of the region west of the Appalachians grew nearly three times as fast as the original thirteen states” and “during that era a new state entered the Union on the average of three years.” [7]

The combination of nationalism fueled by Evangelical religion was combined with the idea from revolutionary times that America was a “model republic” that could redeem the people of the world from tyranny,” [8] as well an ascendant rational nationalism based on the superiority of the White Race. This, along with the belief that Catholicism was a threat to liberty was used as reason to conquer Mexico as well as to drive Native Americans from their ancestral homes. “By 1850 the white man’s diseases and wars had reduced the Indian population north of the Rio Grande to half of the estimated million who had lived there two centuries earlier. In the United States all but a few thousand Indians had been pushed west of the Mississippi.” [9] The radical racism used pseudo-scientific writings to “find biological evidence of white supremacy, “radical nationalism” cast Mexicans as an unassimilable “mixed “race “with considerable Indian and some black blood.” The War with Mexico “would not redeem them, but would hasten the day when they, like American Indians, would fade away.” [10]

Manifest Destiny and American Foreign Policy

Just as the deeply Evangelical Christian religious emphasis of Manifest Destiny helped shape American domestic policy during the movement west, it provided similar motivation and justification for America’s entry onto the world stage as a colonial power and world economic power. It undergirded United States foreign policy as the nation went from being a continental power to being an international power; claiming as Hawaii, and various former Spanish possessions in 1890s, and which would be seen again in the moralizing of Woodrow Wilson in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War One.

The belief in Manifest Destiny can still be seen in the pronouncements of American politicians, pundits, and preachers who believe that that this message is to be spread around the world. Manifest Destiny is an essential element of the idea of American Exceptionalism which often has been the justification for much recent American foreign policy, including the Freedom Agenda of former President George W. Bush. Bush referenced this during his 2003 State of the Union Address, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” [11] Bush frequently used language in his speeches in which biblical allusions were prominent in justifying the morality of his policy, and by doing this “Bush made himself a bridge between politics and religion for a large portion of his electorate, cementing their fidelity.” [12]

Throughout the Bush presidency the idea that God was directing him even meant that his faith undergirded the policy of the United States and led to a mismatch of policy ends and the means to accomplish them. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and historian Michael Oren wrote:

“Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers.” Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war.” [13]

Policy makers and military leaders must realize that if they want to understand how culture and religious ideology drive others to conquer, subjugate and terrorize in the name of God, they first have to understand how our ancestors did the same thing. It is only when they do that that they can understand that this behavior and use of ideology for such ends is much more universal and easier to understand.

One can see the influence of Manifest Destiny abroad in a number of contexts. Many American Christians became missionaries to foreign lands, establishing churches, colleges, schools, and hospitals in their zeal to spread the Gospel. As missionaries spread across the globe, American policy makers ensured their protection through the presence of the United States Navy, and missionaries frequently called upon the United States Government for help and the naval strength of the United States during the period provided added fuel to their zeal. In 1842, Dabney Carr, the new American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire“declared his intention to protect the missionaries “to the full extent of [his] power,” if necessary “by calling on the whole of the American squadron in the Mediterranean to Beyrout.” [14] Such episodes would be repeated in the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and Central America over and over again until the 1920s.

The White Man’s Burden, Imperialism, Business, and Faith: Manifest Destiny and the Annexation of the Philippines

If one wants to see how the use of this compulsion to conquer in the name of God in American by a national leader one needs to go no farther than to examine the process whereby President McKinley, himself a veteran of the Civil War, decided to annex the Philippine in 1898 following the defeat of the Spanish. That war against the Filipinos that the United States had helped liberate from Spanish rule saw some of the most bloodthirsty tactics ever employed by the U.S. Army to fight the Filipino insurgents. The Filipino’s who had aided the United States in the war against Spain were now being subjugated by the American military for merely seeking an independence that they believed was their right. While the insurgency was suppressed in a violent manner and American rule was established, some Americans came to see the suppression of the Filipino’s as a stain on our national honor which of which Mark Twain wrote: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .” [15]

William McKinley was a cautious man, and after the United States had defeated the Spanish naval squadron at Manila Bay and wrestled with what to do with the Philippines. McKinley was a doubtless sincere believer, and according to his words, he sought counsel from God about whether he should make the decision to annex the Philippines or not. For him this was not a mere exercise, but a manifestation of his deep rooted faith which was based on Manifest Destiny. Troubled, he sought guidance, and he told a group of ministers who were vesting the White House:

“Before you go I would like to say a word about the Philippine business…. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them…. I sought counsel from all sides – Democrat as well as Republican – but got little help…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for guidance more than one night. And late one night it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was but it came….” [16]

He then went on to discuss what he supposedly heard from God, but reflected more of a calculated decision to annex the archipelago. He discussed what he believed would be an occupation of just a few islands and Manila, ruled out returning them to Spain as that would be “dishonorable,” ruled out turning them over to France or Germany because “that would be bad for business,”or allowing Filipino self-rule, as “they were unfit for self-government.”[17] The last was a reflection of the deep-rooted opinion of many Americans that the dark skinned Filipinos were “niggers.”

Barbara Tuchman described McKinley’s comments to the ministers:

“He went down on his knees, according to his own account, and “prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance.” He was accordingly guided to conclude “that there was nothing left to do for us but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos. And uplift and civilize and Christianize them, by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.” [18]

But the result, regardless of whether McKinley heard the voice of God, or took the advice of advisers with imperialist, business, or religious views, he made the choice to annex the Philippines, believing it to be the only rational course of action, and something that he could not avoid. In a sense McKinley, of who Barbara Tuchman wrote “was a man made to be managed,” and who was considered spineless by Speaker of the House Thomas Reed who said “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” [19] It appears that McKinley was more convinced by the arguments of those who desired to annex the Philippines for military reasons, a business community which saw the islands as a gateway to the markets of Asia, and by Protestant clergy, who saw “a possible enlargement of missionary opportunities.”[20] He rejected a proposal by Carl Schurz who urged McKinley to “turn over the Philippines as a mandate to a small power, such as Belgium or Holland, so the United States could remain “the great neutral power in the world.” [21]The combination of men who desired the United States to become an imperialist and naval power, business, and religion turned out to be more than McKinley could resist, as “the taste of empire was on the lips of politicians and business interests throughout the country. Racism, paternalism, and the talk of money mingled with the talk of destiny.” [22] Though there was much resistance to the annexation in congress and in the electorate, much of which was led by William Jennings Bryant, but which crumbled when Bryant with his eyes on the Presidency embraced imperialism.

The sense of righteousness and destiny was encouraged by magazine publisher S.S. McClure, who published a poem by Rudyard Kipling addressed to Americans debating the issue entitled The White Man’s Burden:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease…

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To 
cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you…
 [23]

McKinley’s decision and the passage of the peace treaty with Spain to acquire the Philippines sparked an insurrection led by Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo who had been leading resistance to Spanish rule on the island of Luzon for several years prior to the American defeat of Spanish naval forces at the Battle of Manila Bay, and the subsequent occupation of Manila. The following war lasted nearly three years and was marked by numerous atrocities committed by American forces against often defenseless civilians and it would help to change the nature of the country. After American troops captured Manila, Walter Hines Page, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly believed that Americans would face greater challenges and difficulties in the coming years than they had known in previous years. He wrote:

“A change in our national policy may change our very character… and we are now playing with the great forces that may shape the future of the world – almost before we know it…. Before we knew the meaning of foreign possessions in a world ever growing more jealous, we have found ourselves the captors of islands in both great oceans; and from our home staying policy of yesterday we are brought face to face with world-wide forces in Asia as well as Europe, which seem to be working, by the opening of the Orient, for one of the greatest challenges in human history…. And to nobody has the change come more unexpectedly than ourselves. Has it come without our knowing the meaning of it?” [24]

Within the span of a few months, America had gone from a nation of shopkeepers to an imperial power, and most people did not realize the consequences of that shift. Manifest destiny and American Exceptionalism had triumphed and with it a new day dawned, where subsequent generations of leaders would invoke America’s mission to spread freedom and democracy around the world, as President George W. Bush said, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

Notes

[1] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.143

[2] McGrath, Alister Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2007 p.164

[3] Gonzalez, Justo L. The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper and Row Publishers San Francisco 1985 p.246

[4] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First p.164

[5] Goldfield, David America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York, London New Delhi and Sidney 2011 p.5

[6] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[7] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.42

[8] Varon, Elizabeth R. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC 2008 p.183

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era p,45

[10] Ibid. Varon. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858p.183

[11] Bush, George W. State of the Union Address Washington D.C. January 28th2003 retrieved from Presidential Rhetoric.com http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.28.03.html 10 June 2015

[12] Ibid. Phillips American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century p.252

[13] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.584

[14] Ibid. Oren Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present p130

[15] Twain, Mark To the Person Sitting in Darkness February 1901 Retrieved from The World of 1898: The Spanish American War The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html 12 December 2014

[16] Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States Harper Perennial, New York 1999 pp.312-313

[17] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[18] Ibid. Tuchman Practicing History p.289

[19] Tuchman, Barbara The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, New York 2008 originally published 1966 by McMillan Company. Amazon Kindle edition location 2807 of 10746

[20] Hofstadter, Richard The Paranoid Style in American Politics Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 1952 and 2008 p167

[21] Ibid. Tuchman The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 location 3098 of 10746

[22] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.313

[23] Kipling, Rudyard “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” 1899 retrieved from https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/world_civ/worldcivreader/world_civ_reader_2/kipling.html 6 August 2016

[24] Ibid. Hofstadter The Paranoid Style in American Politics pp.183-184

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The Past is a Foreign Country: they do Things Differently There”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there…”

That is true. When we look at or study history it is often hard for us in our time to comprehend how others committed or allowed acts that we find reprehensibly criminal and evil. Since my primary areas of expertise include the American Civil War, including the ante-bellum period and Reconstruction, as Germany from about 1848 through 1945, including Weimar and the Nazi era, I find that I am confronted with these questions almost daily.

One of the hard things for any of us, even historians who want to present a relatively objective view of events, is to try to avoid the assumption that the people who made those decisions operated under our world-view; to assume that they should have known what we know now. But that is not the case.

The historian Richard Evans wrote in his book The Coming of the Third Reich:

“People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. These conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behavior.”

Yet the fact is that these contexts don’t make their history correct. Quite a few people, especially those who subordinate history to ideology and thus pretend to have a key to understanding history. Hannah Arendt noted:

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.” 

Such is also our contemporary problem, and future historians and lay-people alike will ask the same questions about us, just as we ask them about those who went before us.

Dr. Timothy Snyder discusses how mythologized history leads to dangerous understandings of politics, which posit theories of inevitability or eternity. According to Snyder inevitability assumes “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” Such was the view of many Americans and Western Europeans when Communism fell.

Snyder wrote:

“Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.”

That is what makes the past so different, and it is why that when I read, study, and write that I try to understand the world-view of those that I study. I try to discover what made them who they were; to see the good and the bad, and attempt to be as fair as possible without falling into the trap of writing history as either inevitable or eternal. I try to emulate Barbara Tuchman who noted:

“What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement.”

Even so I exercise a fair amount of caution when researching and writing about the past, because it truly is a different country.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Lights Are Going Out: President Trump’s Appointment of War Criminals as Senior Foreign Policy Advisors

Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In her book The March of Folly: From Try to Vietnam historian Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.”

If there is a man who ever embodied the truth of Tuchman’s words it is President Donald Trump.

Over the past two weeks President Trump has removed men from his cabinet who acted to restrain many of his worst instincts and who all were considered the “adults in the room.” The final nail in the coffin for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster was their condemnation of the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, especially in the killing of Russian dissidents in the United Kingdom. Tillerson and McMaster were also proponents of maintaining the agreement engineered by the Obama Administration and European countries to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions diplomatically and economically. The two had somewhat different approaches to North Korea with Tillerson a proponent of negotiations and deterrence and McMaster more favorable to preventive military actions to stop or delay the North’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.  Additionally Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, Gary Cohn who has advocated more moderate and

Their removal has resulted in a shake up of the national security team. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was nominated by the President to take Tillerson’s place. Pompeo is considered to be a hawk on Iran and opposed to the current accord who has called for strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and openly mused about regime change in both Iran and North Korea. Pompeo, a graduate of West Point and a Congressman had never been in an executive position

To replace Popeo at CIA, President Trump nominated the deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel who according to Robert Richer who worked with her has no political agenda. That being said after 9-11 she ran an interrogation site in Thailand that engaged in the torture of detainees and recommending that tapes of those interrogations be destroyed. Her defenders state that she was operating within orders because such measures were authorized at the time. However based on precedent of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials the defense of “just carrying out orders” or defending such actions because they were “legal” at the time is not a defense. At Nuremberg, especially in trials of those who engaged in the torture of military and political prisoners, the tribunals convicted dozens of mid-level and high level functionaries of war crimes for doing the activities and methods used by Haspel and her colleagues.

The problem with Haspel is not her devotion to her service and desire to protect the United States, but in the fact that she was willing to use the rational of present “legality” to use torture in ways that when used against Americans the United States judges to be illegal and immoral. It is no wonder that Senator John McCain who experienced such torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese has his doubts about her. My concern is that since she once engaged in such measures will she do so again if ordered. By the standards of Nuremberg she would have stood trial and probably been convicted as a war criminal, and the President has nominated her to be Director of the CIA. Richer says that he believes that she will abide by the law and speak truth to people in  power. If she is confirmed as CIA Director I hope that he is right, but history demonstrates that civil servants, especially professionals in the police and intelligence services are quite adept at adapting to the methods and dictates of whoever is in power in their service to the state. Thus I am concerned.

Finally, the President replaced General McMaster with John Bolton who has since the 1990s advocated preventive war as the primary means to the end of United States national security strategy. He despises alliances, international agreements, international organizations, and any kind of universal justice. He regularly attacks the International Criminal Court, which is the direct descendent of the Nuremberg and Japan war crimes tribunals, both of which were engineered and led by the United States. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who served as the head prosecutor at the major Nuremberg War Crimes Trials noted:

“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.”

Bolton rejects that proposition. In his position as President Bush’s under secretary of state for arms control and international security constantly manipulated intelligence to conform to his views and who worked to discredit colleagues and subordinates who attempted to tell the truth. He was one of the most responsible for the decision to attack Iraq which was according to conservative writer George Will was the worst foreign policy disaster “in American history.” Likewise Bolton still defends the decision to go to war against Iraq and washes his hands of the results of that decision, including the nearly 4500 American military personnel killed and over 35,000 wounded and the exponential help it gave to Iran’s desires in the region.

Bolton also would have been a candidate for prosecution at Nuremberg under counts one and two of the indictment;Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War and Crimes Against Peace. 

The President has now nominated or appointed two people (Haslip and Bolton) who are by the definition of the Nuremberg Tribunal “War Criminals” to be senior foreign policy and intelligence advisors, and a third, Pompeo, who expresses many of the same views but until now has never been in the position to exercise those views or influence the President as to implementing them.

The next six to eight weeks leading to the middle of May will be very significant to the future of the United States and the world. The President has said that he would meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, and the renewal of the multi-national agreement on Iran, which both Trump and Bolton oppose. The actions of the President, guided by Bolton will decide wether the United States goes to war, possibly on multiple fronts with enemies capable of causing great damage to the United States, our allies, and the world economy. Millions of lives could be lost, including tens of thousands of United States military personnel and quite possibly millions of American civilians, not counting the lives of so many innocent people in the Middle East and Northeast Asia.

As I watch these events unfold I am reminded of the Tuchman’s immortal account of Sir Edward Grey and the outbreak of the First World War:  “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The lamps are going out both in the United States and around the world, and if one has any ability to use reason and think ethically one has to think of how terrible the results of President Trump’s uniformed, historically ignorant, and morally bankrupt decisions will end.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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“The First Duty of Every Officer is to the Truth”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and have taught both ethics and Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I taught will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I stay in contact with a number of my former students, including two from South Korea. Now I still write even as I lead the staff at one of the Navy’s largest and most active Chapel programs.

Since I figure that this will be my last duty station before I retire my goal is to help guide those who work with me to success in the military and set them up for success when they leave the military. They are a great group, I could not ask for better and when I have a bad day or seem to be off in some way I have given them permission to ask how I am doing and to ask me hard questions. I give them permission to tell me the truth. A lot of leaders won’t do that, but I try to be transparent and honest with them because I know that they have my back and we do a pretty good job at caring for people and doing the right thing.

As such my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth. In fact I quoted Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” I am not a Starfleet Officer but as an officer nonetheless I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out. But the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military.

I have been writing a lot over the past few months about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out. Now I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of what so much of society, especially the conservative Christian movement that I spent much of my life in expects. Truthfully, upholding tradition, and for that matter defending myth, is much easier when backed by the certitude of an unbending theology and political is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with myth than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why do I write? I write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, just to name a few.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant. But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Who Has the Bigger Button?

North-Korea-Kim-Jong-un-nuclear-Starfish-800967

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past 24 hours we have seen two very emotionally and intellectually stunted, narcissistic and sociopathic authoritarian leaders continue to threaten each other and the world with nuclear war.

As I watch this drama play out I am reminded of the words that Albert Speer wrote of Adolf Hitler when he unleashed the Second World War by invading Poland:

“I do not think that in those early days of September, Hitler was fully aware that he had irrevocably unleashed a world war. He had merely meant to move one step further. To be sure, he was ready to accept the risk associated with that step, just as he had been a year before during the Czech crisis; but he had prepared himself only for the risk, not really for the great war.”

When I think of the statements, tweets, and comments of President Trump and Kim Jong Un I am reminded of what Speer said about his Fuhrer, Both men are thumping their chests and speaking of their nuclear weapons and military power as if they, like middle school boys were comparing the size of their penises. Both men threaten each other and their nations with nuclear armageddon but neither seem to understand what war really means. Likewise there seem to be other American leaders apart from the President who appear think that a nuclear war, even a “limited” one will be not have major repercussions around the world. Kim, Trump, and their most devout supporters are perfectly prepared to assume the risks of war, but not for its consequences.

I think that we are standing at the edge of the abyss and that President Trump, Kim Jong Un, and their supporters are not nearly as prepared for the consequences of their words and machinations as they think that they are. Sadly those who go to fight in their wars and those who happen to be in the way of war, those who will be war’s first victims won’t live long enough to get a say in the decisions made by these men.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Harder Alternative

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few weeks I have been pondering something that to most people that I know is a major war on the Korea Peninsula that will spread throughout that region and may not leave the continental United States untouched, as well as the strong possibility of a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that would naturally end up involving the United States as an ally of the Saudis. If both of these conflicts began around the same time they could become the progenitors of a world war, the likes of which has not been seen or experienced since the Second World War.

As I look around it seems that most people regardless of their political beliefs, be they liberal or conservative, or the radicals who seem to have pushed aside the traditional mainstream conservatives and liberals; do not seem to think that anything really bad is going to happen. In the Middle East the Sunni-Shia Muslim Civil War is about to explode while in the long developing North Korea standoff we have a North Korean dictator who is not going to back down from his quest for fully operational ICBMs facing off against an American President who seems to be chomping at the bit to get his chance to eliminate the North Korean threat.

In each theater the actors seem to be pushing the operational and strategic envelope leaving little chance for diplomatic maneuver and increased chances of a miscalculation that could result in wars that are just not conceivable to must people following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact, and the end of the Cold War.

As a historian and a career military officer I not only can imagine it but can see it coming and what frustrates the hell out of me is that so few people I know can se it and even fewer are prepared for the harder alternative of what has to be done when things go to shit. The fact is that most people, military and civilians alike live in a Cloud-Cuckoo-Land where wars remain small, manageable, and involve relatively few casualties. The wars of the past two decades have blinded us to the fact that the coming wars will be unlike our generation has seen and will be as disruptive to the global system as was the First World War. Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

Because I can see the disaster unfolding I am doing my best to prepare myself and the men and women who I supervise or work with, physically, mentally, professionally, and spiritually for what is coming but I feel like I voice in the wilderness. I would hope to be proven wrong by events, but I don’t see that happening as governments on all sides are moving closer to war. As the pressure continues to build and preparations, exercises, and shows of force become a substitute for diplomacy and the careful use of all elements of national power to contain these crises we should not be surprised when we wake up and find that the unthinkable is now reality.

Anyway, that’s all for tonight. Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Korean Conflicts, Loose thoughts and musings, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Harder Alternative

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few weeks I have been pondering something that to most people that I know is a major war on the Korea Peninsula that will spread throughout that region and may not leave the continental United States untouched, as well as the strong possibility of a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that would naturally end up involving the United States as an ally of the Saudis. If both of these conflicts began around the same time they could become the progenitors of a world war, the likes of which has not been seen or experienced since the Second World War.

As I look around it seems that most people regardless of their political beliefs, be they liberal or conservative, or the radicals who seem to have pushed aside the traditional mainstream conservatives and liberals; do not seem to think that anything really bad is going to happen. In the Middle East the Sunni-Shia Muslim Civil War is about to explode while in the long developing North Korea standoff we have a North Korean dictator who is not going to back down from his quest for fully operational ICBMs facing off against an American President who seems to be chomping at the bit to get his chance to eliminate the North Korean threat.

In each theater the actors seem to be pushing the operational and strategic envelope leaving little chance for diplomatic maneuver and increased chances of a miscalculation that could result in wars that are just not conceivable to must people following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact, and the end of the Cold War.

As a historian and a career military officer I not only can imagine it but can see it coming and what frustrates the hell out of me is that so few people I know can se it and even fewer are prepared for the harder alternative of what has to be done when things go to shit. The fact is that most people, military and civilians alike live in a Cloud-Cuckoo-Land where wars remain small, manageable, and involve relatively few casualties. The wars of the past two decades have blinded us to the fact that the coming wars will be unlike our generation has seen and will be as disruptive to the global system as was the First World War. Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

Because I can see the disaster unfolding I am doing my best to prepare myself and the men and women who I supervise or work with, physically, mentally, professionally, and spiritually for what is coming but I feel like I voice in the wilderness. I would hope to be proven wrong by events, but I don’t see that happening as governments on all sides are moving closer to war. As the pressure continues to build and preparations, exercises, and shows of force become a substitute for diplomacy and the careful use of all elements of national power to contain these crises we should not be surprised when we wake up and find that the unthinkable is now reality.

Anyway, that’s all for tonight. Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Korean Conflicts, Loose thoughts and musings, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary