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Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“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.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the 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.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Americans should Always “Choose a President Wise, Well Read in History and Exceedingly Slow to Draw the Sword” Wise Words from the Late General Hal Moore in the Trump Era

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LTG Hal Moore as a Colonel in Vietnam

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Even since I was a child I was an avid reader of history, especially military history and biography. I idolized the military men that I read about and many of the things that they said and did, and almost always skewed them into an almost perverse form of patriotism. After the attacks of 9-11-2001 and during the run up to the invasion of Iraq I got into a internet argument with a man who later became the Presiding Bishop of my former denomination. He was and still is a very honorable man. He opposed the war on good historical, social, and moral grounds.

While he was very conservative theologically he had a strong sense of social justice and having come to adulthood during Vietnam war era he had a certain sense of distrust about military adventurism that I, an officer who at that time had some twenty years of military service did not fully appreciate. I responded to one of his comments with a quote from one of my favorite American Naval heroes, Captain Stephen Decatur who once remarked:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

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There is some truth in what Decatur said, but his words should not be used to justify imperialistic nationalism, racism, or militarism. Sadly back then that was exactly how I used it to attempt to shut down the arguments of an honorable man. If he ever reads this I hope that Bishop Craig Bates accepts my heartfelt apology for how I treated him back then.

It took me two combat tours, one at sea where I was a member of a boarding team, and the other in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, and a lot more military and historical education that I realized how wrong that I was in doing this. Using patriotic quotes to buttress immoral, illegal, unconstitutional, and un-Christian policies is damnable. G. K. Chesterton noted: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

But, I am afraid that my former understanding of patriotism is exactly what many Americans follow today, regardless of their political affiliation or ideology seem to automatically defer to the decisions of the President, no matter what his party in launching military strikes. This has been largely true since the end of Second World War until now with the exception of the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the bankruptcy of American policy became evident.

No one wants to be “against the troops” and I am still one of those troops, but opposing nationalism, imperialism, and militarism is not the same as “supporting the troops.” The late Army Lieutenant General Hal Moore, who led his battalion into the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965 and was memorialized in the film We Were Soldiers told West Point Cadets in 2005:

“The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

I remember reading General Moore’s back words then and despite my respect for him I didn’t see their truth, I still believed the lies of Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush Administration, and the Right wing media. I was wrong, and within two and a half years I would discover just how right that he was.

Today, some eleven years after I returned from Iraq I find that we now have a President whose historical, ethical, and policy blindness is subjected to his narcissistic and paranoid personality. He is a man who dodged the draft, avoided military service, condemned men and women wounded. killed, or captured in combat as losers while bragging that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s was his Vietnam. Even now he is rushing a Carrier Strike Group and heavy bombers to challenge Iran for as of yet undisclosed threats to American interests in the Middle East, as well as suggesting military options to deal with the failing and flailing government of Venezuelan President Maduro.

War is a great way to distract from other real concerns, especially if it gives the President, any President, a chance to divert attention from his own malfeasance and criminality. Our Republic is in danger and I do not think that the danger will soon pass. I only wish that it would. Sadly, Hal Moore passed away in February of 2017. If he were alive today I am sure that he would be sounding the alarm.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes…” Reflections on the Invasion of Iraq in Light of Nuremberg

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing to write about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an invasion that by any standard of measure fit the definition of War Crimes as defined by the American who headed the prosecution of the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg. Justice Robert Jackson stated in his opening:

“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.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

In March 2003 I like many of us on active duty at the time saw the nation embark on a crusade to overthrow an admittedly thuggish criminal head of state, Saddam Hussein. The images of the hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still relatively fresh in our minds. The “evidence” that most of us had “seen,” the same that most Americans and people around the world were shown led many of us to believe that Saddam was involved in those attacks in some manner and that he posed a threat to us.

Now it wasn’t that we didn’t have doubts about it or even the wisdom of invading Iraq. It didn’t matter that there was also credible evidence that maybe what we were being told was not correct, and it didn’t matter that some of our closest allies voted against a mandate to invade Iraq in the United Nations Security Council. We were emotionally charged by the events of 9-11 and “we knew” that Saddam was a “bad guy.” We also believed that we could not be defeated. We had defeated the Iraqis in 1991 and we were stronger and they weaker than that time.

We really didn’t know much about Iraq, its history, people, culture and certainly we paid little attention to the history of countries that had invaded and occupied Iraq in the past. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia wrote in August of 1920 about his own country’s misbegotten invasion and occupation of Iraq, or as it was known then Mesopotamia.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

The sad thing is that the same could have been written of the United States occupation by 2004.

But even more troubling than the words of Lawrence are the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Somehow as a historian who has spent a great deal of time studying the Nazi period and its aftermath I cannot help but look back in retrospect and wonder what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and the other Nuremberg prosecutors would have done had they had some of our leaders in the dock instead of the Nazis.

In his opening statement before the tribunal Jackson spoke words about the the Nazi plan for war that could apply equally to that to the United States in 2002 and 2003:

“This war did not just happen-it was planned and prepared for over a long period of time and with no small skill and cunning.”

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The indictments against the Nazis at Nuremberg are chilling if we were to be held to the same standard that we held the Nazis leaders at Nuremberg. True, we did not have massive death camps or exterminate millions of defenseless people, nor did we run slave labor factories, but we did like they launched a war of aggression under false pretense against a country that had not attacked us.

At Nuremberg we charged twenty top Nazi political officials, as well as police and high ranking military officers with war crimes. The indictments included:

Count One: Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War: This count addressed crimes committed before the war began, showing a plan by leaders to commit crimes during the war.

Count Two: Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace” which included “the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, and assurances.”

Count Three: War Crimes. This count encompassed the more traditional violations of the law of war already codified in the Geneva and Hague Conventions including treatment of prisoners of war, slave labor, and use of outlawed weapons.

Count Four: Crimes Against Humanity, which covered the actions in concentration camps and other death rampages.

While count four, Crimes Against Humanity would be difficult if not impossible to bring to trial because there was nothing in the US and Coalition war in Iraq that remotely compares to that of what the Nazis were tried, some US and British leaders could probably have been successful prosecuted by Jackson and the other prosecutors under counts one through three.

The fact is that none of the reasons given for the war by the Bush Administration were demonstrated to be true. Senior US and British officials knowing this could be tried and very probably convicted on counts one and two. We also know that some military and intelligence personnel have been convicted of crimes that would fall under count three.

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Saddam Hussein was a war criminal. He was also a brutal dictator who terrorized and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. But we went to war over his alleged ties to Al Qaeda and WMDs and he had not attacked us. Looking back at history and using the criteria that we established at Nuremberg I have no doubt that had Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld been in the dock that Justice Jackson would have destroyed them and the court would have convicted them.

So 15 years later we need to ask hard questions. The war cost nearly 5000 US military personnel dead, 32,000 wounded, over 100,000 afflicted with PTSD, and other spiritual and psychological injuries; an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide every day.  Somewhere between 1 and 2 trillion dollars were spent, helping to bankrupt the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded and displaced from their homes; their country was destroyed and they have not recovered. Yet somehow those that decided to take us to war roam free. They write books defending their actions and appear on “news” programs hosted by their media allies who 15 years ago helped manipulate the American public, still traumatized by the events of 9-11-2001 to support the war.

Despite all of this and the passage of 15 years with which to reflect a new poll revealed that some 43% of Americans still believe that the war was worth it.

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Saddam and many of his henchmen are dead or rotting in Iraqi prisons for their crimes against the Iraqi people. However good this may be one has to ask if how it happened was legal or justified under US or International Law, if it was worth the cost in blood, treasure or international credibility. Likewise why have none of the men and women who plotted, planned and launched the war been held the standard that we as a nation helped establish and have used against Nazi leaders and others?

If we cannot ask that and wrestle with this then we as a nation become no better than the Germans who sought to minimize their responsibility for the actions of their leaders.  If we downplay, minimize, or deny our responsibility regarding Iraq we will most certainly enable future leaders to feel that they can do the same with impunity. That is a terrible precedent and one that may very well lead us into disaster.

Today we have a President who may very well act on his worst instincts and thrust the nation into even worse wars.  To ensure that war occurs Trump fired General H.R. McMaster yesterday as his National Security Advisor and replaced him with John Bolton. Bolton is one of the most responsible and unapologetic of the Iraq War planners and he has made multiple attacks on the International Criminal Court, a court established in light of Nuremberg. He should be rotting as a war criminal rather than be appointed as National Security Advisor. This is truly a lawless and reprehensible regime that will destroy the United States and bring disaster upon the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Heroes or Villains? Snipers and Moral Ambiguity

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I saw the movie American Sniper when it came out two weeks ago, I have not read the book, though I have read excerpts of it, and both seen and read many of Chris Kyle’s responses to questions in various interviews after he retired from the Navy.  I have seen the shit storm that has developed in response to the movie as well as supporters lift Kyle up to near sainthood, a true hero; while detractors present him as a war criminal, a sociopath and something as close to demonic as a human being can be.

I think that both are right and both are wrong, and that the uncomfortable truth about Kyle lies somewhere in between those extremes.

I find that curious because I do not remember any visceral reaction to the actions of the scripture quoting American sniper, Private Jackson in Saving Private Ryan or the Soviet or German snipers in Enemy at the Gates.

Because of that I think in large part this visceral reaction to either lift Kyle up or tear him down comes from the context of the Iraq War itself. It was horribly divisive, in large part because the invasion of Iraq launched by the Bush Administration was no doubt a major war crime by any standard of international law.

I have written about this before. If the leaders of the Bush Administration had been put on trial for their actions at Nuremberg as were the Nazis, Justice Robert Jackson would have had them all on the gallows. Jackson said during the trial:

“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.”

Most, including the former President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense, not to mention other key players and decision makers would have easily been convicted of all except the charge of genocide. The three major counts that they would have hanged for were:

Count One: Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War: This count addressed crimes committed before the war began, showing a plan by leaders to commit crimes during the war.

Count Two: Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace” which included “the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, and assurances.”

Count Three: War Crimes. This count encompassed the more traditional violations of the law of war already codified in the Geneva and Hague Conventions including treatment of prisoners of war, slave labor, and use of outlawed weapons.

The decision of the Bush Administration to invade Iraq was not only criminal, but the consequences of that decision and the later disastrous post-invasion policies of the administration ensured that the suffering of the Iraqis and the suffering of the American military personnel and their families who shouldered the burden on that war, while 99.3% of the nation sat it out, would continue, even today.

I served in Iraq, supporting small teams of advisors working with the Iraqi military and security services in Al Anbar Province. I know that I hoped, as did the Marines, Soldiers and our Iraqi friends wanted to see peace come to Iraq and see that country rise from the ashes. Instead we have seen our efforts blow away like the sands of the desert. T.E. Lawrence I think wrote words that are all to symbolic of what we tried to do:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.”

So my Iraq war was different. I saw things in a different light from many because I worked with the Iraqis and got to know them, their hopes and their dreams. I also saw it differently because I could place it in a larger historical context. The Iraqis I knew, were not savages, they were human beings with the same kind of hopes and dreams for their families and country at any one of as has as Americans. That being said, none of us, American or Iraqi, felt any sympathy for the terrorists, foreign fighters, and Al Qaeda Iraq operatives who made a habit of killing and brutalizing Iraqi citizens, or those outside the country, who supported the terrorist efforts.

The part where ambiguity comes in is when we look at the men and women who serve in such wars, what they go through and the moral ambiguity that often comes with such service. It is an ambiguity which some need to justify by convincing themselves the all that they did was done in the name of a greater good, and against people who were less than human. That is something that those who serve as snipers in any army must convince themselves.

If you have ever read anything about snipers and how soldiers felt about them in various wars, I would encourage you to do so.

When I read that Michael Moore called Kyle, and all snipers cowards, I cringed. Not to say that Moore’s comments, which he attributed to how he lost a relative to a German sniper in the Second World War were completely unfair, they are actually similar to the views held by many against snipers. British historian and writer Max Hastings sums that up in his book Armageddon which is about the final months of World War Two in Europe:

“Almost every soldier on both sides shared a hatred of snipers, which frequently caused them to be shot out of hand if captured. There was no logic or provision of the Geneva Convention to justify such action. Sniping merely represented the highest refinement of the infantry soldier’s art. Its exercise required courage and skill. Yet, sniping made the random business of killing, in which they were all engaged. become somehow personal and thus unacceptable to ordinary footsoldiers.”

Snipers have a unique place in war and especially in the types of infantry intensive urban operations which Kyle was involved. Their trade is not in contravention of the Geneva Convention or any international military criminal code. So long as they are engaged in combat and are in the uniform of their country, and not engaging in acts that are forbidden by those codes their actions are legal. So to call Kyle a “war criminal” as some have is to misunderstand the law.

To call Kyle and other snipers “cowards” is also to misunderstand the nature of war, especially as it applies to snipers. Snipers have a lonely existence, they can be celebrated but some, but the nature of their war is different. The character Private Jackson in Saving Private Ryan perhaps summed it up what it takes to be a sniper, when he said: “Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.” The nature of the sniper’s war dictates that they believe something like this that enables them to survive.

Unlike those who can drop bombs, pilot drones, shoot artillery from afar or even engage in infantry combat with large numbers of others, the sniper has a lonely, yet intimate war.

Snipers usually serve alone, they set up, they wait, they seldom have back up. They are as much the hunted as they are the hunter. They know if captured that their enemy will have no mercy upon them. Unlike others, they have an intimacy with those that they kill, they see them, and in the kinds of wars where the “enemy” is not a uniformed soldier, but an insurgent blending in among civilians, they task of the sniper is incomprehensible. To do that job, combat tour after combat tour, has to do something to the human soul. Those that survive and come home have to try to justify their actions, as Kyle did, asserting that he knew that all of the people he killed were “bad guys.” It is probably the only way that one can keep his sanity when he returns to a world that doesn’t understand what he did.

But the justifications are as corrosive to the soul as anything else. They force people like Kyle, to push under the things that they saw or did which were wrong with a certitude that causes them to make assertions and claims that are either patently false, exaggerated, or which paint them in an even worse light than the truth would. Such would be the case in Kyle’s book where he claims killing thirty Americans in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. If he did that he was a criminal, but he is dead, and we will probably never know the truth.

A veteran of the U.S. Marine campaigns against the Japanese in the Pacific, Eugene Sledge wrote in his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa: 

“To the non-combatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement, but to those who entered the meat grinder itself the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning, life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all.”

That kind of war my friends has a corrosive and toxic effect on the human soul. Sledge noted: “I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.”

War changes those who serve in it, the kind of change is in large part due to the kind of wars that we serve in and what we do in it. When I watched the movie with my former assistant and body guard during our tour in Iraq, Nelson Lebron I was bombarded with memories, of both my time there and my return home, and the hell I have put my wife Judy through at times as I have struggled with PTSD, what I saw in Iraq and my reaction to coming home to a country that knew not war. I didn’t sleep for several days afterward and the shit storm surrounding the movie has brought a lot of anxiety to me, I guess because it seems that few people really understand what war does to people.

I think for me, the part of the movie that had the most effect was the homecoming, and it reminded me of a movie that came out in 1978 about the home front in the Vietnam War, Coming Home staring Jon Voigt, Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern. Both movies dealt with the pain of families affected by war.

I’m certainly not going to sit in judgment of Chris Kyle or his critics, he is dead and unable to defend or even take bak anything that he might have written or said, likewise his critics, in many cases do not know what war can do to a person. I don’t know how much of Chris Kyle’s story is true, or how much is some sort of fiction, or even if what he wrote was filtered through what he saw and did in Iraq. Killing that many people, seeing their faces and to watch the life flowing out of them has to mess up a mind. Though I have been to combat, I have not walked in the shoes of Chris Kyle or any sniper. I have never had to kill anyone, even in self defense.

I would hope that people see the movie. Not so much because I believe in its historical truth, it seems to me to be a composite representation of Kyle, Navy SEALs, Marines and Iraqis that has as much Hollywood myth as it does truth.

But rather I believe people should see it to see how war tears the souls out of people. I would rather have my fellow citizens look at the ugliness of war, and to hold politicians accountable for any decision to go to war. I would rather see my countrymen look upon the pain that war causes, even long after those who fought come home.

Two time Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler wrote:

What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

The effects of war are terrible and had George Bush not made the decision to go to Iraq, Chris Kyle might still be alive, like so many others.

I don’t know if this makes any sense to you but I had to try to put some words and thoughts around what I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks.

Have a great evening,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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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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The Unfolding of Miscalculations

 

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“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

It is now late July of 2014 and for the past month I have been reading about the events in Europe of 100 years ago, a time when the leaders of Europe were hurtling into a war which would change the world forever and the effects of which redound to our day. As I read each book I am always amazed at the hubris, vanity, ignorance and incompetence of the monarchs, prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats and military leaders. Men who managed to miscalculate their way into a war that was far larger, longer, destructive and earth shaking than most imagined at the time. As Barbara Tuchman wrote “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

Yes there were some who knew that a war would be longer, larger and more destructive than most expected, they were either ignored, or in the case of Field Marshal von Molkte of Germany and Joffre of France ignored their own predictions of a long costly war “made any allowance in their plans for the war of attrition which they both foresaw.” Lord Kitchener of Britain, who had no part in his nation’s planning for war and who was recalled to become War Minister on August 4th 1914 was the only military leader to act on his predictions. He predicted to a colleague that the war would last three years, but added that it might last longer, but “three years will do to begin with. A nation like Germany, after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. That will take a very long time. No one living knows.”

Of course few people, especially leaders learn from history, including Americans. In November 2002 Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq would “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that….It won’t be a World War III.” Of course, he and those who led the United States into war were incredibly wrong, the American involvement lasted 8 years, cost about 4500 U.S. military dead and about 40,000 wounded and when all costs are factored in will have cost the nation trillions of dollars. It also helped bring into existence the group known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and whose conquests may drag the United States back in to the Iraq conflagration, maybe even in concert with Iran. It may not be a “world war” but threatens to become global as the influence of ISIL is spreading to other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There are also rumblings of war coming from Russia and the Ukraine, a conflict that has now claimed nearly 300 people who had no stake in it, the passengers and crew of Malaysia Air Flight 17, shot down by pro-Russian insurgents with a missile very probably supplied by Russia. Both Russia and Ukraine have begun limited mobilization of their militaries. While one would want to believe that neither Russia or Ukraine, or for that matter Europe or the United States has an interest in war one can never be sure. As 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.”

In the weeks leading to the First World War, some nations were determined on war, others thrust into it by their perceived military interests and still others because they ignored the danger of the situation until it was too late. In all cases their actions and inaction led to disaster.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Results of Ignoring History: The Implosion of Iraq

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Better Times: With the Bedouin in December 2007

Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing… or so say my Iraqi friends.

It is now 2014, over eleven years since the Bush administration launched its ill advised, preemptive and probably war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That war, illegal under any definition of international law which violated most of the components of traditional Just War Theory and condemned by Pope John Paul II was a disaster for the United States and the unfortunate people of Iraq that we are only now beginning to the full negative implications.

For me the past week has been gut-wrenchingly painful as I watched the forces of ISIL/ISIS rampage through Iraq and the demoralized Iraqi military, no longer trusting Prime Minister Maliki throwing down their weapons and running away. I left Iraq over six years years ago. When I left Iraq, I was in Baghdad at the Headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group, on my way out of country, being awarded a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my work with our advisors and the Iraqis in Al Anbar. That night was a melancholy night. I was wearing my last serviceable uniform, which I had preserved for the trip home by wearing flight suits and baseball caps with no badges of rank, throughout most of the deployment. Like Lawrence’s donning of the Bedouin robes, my uniform choice, done purely by necessity made me stand out conspicuously among other Americans in country.

I was heading home but didn’t really want to leave, but in the process I left a big part of me in that long suffering country.  I have written much about my experience there and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I sense that what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. That military, defeated in 1991 and crippled by years of sanctions and bombings was no threat to its neighbors and couldn’t even defend itself against the U.S. and coalition forces.

When we entered the country, many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators, but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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British Troops enter Baghdad 1919

In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration, an agenda that only saw Iraq as a stepping stone for future operations against Iran.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis. It is deeply ironic that because of the terrible policy missteps of the Bush administration that the current crisis is forcing Iran and the United States to consider cooperation with one another to prevent the implosion of Iraq.

 

T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore its lessons, believing that they were smarter than other occupiers. It was an act of unmitigated hubris and arrogance brought about by those who believed that they were above history. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, it and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

 

Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces, however it can hardly be called a triumph.

Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Most of this has to be laid at the feet of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki who has done everything that he can to break promises made to Sunnis and Kurds, and dishonor the Sunnis who fought to save his government in 2007-2008. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests which were met by brute force. Sectarian violence spread, and ISIL/ISIS a move violent and vicious offshoot of Al Qaida gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. In the north, Mosul and Tikrit have fallen and there are reports that some ISIL/ISIS fighters entered Baghdad this evening. Casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount and a humanitarian crisis is developing as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis flee the violence, feeling threatened by both the fighters and the Maliki government.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for three years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government. Now many of the Iraqi elements of ISIS/ISIL have breached the border with Syria and are attempting to redraw the political map of the Middle East, ravaging the vestiges of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“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.”

His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined, one that is far worse than we bargained for and potentially cataclysmic in its impact.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. The Iraqis are on the whole decent and honorable people. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying to attain is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the 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.”

That is the case in Iraq and many other Arab countries today. One can only hope that for Iraq, Syria and those countries as that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better in helping them achieve that than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago.

But all of that being said, this situation is going to take at least a generation to settle. There are no easy answers and certainly sending troops in to restore the situation when Maliki and his regime make no attempt to reconcile with their Sunni and Kurdish countrymen, is not the answer. In fact if there is any answer that maintains Iraq as a unified state it has to be brought about by the Iraqis, particularly Maliki, who has shown no inclination to do this since the United States military left in 2011.

It is also very possible that what is happening, as bloody, horrible and painful as it is may be, is what is needed to correct the blunder of Sykes-Picot. Perhaps it should be left to the Arabs to redraw the natural boundaries of their regions, tribes and religions and let the chips fall where they may. In Iraq, the Sunni Sheikhs once the Shi’ite influence is diminished and they have regained some autonomy will drive out and destroy ISIL/ISIS as they did to AQI in 2007-2008.  The ISIL/ISIS fighters will not be welcome once they have achieved their goals.

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Lawrence wrote in 1920:

What is required is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines. It is no good patching with the present system….We are big enough to admit a fault, and turn a new page: and we ought to do it with a hoot of joy, because it will save us a million pounds a week.

We should listen to him.

As my Iraqi friends say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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