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“The Most Appalling Site Imaginable” George Patton’s Experience at the Ohrdorf Subcamp of Buchenwald

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In our day there are fewer and fewer people who lived through or personal saw or documented the evils of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Likewise, there are a host of Holocaust deniers who produce a plethora of pseudo-scholarly articles claiming to be legitimate historians. Even more frighteningly the rise of apologists for the Nazi regime including those who are active members of allegedly conservative parties in the United States and the European Union is beginning to influence politics. The abject racism, rejection of anyone considered racially inferior, and quite often their unhidden anti-Semitism show that what lies in the dark heart of Naziism is not dead and in fact is rising.

In the United States its rise is being fueled and legitimized by the Presidency of Donald Trump who has referred to American Nazis and White Supremacists as “very good people” after one of their protests where an anti-Nazi demonstrator was murdered and others brutally attacked. In the same time frame a good number of Republican candidates have exposed themselves as White Supremacists and actual Nazis while running for office. A host of new-Nazi and White supremacist organizations openly meet and flood the internet with their race hatred.

The fact is that anyone who denies the Holocaust, attempts to minimize it, or advocates the same policies of race hatred and violence against political, religious, or other opponents is no better than the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Likewise, those who stand by and say nothing are worse. As Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

The good thing is that there were people who took the time to record what they saw in the Nazi Concentration Camps and exposed those deeds to the world in such a way that only perverted and evil people could brazenly deny those facts.

One of the most detailed descriptions of a liberated Concentration Camp was written by General George Patton in his memoirs entitled War as I Knew It.

… we drove to Ohrdruf and visited the first horror camp any of us had ever seen. It was the most appalling sight imaginable.

A man who said he was one of the former inmates acted as impresario and showed us first the gallows, where men were hanged for attempting to escape. The drop board was about two feet from the ground, and the cord used was piano wire which had an adjustment so that when the man dropped, his toes would just reach the ground and it would take about fifteen minutes for him to choke to death, since the fall was not sufficient to break his neck. The next two men to die had to kick the board out from under him. It was stated by some of the Germans present that the generals who were executed after the Hitler bomb incident were hanged in this manner.

Our guide then took us to the whipping table, which was about the height of the average man’s crotch. The feet were placed in stocks on the ground and the man was pulled over the table, which was slightly hollowed, and held by two guards, while he was beaten across the back and loins. The stick which they said had been used, and which had some blood on it, was bigger than the handle of a pick.

Our guide claimed that he himself had received twenty-five blows with this tool. It later developed that he was not a prisoner at all, but one of the executioners. General Eisenhower must have suspected it, because he asked the man very pointedly how he could be so fat. He was found dead next morning, killed by some of the inmates.

Just beyond the whipping table there was a pile of forty bodies, more or less naked. All of these had been shot in the back of the head at short range, and the blood was still cooling on the ground.

In a shed near-by was a pile of forty completely naked bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime – not, apparently, for the purpose of destroying them, but to reduce the smell. As a reducer of smell, lime is a very inefficient medium.

The total capacity of the shed looked to me to be about two hundred bodies. It was stated that bodies were left until the shed was full and then they were taken out and buried. The inmates said some three thousand people had been buried from this shed since January 1, 1945.

When our troops began to draw near, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crimes. They therefore used the inmates to exhume the recently buried bodies and to build a sort of mammoth griddle of 60 cm. railway tracks laid on a brick foundation. The bodies were piled on this and they attempted to burn them. The attempt was a bad failure. Actually, one could not help but think of some gigantic cannibalistic barbecue. In the pit itself were arms and legs and portions of bodies sticking out of the green water which partially filled it.

General Walker and General Middleton had wisely decided to have as many soldiers as possible visit the scene. This gave me the idea of having the inhabitants themselves visit the camp. I suggested this to Walker, and found that he had already had the mayor and his wife take a look at it. On going home those two committed suicide. We later used the same system in having the inhabitants of Weimar go through the even larger slave camp (Buchenwald) north of that town. (Excerpted for G. Patton War as I Knew It)

Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote after seeing the camp:

The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.

The fact is that as much as we want to pretend that what happened a Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Soribor, Belzec, and Treblinka are images from history that cannot happen again, however, they are an ever present reality and they cannot be ignored. Sadly, I cannot help but to imagine that this can and will happen again in my lifetime.

I go to a quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:

We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.

That is our reality. There are people, even neighbors and those that we think are friends who would be perpetrators or bystanders when those that transgress the way of Trump are take us from our homes and families because of our beliefs. I would love to be wrong about this, but I am a historian and a theologian and I know the human condition far too well to sit back and remain silent, no matter what the cost.

I had a Facebook exchange with a friend who is a retired Navy Chaplain. He is very much a Trump supporter and apologist. He is very happy about Justice Kavanaugh being in the Supreme Court. The stories of the victims and their claims did not matter to him. Despite that I do not believe that he is a bad man or an evil person. I simply believe that like Martin Niemöller that he has made a bad choice in the man and party that he currently supports and that he will eventually regret it. I could be wrong, he might not turn out to be a Niemöller, but a Reichsbishof Müller. Sincerely hope that he does not become the latter.

I keep quoting historian Timothy Snyder, but he was all too correct when he wrote these words less than two years ago:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

If you don’t believe me read the words of the President, his closest supporters, the prominent political preachers of the Christian Right, and any number of Trump leaning columnists, pundits, and politicians. There are some who are so far gone that they will accuse any opponent of being disloyal, not the the Constitution or the law but to President Trump. One of those people tried to get my commanding officer to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in which he lied about what I said. I had to spend my money to hire a lawyer to defend me from the false charges and have them dismissed during the preliminary investigation.

Trust me, I know what resistance will mean if this President and his cult like followers are not stopped. Our fate will be worse than that of Nazi Germany because we should have known better. We should have learned from Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. We should have learned fro Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, we should have learned from the Nuremberg trials, but we have not.

For the next four months, and maybe more should the Democrats fail to gain a majority in the House or Senate, President Trump will have all the branches of the Federal government in his power. With the laws already enacted in the Patriot Act and numerous executive orders there is little to stop a President who has no respect for the law or the Constitution from declaring full emergency powers should any war, terrorist act, or natural disaster be declared.

So with all of that happy commentary I will leave you until tomorrow when, God willing, I will be back in the United States.

Until then have a good night, and please, never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“The Grave Dangers in Meeting Fanaticism with Ignorance…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Earlier in the week I discussed the moral implications of the President’s budget and talked about President Eisenhower’s Chance for Peace Speech of 1953. As I thought about it I began to ponder other things that President Eisenhower discussed that are still with us. One of those is the constant need for some people in government, in the media, and in the pulpit to find a scapegoat for the nation’s problems, both real, and imagined.

This is nothing new so as I watch the actions of some in the Trump Administration, and in the media today behaving in such a manner, it causes me pause and think. I am concerned with the way that American Muslims, and Americans of Arabic descent, even Christians, are being treated in response to real terrorist threats that are being perpetrated by some Islamic terrorist groups. Frankly, the heavy handed treatment of American citizens of the Islamic faith, or those who happen to be from, or who descent from Arab immigrants. I believe that the climate of suspicion and fear being promoted by people in the administration, members of Congress, and the media, especially the Right Wing media is something that hearkens back to a time not that long ago when other Americans were persecuted under a flood of allegations, many untrue and unfounded, by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter on intellectual freedom to the President of the American Library Association in June of 1953. It was barely five months after he entered office, the Cold War was heating up, and anti-Communist politicians were advocating policies which were in effect anti-American. Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting hearings which were akin to witch hunts to ferret out alleged Communist infiltrators and sympathizers in government, while the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) conducted investigations of media, entertainment, and academia blacklisting hundreds of people. McCarthy labeled many Democrats as well as the incoming Eisenhower administration as traitors for allegedly being soft on Communism, or even worse actively supporting the Communists.

Throughout his Presidency, Eisenhower never tired of speaking out for freedom of thought and expression. One of his first actions was in writing his letter on intellectual freedom. In the letter he opposed the kind of thinking that would meet real dangers with ignorance. He noted:

Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas.

Upon these clear principles, democracy depends for its very life, for they are the great sources of knowledge and enlightenment. And knowledge–full, unfettered knowledge of its own heritage, of freedom’s enemies, of the whole world of men and ideas–this knowledge is a free people’s surest strength.

The converse is just as surely true. A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.

For all these reasons, we must in these times be intelligently alert not only to the fanatic cunning of Communist conspiracy– but also to the grave dangers in meeting fanaticism with ignorance. For, in order to fight totalitarians who exploit the ways of freedom to serve their own ends, there are some zealots who-with more wrath than wisdom–would adopt a strangely unintelligent course. They would try to defend freedom by denying freedom’s friends the opportunity of studying Communism in its entirety–its plausibilities, its falsities, its weaknesses…

In the letter also noted something that I believe that we are in danger of today as the administration and Congress debate and implement measures that seem to target people because of their race or religion. Those are methods of totalitarians past and present. We have seen the results. President Eisenhower had just led the Allied forces in Europe against a regime that employed those methods, methods which brought about the deliberate, premeditates slaughter of millions of Jews, and others deemed to be either less than human, different, or potentially dangerous. Eisenhower wrote:

“But we know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedoms defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”

It is something to think about any time that anyone, be they a political leader, a religious leader, an academic, a journalist, or entertainer suggests adopting the methods of totalitarians against real or imagined threats. Policies and actions born of ignorance, and implemented through arrogance which promotes suspicion, suppression and fear will destroy the United States more certainly than any external enemy. As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” 

It is something to think about.

Have a great Day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inheriting the Wind: Iowa & the GOP 2015

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I wonder about the people now leading the Republican Party, especially the Christian Right and the politicians that fall all over themselves to ingratiate themselves to get their vote. I wonder if they have any clue as to the long term damage that they are doing to that party, their faith or to the country.

I should know something about this, because for most of my adult life I was a Republican, and at times subscribed to some of the same beliefs as the current leaders of the Religious Right that dominate my former party. To watch the events of this weekend, like so many others of the past couple of decades before, was mind-numbing.

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Mike Huckabee. the Trinity of Evil Incarnate: Preacher, Pundit and Politician 

The establishment GOP wants the votes of the Christian Right and the Tea Party, however, despite that they really don’t want them running the party. The establishment wants to have it both ways. They want to look like the boring conservatives of the pre-Reagan and Gingrich eras but they need to capture the votes of a base that is anything but that. That is why I find the potential candidacies of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney so amusing. Neither man can meet the ideological and religious litmus tests of the people who helped the GOP capture both the House and Senate and neither stands a bat’s chance in hell at winning the nomination, or if they do to secure the support of the base. In order to do that they would have to deny who they are, the true descendants of the less than ideological Republican Party of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford. Men whose relatively moderate beliefs were swept away by the so called Reagan Revolution and Gingrich takeover of 1994.

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But Barry Goldwater warned us about them. Goldwater said back in 1981:

“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.”

The situation reminds me of the movie Inherit the Wind, the fictional portrayal of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the movie one of the most stalwart critics of evolution, the former Presidential Candidate and Preacher Matthew Brady played by Frederic March, who has helped lead the city where the trial is being held into an anti-secular fervor.  At the beginning of the trial he encourages the townspeople to attend a “prayer meeting.” The meeting becomes quite heated as the town’s preacher, Reverend Brown, played by Claude Akins, who has launched into a full assault on all that oppose Brady, and therefore God.

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Reverend Brown works himself into a frenzy, condemn the accused and all that would defend him, including his very own daughter:

“Oh, Lord of the tempest and the thunder, strike down this sinner, as thou did thine enemies of old in the days of the Pharaohs! Let him know the terror of thy sword! Let his soul, for all eternity, writhe in anguish and damnation!”

His daughter, who is engaged to the accused cries out: “No! No, Pa! Don’t pray to destroy Bert!”

Then the reverend utters words which remind me so much of what I heard in Iowa this weekend:

“Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!”

Brady, not seeing just how he has brought this about stops the good Reverend Brown and tells him:

“it is possible to be overzealous, to destroy that which you hope to save — so that nothing is left but emptiness.” He then quotes from the book of Proverbs: “Remember the wisdom of Solomon in the book of Proverbs. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

To me this seems to be analogous to the current dilemma faced by the Republican Party. It has helped create, sustain and institutionalize a monster, and now seeing the danger doesn’t know what to do about it, and cannot admit its culpability in for it. Goldwater realized this in the earliest days of the movement which has consumed the Republican Party. The preachers have taken control and they will damn all who do not agree with them to destruction, even those of their own party.

The have been overzealous, and will continue to be so because like Matthew Brady they cannot acknowledge that their zeal may be misdirected and malevolent.

Like Reverend Brown, they are consumed by their hatred for a a non-believer, and they are willing to destroy the people closest to them to do so. I know this is true, because when I expressed doubt and did not tow the party line of my former church I was thrown out. Sadly, most of the men that I had previously counted as my closest friends abandoned or even condemned me.

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My situation reminds me of a another exchange in the film between Brady and his opponent, Henry Drummond played by Spencer Tracy. Brady said: “Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?” 

To which Drummond replied: “All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it’s you who’ve moved away by standing still.”

In standing still and condemning all who differ from their beliefs on any point, the preachers who now, in conduction with their business benefactors will indeed inherit the wind.

Ten years ago I could not have imagined this, but when I read the transcripts of many of the speakers fighting for the GOP leadership in Iowa this weekend it was yet another epiphany, in a series of epiphanies since I served in Iraq. The Iowa conference was a gathering of true believers, appealing to true believers. It was the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone with Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Steve King, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and the ever imbecilic Donald Trump leading the way. The Iowa meeting was more like the prayer meeting in Inherit the Wind than anything remotely connected with a normal American political meeting regardless of the party. Self congratulatory in denial the meeting was profound for its vapid rancor.

As far as me, watching this and all the other shenanigans of the Christian Right, I am sorry that I didn’t see it coming sooner. It took me until 2008 to realize that I really had not moved, but that the GOP moved, and continues to move away from me.

That is the scary part. Barry Goldwater was all too right in his analysis of those who have taken over the GOP. It is hard to believe that the only Republican bold enough to speak out against this takeover before it happened was the original “true conservative” of the GOP, a man whose 1964 campaign for President opened the door for their takeover of the party. Unlike those who attempted to claim his mantle including Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater really understood the danger of the genie that he let out of the bottle.

The irony is truly profound.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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NUTS! For Christmas

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Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe

On December 16th 1944 the German Army launched an assault in the Ardennes Forrest completely surprising the thinly spread American VIII Corps.  The German 6th Panzer Army, 5th Panzer Army and 7th Army attacked and forced the surrender of 2 regiments of 106th Infantry Division, mauled the 28th Division in the center of the American line while battering other U.S. forces.  To the north the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions were tenaciously defending Elsenborn Ridge while to the south the thinly spread 4th Infantry and 9th Armored Divisions resisted the 7th Army advance. As elements of the two German Panzer armies advanced west Eisenhower dispatched his only reserves the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to meet the threat. The 82nd moved to the town of St Vith to aid the 7th Armored Division while the 101st was dispatched to hold the key road center of Bastogne.

By the 22nd the besieged American defenders of Bastogne were causing Hasso Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army headaches. Manteuffel’s leading Panzer units of the 2nd Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr had been thwarted from taking the town by a Combat Command of 10th Armored Division and lead elements of the 101st.  After failing to take the town the Germans invested it with the 26th Volksgrenadier Division and a regiment of Panzer Lehr while 2nd Panzer and the bulk of Panzer Lehr continued their westward advance.

Cut off from any other American forces the 101st and a collection of stray units including CCB 10th Armored Division and remnants of CCR 9th Armored Division, three 155mm artillery battalions including the African American 969th Field Artillery Battalion held out. By the 21st of December they were completely surrounded.

The Commander of the American garrison was Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. McAuliffe was the acting commander of the 101st and normally was the commander of the Division Artillery. Major General Matthew Ridgeway and many key commanders and staff were away from the division when it was hastily deployed to the Bulge to combat the German offensive.  McAuliffe commanded a division short of ammunition, food and cold weather gear.

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General Der Panzertrüppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz

The German forces surrounding the city were commanded by the veteran General Der Panzertrüppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz commander of XLVII Panzer Corps.  Lüttwitz believing that resistance was futile sent the following message under a flag of truce to McAuliffe:

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander

McAuliffe’s response has become one of the immortal responses to a surrender demand in military history. According to staff members present when he received Lüttwitz’s note he simple said “nuts.” One of his staff officers suggested that he use “nuts” as his official reply to Lüttwitz and the following reply was typed:

To the German Commander

NUTS!

The American Commander

The reply was delivered by the commander of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harper and his S-3 Major Alvin Jones. When Harper delivered the message he told the German delegation that in “plain English” it meant “Go to hell.” The scene has been immortalized on film in the movie The Battle of the Bulge http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73OiRZf7DsM

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The garrison held out until it was relieved on December 26th by the 4th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army.  Despite that the situation remained tenuous and the town was the scene of much hard fighting over the next two weeks.

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McAuliffe’s Christmas Message to his Soldiers

McAuliffe went on to command the 103rd Infantry Division by the end of the war.  He returned to Europe as Commander of 7th Army in 1953 and U.S. Army Europe in 1955. He retired in 1956 with the rank of General.  He died in 1975 at the age of 77. His adversary Von Lüttwitz died at the age of 72 in 1969.

As we remain engaged in the current war it is always worth our time to remember the heroism, courage and faith of those that served before us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Post Script: To read more about the Battle of the Bulge on this site go to Wacht am Rhein: The Battle of the Bulge

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“They fight to liberate” Remembering the Men of D-Day at 70 Years

It is hard to believe now as we look at the serene beaches of Normandy that seventy years ago they were places of desperate combat in which hundreds of thousands of Allied and German soldiers, sailors, airmen and marine-commandos battled in a contest that helped free Europe of Nazi tyranny and changed the course of history.

Then they were young, most in their twenties, but some in their teens or thirties as well as a smattering of senior leaders or old career soldiers in their 40s and 50s. When I first began to read about and study the battle a good number were still alive, most about the same age as I am now. Today, their ranks thinning they are passing into history. When the 80th anniversary is celebrated, the few that remain will all be about 100 years old, and even now, the youngest of these men are nearing 90 years old.

On June 6th 1944 the Allies invaded German controlled France on the beaches of Normandy. By that evening the Allied Expeditionary Force had landed six infantry divisions on five invasion beaches and the bulk of three airborne divisions on the approaches to those beaches. Near 175,000 Allied Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marine Commandos were involved in the attack and nearly 10,000 would listed be as killed, wounded or missing by the end of the day, over half on Omaha Beach.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower sent them forward with this message:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.  In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world….

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The names of the invasion beaches and the units involved have been immortalized in history, in film and literature. The American 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles,” the “All American” 82nd Airborne Division and British 6th Airborne Division “Red Devils” made the largest night airborne drop and battled Germans, the elements as the struggled to reorganize on the heels of widely scattered drops.  The Americans battled the German 91st Airlanding Division and the crack 6th Parachute Regiment, while the British faced men of the 716th “Static” Infantry Division and battle groups of the nearby 21st Panzer Division.

On Sword Beach men of the 3rd British Division and 27th Armoured Brigade teamed with the 1st Special Services Brigade composed of Army and Royal Marine Commandos made the assault, to their right on Juno Beach the Canadians of the 3rd Canadian Division, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and two Royal Marine Commandos (battalions) while to their right on the middle invasion beach, God Beach the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and 8th Armoured Brigade went ashore with elements of the British 79th Armoured Division and the 47th Royal Marine Commando.

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To the right of the British landed the American V Corps on Omaha Beach, the 1st Infantry Division, the famous “Big Red One” and the 29th “Blue and Gray” Infantry Division of the Virginia and Maryland National Guard. They would fight the most seasoned Germans on the beaches that day, the hardened combat veterans of the 352nd Infantry Division.  The battle of Omaha was nearly a disaster and a one point General Omar Bradley contemplated withdraw from the beach.  The American troops, including the men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled the cliffs of Point du Hoc to protect the beach from enfilade fire from German artillery mounted on the point, yet the German guns had not yet been emplaced and the Rangers fought a bitter battle against strong German resistance on that rugged mount.  On the far right the American VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division assaulted Utah Beach; fortunately the Americans landed away from their planned point of assault and faced little resistance. Had they landed in the correct location they might fared as their neighbors on Omaha Beach.

Offshore the venerable battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Ramillies and the USS Texas, USS Nevada and USS Arkansas provided fire support to the beaches aided by the Free Naval Forces of France, the Netherlands, Poland and Norway.  The French forces included the cruisers Montcalm and Georges Leygues.

Names such has St Mere-Eglise and Pegasus Bridge, the Merville Battery, Point du Hoc and Bloody Omaha remain etched in the minds of the dwindling number of surviving veterans as well as historians, military personnel and others that take the time to remember the sacrifices of these men.

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The Men came from all parts of the United States and the British Commonwealth. Additionally personnel from France and other countries occupied by Nazi Germany were represented in the land, air and naval forces involved.  For the French, humiliated by their defeat in 1940 and divided by the Vichy and Free French divide were determined, despite their small numbers to liberate their homeland.

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They were opposed by four German Divisions, a Luftwaffe Fallschirmjaeger regiment and elements of the 21st Panzer Division.  The Germans with nothing in the way of air support and no significant naval forces were on their own. Hitler had refused Rommel’s request to deploy Panzer divisions near the beaches and was not awakened when word came of the invasion.  German soldiers fought with considerable valor and would do so throughout the Normandy campaign, even if they fought for a regime that was evil at its core.

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As the battle continued President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation and asked all Americans to join him in this prayer:

My Fellow Americans:

Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

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Today we remember them. On the 40th anniversary of the invasion President Ronald Reagan eulogized those who fought and died for the freedom of the world:

Today, in their memory, and for all who fought here, we celebrate the triumph of democracy.  We reaffirm the unity of democratic people who fought a war and then joined with the vanquished in a firm resolve to keep the peace.

From a terrible war we learned that unity made us invincible; now, in peace, that same unity makes us secure.  We sought to bring all freedom-loving nations together in a community dedicated to the defense and preservation of our sacred values.  Our alliance, forged in the crucible of war, tempered and shaped by the realities of the post-war world, has succeeded.  In Europe, the threat has been contained, the peace has been kept.

Today, the living here assembled:  officials, veterans, area citizens, pay tribute to what was achieved here 40 years ago.  This land is secure.  We are free.  These things are worth fighting and dying for.

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His words are powerful reminders of what was accomplished on that fateful day, June 6th 1944. I hope and pray that as we remember that day and those brave men that we will never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, world war two in europe

Twilight of the Generals: The Deeper Implications of the Petraeus Scandal

“War with impersonal leadership la a brutal soul-destroying; business, provocative only of class animosity and bad workmanship. Our senior officers must get back to sharing danger and sacrifice with their men, however exalted their rank, just as sailors have to do. That used to be the British way, but, unfortunately, there was a grievous lapse from it in the last war.” Colonel C.S.O. Head, A Glance at Gallipoli 

It has been a strange week for the military. I will be writing some more on this over the next few days but in the wake of the scandals wracking the military.

Some of these things have been brewing for some time.  But the revelations of an extramarital affair of retired Army General and now former CIA Director David Petreus, the revelation that Petraeus’ successor in Afghanistan Marine General John Allen sending allegedly flirtatious e-mails with the woman whose complaints of e-mail harassment triggered the investigation that exposed the Petraeus and his mistress-biographer Paula Broadwell.

General William “Kip” Ward, the former commander of US AFRICOM was demoted following an investigation that tied him to “unauthorized expenses” and “lavish travel” to the tune of 129,000 on an 11 day “business trip” that only three days were actual business.

Meanwhile in Fort Bragg North Carolina Army Brigadier General Jeffery Sinclair is going through the military version of a grand-jury investigation for sexual harassment and other such crimes against a number of his female staff officers. One alleges that Sinclair forced her to have oral sex and that he threatened to kill her or her family if she told anyone.

As a career officer myself, having spent the last 31 years in the Army, the Reserve Components of the Army and the Active Duty Navy I am disappointed but not surprised. I spent almost over half my career as a company grade officer or enlisted man and a fan of the late Colonel David Hackworth, who called he senior leaders of the military “perfumed princes.”

I think part of the problem is that many of us in the military have become more supporters of the preservation of the institution of the military than we are of the Constitution or the country. This is not surprising and in a sense I can understand this and probably at more than one point in my career been guilty of this. We are afraid of cuts to the military institution because it impacts us.

The roots of the problem go back to Vietnam but can probably be traced further back. The revolt of liberals and young people against the war, the military and the draft forced an end to the draft and the beginning of the All Volunteer force. This was a two edged sword. On the positive side it allowed the military to reform, reorganize and become the premier fighting force in the world. On the minus side of the equation was the fact that the military became a society within the society. We became insular and in many cases, including mine distrusted liberals and Democrats on any national security issue. Those old enough can trace that back to how either we, or our fathers were treated by liberals, Democrats and the media during the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Others, younger than me simply have bought the lie that liberals and Democrats are inherently anti-military. This has been particularly the case since the end of the Reagan administration and the George H.W. Bush led Gulf War victory over Iraq which cemented a narrative that the military was invincible.

Over the course of the next 20 years, the 8 years of Bill Clinton, the 8 years of George W. Bush and the first 4 years of Barak Obama the esteem for the military by the general population has continued to go up, even as that population is increasingly divorced from the need to serve in the military. The military at any given times in the past 20 years numbered less than 1% of the American population. This statistic is unlikely to go up in the near future with the reduction of the military to its pre-Iraq war strength and the increase in the population.

While the military has been engaged in a protracted war since the attacks of 9-11 and heavily involved in other wars or “operations other than war” since the Gulf War it has continued to shrink in relative terms to the US population. At the same time the military has become a lot more top-heavy in  numbers of General and Flag Officers since before the Second World War. The percentage of Generals and Flag officers added to the military since the beginning of the War on Terror has only increased, especially at the 3 and 4 star level.

There were in 2011 a total of 964 Generals and Admirals in the US military down slightly from 1017 at the end of the Cold War when there were more than 600,000 more personnel in the military. In the Second World War there were about 1.7 Generals or admirals per 10,000 personnel, the line today is about 6.8 per 10,000. See ( http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/testimony/national-security/ns-wds-20110914.html )

Regardless of the administration in power the senior ranks of the military have increased not only in numbers but in influence in the government. Highly respected by the public and with probably more power than at any time in our history the senior leadership of the Armed Forces has become insular and isolated. The senior ranks of the military have become a culture within a culture within the culture. The ongoing revelations of the Petraeus affair and possible involvement of General Allen regarding two women, most notably Jill Kelley a socialite who has cultivated close relationships with military leaders assigned to CENTCOM in Tampa as well as the culture of the Washington Beltway shows the depth of that disconnect.

At any given time there are well under 10% of flag and general officers commanding troops in combat. The rest are assigned to stateside units and staffs of various combatant commands, staffs and the Pentagon. In my service the Navy in World War II there were about 130 ships for every Admiral, today there are almost as many admirals as ships. While the ranks of the military have shrunk the numbers of Generals and Admirals has risen and the culture surrounding them has become more opaque. Generals and Admirals have become celebrities and power players in society in their own right. In fact I would guess that only the Great German Imperial General Staff of the Kaiser Reich had such influence in society at large or political power.

That respect which these men and women have earned in the nation which is often earned due to the incredible sacrifice of ordinary Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Likewise many General and Flag officer have done time in combat zones as lower ranking commanders and staff officers and have spent many years deployed and away from their families in direct combat or in supporting roles.

In spite of this there is obviously something amiss in the senior ranks of the military. The record numbers of the relief for cause of many senior officers and commanders due to various infractions, many of a personal, ethical or sexual nature is cause for concern. The concern that I hear from young men and women serving in the military and read about almost every day is that there is a separate set of standards for senior ranks than junior ranks. I have been fortunate that commands that I have been a part over the past 15 years have sensitive to this and have worked hard to ensure that standards are enforced regardless of rank but that is not always the case. High profile stories of scandal, privilege on the part of some have tarnished the hard work of many stellar officers and NCOs and the great sacrifice of those killed, maimed or wounded in mind, body and spirit in our current war.

The indiscreet and sometimes criminal actions of General Petraeus, General Ward, General Sinclair and fairly substantial number of other commanders who have been relieved for cause is is something to be concerned about.

Major General J.F.C. Fuller who served in the Royal Tank Corps in the First World War wrote a small but timeless book called “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure: A Study of the Personal Factors of Command” in 1932. Fuller was quite critical of a culture in the higher ranks which had led to unnecessary slaughter and suffering during the First World War. It is a book that is well worth the read in such a time as ours. As the scandal continued to develop this week I remembered it and decided to re-read it.

The problems that we face are not unique to us. Scandals that are rocking the US Military are not new, they have been faced by other militaries before. The issue today is that the modern media and communications age has made it nearly impossible for those involved in salacious behavior to have it covered up. The Petraeus scandal has unfolded in large part due to the electronic media which almost all of us are dependent on, even for routine communications that never would have seen the light of day had they not been recorded in the cyber records of Google, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, e-mail providers or other electronic communication systems. There might have been insinuations, innuendo and accusations but many would have never seen the light of day.

The indiscretions of these men actually opened a door for honest questions and examination of the health of the American civil-military institutions. The military institution and those that swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States cannot become just another special interest group. Yes it is important to maintain national security and to take care of the troops when they return to civilian society. We cannot allow ourselves to become a state within a state or culture within a culture. The exaggerated numbers of General and Flag Officers compared to the overall numbers of personnel in the military can only be justified by the necessary bureaucratic and institutional power provided by the rank, not by mission or responsibility.

The power of the institution is dangerous when its leaders subtly shift the mission from the defense of the Constitution and the people to the defense and maintenance of the institution itself and their own power.

This is not simply about sex, improper relationships, assault or financial indiscretions of leaders, it points to broader and perhaps more dangerous threats to our system of government, but the unbridled temptation of power and influence that believes that comes with the unquestioned adulation of politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity. So even as the scandals rock the military it is not a bad thing. If we do not address them they will become millstones about our necks that will drag us under and expose the people and Constitution that we are sworn to defend to untold disaster.

Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded us so well about this danger in his farewell address in 1961:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, national security

The “Comfortable” Experts and the Real Soldiers

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!” 

Guy Sajer “The Forgotten Soldier”

Currently well under one percent of Americans are serving in any branch of the military and of these not all have served with boots on the ground.  There is no shame for those that have not as land war is the prevue of the Army and Marines though a significant number of Sailors and some Air Force personnel have served alongside their Soldier and Marine comrades in arms.

Of those that serve there is not one who has not enlisted, reenlisted or renewed their Officer Oath of Office at least once since September 11th 2001.  There are those of us who have been in far longer but even we have made the commitment to continue in the service of our country knowing that anyone can be sent into harm’s way at any time.

Those that serve especially those that have served at the point of the spear in the remote badlands, or dangerous cities of Iraq and Afghanistan are a true minority group. We are a minority group composed of the best our nation has to offer. We represent every state and territory; we are citizens or in the case of many immigrants’ men and women seeking citizenship by risking their lives for a country that often despises their relatives based on their race, nationality or religion.  In fact this is not new; men have come to this country since our revolution from far countries because of the ideals that this nation represents.

This is a minority group composed of all races and whose families helped colonize this nation, came here in the following centuries and those that were here before the Europeans landed on this continent. We represent almost every religion and creed known to human kind. We come from cities, small towns, rural areas and island territories.  We are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents.  We are Americans and we know war not from books, though many of us study military history, strategy and the lives of those great Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen that have gone before us. We know war because we have seen it. We have lost friends and seen others maimed or injured in mind, body or spirit. We have seen the wounded and the destruction which war inflicts on often innocent people who have the misfortune of living in a combat zone.

We do not make policy we carry out the orders of our national leaders and obey the laws passed by Congress. We are professionals.  We are not perfect but we serve.  In a sense we embody what the character of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine said at Gettysburg in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and its film adaptation Gettysburg.

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other. Sorry. Didn’t mean to preach.” 

We serve at a time that our nation has been engaged in two very costly wars in terms of lives and treasure. We never thought that they would last as long as they have after all we were promised that and even told that the mission was “completed.” But the wars didn’t end and now our nation is involved in one, maybe two more in Libya and possibly Yemen.

We are told in spite of what we know from experience that the wars are going well and that we have turned a corner in Afghanistan even as the situation on the ground tells us otherwise.  We have the professional military experts in the think tanks telling us that the wars have to continue. Of course these men have never served in combat and what they know is gleaned from their interpretation of history and often dictated by their ideology and sometimes even worse by their connections to the defense industry, that which President and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower so charmingly called “the military industrial complex.” Of course now we can and the media and elected officials who promote war to sustain their political power and enrich the powerful in their home districts.

Then there are those, especially the young that grow up with war as a series of video games and since very few meet the standards to serve in the military for a wide variety of reasons think that war is cool.  Look at the top selling games, almost all deal with virtual close combat, without any cost to those that play them.

Marines in Afghanistan under attack

Such men and in some cases women need to learn about war in the uncomfortable manner described by Sajer, a Frenchman that served in the German Army on the Eastern Front because one of his parents was German.  The problem is that those that promote war as a business and those that sell war to kids via the entertainment industry really don’t care about the real human beings, the men and women who serve knowing that these wars are unlikely to end anytime soon.  Even more frightening are people of strong religious convictions who promote war in order to see their views, especially about the Middle East vindicated.

Such are the comfortable experts who debate in comfort and write with a detached certitude that they alone have the correct view of the world.  There is a good case to be made that such people be held accountable for the wars that they advocate and the lives lost because of their hubris.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, Political Commentary