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The Exploitation of the Military for Political Ends: The Military as Backdrop for Presidents

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every President of the television age has used the military as a background for various speeches and announcements of policy, especially in regard to war. In February 2003 I was at one of these rallies when President George W. Bush rallied us to the upcoming war against Iraq. It was a “go to war” speech and he was cheered wildly and I joined in that cheering, and after all we all knew that the Iraqis had WMD, were part of the Axis of Evil, and were aiding Al Qaeda; and we were all wrong. As a result of that decision thousands of Americans were killed, tens of thousands wounded, and uncounted thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded, or driven from their homes. The result of that war was the complete destabilization and radicalization of the Middle East.  Fifteen years after that ill-fated decision to go to war the situation in the Middle East and the world is worse than it could ever been imagined it to be then.

But that was a go to war speech, the military personnel were used as a backdrop for enunciating the reasons to go to war. We were ordered to attend and ships were positioned for the best possible propaganda effect. My ship had just come out of the yards and had too much scaffolding to be a part of the display, but our crew was assembled as part of the backdrop for the speech.

That being said President Bush never attacked any political enemies or any other Americans, nor did he call opposition to his strategy by members of the media or anyone else as treasonous or called them the enemy. Instead, Saddam Hussein was the enemy and because we believed what we had heard in the media and from others in the military we approved.

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On Tuesday President Trump gave a speech to Marines at Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar in San Diego.  In his speech the President talked of his wall, pay raises for the military, a “space force,”, and pointing to the assembled members of the media attacked the “fake news.” The Marines cheered wildly, and I shook my head because I knew that at one time earlier in my life, carried on by the emotion of being in the presence of the President and a lifetime of absorbing Fox News, talk radio, and conservative internet pundits for hours on end every day I probably would have cheered with them. I did that in 2003. It took me until 2007 while I was deployed in Iraq to figure out just how wrong that I was.

President Bush deserves legitimate criticism of his decision to attack Iraq, he has to be commended for not attempting to silence or demonize his opposition. The conservative media led by Fox News and radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh did but he didn’t. But unlike President Bush, President Trump backs hostile regimes and denounces critics at home. Say what you want about him but President Bush would not have done that in a million years.

What President Trump did was to lead young Marines who are sworn to defend the Constitution into cheerleaders for his attack against the First Amendment. As the did this I looked into the Marines assembled behind him, including officers and I wondered why didn’t anyone object by at least turning their head, or remaining silent instead of cheering or taking selfies.

This is so different than the lead up to the Iraq war. President Trump has declared war against his opponents at home while refusing to condemn the actions of the Russians, and appears by his words and actions leading us to war in the Middle East against Iran and its proxies, as well as North Korea.

General Ludwig Beck who commanded the German Army in 1938 resigned his post because he believed that Hitler in his desire to destroy Czechoslovakia by military force would lead to the destruction of Germany. Beck went into the opposition and died during the failed attempt to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi State on July 20th 1944.

Now Beck did have his flaws. He was not a supporter of the Weimar Republic. He was Anti-Semitic, and he was at heart a Monarchist. Despite that he joined with others of various political, ideological, and religious persuasions to try to overthrow Hitler. One thing that he said has stuck with me since my return from Iraq in 2008 and when I see things like the rally at Miramar I have to ask, where were the officers who should have known better?

Beck wrote:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

I have spent almost half of my Navy career assigned to the Marines or supporting them. I am a graduate of the Marine Command and Staff College and a Fleet Marine Force qualified Navy Officer. I love and admire the Marine Corps. When I came to the Navy and was serving with the Second Marine Division as it was being readied for a possible invasion of Kosovo in 1999 I was asked by Colonel Robert Neller, “Chaplain, after all those years in the Army, what do you think about the Marine Corps?” My answer was “Colonel, this is the Army that I always wanted to serve in.” Colonel Neller is now the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

But what happened Tuesday reduced the Marines in attendance to political pawns in an ideological war to destroy the Constitution and replace it with a government based on xenophobia, greed, and fear. But then how could they not be?

Polls around the world show an increasing number of young people willing to ditch democracy in favor of authoritarian government models. This applies to both left and right wing variants. This is no different in the United States. The fact is that those who are old enough to remember the tyranny of the Nazi, Fascist, Nationalist, and Racist regimes of the Second World War have for the most part passed away. Likewise it has been nearly thirty years since the end of the Cold War and its existential threat of worldwide nuclear destruction, the Iron Curtain, the enslavement of tens of millions of people behind it, and the proxy wars between United States and Soviet surrogates not to mention the Soviet invasion  of Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. In the United States  and many, if not most of these young Marines were raised in homes where they digested a steady diet of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and right-wing websites. Coupled with the unique and almost mythological culture of the Marine Corps it is not hard to understand.

The terrible thing is, that if the President that these Marines were cheering does what he has repeatedly said he would do, attack North Korea or Iran, that many of the young men and women in attendance at the rally will die or be horribly wounded, and the country that they serve will suffer greatly.

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One of the greatest Marines to ever serve this country understood all too well the threat of men like President Trump to the country and the cost of war. That man was two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler. Butler warned of the costs of war nationalism, and fascism. He wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? 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….”

Butler was cashiered, threatened with court-martial, and retired by President Hoover for speaking the truth about Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He would certainly speak the truth about President Trump. If only more veterans and military men would do so today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Putin’s Crimean “Anschluss”

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Vladimir Putin has successfully annexed the Crimea and reincorporated it into Mother Russia. It was masterfully done but it was not the first time that something like it has been accomplished. The last time was in March 1938 when Hitler with the assistance of Austrian Nazis and Pan-Germanists brought Austria into the Third Reich over the objections of its democratically elected leaders.

The pretext was the same. Ethnic Germans in Austria who wanted to be part of Germany ere being persecuted, just as was claimed about ethnic Russians in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. The larger power, backed by military force moved to support the their allegedly persecuted brothers and sisters.

Like in the Crimea, the Nazi conquest of Austria was aided by Austrians. Austrians who with the assistance of the SS ensured that Jews, Socialists and others had their votes suppressed. According to official Russian news sources over 95% of Crimeans voted to become part of Russia. That number is lower than the 99.7% of Austrians who “voted” for incorporation in the German Reich, but numbers such as this are suspect.

The elections in both places were aided by the presence of a large military contingent from each major power. The Germans of course were more overt, their forces openly crossed the border with Hitler accompanying them. The German SS supported the moves of their Austrian counterparts as well as the Austrian SA in bludgeoning all opposition.

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The Russians acting under the same pretext in 2014 denied that their troops had entered the Crimea, despite massive evidence to the contrary. In less than two weeks an “election” was held backed by Russian military forces and local police forces and political groups. Ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars who make up close to 40% of the population of Crimea were kept from the polls.

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The parallels are startling. I expect that by tomorrow the Russian Duma will recognize the results of the Crimean election, and that with days Russian forces will move to annex other potions of the eastern Ukraine. These areas are gripped by Russian nationalist forces that are agitating against the Ukrainian government. The situation is so bad that many ethnic Russians in the region are objecting to the methods and propaganda.

But that will not stop Putin. For whatever reason he has decided that now is the time to begin to restore Russian dominance in the areas nearest to Mother Russia. It is a dangerous move.

Putin is moving more military forces into Crimea. There are credible reports that Russian military units, including the elite Spetsnaz commandos have entered the Ukraine and are attempting to create “false flag” incidents in order to justify Russian military intervention in the Ukraine.

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This is dangerous. The Ukraine is not Austria of 1938, nor is it Czechoslovakia of the same year where a similar drama was playing out in the Sudetenland where Hitler again taking advantage of the supposed oppression of ethnic Germans was used as pretext to threaten war. Then it forced the west to back down, and a Munich the leaders of Britain, France and Italy forced the Czechs to surrender that territory. But now, with the exception of Russia, the world is condemning the Russian aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine.  The UN Security Council voted 13-1 with one abstention to condemn the Russian adventure in Crimea.

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The next week promises to be eventful. A military “truce” has been agreed to by the Ukraine and Russia. That truce is set to expire Friday the 21st of March. Meanwhile the rhetoric in Ukraine and Russia is becoming more elevated even as military forces of Russia, the Ukraine and NATO move into positions around the region. The military situation could easily escalate beyond the best efforts of diplomats and a real disaster could ensue.

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It is a dangerous and potentially volatile situation. Much blame can be laid at leaders of various Ukrainian political factions, the European Union, Russia and the United States for allowing the situation to get to this point. However, that being said the overwhelming responsibility for the increasing rise in tensions and potential for violence has to be laid at the feet of Russian President Putin. It is Putin who has not taken the path of conciliation and negotiation regarding what is happening in Ukraine. He has instead opted for confrontation. That course is is dangerous and is not in the interest of anyone, especially the citizens of the Ukraine.

Let it be clear that I am not a fan of some of the Ukrainian nationalists involved, who are neo-Nazis and fascists. That being said if cooler heads prevail, that negotiations taken in good faith followed by elections that are free, fair and not held under the threat of military intervention take place that the situation might resolve itself. However, if that does not happen I hate to see what happens.

I would hope that some kind of solution, maybe of the order of of a non-aligned Ukraine such as Cold War Finland would be negotiated. Such a course has been recommended by no less than Henry Kissinger. Unfortunately I do not think that will happen. The politicians, pundits and preachers, the Trinity of Evil in Russia, the Ukraine and the West are stoking the fires of passion with results that at best will make the world a less stable and more dangerous place, and at worst could lead to a disastrous war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Real Conflict: Ethics and American Values Versus Realpolitik

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“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” Henry Kissinger

There are a times in a nation’s life that its leaders are confronted with situations that present conflicts between a nation’s values and realpolitik.

The fact is that there are “tribes” in foreign policy and national security debates. Some are the idealists, others pragmatists and some realists. There are gradients between the levels and sometimes depending on the situation an idealist might gravitate toward pragmatism or even realpolitik and visa versa. Sometimes it is a matter of politics, sometimes ideology and sometimes even  and no leader of no political is immune from these tensions.

The situation in Syria is one of those times where the conflicting agendas of the different foreign policy tribes conflict and where no matter what happens in Syria the conflicts between the tribes will remain and perhaps even grow more pronounced. The fact is that I often can find myself on several sides of the same argument. It might be the PTSD “Mad Cow” is causing these conflicts but it could also be that there are good arguments to be made on all sides of the argument. What is ultimately the right course or the wrong course is actually hard to say.

If we argue for the idealist position, which would argue that American values of stopping human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, something prohibited under the Hague convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 against the realpolitik of what are the actual National Security interests of the United States, the vital interests which involve the survival of the nation itself, major interests which could impact national security or tertiary interests which might have some importance but do not threaten the survival of the nation, even of they are terrible crimes against humanity.

Whether one likes it or not these are legitimate ethical and policy conflicts. On one hand there is the position that the United States has taken following World War Two and the Nuremberg trials as well as its participation in the International Criminal Courts has a moral obligation to confront the use of chemical weapons even if other nations or international bodies stand aside. On the other hand the argument that what happens in Syria is not in the vital interests of the United States and that the United States should not take military action to stop the use of those weapons. The fact is that those that advocate military action in Syria be they politicians, pundits, preachers or profiteers need to remember the words of Carl Von Clausewitz that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” I really don’t think that we have thought this through as a nation.

Of course these two positions are not exclusive. There are also ranges of action which span the full spectrum of action between the either or situation that most Americans seem to find themselves caught between. The fact is that the National Security Strategy of the United States is not based on military might alone, no matter how much it has been used as the first choice by American leaders. The reality is that military force is only one element, and perhaps the weakest element of the elements of national security police known as the “DIME.” That is the Diplomatic, the Informational, the Military and the Economic power of the nation. What we seem to have forgotten is that the other elements of the DIME other than the gut level military response have value and are perhaps even more important.

I think that a large part of this conundrum is found in the reflexive use of military force as the preferred means of action since the attacks of September 11th 2001. On that day the United States was attacked by the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda militants and while the victims of those attacks were overwhelmingly American the citizens of over 60 other nations we killed in the attacks.

Those attacks demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this nation. When one looks at our actual national security policy it is clear that those vulnerabilities are not always fixed by military action in other countries. In fact they sometimes can become even more glaring as resources required for Homeland Defense and economic recovery are spent on military operations of dubious strategic value and which at times undermine efforts to build trust with other nations, build coalitions based on shared values and to undercut the efforts of extremists using diplomacy, information and economic power.

What we have to answer now is how we address a situation in Syria that is both a violation of international law but which military force alone cannot solve. Of course there is a conflict between our ideals and what are vital national security concerns. I would suggest that the real threat of military action can be a part of the answer if it helps the United States and the world make the case through diplomacy, information and economic pressure not only to stop the slaughter but to hold those responsible for it accountable in International Criminal Courts for the commission of war crimes. At the same time the reality is that the United States and the world cannot allow an Al Qaeda dominated organization such as the Al Nursa Front gain control of Syria.

The fact is that despite how clear cut we want things to be as Americans that much of what happens in the world takes place in a world of more than 50 shades of gray. Unfortunately American conservatives and liberals alike prefer to see foreign policy in the “either or” world of using pure military force or doing nothing, neither of which of themselves are the answer. The full continuum of national and international power must be brought to bear in these kind of situations, recognizing that not everyone shares our values or has the same strategic interests.

It may not be comfortable for anyone but it is reality. How we navigate it is key, maintaining our values while ensuring that our nation survives. If military action is decided on one has to remember what Clausewitz said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”

To make a decision without understanding this or as we did in Iraq ignoring it is to risk disaster. Such are the stakes. I personally would rather see more negotiation in the hopes that the Syrian chemical and biological weapons are secured and those responsible for using them, be they Assad, his government or even the rebels attempting to frame the Syrians and deceive the United States against the Syrian people are brought to justice.

This is a messy business and not for the faint of heart. Lives of thousands of people in Syria, the region and potentially around the world are at stake and a military strike that fails to accomplish the political object would be worse than none at all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Beginning of Chaos in Egypt: Watching and Waiting as the Situation Deteriorates

Battle Lines in Tahrir Square (Yanis Behrakis -Reuters via MSNBC)

Today violent street clashes broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Following President Hosni Mubarak’s pledge not to run for the Presidency again but remain in office until September and the opposition’s denunciation of that move as too little too late Tuesday night pro-Mubarak groups entered the fray. Men on camels and horses swept into the square during the afternoon whipping and clubbing anti-Mubarak protesters as they stormed through the crowd.  Reporters were attacked and as evening came the clashes became more violent as the pro-Mubarak supports began to throw Molotov Cocktails at the demonstrators. The Army did appear to attempt to make some efforts to separate the groups and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds but did little else. The scene was remarkably different from Tuesday when the protesters calling for Mubarak to step down did so in a peaceful manner unmolested by the Army units in the square.  The Egyptian military has aired television spots asking all of the protesters to “go home for the love of Egypt.”

Although the images shown on our television sets conjure the worst and appear to the country devolving into chaotic violence with unpredictable consequences. The fact is mystery shrouds developments outside the view of the cameras surrounding Tahrir Square. We are unaware of what is transpiring inside the government or the military. We are unsure about the extent of Egypt’s government or ruling party’s involvement in today’s counter demonstrations, some reports are that some at least were ordered in from government jobs.  The only thing that we can safely assume is that unless some kind of resolution acceptable to both sides arises the situation could get dramatically worse and imperil the success of any government that replaces the Mubarak regime whether he steps down in the next few weeks or holds on until September.

Regardless of the outcome Egypt and possibly much of the Arab World is at a turning point. Authoritarian regimes as different as that of Muammar Ghadaffi and Saudi Arabian King Abdullah have condemned the Egyptian uprisings as well as that which overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia.  They know that the dynamics at work in Egypt, unemployment, poverty and political repression are shared to one degree or another in much of the Arab World, the common factor repressive authoritarian regimes which to many lack legitimacy.  Rulers in Jordan and Yemen have already seen demonstrations and Jordan’s king has fired his government apparently to get ahead of the protests and Yemen’s ruler has pledged to step down at the end of his term in 2014.  Leaders of other Arab nations cast a wary eye on Egypt and their own opposition groups.

The Egyptian revolution will more than likely not result in fundamentalist Islam dominated state due to the unpopularity of such regimes as the Taliban and Iran in the Arab World. At the same time while Islamists are not leading the revolution in Egypt they are an important part of the Egyptian political landscape and must be taken into account.  I would think that if the violence subsides and a peaceful orderly transition takes place that a government similar to Turkey, probably not led by a religious party could be the best result. Such a government would likely not be as close to the United States as Mubarak but probably remain an ally and not an active enemy of Israel as it seeks its own economic growth and stability to reinforce its pivotal role in the Arab World.  However there is no guarantee of this outcome.

The worst outcome would be continued violence that leads to a radicalized country led by more extreme members of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom have called the Egyptian people to prepare for war against Israel.  Unfortunately unlike the older generation of Egyptians the new generation has not experienced war and war’s desolation. The older generation was at war with Israel for nearly 40 years suffering defeat after defeat.  In 1967 they lost control of the Suez Canal and the income derived from it in the 6 Day War and in 1973 after successfully crossing the canal and inflicting heavy casualties on the previously invincible Israelis had the tables turned on them. An Israeli Army after driving off the Syrians in a desperate battle on the Golan Heights and advancing deep into that country crossed the Suez Canal, surrounded an Egyptian Army on the far side of the canal, lay siege to Suez and were poised to drive to Cairo saved only by a cease fire brokered by Henry Kissinger and the United Nations. The war nearly brought the Soviet Union and the United States into nuclear conflict when the Soviets marshaled Airborne divisions to intervene and President Nixon raised the DEFCOM from 4 to 3. I remember talking to Egyptian officers, veterans of the wars with Israel when I was a student at an Army school in 1983, they talked of sacrifice and the brutality of war and the effects of the war on their country.  One simply said “I do not like Israel but I am tired of war and I do not want it for my children.”  Since Camp David Egypt has had all of its territory in the Sinai returned was able to reopen the Suez Canal.  Another war between Egypt and Israel would devastate both countries and for that matter not be contained.  A radicalized government set on such a course would be an unmitigated disaster for Egypt, Israel and the world.

While we watch Egypt protests are about to begin in Yemen with a “day of rage” scheduled for Thursday with demonstrations planned in Syria and Jordan Friday and Saturday and even Bahrain on February 14th. Expect such demonstrations as the old guard of the Arab World experiences the long suppressed rage of their people which is now spread in seconds through the power of the social media.  Meanwhile radicals in Iran, Al Qaeda and as well as other radicals and terrorist groups wait to take advantage. Yemen which has a strongly entrenched Al Qaeda organization and sits astride the strategically important Bab-el-Mendeb passage at the south end of the Red Sea is a country that is a prime target of these radicals and terrorists.  All the other countries for different reasons are important to the stability of the Middle East.

Today’s protests in Tahrir Square killed three and wounded over 600.

We can only watch and wait….and pray as these events develop.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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