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“I imagined leave would be different from this” September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to 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 often feel that way.

Seventeen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

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That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong.

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Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

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A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

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When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

But I have to live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “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.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 37 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire.

Yesterday and today there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting. As I mentioned last night I did not take place in this year’s commemoration of the event at my base because I had been asked by name to do a funeral for a retired Navy Chief at a local veterans cemetery followed by more planning and preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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They are Not Just Names: September 11th 2001 at Seventeen Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In Star Trek Deep Space Nine there is a scene where the deputy commander of the Space Station, Major Kira Nerys gives a casualty report to Captain Benjamin Sisko. It resonates with me every time that I see it and especially on the anniversary of September 11th.

KIRA: Sir, the latest casualty reports have just been posted.
SISKO: How many this time?
KIRA: Including the troops lost at AR five five eight, seventeen hundred and thirty.
SISKO: Seventeen hundred thirty.
KIRA: That’s a lot of names.
SISKO: They’re not just names. It’s important we remember that. We have to remember.

Today marks the seventeenth year since the attacks of September 11th 2001 and we do have to remember those who lost their lives that day, all those Americans and our coalition partners who died, and all the innocents lost, even to those of American military action. None of them are just names, they are real men and women, as well as children cut down by terrorism and unending war.

When we were attacked on September 11th 2001 I had already passed twenty years of service, though about half of them were service in the reserves and National Guard. Now I am over 37 years of service and by this time next year I should be on the retired list unless something very unexpected happens.

My base will be marking it with the dedication of a nature trail that now has plaques commemorating over 80 eighty men and women from our base who have died in action, on deployment, or training to go to combat since that occasion. While this ceremony is taking place I will be driving out to a Veteran’s Cemetery an hour or so away to perform the internment of a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer whose family requested me by name.

Thus I will be turning over the big high profile ceremony to my deputy chaplain. It will give him a chance to be on the big stage and get recognized for his own talents and abilities while I do something less visible but very meaningful to that Navy Chief’s family and to me as the son of a Navy Chief. In addition to conducting the service I will have the honor of presenting the colors of the nation to his daughter.

For me it is a chance to pay back the goodness shown to my dad and family when he passed away in 2010. The base ceremony and the internment were pretty close together time wise. My Commanding Officer and I talked about it decided and decided that since I am now in pretty much constant pain with knee and hip injuries since I fell down my stairs last month that I shouldn’t be doing back to back ceremonies with a long drive in between.

But anyway. Since September 11th 2001 I have lost count of the number of friends and comrades who died during the attack and the subsequent wars. This includes those that died by their own hand during or after their service due to the effects of combat trauma, PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Injury,  or the never ending pain of physical wounds and injuries. I often see their faces when I think about the past 17 years, their names are forever etched in my memory, but they are not just names and we cannot forget them. I cannot and I will not.

It seems like every week or so we lose another soldier, sailor, marine, or airman in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa. I loom at their names, where they are from, and the number of deployments that they have made. Some entered service well after me but because of their specialities and assignments made far more deployments that I can imagine. One soldier who was killed in action serving in Iraq had made 13 deployments, 9 of which were combat deployments in a 16 year career, and for the most part they are forgotten by all but their family, friends, and comrades, most barely get a mention elsewhere.

Sadly at this point in my career I believe that for many Americans, especially the faux patriots of the Fox News set, the political preachers of the Christian Right, and the President himself, that the troops are merely a prop to place in the background to promote their political causes and slam other Americans for not being patriotic enough.

Today I will continue to serve and I will mourn in my own way the friends, comrades, and shipmates that I have lost over these past 17 years. For me they are not just numbers or names, they are real people and no amount of flag waving will bring them back. No amount of corporate sponsored “patriotism” will make up for the lost lives, and the destruction of these wars. We can remember and honor the lost, and those who still suffer, including the wounded in body, mind, and spirit, and of the widows and children of the men and women who never came home or were never the same. I came home, but I am not the same.

They are not just names.

So as you go about your activities today take time to remember the victims of war, terrorism, and as I do the men and women who I knew who never came home, couldn’t make the transition back from war, or who still suffer in mind, body or spirit.

Never forget, they are not just names.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

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The Black Hole of Sleep and Nightmares: PTSD, Iraq, and my Continuing Struggle

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier these words:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” 

I am exhausted tonight and I will be going to bed early for me. Hopefully I will get some restful sleep. I will be posting this article to post shortly after midnight by which time I hope not only to be in bed but asleep.

Last night was a night of violent nightmares taking me back to my worst fears when I was serving in the badlands of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008 supporting U.S. Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol, and Provincial Reconstruction teams.

I do not often write about it because I have been doing better, but I suffer from severe and chronic PTSD related to my experiences at war. The images are seared into my brain and sometimes the memories, and my deepest fears from my time there as an unarmed Chaplain working for the most part with very small groups of Americans and our Iraqis far away from the help of the big battalions if we got into serious trouble. I have written about those experiences and my struggles after my return many times on this blog. Likewise, I have had my story told on the front pages of the Jacksonville Daily News and the Washington Times. A video of my story is on the Department of Defense Real Warriors Campaign website, and is a large part of a chapter of Pulitzer Prize winning War Correspondent David Wood’s book  What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of America’s Longest Wars.  

Since Iraq, my nightmares are very vivid and often involve much physical acting out. The physical acting out is unusual and I have actually injured myself badly enough to require trips to the emergency room after crashing hard throwing myself out of bed combatting imaginary enemies. Likewise, other have been violent and physical enough to wake Judy up.

Last night was one of those nights but very different. In the nightmare I was being attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. Our advisor team had been attacked as we were stopped in the dark to determine if an Improvised Explosive Device had been laid in the road in front of us. This was just a few miles from the Iraq-Syrian border between Al Qaim and COP South, the base of the advisor team which was working with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi 7th Division.

The part about being stopped in the desert in the dark while examining a potential IED actually happened. The attack did not happen but at the time I fully expected something like it to happen. We were sitting ducks on a two lane highway in the middle of the desert. But the attack never happened and we continued to COP South, which would become a part of many of my future missions.

But in my nightmare it happened and as the fighting devolved into close quarters hand to hand combat I found myself grappling an insurgent who was attacking me with a large knife. I managed to roll on top of him and knock the knife from his hand when I was awakened. I was on top of Judy and she was afraid that I was going to strangle her. My hands had not gotten to her throat but she woke me and told me what had happen. I dropped back to my side of the bed in a cold sweat. I could not believe what had happened and that terrifies me. I have set up an appointment prior to my regularly scheduled one with my shrink to talk about this.

Since I my day had been quite good and I have been much more relaxed at work since putting in my retirement papers the event came as a huge surprise. In trying to figure out what triggered it I was at loss until I remembered that I had had dinner last night with a retired Navy EOD Captain who had been my Chief Staff Officer at EOD Group Two and running partner before I went to Iraq. He was sent there not long after me and we met at Camp Victory in Baghdad not long before I left Iraq on the way to Kuwait and home in 2008. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner last night and we did talk about all manner of things including our time in Iraq and those men that we had served alongside.

But to try to explain nightmares is not really helpful. I think that Stephen King said it best:

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” 

Yes I can try to logically deduce my nightmares and night terrors, but the poetry of fear as Stephen King so rightly calls it cannot be fully explained. For those of us who deal with the memories of combat, of having been shot at and have seen the human cost of war, the dead, the wounded, the destruction, and the aftermath of war, they are all too real and they never completely leave us.

Christmas on the Syrian border

Over ten years after I returned from Iraq I still find that much of me is still there. In fact, deep down I miss Iraq and the Iraqis that I was honored to know and to serve alongside and I still pray for them and for their future. Maybe someday I will get back.

So until tomorrow, Inshallah, إن شاء الله

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Forgotten Soldiers: Remembering the Men of Dien Bien Phu 64 Years After the Battle

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 17 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Admiral Ronny Jackson: As Qualified to Head the V.A. as Tom Cruise is to Command the Top Gun School

Dr. Ronny Jackson Briefing

Note: this Post was written before Admiral Jackson withdrew his name from nomination.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

President Trump foolishly nominated the White House Physician, Rear Admiral (Lower Half) Ronny Jackson to head the Veterans Administration. That nomination is in the process of coming apart as allegations by over 20 current and former military personnel which detail of Admiral Jackson’s abusive leadership, drunken rampages, and careless dispensing of controlled substances including opioids has come to light. If any of those allegations are true he should not only be removed from consideration for the Veterans Administration position but he should be forced out of the service.

But even if none of those allegations are true Admiral Jackson in completely unqualified to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

From a career standpoint Admiral Jackson is an oddity in military medicine. Most officers who rise to the rank of General or Admiral in the Medical Corps, Medical Service Corps, or Nurse Corps earn their rank in a variety of demanding assignments of increasing responsibility after they are promoted to the grade of Major or Lieutenant Commander in their respective services. Most combine clinical, administrative, and command assignments, serve on combat deployments, and spend extra time to do advanced fellowships in their medical field, or obtain degrees in Medical Administration, Business, or subjects like Ethics. Quite a few take the time to earn higher military education at schools like the Naval War College, Army Command and Staff and War College, the Air War College, or Marine command and Staff College.

Their assignments usually encompass commands of clinics, field hospitals, hospitals, major medical centers, and medical regions which cover half of the United States. The men and women who go through this process have to understand the extremely complicated world of the military and civilian medical systems, insurance programs, veterans medical benefits, and Medicare. These are men and women who are exceptional, honed in combat and erudite enough to understand the complexities of the Veterans Administration. Having served two full tours in Naval Medicine as a Chaplain I know a lot of them and could name five Flag Officers from the Medical Corps and the Medical Service Corps, active duty and retired off the top of my head who would be excellent candidates for the position, as well as a number of exceptional Navy Captains. All of them are far more qualified than Admiral Jackson.

Admiral Jackson has never been in charge of anything more than a medical clinic, the White House is his second clinic assignment despite its rather high profile patient base. From all accounts he is an excellent Emergency Medicine physician, he is a qualified Navy Diver, and he has served in a combat setting caring for the wounded during some of the bloodiest times in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. That being said he has served in the insular and politicized world of the White House for 12 years, during which time he was promoted to Captain and later Rear Admiral. The White House clinic is the largest that he has ever commanded, a mere 70 people. When I was a 25 year old Army Medical Service Corps First Lieutenant I commanded a Medical Company overseas of 110 soldiers, most of them medics.  When I was a 27 year old Captain I served as a personnel officer for the largest Medical training organization in the U.S. Military. Neither qualify me to command a hospital or oversee an agency as vast as the V.A.

I’m sorry, but by any means that is not a career path that should lead to an appointment that would oversee the largest medical system in the nation.

That my friends is reality even if there were no allegations of abusive conduct or careless distribution of controlled medications; allegations detailed by the Inspector General in 2012 which resulted in a recommendation for his relief and reassignment which did not happen. However, Admiral Jackson is white, male, and Hollywood good looking, and exactly the kind of man that the President hyperventilates about, especially when they engage in hyperbole and lies to describe his physical condition. Admiral Jackson is as qualified to head the Veteran’s Administration as Tom Cruise is to Command the Top Gun School.

Admiral Jackson is not qualified for the head of the Veterans Administration or any higher post in Navy Medicine. His nomination should be immediately withdrawn instead of being allowed to become yet another disgusting political spectacle designed to polarize the nation.

If the GOP Congress had any balls, which they don’t but can be purchased at the National’s Shop, they would tell the President right now to drop this nomination like his trousers at a Playboy Club party.

The President set himself and Admiral Jackson up for this and if he has any sense of honor he would end it now and go back to the drawing board to pick a truly qualified person. Like I said I can name five off the top of my head, he can ask me for recommendations if he wants, and if he picked any of them they would make him and the nation proud.

This isn’t about politics. It is about qualifications and character. Admiral Jackson certainly lacks the qualifications, and very likely the character needed to serve in such a responsible position involving the care of millions of veterans. I’m a combat veteran, and all veterans deserve better.

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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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No06Lwk_TAg

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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