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“You’re Worse… You Went Along With it All, Even Though You Knew…” Loyal Servants of Evil Regimes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.

I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that invasion.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor. Likewise, he holds the professional military in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next nine months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.

The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.

Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“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.”

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Veterans Day 2018: I Couldn’t Forget

With Advisors and Bedouin Family, Iraq Syria Border, Christmas Eve 2007

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the official observance of Veterans Day. Despite the fact that I have been spending most of the last three days at the hospital as my wife Judy recovers from knee replacement surgery, I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American, that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 37 plus year military career. I also am remembering my dad who served in Vietnam as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and the men who help to guide me in my military career going back to my high school NJROTC instructors, LCDR J. E. Breedlove, and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.

My Dad, Aviation Storekeeper Chief Carl Dundas

LCDR Breedlove and Senior Chief Ness

2nd Platoon, 557th Medical Company (Ambulance), Germany 1985

As I think of all of these men and women, I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to end all war; we saw how well that worked out, but I digress.

With Advisors of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division, COP South 2007

I wrote about Armistice Day yesterday, but Veterans Day is for all veterans, even those who fought in unpopular and sometimes even unjust wars. This makes it an honorable, but sometimes an ethical problematic observance. So, in a broader and more universal sense, those of us who have served, especially in the wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the war; the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves, with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

With Advisors at Al Waleed Border Crossing

It is now over ten years since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies. I am by no means a warmonger, in fact I am much more of a pacifist now; but there is something about having served in combat, especially with very small and isolated groups of men and women in places where if something went wrong there was no possibility of help.

With my boarding team from the USS Hue City, Persian Gulf 2002

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the American, British, and German soldiers at the end of the Second World War, that we can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”

That is still my hope.

Me with RP1 Nelson LeBron, Baghdad 2008

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving, I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Over the weekend I have had more people than I can count thank me for my service. For this I am grateful, for when my dad returned from Vietnam that didn’t happen. At the same time it is a bit embarrassing. I don’t really know what to say most of the time. I have always been a volunteer, I wasn’t drafted, and I even volunteered for my deployment to Iraq. But there are so many other men and women who have done much more than I ever did to deserve such expressions of thanks.

More than a decade after I left Iraq, I quite often feel out of place in the United States, even among some veterans. That isolation has gotten worse for me in the Trump era, especially after a Navy retiree in my chapel congregation attempted to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon. I can’t understand that when the President that he worships dodged the draft, mocks veterans and real heroes, and has never even once in his first two years in office has refused to visit any deployed troops. The President , and those like him should think himself accursed that he has not only not served, but worked his entire life to avoid that service. I pray the the spirits of the honored dead haunt him until the day that he dies. That may sound harsh but he deserves a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

I understand men like the Alsatian German Guy Sajer who wrote after spending World War Two on the Russian Front:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t forget.”

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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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.

9-11 jumpers

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.

LutjensHonors

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.

hue city boarding party

 

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.

with-mtt-3-7-ronin

 

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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