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Remembering the Men of D-Day: In the Era of Trump who Will We Channel?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find the days around Memorial Day and the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landings to be a time when I become quite reflective about what it means to be a career American military officer, combat veteran, and the son of a Navy Chief who was also a combat veteran.

When he spoke on Omaha Beach during the ceremony marking the 70thAnniversary of the D-Day landings President Barak Obama said:

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”

All of my adult life I have striven to uphold those values that those men were prepared to die for, and for almost 37 years of Army and Navy service that I have been prepared to do so at a moment’s notice. I still am, against all threats, foreign and domestic. I just hope that I will never have to repeat the words of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg: “I’m a soldier, but in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience.”

Seventy-four years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France. In his D-Day message to his troops General Dwight Eisenhower reminded them that their mission was the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” There are still those in the world who subject their people to tyranny and attempt to destabilize and overthrow the governments of liberty loving peoples, likewise Eisenhower knew that security for ourselves meant close alliances with those who have our values and not isolating ourselves from the world.

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers; the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize these veterans, but it was a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

Had the Germans been able to hold out. Had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front. Had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially the elite paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, the German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr, and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground. In doing so they were ground to dust, their casualties massive, but Hitler forbade his commanders to withdraw his troop to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers, but many of them too shared in the crimes of the Nazi regime. Their courage and sacrifices were forever tarnished by the cause that they fought for and the way their country and many of them waged war, on the Eastern Front, and in some case on the Western Front.

For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation. As President Trump continues to go his own way to make the United States a pariah nation we have to be very aware of the costs of it and also remember that the Americans who went ashore on D-Day did so to help defeat a pariah nation that had flaunted every standard of justice in attempting to make Germany Great Again. When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday and it is possible that our day may come sooner than we think. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“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.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private RyanThe Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we who serve often strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Masters of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will meet. I hope that he is still alive and maybe he will see this.  I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

The survivors of the D-Day landings and those on the other side of the hill are continuing to pass from the bonds of this earth and into eternity. We owe it to them and to the world to make what they sacrificed themselves to do into reality, battling tyranny and striving for peace and security.

But that being said, what good will that be if we allow freedom to die at home? I wonder if like Claus von Stauffenberg who came to understand that serving Germany was not the same as serving Hitler, if we who serve today will have to make that same choice in regard to President Trump. In light of his actions and his words which indicate that he believes that he is above the law, can that point not be far away? Likewise will we who serve more embody the Americans, British, Canadians, and French at D-Day or the Germans?

Both are good questions to ask as we remember the men of D-Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Lights Are Going Out: President Trump’s Appointment of War Criminals as Senior Foreign Policy Advisors

Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In her book The March of Folly: From Try to Vietnam historian Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.”

If there is a man who ever embodied the truth of Tuchman’s words it is President Donald Trump.

Over the past two weeks President Trump has removed men from his cabinet who acted to restrain many of his worst instincts and who all were considered the “adults in the room.” The final nail in the coffin for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster was their condemnation of the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, especially in the killing of Russian dissidents in the United Kingdom. Tillerson and McMaster were also proponents of maintaining the agreement engineered by the Obama Administration and European countries to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions diplomatically and economically. The two had somewhat different approaches to North Korea with Tillerson a proponent of negotiations and deterrence and McMaster more favorable to preventive military actions to stop or delay the North’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.  Additionally Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, Gary Cohn who has advocated more moderate and

Their removal has resulted in a shake up of the national security team. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was nominated by the President to take Tillerson’s place. Pompeo is considered to be a hawk on Iran and opposed to the current accord who has called for strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and openly mused about regime change in both Iran and North Korea. Pompeo, a graduate of West Point and a Congressman had never been in an executive position

To replace Popeo at CIA, President Trump nominated the deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel who according to Robert Richer who worked with her has no political agenda. That being said after 9-11 she ran an interrogation site in Thailand that engaged in the torture of detainees and recommending that tapes of those interrogations be destroyed. Her defenders state that she was operating within orders because such measures were authorized at the time. However based on precedent of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials the defense of “just carrying out orders” or defending such actions because they were “legal” at the time is not a defense. At Nuremberg, especially in trials of those who engaged in the torture of military and political prisoners, the tribunals convicted dozens of mid-level and high level functionaries of war crimes for doing the activities and methods used by Haspel and her colleagues.

The problem with Haspel is not her devotion to her service and desire to protect the United States, but in the fact that she was willing to use the rational of present “legality” to use torture in ways that when used against Americans the United States judges to be illegal and immoral. It is no wonder that Senator John McCain who experienced such torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese has his doubts about her. My concern is that since she once engaged in such measures will she do so again if ordered. By the standards of Nuremberg she would have stood trial and probably been convicted as a war criminal, and the President has nominated her to be Director of the CIA. Richer says that he believes that she will abide by the law and speak truth to people in  power. If she is confirmed as CIA Director I hope that he is right, but history demonstrates that civil servants, especially professionals in the police and intelligence services are quite adept at adapting to the methods and dictates of whoever is in power in their service to the state. Thus I am concerned.

Finally, the President replaced General McMaster with John Bolton who has since the 1990s advocated preventive war as the primary means to the end of United States national security strategy. He despises alliances, international agreements, international organizations, and any kind of universal justice. He regularly attacks the International Criminal Court, which is the direct descendent of the Nuremberg and Japan war crimes tribunals, both of which were engineered and led by the United States. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who served as the head prosecutor at the major Nuremberg War Crimes Trials noted:

“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.”

Bolton rejects that proposition. In his position as President Bush’s under secretary of state for arms control and international security constantly manipulated intelligence to conform to his views and who worked to discredit colleagues and subordinates who attempted to tell the truth. He was one of the most responsible for the decision to attack Iraq which was according to conservative writer George Will was the worst foreign policy disaster “in American history.” Likewise Bolton still defends the decision to go to war against Iraq and washes his hands of the results of that decision, including the nearly 4500 American military personnel killed and over 35,000 wounded and the exponential help it gave to Iran’s desires in the region.

Bolton also would have been a candidate for prosecution at Nuremberg under counts one and two of the indictment;Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War and Crimes Against Peace. 

The President has now nominated or appointed two people (Haslip and Bolton) who are by the definition of the Nuremberg Tribunal “War Criminals” to be senior foreign policy and intelligence advisors, and a third, Pompeo, who expresses many of the same views but until now has never been in the position to exercise those views or influence the President as to implementing them.

The next six to eight weeks leading to the middle of May will be very significant to the future of the United States and the world. The President has said that he would meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, and the renewal of the multi-national agreement on Iran, which both Trump and Bolton oppose. The actions of the President, guided by Bolton will decide wether the United States goes to war, possibly on multiple fronts with enemies capable of causing great damage to the United States, our allies, and the world economy. Millions of lives could be lost, including tens of thousands of United States military personnel and quite possibly millions of American civilians, not counting the lives of so many innocent people in the Middle East and Northeast Asia.

As I watch these events unfold I am reminded of the Tuchman’s immortal account of Sir Edward Grey and the outbreak of the First World War:  “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The lamps are going out both in the United States and around the world, and if one has any ability to use reason and think ethically one has to think of how terrible the results of President Trump’s uniformed, historically ignorant, and morally bankrupt decisions will end.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The State of the Union, the Surrender of Principal, and a Historical Coincidence: Trump, Nunes, Schacht, Hungenberg, and Von Papen

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is a curious day for a minor historian like me.hopefully someday I will be considered a major historian but that aside I love the study of history and its connections to the present day, but I digress…

Today is the day that President Trump will deliver his State of the Union Address reading from a teleprompter, talking about bipartisanship, and how great he has made America. Until he begins his Twitter Storm tomorrow morning his speech will be hailed by members of the mainstream media as being “Presidential,”  in the same kind of language that Fahreed Zakaria praised the tele-Trumpter speech the President made at Davos. For eight hours tonight the mainstream media will be lost in Presidential  praises even as the Fox News Pundits break into chants of “Seig Heil!,” but I digress, because by noon Wednesday things will be back to normal.

But it is also a day where Congressman Devin Nunes will release a report attacking the veracity and motivations of FBI and Justice Department officials involved in the investigation of the President and his advisors attempts to collude with a hostile foreign power and obstruct justice before and after the 2016 election. This is actually very remarkable because it is something that has never happened in the history of the House of Representatives regarding a case involving national security. Personally, back during my 32 years as a Republican I always thought that House or Senate Democrats might do something like this but they disappointed me by never stooping to release information that might obstruct justice while at the same time kneecapping Federal law enforcement agencies. Honestly I used to think that undermining national security was something that Democrats did, I never, even after I left the GOP in 2008 thought it was something that Republicans would do; but Congressman Nunes and is compatriots are determined to ruin my fantasy that the GOP was really a pro-law and order and national security party. I mean really, even after I left the GOP their arguments about being strong on national security and pro-law enforcement gave me a hard on, but even with the blue pill I don’t think that I could get it up again after Mr. Nunes’s antics.

Coincidently today is the 85th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s accession to power, something that happened quite to the surprise of Hitler as well as the leaders of the non-Nazi political parties on the German Right and Left. The non-Nazi German conservatives thought that they could control him, just like GOP stalwarts thought that they could control then Candidate Trump in 2016.

You see I don’t think of the GOP as a new version of the Nazi Party. No, they aren’t that clever. I see them as more akin to the German conservative parties who less than six months after they helped Hitler become Chancellor, dissolved themselves in hope of keeping a place at the table in the New Germany. They are the Von Papen’s, the Hindenburg’s; they are Alfred Hugenberg, Hjalmar Schacht, and the other leaders of the DVNP (German People’s Nationalist Party), the Catholic Center Party, and others who sacrificed their honor, integrity, and self-respect to gain a place at the table of Hitler. By and large Nunes and the other members of the GOP who engage in what they are doing doom their party and very likely the country.

So today go out and lift a glass and maybe even light a tiki torch to men like the President, Congressman Nunes, his committee, and their supporters at Fox News. Let Nunes and other be like Hjalmar Schacht who proclaimed his loyalty to and defended Hitler’s Third Reich internationally, but who in the words of Supreme court Justice and Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson was “The most dangerous and reprehensible type of all opportunists, someone who would use a Hitler for his own ends, and then claim, after Hitler was defeated, to have been against him all the time. He was part of a movement that he knew was wrong, but was in it just because he saw it was winning.”

Be assured; tonight I will raise a glass and I will drink, maybe until I will am legally drunk; but it will be to bolster myself for the struggle for the Constitution and country that lay ahead. I can do no less.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Continued Erosion of America’s Moral Authority: Tillerson to Shut Down War Crimes Office

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It seems to me that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to corrode any remaining moral authority that the United States has in the world. Yesterday I read that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will disestablish the office that investigates potential war crimes. Though seemingly small in comparison to the many other actions the administration is taking this one speaks volumes about the attitudes of Trump, Tillerson, and others in the administration.

Tillerson has been working to concentrate the activities of the State Department on pursuing opportunities for American business and strengthening the U.S. Military. To do so he has been shutting down sections of the State Department that deal with U.S. Aid, humanitarian intervention, human rights, and world poverty. The decision to close the office which was founded in 1997 after the human catastrophes in the Balkans and the Rwandan Genocide is a major step backward.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who was the senior American prosecutor and organizer of the Major War Crime Trials and Nuremberg noted:

“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.”

Sadly, after all of Jackson and his team’s efforts at Nuremberg the United States stepped back from participation in International tribunals or the International Criminal Court. Tillerson’s decision is a further step back from the norms of civilized behavior and a step towards increased barbarism.

David Scheffer, who served as the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes and now teaches at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told Foreign Policy: “This is a very harsh signal to the rest of the world that the United States is essentially downgrading the importance of accountability for the commission of atrocity crimes… This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore.”

I assume that is the case. The Trump administration has turned a blind eye to the Russian destabilization operations in the Ukraine, ignores the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia and is likely war crimes in Yemen, sends decidedly mixed messages on Syria, and voices his approval at the crimes of the Erdogan regime in Turkey and the actions of Philippine President Duarte.

It is apparent that President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, and possibly National Security Adviser McMaster have forgotten like so many Americans that the true power of the United States is not its economy, not its military power, but the ideals that it stands for, especially when they are most difficult. The administration has embraced the survival of the fittest philosophy of Charles Darwin and like the other totalitarian regimes which cluttered the Twentieth Century is throwing away the one thing that set the United States apart from other nations, the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Four Freedoms. While our country may not have always lived up to them, they were why people respected the United States even when we failed to live up to them. Timothy Snyder wrote: A patriot… wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.” The actions of the Secretary of State and President show that they are not patriots, but nationalists, willing to cast aside the lifeblood of what makes America great for material gain and personal power, as Snyder notes, they encourage us to be our worst and then tell us that we are the best.

It is important that we do not throw away what little credibility we have left, but the neither the President nor many in his administration seem to care. The administration bases its arguments on necessity and expedience and has no hesitation in lying repeatedly to justify its actions. But, as William Pitt the Younger noted: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

Robert Reich correctly noted: “Our moral authority is as important, if not more important, than our troop strength or our high-tech weapons. We are rapidly losing that moral authority, not only in the Arab world but all over the world.”

I am afraid that the further men like Trump and Tillerson move towards eliminating the last vestiges of our diplomatic and legal moral authority, and toward a transactional view of nationalism in which only economic and military power count, that it will not be long before our military and economic power is used for evil. This is not to say that it hasn’t been used for that in our history, but most of the time there were checks and balances, as well as self-restraint that kept them from being even worse. With every decision like this those restraints fall away and we edge closer to tyranny.So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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People Cannot Live in Freedom Unless Free People are Prepared to Die for It: D-Day at 73

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find the days around Memorial Day and the anniversaries of the Battle of Midway and the D-Day landings to be a time when I become quite reflective about what it means to be a career American military officer, combat veteran, and the son of a Navy Chief who was also a combat veteran. I am also an uncle to a young man who likely will be enlisting in the Army in the coming weeks.

When he spoke on Omaha Beach during the ceremony marking the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings President Barak Obama said:

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”

All of my adult life I have striven to uphold those values that those men were prepared to die for, and for almost 36 years of Army and Navy service that I have been prepared to do so at a moment’s notice.

Seventy-three years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France. In his D-Day message to his troops General Dwight Eisenhower reminded them that their mission was the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” There are still those in the world who subject their people to tyranny and attempt to destabilize and overthrow the governments of liberty loving peoples, likewise Eisenhower knew that security for ourselves meant close alliances with those who have our values and not isolating ourselves from the world.

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers; the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

Had the Germans been able to hold out and had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front, had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation. As President Trump continues to go his own way to make the United States a pariah nation we have to be very aware of the costs of it and also remember that the Americans who went ashore on D-Day did so to help defeat a pariah nation that had flaunted every standard of justice in attempting to make Germany Great Again. When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday and it is possible that our day may come sooner than we think. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“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.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we who serve often strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Masters of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will. I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

The survivors of the D-Day landings and those on the other side of the hill are continuing to pass from the bonds of this earth and into eternity. We owe it to them and to the world to make what they sacrificed themselves to do into reality, battling tyranny and striving for peace and security.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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All Men are Created Equal: The Standard Maxim of a Free Society

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am very concerned with the future of civil liberties in our country and much of that is based on my experience with and observation of conservative Christian political activists who now have tremendous power to oppress those who they deem to be God’s enemies.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson noted in his dissent in American Communications Assn. v. Douds wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” — His words were true then and even more so today.

In December of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln spoke these profound words to Congress prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln.

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history….This fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation….In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

His words in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free are part of an understanding of freedom, especially Lincoln’s radical understanding that the Declaration of Independence actually meant what it said that “all men are created equal.” For Lincoln this meant African Americans, including those that labored as slaves. Lincoln understood the Declaration in its most broad understanding; he saw it as a universal liberty. As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.”

Today there are a lot of people, especially the loudly political preachers, pundits and politicians of the Christian right and their allies who are committed to rolling back the rights of blacks, but also of women, and to prevent Gays, Lesbians and others of the LGBTQ community from having any rights commensurate with their status as citizens.

But that is not all. In many states we have seen the protections of the Voter’s Rights Act being eroded as state legislatures enact laws to restrict voting rights and make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote. State legislatures are enacting laws that allow people to discriminate against others based on “a sincerely held religious belief” and while those laws are targeted against Gays they are in many cases written so broadly that they will protect just about any form of discrimination based on religion.

That is why what Lincoln said as he was preparing to sign the Emancipation Proclamation matters today. When we give freedom to people, we protect the freedom of everyone, but that my friends is not how many people in the so-called Christian Right see it.

For these religious ideologues the only freedom that matters is their freedom to discriminate against others in God’s name. This is because they, like the anointed lords of the Southern Aristocracy believe that it is God’s will for them to do this. Sounding like a Southern planter, preacher or politician of the 1850s the founder of the movement known and Christian Dominionism R.J. Rushdooney wrote: “One faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state . . . Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”

British Evangelical-Anglican theologian Alister McGrath notes how “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.”

That is what we are dealing with today and why it matters, to all of us, regardless of our political or religious ideology. There is a party of Christians who have tremendous political power who are using it for the most nefarious of purposes, using the law and the police power of the state to deny rights to others while preserving their own while claiming to be the victims of persecution, just as did Southern slaveholders in the 1830s to 1861.

So that is all for now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Grave Responsibility to Remember and Remind: The 71st Anniversary of the Opening of the Nuremberg Trails

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the 71st anniversary of the opening of the Nuremberg Trials. I write about this a lot and I know some people, even so-called progressives have told me that they know the Nazis were evil and that they don’t want to hear it, while alleged conservatives vehemently object because they do not believe that such things can happen again.

However that is not the point. The reason I post things like this is because the players in the drama are representative of humanity, and humanity is the one constant in all history. Human beings and their propensity for good as well as evil is what these posts are about, and the fact is that any human being is capable of committing such crimes or turning a blind eye to them, to simply go along with the system and not to make waves. That is part of human nature, we value liberty, but that liberty lies in our hearts, and when it dies there, it dies. As the great American jurist Learned Hand said:

“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon law and upon courts. These are false hopes, believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

When that spirit of liberty is lost, when that sensitivity to the rights and needs of others trampled, when a desire for revenge and getting even displaces civility and compassion; there is nothing than stop evil, for evil will find ways to justify their evil deeds under the cloak of legality. That is what Germany did in the 1930s and what I believe may happen in the United States and other Western nations as the wave of populism and xenophobic racism sweeps the globe. Robert Jackson said, “The most odious of all oppressions are those which mask as justice.”

That is why it is so important to remember the evil that we as human beings are capable of and not to run roughshod over the rights of those with whom we disagree. Since the election of Donald Trump I have seen many comments of his supporters and the well documented writings and opinions of three of first appointees, Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Jeff Sessions. All have extensive writings and comments which advocate policies designed to limit freedom and excise whole groups from the United States. His supporters are condemning all forms of protest or opinions that disagree with theirs, and the President Elect jumps to his Twitter account to blast anyone who insults or criticizes him. Nothing in American history is comparable to the thin-skinned inability to tolerate dissent that is happening now.

In our country we have seldom had to fear that the outcome of an election could erase liberty, but it is possible now. Jackson noted, “One’s right to life, liberty, and property depends on the outcome of no election.” But it seems that this election may test that premise, the premise that Jackson so eruditely enunciated:

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy. One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly may not be submitted to vote; they depend on no elections.”

I do fear for what the future holds because of the many statements made by Donald Trump and his supporters during the campaign and even after. While I am willing to give the new President the benefit of the doubt, and hope that he will rise to the occasion, I wonder if that will happen, and for now I wait, and I send up warnings from history.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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