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Irrelevant Incidents and Un-winnable Wars: Thoughts on Returning from War 5 Years Later

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Just shy of five years ago in February 2008 I returned from Iraq after a tour with our advisors to the Iraqi Army and Security forces in the far reaches of Al Anbar Province. I flew back to the United States on a chartered flight with about 200 other men and women, individual augments from the US Navy who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had a few days in Kuwait to “decompress” and then were on our way home. Those that conducted our training in that time had been in Kuwait, at large bases, separated from home but enjoying creature comforts that made it feel that we were in “Little America.”

Our aircraft stopped at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for a crew change and refueling. While there the aircraft was filled to its capacity with servicemen and their families returning from Germany to the United States. Crying babies and screaming kids greeted us as we boarded the aircraft. Most of us had not slept in the 24 hours before we left Kuwait and were exhausted. I was wearing my last serviceable uniform.

The remaining part of the flight from Germany to Philadelphia was difficult. The new arrivals were coming from a peacetime world and we were coming our of combat zones, often isolated even from other Americans. When we landed we went from our aircraft, got our civilian tickets, clad in our desert camouflage and dragging our gear we were made to removed our belts and boots by the TSA agents. It was obvious from we had come but instead of a welcome we we treated as potential hijackers. We each flew back to our respective bases on different flights into the arms of waiting families that loved us but did not understand us and units, who had not shared our experience simply sent us back to work without recognition while those that had not deployed griped about how hard things were.

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Today I was doing some counseling with a sailor and as we talked about life and the war a passage from Bernard Fall’s classic account of the French war in Indochina, Street Without Joy, came to mind. It reminded me of our experience returning from war, which could be seen as seemingly irrelevant incidents, but which pointed to a larger problem. It was so powerful that I decided to post much of it here.

In October 1953, Fall a journalist was covering the French war in Indochina. In between his stints with various French and allied units fighting the Viet Minh he made a travel stop over in Cambodia. He wrote of it:

“Sometimes, there occurs an almost irrelevant incident which, in the light of later developments, seems to have been a sign of the gods, a dreamlike warning which if heeded, could have changed fate- or so it seems.

One such incident occurred to me in October 1953 in Cambodia, at Siem-Reap, not far from the fabulous temples of Angkor-Wat…

A few French officers were still around, mainly as advisors to the newly-independent Cambodian Army….

When I went to the Transportation Office that afternoon at 1530, the Cambodian orderly told me apologetically that “le Lieutenant est alle au mess jouer au tennis avec le Capitaine” and that they might well stay there all afternoon. Since the convoy which I was expected to catch was supposed to leave at dawn, I decided to stroll over to the mess in order to get my travel documents signed there.

The Siem-Reap officers’ mess was a pleasant and well kept place; with its wide Cambodian-type verandahs, its parasol-shaded tables and the well-manicured lawns and beautifully red-sanded tennis court, it was an exact replica of all the other colonial officers’ messes from Port Said to Singapore, Saigon or even Manila, wherever the white man had set his foot in the course of building his ephemeral empires.

I found the two officers at the tennis court, in gleaming white French square-bottomed shorts…matching Lacoste tennis shirts and knee-long socks…

Since the men were in the midst of a set and I had little else to do, I set down at a neighboring table after a courteous bow to the ladies and watched the game, gladly enjoying the atmosphere of genteel civility and forgetting for a moment the war…

Then emerged from the verandah a soldier in French uniform. His small stature, brown skin and Western-type features showed him to be a Cambodian. He wore the blue field cap with the golden anchor of the Troupes Coloniales- the French “Marines”- and three golden chevrons of a master-sergeant. On his chest above the left breast of his suntan regulation shirt were three rows of multi-colored ribbons: croix de guerre with four citations, campaign ribbons with clasps of France’s every colonial campaign since the Moroccan pacification of 1926; the Italian campaign of 1943 and the drive to the Rhine of 1945. In his left hand, he carried several papers crossed diagonally with a tri-colored ribbon; travel orders, like mine, which also awaited the signature of one of the officers.

He maintained in the shadow of the verandah’s awnings until the officers interrupted their game and had joined the two women with their drinks, then strode over in a measured military step, came stiffly to attention in a military salute, and handed the orders for himself and his squad to the captain. The captain looked up in surprise, still with a half smile on his face from the remark made previously. His eyes opened suddenly as he understood that he was being interrupted. Obviously, he was annoyed but not really furious.

“Sergeant, you can see that I’m busy. Please wait until I have time to deal with your travel orders. Don’t worry. You will have them in time for the convoy.”

The sergeant stood stiffly at attention, some of his almost white hair glistening in the sun where it peeked from under the cap, his wizened face betraying no emotion whatsoever.

“A vous ordres, mon Capitaine.” A sharp salute, a snappy about face. The incident was closed, the officers had their drink and now resumed their game.

The sergeant resumed his watch near where the Cambodian messboys were following the game, but this time squatted down on his haunches, a favorite Cambodian position of repose which would leave most Europeans with partial paralysis for several hours afterwards. Almost without moving his head, he attentively followed the tennis game, his travel orders still tightly gripped in his left hand.

The sun began to set behind the trees of the garden and a slight cooling breeze rose from the nearby Lake Tonle-Sap, Cambodia’s inland sea. It was 1700.

All of a sudden, there rose from behind the trees, from the nearby French camp, the beautiful bell-clear sounds sounds of a bugle playing “lower the flag”- the signal, in which the French Army, marks the end of the working day as the colors are struck.

Nothing changed at the tennis court; the two officers continued to play their set, the women continued their chatter, and the messboys maintained their silent vigil.

Only the old sergeant moved. He was now standing stiffly at attention, his right hand raised to the cap in a flat-palmed salute of the French Army, facing in the direction from which the bugle tones came; saluting, as per regulations, France’s tricolor hidden behind the trees. The rays of the setting sun shone upon the immovable brown figure, catching the gold of the anchor and of the chevrons and one of the tiny metal stars of his ribbons.

Something very warm welled up in me. I felt like running over to the little Cambodian who had spent all of his life fighting for my country, and apologizing to him for my countrymen here who didn’t care about him, and for my countrymen in France who didn’t even care about their countrymen fighting in Indochina…

And in one single blinding flash, I knew that we were going to lose the war.”

Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy, Fourth edition, May 1967, Stackpole Books Harrisburg PA, pp. 291-294

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I hadn’t thought about the passage in a long time, until it came to me today. When I read it I began to understand the feelings that I had in 2008 but could not comprehend. The fact is that a very few men and women, a small segment of the population, less than one half of one percent of Americans have been fighting the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan while the rest of the country, even parts of the military have been on the sidelines.

I realized when I came home that those that crammed the families from Germany onto our plane to save a few dollars, the TSA airport security agents and some of those in the units that we returned to didn’t understand. In fact it was as if they were not at war. I think I began to realize at that point that no matter how ardently that some of us served that our sacrifices would not produce the planned intent of those that sent us to war. I knew at that point, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it that we could not win this war. A war that only a portion of the military, was fighting while the bulk of the population lived in peace without any “skin in the game.”

We are so much like the French, the British and every other colonial or imperial power that it is frightening. We claim not to be an empire but we act like empires have throughout history. We place our footprint large of the globe, creating bastions of American culture in the midst of lands far different than us. Then we send a small percentage of our people to fight the wars that our nation’s leaders as well American and multinational businesses deem to be in our national interest, especially natural resources and commerce.

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As the expeditionary forces fight the wars the bulk of the public is shielded from the horror of it. Many people are sympathetic to the war fighters but because they have not served are ignorant of what we face. Beguiled by the slick, high tech media presentations in the news and entertainment industry of war; they do not understand the cost. The representations in the media make war another spectator sport. At least the news no longer shows a nightly “body count” as was done in Vietnam.

Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a man awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor twice wrote shortly after his retirement in 1932:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

It is amazing what going to war will do to you. This is especially true when you can recognize what too few people see or even want to even think about. But then why should we expect anything different? There was no national call to arms after 9-11-2001 and our leaders told the people to do what they normally would do, and most importantly to “go shopping.”

Pray for Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, News and current events, Tour in Iraq

The Last Troops Leave as Sunnis Quit Iraqi Parliament

The final contingent of American Soldiers except those assigned to the US Embassy.  The last US military installation in Iraq, Camp Adder near Nasiriya during the cover of night to avoid traffic jams and for their security. As the 500 soldier 110 vehicle convoy of Special Troops Battalion 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood made its way to the Kuwait border the Sunni Block Iraqiya quit the Iraqi Parliament.  The Americans crossed the fortified border of Kuwait joining their comrades at Camp Virginia marking the end of our  war in Iraq today.

Iraqiya is one of the largest political parties in the country and had entered the government on a power sharing basis with the majority Shia coalition.  Iraqiya is protesting Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s consolation of power in himself and Ma his failure to fill the key Defense Minister and Interior Minister vacancies.  One of the party’s leaders warned of a Maliki dictatorship and the possibility of civil war and the division of the country.

It will be a dangerous time for Iraq and the region. Should their be a civil war the possibility of the intervention of Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Turkey to secure their interests in the country. Such would be a disaster for Iraq and its people.  Somehow the Shia and Sunni will have to find a way to share power or face even more war and destruction.

I pray for my Iraqi friends and that they will find a way to rebuild and unify their country.  Too many American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen as well as Iraqi security forces and civilians have died over the course of this war to do anything else.

Our war in Iraq is over and I hope that Iraq and its people will truly unite prosper and become a friend to the United States. Likewise I pray for all of us that served in Iraq and our families that time will also heal the wounds of war.  But only time will tell.  God willing, Inshallah.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military

The Brotherhood: Veterans Day 2013

I am always a bit on the melancholy side on Veterans Day.  This year is no different but is a bit different because for the United States the war in Iraq is over, at least for now while the war in Afghanistan grinds on as we prepare to transition.

For me our wars are more about the incredibly small number of Americans who for the past 12 years have borne the burden of these wars.  They are my brothers and sisters, the 0.45% of Americans that serve in the military.  While this is a terribly low number it is only marginally lower than most of our previous wars.

In fact for most of our history it has always been a small minority of Americans that have fought our wars.  Kind of funny when you think about how much our culture worships militarism. World War II was an anomaly as just over 16.1 million people or 9% of the population served in the military then.  That number while large pales in comparison with percentages of those that served in other nations involved in the Second World War. The reason that I point this out is just to say that as a nation it has always been the few that have borne the cost of war. We are “the few.”

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

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large.  You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. The real fact of the matter is that these ill advised wars have harmed us as a military and as a nation, our superpower status which was uncontested before 9-11-2001 is challenged because our military is hollowed out, economy weakened and our moral authority questioned by those wars, war crimes and spy scandals.

I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most Americans because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We have become a society apart from the society.

We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis.  But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military.  That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this many of the new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, most who were drafted, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war.

At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform.  In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees.  Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone.  The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.

In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience.  All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure.  The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq                   KIA    US  4483       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4801

Afghanistan     KIA  US  2290         UK 446     Other 659        Total  3395

US Wounded   Iraq  32224      Afghanistan   17674

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now six years since I served in Iraq and five 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 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 Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

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.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, shipmates and veterans

The Bond

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

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large.  You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis.  But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military.  That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them.  This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two.  Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones.  And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war.  At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform.  In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees.  Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone.  The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two.  In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war.  While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that.  This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced.  So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters.  They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood.  However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea.  All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected.  For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.”  I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual.  Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience.  All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers.  We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us.  Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone.  Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters.  When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul.  PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour.  I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD.  Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul.  These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed.  There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure.  The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq                   KIA    US  4463       UK 179    Other  139           Total  4781

Afghanistan     KIA  US  1637         UK 374     Other 537        Total  2548

US Wounded   Iraq  32227      Afghanistan   11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now.  The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters.   I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break.  These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return.  I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital.  We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three 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 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 Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

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.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, shipmates and veterans, Tour in Iraq

Iran Makes Noise in Persian Gulf: Obama Dispatches Patriots and Ships to Deter

Mahmoud Ahamadinejad threatens a “harsh blow at global arrogance”

Something is going on in Iran.  The despotic regime of Mahmoud Ahamadinejad has been cracking down on dissidents and protestors over the last few months since the disputed presidential election.  Two opposition leaders were hanged yesterday.  The opposition is calling for protests on February 11th to coincide with the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.  At the same time government supporters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces are planning both pro-regime activities as well as anti-opposition crackdowns in the days leading up to this event.  To add to the volatile mixture Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad has threatened a “harsh blow against global arrogance” on the 11th.  There has been no explanation of what Ahamadinejad meant by his cryptic comments by the Iranian news service but  the Obama administration is taking them seriously by sending additional Aegis Missile ships equipped with anti-ballistic missile systems as well as Patriot air defense missiles to the Persian Gulf. To give you a glimpse of some of the confusion surrounding the current situation in Iran and in its implications for the West I have linked a number of articles from a wide variety of sources here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/31/iran-nuclear-us-missiles-gulf

http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/01/31/iran.protests/index.html?section=cnn_latest

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60U18R20100131?type=politicsNews

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8490929.stm

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/02/01/missile-shield-gulf-ups-ante-iran/?test=latestnews

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&article_id=111329&categ_id=17

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=201022\story_2-2-2010_pg20_1

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/gulf-countries-accept-air-defences/story-e6frg6so-1225825224604

http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8811080764

http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/middle-east/Supreme-Leader-Claims-Iran-Remains-United-Against-Outside-Threat-82073702.html

http://www.rferl.org/content/Irans_Protesters_Must_Keep_Their_Eyes_On_February_11/1942248.html

http://www.opendemocracy.net/volker-perthes/iran-2010-11-four-scenarios-and-nightmare

http://en.rian.ru/world/20100129/157712614.html

http://www.rferl.org/content/Iran_Media_German_Diplomats_Involved_In_December_Riots_/1941229.html

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1146909.html

http://www.energypublisher.com/article.asp?id=25925

http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=116955&sectionid=3510303

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hos0sGvW5l2cEN2xO2ex4fhamzIw

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L3838323,00.htmlhttp://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3838323,00.html

http://www.english.globalarabnetwork.com/201001284565/World-Politics/iran-morality-police-vanish-as-more-protests-loom-in-tehran.html

Massed Protests in Iran have been met by force

If you take a look at the details of these various reports there are a number of possibilities in regard to Iran, its internal political tensions and its repeated threats to US and Western interests. There are a myriad of possibilities many of which while directed outward are also directly related to the internal unrest in Iran in which a new generation who have grown up under the religious totalitarianism of the Mullah’s and men like Ahamadinejad who are convinced of the certainty of their beliefs and determined to impose them not only on their own people but their neighbors.  Ahamadinejad’s belief in the return of the 12th Mahdi to bring in a new era where the Caliphate will be established in Jerusalem is another wild card to factor into any equation.

Shahab-3 Missile test launch from mobile launcher

In the past year the Iranians have been increasingly more bellicose concerning their nuclear program and ballistic missile programs and have thwarted US, EU and UN initiatives to ensure that the nascent nuclear capacity is only capable of peaceful use and not capable of producing weapons grade uranium which could then be used in nuclear weapons.   They have expanded the number of centrifuges used for enriching uranium as well as continued to disperse and harden nuclear facilities against possible Israeli or US preventive strikes.  Additionally they have continued to increase their ballistic and cruise missile capabilities and the newer versions of the Shahab missile are capable of striking Western Europe.  The Revolutionary Guard forces have been actively supporting the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon which in 2006 waged a successful war against Israel on the Israeli-Lebanese border.  It has continued to improve its asymmetric warfare capabilities as well as Naval and Revolutionary Guard Naval force capacity for disrupting shipping in the Straits of Hormuz through which a large percentage of the world’s oil is transported.

Iranian Missile Boat and Helicopter

Ahamadinejad’s latest remarks are ambiguous and could mean a number of things ranging from empty rhetoric designed to evoke a response from the United States or Israel up to military action.  Possible events within the continuum could be measures to destabilize Iraq where recently Iranian forces briefly occupied an Iraqi oil facility on the border near Basra before leaving when Iraq sent troops and threatened force to retake the facility.  Likewise a missile test of an upgraded or longer range Shahab could be planned, a military exercise in the Gulf or a test of a nuclear weapon which they might have succeeded in developing in their clandestine labs from previously enriched uranium.  The timing of the threat could also mean a military attack against Israel or US allies in the Persian Gulf including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.  Iran could in a “doomsday” strike launch a nuclear weapon (should it have an operation weapon) or chemical or biological weapons against Israel or even the rival Sunni Moslem Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, provoking a retaliatory strike which could embroil the region in a major war and might have worldwide implications. While I would think that the military attack would be a lower possibility the timing which coincides with the anniversary of the Revolution coupled with domestic unrest could mean that Ahamadinejad may feel that the benefit outweighs the risk.  It also could mean a stronger domestic crackdown on Iranian dissidents, whichever course of action the Iranians take it could make life even more interesting.

Shore based C-802 Surface to Surface Anti-Ship Missile in Iranian service

With the full spectrum of possibilities from simple rhetoric to a military strike laid out the Obama administration reportedly has sent Patriot Missile batteries to shield key Gulf allies and dispatched additional Aegis anti-ballistic missile capable ships from the US Navy to the Gulf.  Past remarks by the administration have been perceived as weak by the Iranians and the demonstration of US resolve by the dispatch of additional forces to the region may be designed to show that the Obama administration is not indecisive but capable of countering military threats to the region.

Additional ships of the Arliegh Burke Class that carry SM-3 missiles and Ant–Ballistic Missile systems have been moved into the Gulf along with Patriot Missile batteries

The administration’s move is prudent considering the potential threat.  Iran does not have the capabilities to fight a sustained war but could if fueled by the apocalyptic vision of Ahamadinejad mean that the Iranian government is willing to risk a confrontation with the United States because it perceives the Obama administration as weak.  I think that such an assumption by Ahamadinejad would be a serious mistake, however if he were to attempt a military or asymmetric-terrorist act of some kind he could create chaos until the United States and our allies eliminate his offensive capability.

Iranian Nuclear facilities are dispersed around the country and in hardened sites

Potential problems that Iran could cause the United States could include disruption of transition efforts in Iraq through military or terrorist activity as well as to cause casualties or damage US military forces in that country. Far less likely is the possibility that the Iranians could offer support to their rivals in Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan if for no other reason than to disrupt the US/NATO mission in that country. Likewise the Iranians could attempt to cause economic and diplomatic problems in the region that would adversely affect the US and world economy that could be done short of war.

To deal with all possibilities the United States must not only be militarily ready to respond to any military threat but also to be able to exercise the full spectrum of diplomatic, economic and intelligence resources of its own and our allies.

So in about a week and a half we will know what the cryptic Ahamadinejad meant by his latest outburst, hopefully there will be some clarification before then so the US and its allies in the region can coordinate an effective response.  With tensions rising and uncertainty in the air it is important for the US, Israel and the West to get this right and hopefully give the Iranian opposition time to force Ahamadinejad and his supporters in the Iranian clergy and the Revolutionary Guard from power.  There is both danger and opportunity in the coming days and one can only hope that the Iranian opposition will be successful.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Anomaly of Operation Desert Storm and Its Consequences Today

Armor Advancing During Operation Desert Storm

There are few occasions in history where an army is given exactly the scenario to which its organization, training and doctrine coalesce against an opponent that uses the template of organization and training that it has been designed to defeat.  Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait by the United States and its coalition from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army and Republican Guard was such a war. The operation was built up in the popular media to the extent that it created a false image of the cost of war and belief that wars can be won “one the cheap” because of superior technology and organization.  That belief was shattered during the Iraq insurgency which began in earnest following the occupation of Iraq following the defeat of Saddam in 2003 by a significantly smaller US force than was used to liberate Kuwait twelve years before.

Architects of Desert Storm

The superior performance of the Army in the Gulf War did not turn out to be the template of how future wars would be fought.  In the following years the US military has become embroiled in conflicts where opponents use inexpensive and often crude off the shelf technology to counter conventional US superiority in firepower and organization.

During the First Gulf War the Army was aided in that the doctrine that it developed to fight a war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, the Airland Battle was “perhaps best suited to armored warfare in the open desert.”[i] Of course during Desert Storm this was exactly the setting that the Army would be called on to fight.  Unlike Vietnam where the Army attempted to fight an unconventional war with conventional tactics the Army had the chance to fight exactly the battle that it had trained for, against an enemy trained in the tactics and using the equipment of its former Soviet adversary.

The Army enjoyed the advantages of having “reached a high level of training and technological proficiency”[ii] against the Soviet threat. The fact that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact had melted down unexpectedly in 1989 and 1990 and removed any conventional threat in Europe which allowed the Army to concentrate massive amount of forces including the VII Corps from Germany to the Middle East was nothing short of incredible.  Additionally the Army had the advantages of superior weaponry and the fortuitous timing of the war before the effects of the post-Cold War drawdown were realized.

For the Army the “1980s were a golden age of military thought and debate,”[iii] and the Airland Battle concept “was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the Army.” Terms such as initiative, agility, synchronization and depth….soon became part of every officer’s vernacular.”[iv] Colonel Harry Summers who had written a critical history of the Vietnam War noted that FM 100-5, the Army’s primary manual of operations, was the “operational blueprint for Operation Desert Storm.”[v] That blueprint had a well trained and disciplined force schooled in the conduct of the Airland Battle concept enunciated in FM-100-5. David Halberstam noted that Operation Desert Storm was fought by a “professional army-a very professional army.”[vi] Seldom in the history of warfare was any army trained and equipped to fight the exact battle for which it found itself.

The Highway of Death

The foundation of doctrine, training, technology and organization laid in the 1980s was solid.  The Army was not only effective in the Gulf War, it was overwhelming.  This is not to say that the Army did not encounter problems.  It did, some which against a better trained and equipped force might have negatively impacts its operations. However the problems encountered did not keep it from dominating the battlefield.

The US rapidly deployed a blocking force of paratroops and Marines following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait at the end of August.  While few in number they served as a deterrent that Saddam did not test. There was great concern that had Saddam pushed into Saudi Arabia when forces were small and lightly equipped that he might have succeeded in capturing the northeaster Saudi oil fields and production facilities.  The military leadership continually reinforced these forces first to a substantial defensive force and then with the addition of more forces a significant offensive force.  Thus when the decision was made to liberate Kuwait under the United Nations resolution the forces were there and ready.

When the war began advances in Joint warfare and C3 was evident in the effectiveness of the operations.[vii] Particular successes included the movement of VII and XVIII Airborne Corps into the desert to outflank the Iraqis in Kuwait[viii] and every actual engagement between Iraqi and American forces.  Of note was the performance of Major General Barry McCafferey’s 24th Mechanized Division,[ix] and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at 73 Easting against the Republican Guard’s Talwahkana Division.[x] Likewise the action of 2nd Brigade 1st Armored Division against the Guard’s Adnan Division at Madinah Ridge[xi] displayed the effectiveness and lethality of the Airland Battle and joint warfare concepts developed in the 1980s.

There were weaknesses and these included various aspects of command and control and fratricide[xii] brought about by the fast pace of operations and the fog of war. Likewise conflicts between General Schwartzkopf and some of his Army commanders, notably Generals Franks[xiii] and Yeosock hindered operations.  This occurred most notably in the failure to destroy the Republican Guard prior to the cessation of hostilities. This was partially was due to political considerations and faulty intelligence but was operational decision of Schwartzkopf to halt McCafferty’s  24th Mechanized Division before it could finish off Republican Guard units facing it or letting Franks complete his double encirclement of the Guard or encircle the key southern Iraqi city of  Basrah.[xiv]

The New Face of War Somalia

Iraq

Rwanda Genocide

Deadly Large Shaped Charge IED

Afghanistan: Brits in Action Against Taliban Fighters

Despite the successes of Operation Desert Storm the planners failed to anticipate the end state of what would happen when hostilities had ceased.  The conditions of the cessation of hostilities were the chief contention of many against the end to the ground war at the 100 hour point. Some argue that the early end of hostilities allowed the victory to be less than it could have been.  Some even today argue that the offensive should have gone forward with the goal of overthrowing Saddam, however despite its success the Army was not prepared for an occupation nor would have the coalition supporting the US have survived an invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The actual mistakes were not in the stopping of the war, but rather the faulty conditions of the cease fire which enabled Saddam to recover the internal control of Iraq and put down attempts to revolt especially around Basra in the Shia south.  Rick Atkinson in his book Crusade notes that there were “errors would be made in establishing conditions of the ceasefire…but stopping the war was no mistake.”[xv]

While the debate about Operation Desert Storm still persists nearly 20 years after the fact the more important lesson was not learned.  That lesson was that Operation Desert Storm was not the new face of war, but rather an anomaly.  It was a war that was the swan song of the Cold War where the doctrine, technology, organization and trained to and practiced were inflicted on a less well trained and equipped version of the force that they were designed to defeat, forces which were badly deployed and already isolated by airpower even prior to the ground war. Once the ground war started the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq had little chance against the massive US and coalition force arrayed against it short of preemptively using the chemical and biological weapons of which Iraq had an ample supply.  It did not employ these weapons for a number of reasons, but without them Iraqi forces exposed in the open desert with no air support and cut off from much of their supply by constant air attacks were easily defeated.

In the past 20 years the United States and the west have only once been able to reprise the type of war displayed during Operation Desert Storm.  That was in the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq.  While the forces deployed were successful in defeating the Iraqi military and overthrowing Saddam Hussein they were insufficient to secure the country especially after the decision to disestablish all Iraqi police and military forces which might have assisted US forces in securing the country.  Perhaps planners forgot that German military police, police and civil servants were employed by the western allies in the period immediately after the war even during the period of “de-Nazification.”

Instead of a litany of Desert Storm like scenarios US forces as well as those of NATO and UN allies have had to deal with terrorism, insurgencies, revolutionary wars, tribal wars of genocide and wars waged by religious extremists. Despite more than a decade in dealing with these types of war, many in the military and political establishment as well as the media and public opinion believed that Desert Storm was the model for future wars. As such after the brief period of euphoria which occurred after the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom the grim reality of war has stared Americans and others in the west in the face.  While the military has performed well, it has had to adjust and learn lessons about war that it wanted to avoid during and after Vietnam.  Those were the lessons of counterinsurgency, unglamorous and unexciting they were the lessons buried after Vietnam which were ignored until it was nearly too late in Iraq and possibly now too late in Afghanistan.  Desert Storm was an anomaly and one does not base the future of war on the swan song of the last war.


[i] Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993. p.253

[ii] Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995. p.467

[iii] Peters, Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA p.xi

[iv] Ibid. Atkinson.

[v] Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992. p.159

[vi] Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001. p.153.  Gordon and Trainor note that the “never in the history of the Republic has a more competent and more professional military been fielded.

[vii] See Summers pp. 243-245.  Summers is very complimentary of the advances in the Joint aspects of command and control that impacted the campaign.  He notes several points at the strategic and operational levels which are complimentary of individuals including comparing General Colin Powell to General George Marshall. Gordon and Trainor writing a few years later are more critical of the “jointness” of the Americans including valid criticism of the air campaign, fire support coordination, and differences in doctrine between Marines and Army and the way the VII Corps and XVIII Corps operated based on the way that they trained and organized. Pp.471-473

[viii] Atkinson pp.309-310.  Atkinson discusses the fact that American commanders involved had seldom maneuvered units of battalion or brigade size prior to this operation.

[ix] The 24th made a great advance to the Euphrates but as Atkinson notes that it had “encountered no enemy resistance at all.” p.406

[x] See Atkinson pp. 441-448

[xi] See Atkinson pp.466-467.  In a 40minute fight the M1A1s destroyed 60 T-72s and dozens of APCs at a cost of one American KIA.  Atkinson notes that this battle like the action at 73 Easting “was waged with tactical acumen and devastating firepower….”

[xii] Ibid Atkinson pp.315-316.  Atkinson notes that there were 28 incidents with 35 killed and 72 wounded.

[xiii] Ibid. pp.405-407.  Schwartzkopf felt that Franks was not aggressive enough and that VII Corps was “sluggish” and “ceding the initiative to the Republican Guard.”  Schwatzkopf even threatened Yeosock that he would fire Franks.

[xiv] Ibid. Atkinson p.476

[xv] Ibid. p.477

Bibliography

Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1993

Gordon, Michael R. and Trainor, Bernard E. The Generals’ War, Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, Boston and New York 1995

Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York 2001

Ralph. Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg , PA

Summers Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War, Dell Publishing a Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York NY 1992.

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Going to War: Flying Into Baghdad and a Blast from the Past

050Outside the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory the HQ of US Forces and Former Haunt of Saddam Hussein, the Palace was Named after the Victory of the Iraqis over the Iranians on the Al Faw Peninsula toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War.  The Palace sits in the middle of a lake

We made the trip from Camp Virginia to the Ali Al Salim airbase to catch our flight to Baghdad.  As usual there was the seabag drag to the waiting baggage trucks, an accountability formation in the blazing sun and the shuffle, this time in full protective gear to our buses.  Riding in a foreign tour bus in full “battle rattle” is even more uncomfortable than the regular ride.  Packed tightly into the buses the air conditioning of which did little to help after coming in out of the heat, we took our places jammed into the bus and once again with armed personnel in the bus and convoy escorts as we pulled out of the high security entry control point at Camp Virginia and drove to Ali Al Salim.  The trip was uneventful and rather boring as there is not much to see between the two bases except sand and occasional nondescript buildings.

Ali Al Salim is a large Kuwaiti and American air base and logistics hub for air movement operations in the Arabian Gulf.  We arrived there and once again formed up, went through a staging area where were we were able to pick up some water from one of the ubiquitous pallets of bottled water and waited inside the terminal.  Some folks grounded their packs and used them as pillows or recliners, others found seats in the waiting area and others looked around to see how the Air Force lived.  A couple of TVs set to AFN played as we chatted, wandered or dozed.  It was not long before we were moved to yet another staging area and began to get our aircraft briefing and manifested for the flight.  Our group that had began the trip at Fort Jackson was a lot smaller now as the sailors who had gone on to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and those assigned to Kuwait were no longer with us.  As we trundled down the tarmac we were guided into position directly behind the aircraft.  We filed into a waiting C-17 Globemaster and sat down in airline style passenger seats which can be added or subtracted by in 10 passenger pallets as needed for the particular mission.  Additional permanent seats lined the bulkhead.  Our gear was loaded at the aft end of the aircraft as we took our seats.  We pretty much filled the seating which at maximum load is 134 passengers and we waited for the aircraft to load.  A loadmaster came through to check that we all were wearing our personal protective gear and had our seat belt fastened.  The C-17 unlike many military aircraft has at least an asthmatic air conditioning capability once the cargo door is closed.   Unfortunately when the door is open it is pretty much like whatever conditions are outside, in our case 130 degree heat with the exception that the sun was not beating down on our heads and that there was no air movement.  It was just a tad hot inside the aircraft.  Eventually the cargo ramp and door were closed and the aircraft prepared for takeoff.  With the door closed we began to feel a little bit of relief from the air conditioning.

For a large cargo aircraft the C-17 has a pretty smooth take off, the four Pratt and Whitney PW2040 engines producing 40,400 pounds of thrust each pushing the hug aircraft which is capable of transporting an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank or 3 Bradley Fighting vehicles into the blue Kuwaiti sky.  In a few minutes the pilot announced that we had crossed into Iraqi Airspace and that it would take us about 45 minutes to arrive in Baghdad.  When the announcement was made there was an almost collective deep breath knowing that we were now going into the war, this was no longer in our future we were there.  I could feel the adrenalin being released into my body and can remember how quickly I became instantly aware of every noise or movement on the aircraft.

Arriving in the skies above Baghdad International Airport our aircraft circled and received permission to land.  Due to the possibility of enemy fire the approach to airports in Iraq is not like you would experience at a commercial airport in the United States, Europe or most other parts of the world.  Unlike most airports where there is a long and slow approach to the runway the descent is a steep spiral as the aircraft comes down from altitude to land.  If the airfield is under fire the aircraft will not land.  Once we were down we had been briefed to be able to move at a brisk pace in case the airfield came under fire, something that was happening on a relatively frequent basis in 2007.

The tail ramp and door opened as if they were a gigantic rearward facing mouth, or maybe like one of those weird fish that have teeth in their ass.  I think I remember some weird science show that talked about such a creature, if there isn’t one there should be.  As soon as the ass-backward maw opened a rush of hot air killed any semblance of what had been an almost bearable air conditioned compartment. Gear in hand we filed out of the aircraft heading for the ramp. Just for your information, it is easy to slip on these ramps; I came close to such an event but caught myself just in time so I didn’t go ass over tip down the ramp.  Nelson certainly would have made me pay for such a breach of protocol.  As we left the aircraft a ground crewman directed us out of the jet blast area and another led us to the terminal.  At the terminal we were greeted by Staff Sergeant Assi, the Chaplain assistant for the Iraq Assistance Group and an RP assigned to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.  Sergeant Assi was a mobilized reservist  originally from Nigeria.  At least here our gear was palletized and was brought to a gear staging area.  Once it arrived we gathered a total of 4 EOD Issue super-seabags, two regular seabags, our packs, Nelson’s rifle case and my computer bag.  We were assisted by Sergeant Assi and the RP who helped load our stuff into the back of the white Chevy SUV that they were driving.  One thing about military vehicles in Iraq that are not tactical vehicles  is that there is a strong chance that they are the color white. The white paint contractor at GM must be making a killing on vehicles destined for the Middle East.  Once we were checked off the manifest as having a ride were able to depart walking out through rows of Califonia and Jersey barriers.

The ride was interesting as we wove our way around the ever present California and Jersey Barriers as well as “HESCO’s,” which are large wire and canvas containers standing anywhere from5 to 8 feet tall filled with dirt, rock and sand.  All of these are designed to minimze the effects of incoming ordnace by preventing the explosive force of them and teh associated shrapnel from spreading outward. We transitioned through a number of checkpoints where armed soldiers kept a wary eye out on our way to Camp Victory.  Victory which is the home of Multi-National Force and Multi-National Corps Iraq lies next to  Camp Liberty.  They are on the north side of Baghdad International Airport.  As we looked across the runway the only aircraft visible were military transports and contracted cargo carriers.  Unlike a major airport its size anywhere else in the world Baghdad did not have regularly scheduled airline service from any major carrier yet.   We wound our way around the compounds which blended together almost as one, much like the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  Passing palaces and villas that ringed a lake in the center of the compound we continued on.  In the center of the lake connected by a causeway sat the massive Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s victory in retaking the Al Faw Peninsula at the close of the Iran-Iraq War, a victory that resulted in Iran deciding to cut a peace deal with the Iraqis.  Despite a Shi’te majority in Iraq there is no love lost between Iraqis and Iranians.  Iraqi Arabs refer to the Iranians almost contemptuously as the Persians. This goes back centuries to the times when Persian occupied parts of Iraq and treated the Arabs badly.

We turned down an asphalt road which quickly became a packed clay and gravel road over which a tanker truck sprayed water to keep the dust down.  into a pulled up to a wooden building near a tent city where personnel coming in and out of theater were billeted at Camp Victory.  Row upon row of tents, each surrounded by a HESCO barriers were to our right. The ground was a mixture of hardened clay and rock which when driven over or walked upon emitted a cloud of dust which Sergeant Assi told us turned to a sticky goo which is almost impossible to get off of boot when it rains. Overhead helicopter gunships patrolled the skies occasionally flying quickly to the sounds of gunfire just off the base not far from where we were. In the background we could hear the sound of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons.  Not far from our billeting area sat a Navy Manned CWIS, or as we call tehm Sea Whiz.  This is a 20mm gatling gun which directed by radar is designed to shoot down incoming missiles or rockets. Nelson and I looked at each other and almost on cue he said, “Chaps I think there might be a war going on out there.”  I looked back and said, “Don’t you know it partner.”   The area to the east of the tent city was bordered by a line or shower trailers and heads, all protected by the large 15 foot high California barriers.  To the north of the tents lay a large Dining facility or as the Army calls them, a DFAC.  After getting signed in we drew an odd mixture of linen for our beds. I ended up with a couple of sheets, pillow cases and a multi-colored comforter. If I recall Nelson got some superhero on his blanket, which suits him fine as he is a big comic fan and can tell you more than you can imagine about all the different super-heroes. Instead of being together Nelson was assigned to a tent for NCOs and I ended up further away in a tent for field grade officers.

Once we had secured our stuff we met back together and walked to the DFAC for dinner.  This DFAC was not as large as it appeared as it had a large protective roof designed to keep mortar shells and rockets from impacting the building itself.  Two Ugandan soldiers working for security on the base checked our ID’s after which we washed our hands as we entered the building.

Upon entry we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food present.  These DFAC’s were definitely feeders and the number of soldiers that should have been wearing wide-load signs across their asses was amazing.  But then who could blame them, many were on a second or third trip to Iraq of 12-15 months each. Maybe for the first time they were not in some isolated FOB with a poor quality of life, in a place which all things considered safe except for the occasional incoming rockets and mortars.  The quality of the food was better than in Kuwait as was the dinning area.

As I was finishing stuffing my gear underneath my bed a young Army Major came into the tent.  He looked at me and I looked at him as if we had met before and we greeted on another politely.  I saw his shoulder patch which identified him as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard.  We struck up a conversation and I asked to what unit he was assigned.  He replied  that he worked at the National Guard Bureau and had been attached to the Maryland unit as an operations officer for the deployment.  He remarked that I looked somewhat familiar and I asked if he had ever served in the Virginia National Guard.  He replied that he had and I asked what unit.  His response about floored me “1st Battalion 170th Infantry” located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia just south of D.C.  I told him that I too had been in the battalion and then he figured out where he knew me from.  With a look of near amazement on his face he replied “You were our Chaplain back in 1995!”   I patently acknowledged this fact  while he continued saying that he had been the TOW Anti-Tank Missile  Platoon Leader in our Headquarters Company. Our conversation meandered through old times at AP. Hill Virginia, talking about our careers, people that we knew and life in general.  After a couple of hours we both realized that we needed to take care of a few personal things to settle in for the night.  Eventually my old lieutenant fell asleep and I began what was to become a persistent pattern of insomnia which plagues me to this day.  Since I couldn’t get to sleep I walked through the darkness to the DFAC which had a late meal.  I was standing  in line amid a few Americans, some British soldiers and contractors when Nelson appeared beside me. He said “Hey boss, can’t you sleep?”  I said “nope” he said “me too, so I thought I would get some chow in this place.”  We had our meal together and when we were done picked our way through the darkness over the rough ground to our tents aided by our red lens flashlights.  After looking for about 5 minutes we found Nelson’s place and I headed off to my hooch only becoming disoriented once. Patently the Deity Herself must have kept me from tripping on a tent rope or some hole in the ground and I arrived back in my place at about 0145 and finally got to sleep.

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