Tag Archives: Mesopotamia

Tragedy in Kunduz: Mistake, Accident or War Crime?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been troubled by the disaster at the Doctor’s Without Borders in Kunduz Afghanistan, a disaster that appears to be linked to the actions of U.S. and or NATO, Coalition, and Afghan forces as well as the Taliban who had taken control of that city a few days before the attack.

There are so many things about this incident that trouble me, but truthfully I, like almost everyone, know very little about it, other than the fact that too many innocent people died as a result of what appears to be a prolonged air strike against what should have been a known hospital. Now, truthfully, none of us knows enough about the incident to declare it a justified act, a tragic mistake, or a war crime, and there are people who without full knowledge of the facts are arguing for each of these positions. However, that has not stopped the speculation about the circumstances concerning the incident. Today the American command released a statement saying that Afghan forces requested the air strikes.

The fact is that the circumstances are unclear, and in the fog of war we may never know the truth about what happened. I do not pretend to think that the Taliban are entirely without blame, nor is the incredibly corrupt Afghan government and military; and most importantly are American, NATO and other non-Afghan coalition forces.

I do caution anyone who attempts to place the blame for what happened on any one group in this conflict, and I think that it was irresponsible for people in the United Nations to declare that this could be a war crime without knowing all the facts.

That being said I believe, as a career military officer, that we as Americans need to hold ourselves, and our military to a higher standard than our enemies and even our coalition partners. Sadly, we have not always done this and sometimes we have not only committed war crimes, but also we often hold ourselves above international sanction and law when our forces are suspected of committing war crimes. Even more importantly we ignore the words of a man who acting as an agent of the United States, and the United Nations set the standard for prosecuting war criminals. I am talking about Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson, who organized the trials of the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremburg.

When the trials were being organized Justice Jackson set down a rule of conduct for his American, and allied colleagues from Britain, the Soviet Union and France. Sadly, we Americans have failed to heed his words on many occasions. Jackson 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.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

Now personally I hope that this is a tragic accident brought about by a confused tactical situation that was worsened by the fog of war. Truthful that does not lessen the pain and tragedy of what happened in Kunduz, but it is far better than the alternative; that American forces ignored warnings and intelligence that this was a hospital and kept attacking even after being told that it was a hospital. If the latter is the case the charge that this could be a war crime cannot be ignored.

As a veteran of Iraq and a career officer who knows the terrible horrors of war first hand, as well as being a historian and theologian I am especially sensitive to the nuances of such events and know that many times that what happens is difficult to fully understand or comprehend. I can only hope that Secretary of Defense Carter and President Obama will ensure that an investigation, coordinated with the U.N. and our coalition partners fully explores what happened, and if American forces acted improperly, or even in a criminal manner take the moral high ground and assume responsibility.

We cannot ignore the precedent that we ourselves set when we tried the surviving leaders of the Nazi regime at Nuremburg. War crimes are war crimes no matter what people commit them, and we must hold ourselves to this higher standard. But then we must also realize as Hannah Arendt noted “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Likewise there are people, like a younger me, who agree with Commodore Stephen Decatur who declare “my country right or wrong” and then ignore any possible evils committed by the United States. I love and serve my country, but if we are complicit in war crimes then what have we become? Are we willing to throw away our ideals, our ethics, our humanity to ensure our survival?

Personally, even if the worst outcome is true, I cannot imagine that those involved meant to commit a war crime, but that being said there is a rationalization that even good people make during war, that their actions, or the actions of their nation are excused by necessity. I am reminded of the words of Spencer Tracy in the movie Judgment at Nuremburg when he said:

There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

At Kunduz over twenty medical personnel at the Doctors Without Borders died, another three dozen were wounded when American, or other coalition aircraft responded to the call of Afghan ground forces for air support against the Taliban. Regardless of if the Taliban were taking advantage of the hospital to engage the Afghan troops, the location of the hospital was known to coalition forces, it had been there and in operation for four years.

Please do not get me wrong, I want my country to always be in the right. For over 30 years I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and followed what I believe is a call to uphold the best that our country has to offer. I do not support the Taliban or any other group that would seek to impose a theocracy on their people, but at the same time how can I countenance the support of a discredited, unethical and corrupt regime that has squandered the lives and trust of its own people while at the same time taking advantage of American and NATO forces, our military and intelligence support as well our massive economic support without which they could not remain in power?

When I see what the U.S. backed governments in Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq have done to their people with our support I feel much like T.E. Lawrence who wrote of the British administration in 1920 Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Like about everyone I do not pretend to know everything that happened in this incident. But that being said; of we as Americans cannot uphold and subject ourselves to the same standards that we have imposed on others, then what does that say about us? I wonder what our response will be and I am troubled, because I think that we will not hold ourselves to the standards that we ourselves claim to uphold. I say this because we have not done so since Nuremberg.

If we fail in this task, the task to embody the truth of what is in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, to embody the spirit of the city set upon a hill that inspired so many before we were ever a military power to come here, to believe that the principles that we stood for were better than their own countries;  it will not matter how many Taliban we kill for we will have lost thawed and in the process our collective soul. As Lawrence wrote in 1920 “We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Praying for Peace and Justice,

Padre Steve+

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9-11-2014 War Without End…

9-11 jumpers

“We have not reached the limit of our military commitments…” T.E. Lawrence (Mesopotamia 22 August 1920 in the Sunday Times)

Thirteen years after the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in which nearly 3000 Americans were killed and the American response against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan a month later we enter a new phase of war against old and familiar as well as new and frighteningly brutal enemies.

Of course the war was extended to Iraq by the Bush Administration, pursuing the goal of toppling Saddam Hussein and his non-existent weapons of mass destruction. That extension of the war, which so reminds me of what T.E. Lawrence wrote about the British adventure in Mesopotamia in 1920 has led to the creation of a much more ruthless and capable enemy than Al Qaeda ever was and strengthened our old adversary Iran in ways that it could not have done itself. Lawrence wrote of the British effort:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Like the Bush administration the British reasons for going into Mesopotamia were cloaked in the words of liberation and protection, only from the Turks, not Saddam. Lawrence noted in words that are hauntingly familiar to those that paid attention to the American war in Iraq:

“Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects.”

Perhaps the most poignant and relevant note on the ill thought out Bush decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was by Thucydides who wrote:

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.”

Last night President Obama announced his intention to fight the brutal and extreme fighters of the Islamic State, or ISIL by building a broad coalition spearheaded by American airpower and intelligence agencies. Of course the President’s announcement was met with cries of not being enough by some on the political right, and with equal vehemence by opponents on the political left who feel that he has displayed cowardice in the face of “9/11 fear mongering” and the implementation of a policy of “perpetual war.” Of course the answer is more complex than anyone wants to admit, the critics on both sides are right in some things and wrong in some things, and the fact is there are no good answers.

Sadly because of what we and the British and others have done in Iraq and Syria the President is left with few options, mainly those that are bad, and those that are worse. So now, as the President, with a fair amount of judiciousness and caution commits the country to continue and maybe even expand the war that began thirteen years ago, it is time to remember those burning towers, the flailing bodies of our fellow Americans and others falling to their deaths to escape the surety of death in those flames and those who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan; not just Americans, but coalition partners and the people of those lands who had no say in what Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda did or what Saddam did or didn’t do; and who went from the oppression of Saddam or the Taliban, to unending civil, tribal and religious wars, in which they were caught in the middle, the Iraqis in a war that was devised by President Bush and his advisors.

There are always results and today we are dealing with the results of at least a century of incredibly short sighted decisions of Western as well as Arab leaders which have blighted the Middle East and caused immense suffering to the peoples of the region. Now because of those decisions there exists a terrorist organization which is rapidly becoming a state in the areas of Iraq and Syria that it occupies. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan described the Islamic State on CNN Monday:

“Number one, you do have to respond militarily to ISIS soldiers and fighters. These guys are fighting a war of the imagination, a war that they think is happening between the forces of good and evil. There is no negotiation. There’s no diplomacy. There’s nothing to talk about with these guys. They have to be destroyed.”

Sadly, Aslan is right in his analysis of the Islamic State. Because of that fact, on this thirteenth anniversary of the 9-11-2001 attacks we and the already suffering people of the region will see war continue without end. One wonders how many generations it will last and what the cost on lives and treasure will be.

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Peace

Padre Steve+

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Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Terrible Costs of Not Learning the Lessons of War: Vietnam, Iraq Afghanistan

481801_10151367001287059_1003164983_nIn 1986 a Army Major working at the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote a book that was a history of the US Army in the Vietnam War, and as it turns out to be a work of military prophecy. The young officer, Andrew Krepinevich wrote his book, The Army in Vietnam: 

“In the absence of a national security structural framework that address the interdepartmental obligations associated with FID operations, and considering the lack of incentives for organizational change within the Army, it is presumptuous for the political leadership to believe that the Army (or the military) alone will develop the capability to successfully execute U.S. security policy in Third World countries threatened by insurgency. This being the case, America’s Vietnam experience takes on a new and tragic light. For in spite of its anguish in Vietnam, the Army has learned little of value. Yet the nation’s policy makers have endorsed the service’s misconceptions derived from the war while contemplating an increased role in Third World low-intensity conflicts. This represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy.” (The Army in Vietnam, Andrew F Krepinevich Jr., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986. p.275)

Krepinevich retired from the Army in the 1990s as a Lieutenant Colonel and has been busy in the world of think tanks and national security policy. Unlike his book, which is probably one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War and as I said before a book that is somewhat prophetic his later work has not been as well received. He has his critics. But despite that criticism once cannot deny the accuracy of his predictions concerning the Army’s subsequent operations in low intensity, or counter-insurgency campaigns beginning in Somalia and encompassing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Krepinevich had been alone in his criticism, or his book not been widely read one might excuse policy makers of the 1990s and 2000s who sent the Army and the military into counterinsurgency campaigns involving massive numbers of troops and the commitment of blood and treasure that had practically no value to the national security of the United States. Instead thousands of American and Allied lives were sacrificed, tens of thousands wounded and one nation, Iraq that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11-2001 left devastated and crippled empowering Iran the sworn enemy of the United States no regional rival.

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One cannot say that the Iraq war was worth the lives and treasure spent to cover the lies and hubris of the Bush Administration. Nor can one say that the effort to change the tribal structure of the fiercely independent Afghan peoples after driving Al Qaeda from that “Graveyard of Empires” been worth the expenditure of so many American lives and treasure. In fact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the United States in more ways than their proponents could every admit. The military, now drained by years of war is hamstrung and will be hard pressed to meet legitimate threats to our national security around the world because of the vast amounts of blood and treasure expended in these wars.

In 1920 T.E. Lawrence wrote about the follies of the British government in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq. His words could have been written about the Bush Administrations 2003 war in Iraq. Lawrence wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Krepinevech, like Lawrence before him was right, but he was not the only one. in 1993 Ronald H Spector in his book wrote:

“Americans dislike problems without solutions. Almost from the beginning of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam they have attempted to find “lessons” in the war. The controversy about the appropriate lessons to be learned continues with the same vigor and lack of coherence as the debates about the war itself.

Lessons are controversial and fleeting but lessons long. The memories of 1968 have remained and served to influence attitudes and expectations well into the 1990s. The ghosts of Vietnam haunted all sides of the recent deliberations about the Gulf War. In the wake of that war, President Bush hastened to announce that “we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” 

Doubtless many Americans would like to agree. It is easier to think of the Vietnam War as a strange aberration, a departure from the “normal” kind of war, like World War II and the recent war in the Gulf, where the course of military operations were purposeful and understandable and the results relatively clear cut. Yet the Vietnam War may be less of an aberration than an example of a more common and older type of warfare, reaching back before the Thirty Years’ War and including World War I. A type of warfare in which a decision is long delayed, the purposes of the fighting become unclear, the casualties mount, and the conflict acquires a momentum of its own. In a world which had recently been made safe for conventional, regional and ethnic wars, Vietnam rather than World War II may be the pattern of the future.” (After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, Ronald H Spector Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 1993 pp. 315-316

After serving in Iraq with the advisors to the Iraqi 7th and 1st Divisions and 2nd Border Brigade in 2007-2008 and seeing the results of the great misadventure brought upon our nation and Iraq by the Bush administration I cannot help but recognize how disastrous the wars unleashed after 9-11-2001 have been. I have lost friends and comrades in them, I see the human costs in our Navy hospitals every day. I have told too many If they had actually accomplished something it would be another matter. But the human, economic, strategic and even more importantly the moral costs have been so disastrous to our nation to make the loss of the Twin Towers and the victims of 9-11-2001 pale in significance.

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The sad thing is that these wars have gone on so long that many of the young Marines and Soldiers fighting them have no understanding of why they deploy and deploy to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and they are far more knowledgeable than the population at large, many of whom are untouched by the personal costs of the war. We as Americans love to say “we support the troops” but most don’t even know one. For the most part big bases from where our troops train and deploy are far from where most Americans live and might as well be on a different planet. We are invisible to most of the country, except when they see a color guard at a sporting event or bump into one of us in uniform at an airport.

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As a result the sacrifices that the under 1% of the population that serve in the military and fight these wars are really not understood, or fully appreciated. I don’t think that this is so much the fault of the people. but rather the product of the post Vietnam era and the “Peace Dividend” of the post Cold War era when the military was reduced, the draft ended and bases in major populations centers closed.

I have written about the effects of these kinds of wars before, not just Iraq or Afghanistan. You can see some of that writing the following articles on this site. They are not comprehensive but they do tell some of the tale of where we have been since 9-11-2001. 

The Anomaly of Operation Desert Storm and Its Consequences Today

Why History Matters: The Disastrous Effects of Long Insurgency Campaigns on the Nations that Wage them and the Armies that Fight Them 

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

 349: Active Duty Military Suicides Hit New High in 2012

The Fallacy of “Complete” Victory and the Seeds of Perpetual War and the Way to Peace

Thoughts on Choosing a President and the Results of Not Getting it Right: Lieutenant General Harold Moore at West Point

War is a Racket: Remembering Major General Smedley Butler USMC and Why He Matters

Armed Forces Day 2012: The Disconnection of the Military and Society and the Terrible Result

Failing to Learn from History: The Lesson of the First Anglo-Afghan War and Questions about the US-NATO Campaign

The War that Cannot Be Won: Afghanistan 2012

The 9-11 Generation: The Few

The “Comfortable” Experts and the Real Soldiers

Adjusting Strategy to Reality

No Illusions: The Cost of the Long War and its Potential impact on the United States

The sad thing is that we don’t learn from history. Krepinevech, Spector and Lawrence could have written what they wrote yesterday. Instead they all wrote many years before the 9-11 attacks and our military response to them. As a historian, a career officer and a chaplain I cannot help but think of the terrible costs of such wars and how they do not do anything to make us more secure. The fact is that we do not learn from history much to our detriment despite the great human, spiritual, moral and economic effects of such wars.

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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….”

Peace

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Iraq and the Middle East 2013: Lessons from T. E. Lawrence

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The Author with Advisors and Bedouin on the Iraqi Syrian Border

I left Iraq just under five years ago and in the process left part of me in that long suffering country.  I have written much about my experience there and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future.

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many, if not most Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. The US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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False Hopes in 2003, believing that US Forces were Liberators 

In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had much experience in Iraq but was replaced quickly for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Ba’athist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces.  Led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran to become a dominant regional power without having to worry about the Iraqi threat.

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Lawrence

rumsfeld-bremerL Paul Bremer (r) with SECDEF Donald Rumsfeld

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neo-conservative allies knew nothing of history. T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA laid waste pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department who hoped that existing civil service, police and military forces would be retained and individuals with significant ties to the regime of Saddam removed. Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was in effect given a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces, many of who were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

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Rebuilding an Army

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes and its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion. Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority: “Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to rebuilt that was only beaten back after the US acted to conduct a surge in conjunction with the revolt of the Sunni of Anbar Province against foreign fighters who had become a dominant force in the insurgency. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces. Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shi’ite sect refused to  share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that in 2013 that Iraq is again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conduct frequent protests as sectarian violence spreads. Many Iraqis of all sects have mixed feelings about the American invasion and the bloody aftermath and fear the future.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the continuing British intervention and occupation of Iraq: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. However, Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are something that we in the West need to heed today.

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British Troops entering Baghdad

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

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Grave of a British Soldier in Habbaniyah Iraq

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries and in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well that we will do better.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Why the Libyans were able to Overthrow Gaddafi and what We can learn from It: A Lesson from the work of T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence with Arab fighters at Aqaba and Emir Faisal Hussein (below)

The Libyan revolution succeeded in overthrowing Moammar Gaddafi and his 42 year tyranny because the West did not turn it into an American or NATO war. By limiting involvement to airpower, coastal interdiction and tiny numbers of advisers the United States and NATO avoided the costly trap of putting large numbers of troops on the ground.  Such action would have been counterproductive in Libya and in the Arab world. While the action certainly would have ridded the world of Gaddafi and his regime much more quickly it would have emasculated the Libyans who had taken up arms against Gaddafi by turning it into our war, a war which would have been seen by many Libyans and Arabs as just more Western Imperialism.  Critics can always find fault in any military operation but for once in the Post Cold War era the United States and NATO knew their limitations and that the revolution had to be the work of the Libyans themselves.

Lawrence and Hussein’s troops pass Ottoman prisoners at Damascus in 1918

T E Lawrence understood the Arab mind more than most westerners ever will.  Living with and helping lead the Arab tribes that revolted against the Ottoman Empireduring the First World War he learned the culture as well as came to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab tribes.  One thing that can be said is that most Americans like many of Lawrence’s counterparts in the British political leadership, military and diplomatic services is that far too few have taken the time to either understand or respect the Arabs. When I was in Iraq the senior Iraqi Officers that I met were amazed and impressed that I knew their history and culture because so few people did. When I mentioned their victory at Al Kut Amara, or their capture of the Al Faw peninsula at the end of the Iran-Iraq war they beamed with pride.

Ottoman troops in Mesopotamia 

One of the things that Lawrence understood was the profound sense of personal pride and honor which imbued the Bedouin.  He understood that the various Bedouin tribes had no love for the Ottoman Turks who treated them with distain.  He also understood that they needed to be the ones that defeated the Turks.

The campaign waged by Lawrence and the Bedouin confounded the Turks. Working with Emir Faisal the son of Sherif  Hussein of Mecca he convinced his force of Arab irregulars not to make a direct assault on the city of Medina which was heavily garrisoned by the Turks.  Instead he expanded the battlefield by exploiting the natural weakness of the Turks, the need for constant supply via the Hejaz Railway.  In doing so he tied up large numbers of Ottoman troops that could have been used against the forces of General Allenby that were waging a conventional campaign and which was very successful in defeating the Ottomans.

While Lawrence was a part of a much larger effort his work in helping the Arab revolt was of great importance to the success of the British efforts against the Ottomans.  Unfortunately the good will that Lawrence and others like him built did not last. The British and French governments did not respect treaties that supported Arab independence and instead dividing the region between them under the terms of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. They left an isolated and abandoned Hashamite kingdom in the Hejaz which was conquered by the Saudis to whom the British had shifted their support.

British prisoners at Kut al Amara

A few hundred miles away the British did not take advantage of indigenous Arab resentment of the Ottomans in Mesopotamia.  The British invaded Mesopotamiain 1914 expecting to defeat the Turks easily.  However the British did precious little to enlist the support or help the Iraqi Arabs.  The campaign was long and included the worst defeat of a British Army during the war at the Siege of Kut Al Amara in 1916 at the hands of a largely Iraqi Ottoman 6th Army.  Some 30,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed or died of disease and 13,000 captured many who did not survive captivity.  After the war Lawrence remarked “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.”

Faisal would go on to be elected as the new Kingdom of Syria by the Syrian National Congress in March of 1920 but kicked out by the French who enforced the Mandate of Syria in July.  In 1922 after the British brutally suppressed an Iraqi independence movement they appointed Faisal as the King of Iraq. When the British “gave” the Iraqis their independence in 1932 Faisal was the head of state.  He died in 1933 and the British maintained a tight grip on the country and put down another Iraqi nationalist revolt led by the Army in 1941.  The British would remain in Iraq until 1958 when a military coup which is known as the “14 July Revolution” overthrew the government and killed king Faisal II.

Libya Rebels

In Libya there was great temptation and political pressure for the United States to begin an early air campaign without significant support in the international community.  Some say that this caused more casualties and suffering for the Libyans, but it helped in the long run because Libyans saw it as their war to win even when NATO began its air campaign against Gaddafi.  The air campaign was a great help to the newly proclaimed National Transitional Council in Benghazi and probably saved them from being defeated but it was the courage of Libyans on the ground who sacrificed themselves against a better armed and trained force to retake the country.

The revolt restored the pride of an oppressed people, something that could not have taken place had the campaign been led by the United States and NATO with boots on the ground.  People forget that in 2003 the majority of Iraqis welcomed US forces as liberators.  This lasted until Paul Bremer unilaterally dissolved Iraqi military, police and civil servants that were actively helping us, turning them into enemies overnight.  The liberated Iraqis felt betrayed and dishonored by the United States just as they had been by the British following the First World War.  Bremer did this without ensuring that the Iraqi Army weapons depots were secure thereby providing Sunni and Shia insurgents with vast amounts of weapons.  These weapons were turned against American and coalition soldiers and even the UN and NGOs which were just beginning to helpIraqrebuild.  The result of Bremer’s was a protracted insurgency and civil which cost us nearly 4500 soldiers killed and over 32000 wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced.  If one wants an answer as to why the Iraqis rose up against the United States occupation in late 2003 they need to look no farther than this. The Iraqis only want to be independent and saw the Bremer’s actions in the lens of their history with the British.

The author with Iraqi General Sabah Ramadi 2007

The decision of President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron to work through the UN and NATO was the correct one. It enabled the Libyans to overthrow Gaddafi and it kept our military involvement to a minimum.  While it cannot be a template for all future military operations in the Arab world as every Arab country is different it does have lessons for us. Libya was a perfect place to use this method. It had a population that wanted Gaddafi gone and were willing to die trying to overthrow him.  It had no huge urban population centers teaming with uneducated and poverty stricken people with little hope.  It has substantial oil wealth and an oil infrastructure which unlike Iraq was not destroyed during the war or in bad repair due to years of sanctions. It also enjoyed a key geographic location which made NATO air intervention much easier than almost anywhere in the Middle East because we did not need bases in Libya or its neighbors to run the operation. It was conducted from Europe and platforms at sea.   This is not possible in most other Arab countries. The task would be much more difficult if the target was Syria.

Now is the time to help the Libyans in rebuilding their country and letting them continue to regain their pride by letting them do as much as possible.  They won’t do it the way we would but that is okay. They will make mistakes but given time the people that shed their blood together to rid themselves of Gaddafi can work together to build a free country.  Those that go to Libya to assist the Libyans need to keep this in mind if they really want to see a strong, robust and successful Libyan democracy take hold.  Let’s also make sure that the good feelings that the Libyans have for us now remain by simply treating them as we would like to be treated.  Simply put we have to stop treating them as vassal states that we only value for their natural resources while we disrespect their people, history and culture.

As for the future it would be a wise investment to ensure that diplomatic, military and NGO personnel be trained and educated to understand and appreciate the Arabs and other cultures that are different than ours in the West.  The West has much to overcome in its relationship with the Arabs most of which is self inflicted. But we can try to start again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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