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Tragedy in Kunduz: Mistake, Accident or War Crime?

kunduz-hospital-bombing

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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Warmongers, Chicken Hawks & War Porn Addicts

Iraq-unrest

Make no bones about it, the Islamic State, or ISIL needs to be defeated. It is evil, it is ruthless and it is a danger to the people that it controls and those in its path. Likewise it sates that it has larger goals. Because of this many Americans, over 60 percent in the most recent poll favor sending in ground troops to fight the Islamic State. Politicians talk about sending, 5,000, 10,000 or other nice round numbers of troops which they seem to pull from thin air as fast as they can. Others not only want to take on ISIL, but that the same time seem to want to go after Iran as well. Benjamin Netanyahu got a great round of applause for that boner strategy.

But the real fact of the matter is that American boots on the ground are not the answer. Now can American troops help, most certainly, but despite our great technological ability to kill our enemies and overrun territory, we are not the people to win this war.  The Iraqi Sunni and Shia to get their shit together to beat these guys. T.E. Lawrence so wisely wrote:

“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.”

Sadly we ignored that and like the British efforts, our efforts to invade, conquer and re-make Iraq in our image have failed miserably. Our failure is as poetic and terrible as Lawrence’s description of British efforts:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.”  

But to the warmongers, the Chicken Hawks and the War Porn addicts who have no skin in the game this counsel doesn’t matter. Despite the fact that American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have been continuously in combat or supporting combat operations for the last thirteen and a half years, this country is not a country at war.  That was something that was shattering for me to realize when I stepped off the plane coming home from Iraq. Believe me, there is a big difference between saying “I support the troops” and having skin in the game.

The fact is that all of those who beat the drums of war but are unwilling to pay the cost, be they the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, the Trinity of Evil as I call them, or their war addicted followers don’t care about the troops.  In my book the war-mongering preachers are the worst of the lot, but then some of those guys like Mike Huckabee are not only preachers, but politicians and pundits, I guess that must be a new twist on the biblical “prophet, priest and king” thing.  But even as these people counsel war, they refuse to raise taxes to support it, or even pay for the equipment needed by the troops. Likewise, they refuse to make national service, including the military draft a part of national policy. Why don’t we do this? The fact is that then we as a nation would actually have to have skin in the game, give up some of our luxuries and lace up the boots and go to war.

But we will die before we raise taxes or institute the draft. Politicians that suggest such things are driven out of office. Instead we will rely on that under one percent of our population who have shouldered the burden of war for over a decade, even while our political and business leaders scheme to find ways to cut military pay and benefits, especially those medical benefits incurred while serving.

It’s funny, well, no, it’s not funny, that the people leading this charge to war are the same assholes who brought about the Iraq debacle in the first place. But be assured, just as last time their sons and daughters will no serve, and they will not only not be held accountable, but they will profit from the war, just as they have since the days of Smedley Butler.

The fact is that those who brought about this debacle from the Bush administration should be tried as war criminals. But now we have potential Republican presidential candidates, and I might add Evangelical Christians say that there should be no war crimes, that war crimes are not bad, I guess as they are not being committed against us, but I digress.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who led the prosecution of the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremburg wrote something that men like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and others cannot seem to fathom:

“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.”

I say that there is a special place in hell for the warmongers, Chicken Hawks and War Porn addicts who are so willing to throw other people’s kids into wars that are unwinnable, if those who we are there to defend do not step up and do their part.

So with that my friends I wish you a happy and fun Friday.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Injustice in Syria and the Impotence of the World

syria-unleashes-massive-gas-chemical-attack-on-damascus

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  Ellie Wiesel 

I do not think that any surgical strike against Syrian military forces and chemical weapons facilities by a handful of US Navy ships and submarines will stop the unrelenting bloodbath that is the Syrian Civil War. It would be nice if it would but realistically it will not.

What is going on in that country fits every definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by Nuremberg, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the Geneva protocols of 1925 which Syria is a signatory to specifically state that “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” This message was strengthened in the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, a document that 98% of the nations of the world are signatories to, although Syria  is not one of them.

There are strong moral and legal arguments to be made for intervention in Syria. Unfortunately morality and legal arguments against crimes against humanity seem to have very little weight in the world. But then they never have. It is only when nations decide that the threat extends beyond the deaths of unfortunate people that they really could not care less who lived or died, but directly threaten the economic and security interests of the great powers then the vast majority of people and nations would rather not get involved.

This is especially true after the American led coalition invaded Iraq on the basis of the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The intelligence about the threat has been widely discredited, Iraq remains devastated, Iran empowered and the United States military hamstrung by 12 years of war. The Iraq War and its aftermath, the casualties, the costs and the loss of credibility of the United States as a result of it haunt the actions of the Obama Administration and will haunt future presidencies. As Harry Callahan noted “there are always results.” 

As Barbara Tuchman so well put it: “An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” 

That was the result of the Iraq war. Though the vast majority of Americans had no direct link to the war that was fought by a small minority of military personnel the effects linger. Our politicians, pundits and preachers talk about us being “war weary” but that really can only be applied to the tiny number of men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and in numerous other places that no one knows or cares about. I think that people are less war weary than they are apathetic to anything that they do not believe directly effects them.

Bertold Brecht wrote:

“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. 

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”

When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”

That being said the consequences of a military action that not only does not destroy the Assad regime’s military capacity to kill innocents could make matters even worse than they are now, a thought that is hard to imagine. Likewise the possibilities of the action going awry  and the situation escalating and even expanding outside the borders of Syria bringing are quite high.

The arguments against intervention as far as military consequences and the low probabilities of success of surgical strikes is a strong argument for non-intervention. Realistically unless there is the participation of major military forces from many nations back by the UN, the Arab League and NATO with boots on the ground to find, secure and destroy the chemical weapons a military strike may achieve a modicum of success but most likely fail in its ultimate goal. The result would be that the situation would continue to escalate and a broader intervention ensue.

I am not happy with the way this has played out. The moral thing would have been for the UN Security Council take strong action against the Syrian regime and the world join in. However that will not happen, too many nations see this as an opportunity to advance their own agendas in the region using both the Syrian government and the rebel forces, some of which are allied with the Al Qaida organization. Some of the Syrian Rebels are as bad as Assad when it comes to indiscriminate killing of innocents and the commission of war crimes.

This week there will be votes in the Senate and House of Representatives regarding a Senate resolution for limited military action against the Assad regime requested by the Obama White House. The political posturing of many opponents as well as supporters of intervention has been nothing but shameful. In many cases it is not about actual foreign policy but on politics dictated by gerrymandered districts and the politics of mutual assured destruction. There is a good chance that the resolutions will not pass and one or both houses of Congress. However there is a strong chance that even without Congressional approval that the Obama administration will most likely attempt to do the morally right thing with inadequate means.

I am torn on this. I do think that as Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that we are at a “Munich moment.” The consequences of inaction and limited action alike are potentially disastrous. The hope of many for the Arab Spring has turned into a nightmare. The question is how bad the nightmare will get.

Honestly I cannot say what is I think should be done. I can make the case for intervention based on moral, legal and ethical grounds and I can make the case against based on realpolitik.

All that being said, for the sake of humanity echo the words of Ellie Wiesel“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Mother’s Day Miscellany

Happy Mother’s Day to all those of you that are mother’s out there and those that tried to be but for whatever reason never had children or lost your children. Mother’s Day is a day that for some is happy and others not. That is one of the perplexing parts of the day. I had a happy childhood and my mom endured the life of a Navy Wife and mother raising two boys with her husband deployed, traveling or underway.  She did a pretty good job if you ask me. I think of the times that when dad was gone that she cheered me at Little League baseball and hockey games and would take my brother Jeff and me to the Navy Base Dispensary when we were sick. I also remember the time that she took on a neighbor who had threatened to hurt me when I was out on my paper route. The guy stood about 6’ 6” and worked for a competing paper.  Of course I was 12 years old and he was an adult. Mom marched down the street, and standing about 5’ 2” got right up on him and chewed him up one side and down the other and if I recall threatened his life if he laid a hand on me. It’s good to have a mom that can do dad’s job when dad is on an extended deployment in a combat zone.

Thankfully my mom is still alive and doing okay. I know that for those that have lost their mothers that this day can be hard.  Likewise for those who did not have mom’s that cared for or nurtured them the day can be hard. I was able to talk to my mom today and though separated by a continent it was good to talk with her and wish her a happy Mother’s Day.

I spent today at home with Molly my little dog at the Island Hermitage catching up on laundry, having some time of prayer and a celebration of the Eucharist. It has been a taxing few weeks with much travel and activity and after a celebration of the Navy Nurse Corps 104th Anniversary and National Nurses Week which cumulated in a Luau last night I was ready to do very little today.

I have been doing some reading, I am almost done with William Sheridan Allen’s book The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. It is an excellent read and should be a cautionary tale for anyone that puts their faith in radical politicians that promise “clear solutions” to difficult problems, especially social and economic conditions and those that appeal to displays of religious faith and tradition to attack and vilify their political opponents.

Later in the afternoon I ran the furthest distance that I have since before I went to Iraq, a bit over 7 miles on the beach. It was a slower pace than I wanted because of the condition of the sand because of the tide, heavy surf and number of tourists who had tread upon it this weekend. Despite the slow pace it was really nice to get the distance in without any problems. A lot of credit goes to my new running shoes, the Merrell “Barefoot” model. I have been running in them for 2 months and for the first time in years I am running without pain and not twisting or turning my ankle. Likewise when I am done running I no longer am tight or in pain. I look forward to knocking our my Navy Physical Readiness Test on Friday. I feel like I am in the best shape I have been in years.

I finished the day watching baseball and then the film Nuremberg which is about the Nuremberg trials.  It does a good job in portraying the major Nazi War Criminals either justified themselves or came to see the gravity of crimes and guilt.

Anyway, have to get ready for bed and give my wife Judy a call to say goodnight since I was unable to be with her this week or last. All my stuff is packed to take to work in the morning.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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