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The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Stephen King wrote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

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I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

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But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

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Ramadi, January 2008

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Left My Heart in Al Anbar: Memories & Nightmares

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been having a lot of Iraq memories lately, and with them nightmares.

I deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2007. My experience of Iraq was far different than most Americans. I served as chaplain to a large number of teams of advisers in American advisors to Iraqi forces in Al Anbar Province. Most were teams working with the Iraqi 7th Division and 2nd Border Brigade, the 1st and 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol, and various other sundry groups.

During the deployment I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs in tiny convoys and in tightly packed aircraft with my assistant and bodyguard RP1 Nelson Lebron. The teams consisted of 12-30 Americans who were embedded with the Iraqis in far flung locations between the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various small outposts along the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, including a lot of trips to bases in Ramadi. There were times that the convoys or helicopters that we traveled on took enemy fire, and there were other times that we were in places where we were in meetings with groups of Iraqis where we didn’t know the good guys from the bad guys, and of course I was the only person not armed.

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Crossing the Bridge on way to Camp Blue Diamond and the Snake Pit

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It was a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members. When the region fell to DAESH I was heartbroken, for I had gotten to know too many Iraqis, military, police, and civilians in the region. I had broken bread with them, been asked to pray for them, to bless their vehicles on missions.

As I said, I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately with the retaking of Ramadi, and I am surprised by how strong the memories those memories still are. I have not slept well and have had plenty of strange dreams and nightmares, many which include surreal Iraq memories mixed in with others. PTSD is something that keeps on giving.

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I remember one of my experiences at a small base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as Snake Pit. The base was north of the Euphrates and included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility, Iraqi Military and Police forces, Marine advisers working with the Iraqi Army 7th Division, and an Iraqi Detention Facility. The base was surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls, and immediately adjacent to a number of high-speed avenues of approach. It was an easy target for any attacker. In fact the area was overrun by DAESH and only recently retaken by Iraqi forces.

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Me with RP1 Nelson Lebron on a Flight

When I visited the base Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within it. For me strongest memories of that visit were of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison. I have been to prisons and jails in this county, but that was a wake up call, the prisoners were hard-core jihadists and the conditions were to put it mildly were harsh. But then, the nowhere in the Middle East are prisons anything near as civilized as they are here.

Neither will I forget the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. Those women were eager to serve their people and their country and the memories of how they received me are still so strong. I wonder how many are still alive.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

I will stop for now but to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco, I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Ramadi: Liberation and Destruction

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A few days ago the Iraqi military recaptured the city of Ramadi from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or DAESH. When DAESH captured Ramadi last May it struck me very hard, I cried for the people of Ramadi as I knew that they were going to suffer terribly both from DAESH as well as in the campaign of the Iraqi military to retake the city.

Some Americans, even other military members do not understand this, but for me Ramadi is more than an Iraqi city, but a place that I have a great deal of feeling. I spent a significant amount of time in and around Ramadi, as well as the distant reaches of Al Anbar Province. I care deeply about the people of Iraq, and I grieve because the horror that they are now experiencing is mostly due to the actions of the Bush administration; first for launching a war that met no standard of the being a just war, a war that was condemned as unjust by Pope John Paul II, and a war that many of our closest allies refused to support. Then there was the totally bungled occupation policy which destroyed the country and brought about a massive insurgency and civil war. The results of that war have been devastating, for Iraq, Syria, the Middle East, and yes even for the United States.

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In fact the aftermath of that 2003 invasion opened a Pandora’s Box of chaos, and opened the door to what T.E. Lawrence warned about in 1919: “A Wahhabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” DAESH is exactly that, a fulfillment of Lawrence’s warning.

Whenever I read about Iraq I am reminded of how much of my life has been intertwined with that country and people. As I have said on more than one occasion I left my heart in Al Anbar. Back in 2007 and 2008 things were different there. Sunni’s and Shia were at least in the Iraqi military working with Sunni tribesman cooperated with American forces to destroy or drive out the forces of Al Qaida Iraq. I was meeting regularly with Iraqis who are some of the most hospitable people you would ever want to know. I remember meeting with the women who were going to become the first female Iraqi police officers in Ramadi.

Of all those people I wonder how many are still alive, how many have been driven out of their homes, lands, or have suffered the loss of family, friends, and their livelihoods. I grieve for what is happening to them and their once proud country. The towns, cities and bases that I served at have almost all been taken over by DAESH, or have been scenes of terrible fighting. Fallujah, Ta’quadum, Habbinyah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha, Al Rutba, Rawah, Al Qaim, Al Waleed, Al Turbial, Baghdadi, and so many others devastated by invasion, insurgency, civil war, and the battle against DAESH.

When I left Iraq in 2008 I had hopes that the country might survive, as did many of the Iraqis that I met. I hoped one day to go back and travel to the places that I served, and maybe had the opportunity to see the gracious people that I love again. Maybe in 15 or 20 years there might, God willing be an opportunity. I hope and pray that those I know who were so good to me are safe. Until then I can only pray and hope that for them things will one day be better.

When I think of the Iraq war and its costs I am reminded of the words of Major General Smedley Butler in his book War is a Racket: “What is the cost of war?…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….”

For the Iraqis, the Syrians, Americans, and so many others, the cost will be with us for at least a generation. But I do always hope and pray that things will be better.

Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre

Padre Steve+

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High Anxiety: The Plane Flight to Oktoberfest

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today Judy and I are leaving for a trip to the Oktoberfest. I love Europe, we have lived in German and travelled in much of Europe and I do look forward to the trip with Judy. In addition to our time in Munich at the Oktoberfest we plan on making side trips to Salzburg and Nuremberg.

Of course we are flying which frankly is neither of our big thrill. I have never been much about flying, though I readily admit that this is a control thing, I would rather be in the cockpit flying the aircraft than sitting back in steerage. To tell the truth I would love to learn to fly and fly classic World War II war birds like the P-51 Mustang or the Messerschmitt Me-109, or maybe the Focke-Wulf FW-190. But then, I do get to drive Judy’s 2013 Mustang a lot, and I will be driving the Autobahnen in Germany when we get there, but I digress….

The fact is that I have always a distinct fear of flying, or rather crashing. Professor Liloman calls the condition High Anxiety, a condition that he treated the world famous psychiatrist Richard H. Thorndyke for at the renowned Institute for the Very Very Nervous. (Note the gratuitous Mel Brooks film reference) This only has gotten worse with age. Not that I don’t know how to keep myself calm, beer at every stop from beginning to end of the flight with a good number of Hail Mary’s thrown in; in German of course because that is where I first learned the prayer.

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There is a song about the condition too, appropriately named High Anxiety.

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High anxiety whenever you’re near – High anxiety – it’s you that I fear.

My heart’s afraid to fly – it’s crashed before …

But then you take my hand;  My heart starts to soar once more.

 High anxiety … it’s always the same; High anxiety … it’s you that I blame.

It’s very clear to me I’ve got to give in. High anxiety: you win.

High Anxiety 1977, Words by Mel Brooks, arranged by John Morris

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When we returned from our first tour in Germany after Christmas in December 1986 we flew on a Pan Am Boeing 747. It had a beautiful name, I can never forget reading it before we boarded it at Frankfurt, the Maid of the Seas. I mentioned it to Judy before we boarded, and talked about how I wish all airlines named their aircraft. If the name of the airplane rings a bell, just think a bit. In 1988 Libyan terrorists blew up a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie Scotland. When I saw the wreckage I was stunned to see the name Maid of the Seas on the crumpled wreckage. I have a hard time getting that picture out of my mind. So there is a reason for my gallows humor, I need to take the edge off.

I did make my peace with flying and have done so too many times to count, to far too much of the world, many times on long distance overseas flights to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I have gotten used to the hassles of flying, especially security, check in lines and lost or damaged luggage. I even managed to get through flying in Iraq, although getting shot at flying out of Ramadi one night in 2007 was quite unnerving.

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Ever since coming home from Iraq flying has taken on a new old sense of terror. I don’t like it. It is a necessary evil to go places. Personally I would rather take trains or ships if I had the option, but I don’t live in Europe.

Anyway, unless I get a chance to write a short article while in Germany everything that will be posted will have be scheduled before I left home.

Peace, love and beer,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, beer, terrorism, Travel

Tears for Ramadi

  

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of he 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.” T.E. Lawrence 

Tonight I write about Ramadi, a place where I spent some of the best worst days of my life. A place where like T.E. Lawrence I gave of myself to help the Arabs, in my case the Iraqi tribes, in his those of the Arabian Peninsula. 

  
My life was changed forever in Iraq and in my time there I came to appreciate the Iraqis that I met. 

I am not writing tonight to talk a bunch of military-political analysis, God knows that I do enough of that as it is. As my own life settles down I probably will do this, but with just a couple of observations will avoid that tonight. It will suffice to say that Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province fell to the Islamic State over the weekend. The city has been besieged for months by ISIL forces and fell to them, surviving military and police units fled the onslaught accompanied by thousands of residents. The Iraqi Governmnet claims that it will retake Ramadi and the local Sunni government officials are now reluctantly supporting the introduction of the Iranian backed Shia militias which recently recaptured Tikrit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, the people of Ramadi are caught between the Sunni fanatics of ISIL and the the Shia dominated central government in Bahgdad who they neither love or trust and with good reason. 

  
I have no doubt that eventually the Iraq government supported by the Shia militias will re-take Ramadi for the city is far too important to be allowed to remain until ISIL control. But it will not happen overnight and the battle will be fought to the death between the radical Sunni and the radical Shia whose bloodlust and hatred of each other will create an even more catastrophic situation for those who cannot escape the city or who have been forced into refugee camps or into the open desert. 

  
When I think of the appalling decision of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam Hussein, his Ba’ath Party and military, which is the major reason this is now happening I get very angry. I think of the thousands of American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen, as well as those of our coalition allies and the Iraqis who lost everything by supporting us and I weep. I still see the carnage, devastation inflicted by us on Iraq, as well as that done by the Al Qaida Iraq insurgents and the suffering of the people of Anbar whenever I close my eyes and try to sleep. 

  
We did hope for better days, especially after the Anbar Sunnis rose up against AQI and helped us drive them out. However, that hope was like the desert grass, squandered by the inept, corrupt and insanely treacherous Maliki regime which as soon as it could turned on the Anbar Sunni in 2010 and 2011 and planted the seeds of another, even more viscious insurgency. 

  
Iraq is now ground zero in the war being waged between Sunni and Shia Islam, a war which will devastate the Middle East much as the Thirty Years War waged by warring factions of Catholic and Protestant Christians did to Europe. Like that war it is a war which will go on until the borders are sealed by the blood of hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of Arabs, sadly including the best and brightest of this and maybe the next generation, the very people who like men like me dreamed dreams. 

 

Today the places that were often my home away from home, places that we Americans new as Ramadi Main, Blue Diamond, the Shark’s Tooth, and so many others are under ISIL control. Places like Hit, Haditha, Ar Rutbah. Al Qaim, Waleed, Korean Village, Fallujah, Habbinyah are either under the control of ISIL or besieged. I travelled thousands of miles across Anbar working with our advisors and Iraqis, it is so much a part of me, and so tonight my heart breaks for the people of Ramadi and Al Anbar. 
  
Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, Loose thoughts and musings, Political Commentary, Religion, remembering friends

A Return to “God in the Empty Places”

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Seven years ago yesterday I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  In some ways things are better, now but it was a very dark time for several years and I still have a lot of bad days.

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French Wounded awaiting Evacuation from Dien Bien Phu

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

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Border Fort Five “West Virginia” on Syrian Border

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 10,000 Americans in Afghanistan alone. We are sort back Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that the fight with the Islamic State will be long and costly.  

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Bedouin Camp

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

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British Tombstone: Habbinyah Iraq

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

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French Chaplain and Soldiers Indochina

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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Mass at COP South and Blessing a Convoy at Ramadi

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

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French Foreign Legion Paratroops Algeria

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Ready for Convoy: Ramadi to Al Asad

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

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French Foreign Legion in Indochina

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Convoy: Route Uranium west of Ramadi

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

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Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sanh in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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French Convoy Under Attack Indochina

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Al Waleed

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Commanders of a Doomed Force: French Commanders at Dien Bien Phu

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With Brigadier General Sabah, Interpreter and my Assistant Nelson Lebron: Ramadi

The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Advisers at COP South

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

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For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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The Results of Ignoring History: The Implosion of Iraq

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Better Times: With the Bedouin in December 2007

Inshallah, (إن شاء اللهGod willing… or so say my Iraqi friends.

It is now 2014, over eleven years since the Bush administration launched its ill advised, preemptive and probably war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That war, illegal under any definition of international law which violated most of the components of traditional Just War Theory and condemned by Pope John Paul II was a disaster for the United States and the unfortunate people of Iraq that we are only now beginning to the full negative implications.

For me the past week has been gut-wrenchingly painful as I watched the forces of ISIL/ISIS rampage through Iraq and the demoralized Iraqi military, no longer trusting Prime Minister Maliki throwing down their weapons and running away. I left Iraq over six years years ago. When I left Iraq, I was in Baghdad at the Headquarters of the Iraq Assistance Group, on my way out of country, being awarded a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for my work with our advisors and the Iraqis in Al Anbar. That night was a melancholy night. I was wearing my last serviceable uniform, which I had preserved for the trip home by wearing flight suits and baseball caps with no badges of rank, throughout most of the deployment. Like Lawrence’s donning of the Bedouin robes, my uniform choice, done purely by necessity made me stand out conspicuously among other Americans in country.

I was heading home but didn’t really want to leave, but in the process I left a big 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. However, I sense that what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“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.” 

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. That military, defeated in 1991 and crippled by years of sanctions and bombings was no threat to its neighbors and couldn’t even defend itself against the U.S. and coalition forces.

When we entered the country, many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators, but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, 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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British Troops enter Baghdad 1919

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. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration, an agenda that only saw Iraq as a stepping stone for future operations against Iran.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was 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 loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis. It is deeply ironic that because of the terrible policy missteps of the Bush administration that the current crisis is forcing Iran and the United States to consider cooperation with one another to prevent the implosion of Iraq.

 

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 destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  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 thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore its lessons, believing that they were smarter than other occupiers. It was an act of unmitigated hubris and arrogance brought about by those who believed that they were above history. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, it and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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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.”

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; as well as 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 willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. 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, however it can hardly be called a triumph.

Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia 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 by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Most of this has to be laid at the feet of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki who has done everything that he can to break promises made to Sunnis and Kurds, and dishonor the Sunnis who fought to save his government in 2007-2008. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests which were met by brute force. Sectarian violence spread, and ISIL/ISIS a move violent and vicious offshoot of Al Qaida gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. In the north, Mosul and Tikrit have fallen and there are reports that some ISIL/ISIS fighters entered Baghdad this evening. Casualties in Iraq are continuing to mount and a humanitarian crisis is developing as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis flee the violence, feeling threatened by both the fighters and the Maliki government.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for three years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government. Now many of the Iraqi elements of ISIS/ISIL have breached the border with Syria and are attempting to redraw the political map of the Middle East, ravaging the vestiges of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the 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, one that is far worse than we bargained for and potentially cataclysmic in its impact.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. The Iraqis are on the whole decent and honorable people. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying to attain is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the 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.”

That is the case in Iraq and many other Arab countries today. One can only hope that for Iraq, Syria and those countries as that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better in helping them achieve that than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago.

But all of that being said, this situation is going to take at least a generation to settle. There are no easy answers and certainly sending troops in to restore the situation when Maliki and his regime make no attempt to reconcile with their Sunni and Kurdish countrymen, is not the answer. In fact if there is any answer that maintains Iraq as a unified state it has to be brought about by the Iraqis, particularly Maliki, who has shown no inclination to do this since the United States military left in 2011.

It is also very possible that what is happening, as bloody, horrible and painful as it is may be, is what is needed to correct the blunder of Sykes-Picot. Perhaps it should be left to the Arabs to redraw the natural boundaries of their regions, tribes and religions and let the chips fall where they may. In Iraq, the Sunni Sheikhs once the Shi’ite influence is diminished and they have regained some autonomy will drive out and destroy ISIL/ISIS as they did to AQI in 2007-2008.  The ISIL/ISIS fighters will not be welcome once they have achieved their goals.

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Lawrence wrote in 1920:

What is required is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines. It is no good patching with the present system….We are big enough to admit a fault, and turn a new page: and we ought to do it with a hoot of joy, because it will save us a million pounds a week.

We should listen to him.

As my Iraqi friends say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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