Tag Archives: reconciliation

“We are All Americans” Reflection on Appomattox during The COVID-19 Pandemic

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Joshua Chamberlain Receives the Surrender of John Gordon at Appomattox

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a difficult, tiring, and yet extraordinary week. I have had little sleep, and did all that I could do to be with and among the people I serve. Of course I always wear a high quality face mask when outside the confines of my very isolated cubicle so I can be out and among them. Unfortunately, technology, the unpreparedness of our nation and military for the novel Coronavirus pandemic, and my own medical needs made yesterday very exhausting and frustrating. I haven’t published anything here since 7 April, which is unusual for me, as I seldom miss a day without writing something. Over the past couple of days I have been working on a different article which will be later today or early tomorrow. I just thought that this was more timely.

So now I am publishing a highly edited and revised post about the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia to the Armies commanded by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

That event is something that all Americans should still celebrate today, because it was a moral and patriotic act of surrendering individual agendas for the sake of the Union, reconciliation, and equality. I hope that we can learn from it today.

Until tomorrow or whenever,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

One hundred and fifty-five years ago on the 9th and 10th of April 1865, four men, Ulysses S Grant, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Ely Parker, taught succeeding generations of Americans the value of mutual respect and reconciliation.

The four men were all very different. The very thought that they would do so after a bitter and bloody war that had cost the lives of close to three quarters of a million Americans which had left hundreds of thousands others maimed, shattered or without a place to live, and who had seen vast swaths of the country ravaged by war and its attendant plagues is quite remarkable.

The differences in the men, their upbringing, and their views about life seemed to be insurmountable. The Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee was the epitome of a Southern aristocrat and career army officer.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, like Lee was a West Point graduate and veteran of the War with Mexico, but there the similarities ended. Grant was an officer of humble means who had struggled with alcoholism and failed in his civilian life after he left the army, before returning to it as a volunteer when war began.

Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had been a professor of rhetoric and natural and revealed religion from Bowdoin College until 1862 when he volunteered to serve in the Army against the wishes of his wife. He was one of the heroes of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, who helped exemplify the importance of citizen soldiers, and military professionals in peace and war.

Finally there was Colonel Ely Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Indian.  Parker was professional engineer by trade, but was barred from being an attorney because as a Native American he was never considered an American citizen. At the beginning of the war Parker was rejected from serving in the army for the same reason, but his friend Grant obtained him an officer’s commission and kept him on his staff for the entirety of the war.

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General Ulysses S. Grant

On 5 April 1865 the Confederate line around the fortress of Petersburg was shattered at the battle of Five Forks. To save the last vestiges of his army Lee attempted to withdraw to the west. Within a few days the once magnificent Army of Northern Virginia was trapped near the town of Appomattox. On the morning of April 9th 1865 Lee replied to an entreaty of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant requesting that he and his Army of Northern Virginia be allowed to surrender. Lee wrote to Grant:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 9, 1865

Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday for that purpose.

R.E. LEE, General.

The once mighty Army of Northern Virginia, which had won many victories, but more defeats, and in almost every battle except Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor, lost as a higher percentage of casualties that they could not replace, as compared to their foes in the Army of the Potomac. At its peak strength during the Gettysburg campaign, Lee’s Army numbered nearly 80,000 men, but less than two years later it was now a haggard and emaciated, but still proud force of about 15,000 soldiers. For Lee to continue the war now would mean that they would have to face even more hopeless odds against a vastly superior enemy. Grant recognized this and wrote Lee:

I am equally anxious for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be set-tied without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, &c.,

Since the high water mark at Gettysburg, Lee’s army had been on the defensive. Lee’s ill-fated offensive into Pennsylvania was one of the two climactic events that sealed the doom of the Confederacy. The other was Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which surrendered to him a day after Pickett’s Charge. That day became known as The Most Glorious Fourth, because the dual defeats coincided with the 87th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. But it was Grant’s victory which cut the Confederacy in half, and was the true beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

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General Robert E. Lee

However, those disastrous defeats did not end the war. Lee conducted a bloody and ultimately doomed defensive struggle that lasted through 1864 as Grant bled the Confederates dry during the Overland Campaign, leading to the long siege of Petersburg. Likewise the armies of William Tecumseh Sherman cut a swath through the Deep South, captured Atlanta, the true industrial and economic hub of the Confederacy. Grant forced Lee into a protracted siege at Petersburg, while Sherman cut a swath across Georgia and the Carolinas, capturing Charleston, South Carolina, the ideological heart of the Confederate cause, South Carolina’s Capital of Columbia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, the last of the major Confederate seaports.

With each battle that followed Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia became weaker, and finally after the nine month long siege of Petersburg ended with a Union victory there was little else to do. Lee wanted to continue the war but his beloved shatter shell of an Army was trapped. On the morning of April 9th a final attempt to break through the Union lines by Major General John Gordon’s division was turned back by vastly superior Union forces.

But, two days before, on April 7th Grant wrote a letter to Lee, which began the process of ending the war in Virginia. He wrote:

General R. E. LEE:

The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C. S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General

Lee was hesitant to surrender knowing Grant’s reputation for insisting on unconditional surrender, terms that Lee could not yet bring himself to accept. Lee replied to Grant’s offer with this message:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, APRIL 7, 1865 Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT:

I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.

R.E. LEE, General.

The correspondence continued over the next day even as the Confederates hoped to fight their way out of the trap that they were in. But now Robert E. Lee, who had through his efforts extended the war for at least six months, knew that he could no longer continue. Even so, some of Lee’s younger subordinates wanted to continue the fight. When his artillery chief Porter Alexander recommended that the Army be released he recommended that the soldiers of the Army, “take to the woods and report to their state governors.”

Lee knew that such action would bring about even more death and destruction.

“We have simply now to face the fact that the Confederacy has failed. And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large.”

Lee continued:

“Already [the country] is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of their officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live…. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from… You young fellows might go bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.”

Alexander was so humbled at Lee’s reply he later wrote “I was so ashamed of having proposed such a foolish and wild cat scheme that I felt like begging him to forget he had ever heard it.” When Alexander saw the gracious terms of the surrender he was particularly impressed with how non-vindictive the terms were, especially in terms of parole and amnesty for the surrendered soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln had already set the tone for the surrender in his Second Inaugural Address given just over a month before the surrender of Lee’s army. Lincoln closed that speech with these words of reconciliation.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

appomattox surrender

Lee met Grant at the house of Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox in 1861 after his home near Manassas had been used as a Confederate headquarters and was damaged by artillery fire. Lee was dressed in his finest uniform complete with sash, while Grant was dressed in a mud splattered uniform and overcoat only distinguished from his soldiers by the three stars on his shoulder boards. Grant’s dress uniforms were far to the rear in the baggage trains, and Grant was afraid that his slovenly appearance would insult Lee, but it did not. It was a friendly meeting. Before getting down to business the two reminisced about the Mexican War in which they had both served and first met. At that time Lee was one of the rising stars of the Army, and Grant a mere Lieutenant.

Grant provided his vanquished foe very generous surrender terms:

“In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

When Lee left the building Federal troops began cheering in jubilation, but Grant ordered them to stop. He did not want to personally humiliate Lee anymore than the reality of defeat and surrender already done.  Afterward, Grant felt a sense of melancholy and wrote “I felt…sad and depressed, at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people has fought.” He later noted: “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

In the hours before and after the signing of the surrender documents old friends and West Point classmates, separated by four long years of war gathered on the porch or around the house. Grant and others were gracious to their now defeated friends and the bitterness of war began to melt away. Some Union officers offered money to help their Confederate friends get through the coming months. It was an emotional reunion, especially for the former West Point classmates gathered there.

“It had never been in their hearts to hate the classmates they were fighting. Their lives and affections for one another had been indelibly framed and inextricably intertwined in their academy days. No adversity, war, killing, or political estrangement could undo that. Now, meeting together when the guns were quiet, they yearned to know that they would never hear their thunder or be ordered to take up arms against one another again.”

Grant also ordered that 25,000 rations be transported to the starving Confederate army waiting to surrender. The gesture meant much to the defeated Confederate soldiers who had had little to eat ever since the retreat from Petersburg began.

The surrender itself was accomplished with a recognition that only soldiers who have given the full measure of devotion can know when confronting a defeated and humiliated enemy who before had been their countrymen. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic victor of Little Round Top was directed by Grant to receive the final surrender of the defeated Confederate infantry divisions on the morning of April 12th 1865.

The morning dawned rainy and the beaten Confederates marched to the surrender grounds. As first division in the column, that of John Gordon passed, Chamberlain was so moved by emotion he ordered his soldiers to salute the defeated enemy for whose cause he had no sympathy. Chamberlain honored the defeated Rebel army by bringing his division to present arms.

Gordon, was “riding with heavy spirit and downcast face,” looked up, surveyed the scene, wheeled about on his horse, and “with profound salutation returned the gesture by lowering his saber to the toe of his boot. The Georgian then ordered each following brigade to carry arms as they passed third brigade, “honor answering honor.”

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Chamberlain was not just a soldier, but before the war had been Professor of Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College, and a student of theology before the war. Chamberlain, a citizen soldier could not help to see the significance of the occasion. He understood that some people would criticize him for saluting the surrendered enemy.

However, Chamberlain, unlike others, understood the value of reconciliation, and at his heart was a Christian, and theologian, as well a staunch abolitionist and Unionist, who had nearly died on more than one occasion fighting the defeated Confederate Army. However, unlike many hardline politicians and ideologues, Chamberlain understood that the achievement of equality for all, the freedom, enfranchisement, and integration of African Americans into society, and true Union could be achieved unless the enemies became reconciled to one another. At that point the men of the Army of Northern Virginia knew that they were defeated and at the mercy of those who vanquished them.

Chamberlain noted that his reasons for doing what he did afterward.

“The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

The next day Robert E Lee addressed his soldiers for the last time. Lee’s final order to his loyal troops was published the day after the surrender. It was a gracious letter of thanks to men that had served their beloved commander well in the course of the three years since he assumed command of them outside Richmond in 1862.

General Order
No. 9

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell. — R. E. Lee, General

Sadly, Lee failed to acknowledge his role in bringing the Confederacy to complete destruction by not telling his Commander in Chief, President Jefferson Davis that the war was lost when Atlanta fell. For all his virtues, he could not overcome his innate racism, and lack of moral courage to confront an arrogant superior that the war could not be won and the Confederacy surrender. Only Lee could have done so, Davis would not listen to anyone else, as no one had Lee’s stature and respect among Southerners. But he did not do that until his army was for all intents and purposes destroyed. If effect he continued to fight when there was no human, or Christian purpose to do so. With the fall of Atlanta he knew that there was no political, economic, diplomatic, or military reason to continue the war, but he did so anyway.

But Appomattox was the beginning of the end of the end. The war had really been lost at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, and was certainly lost when Sherman captured Atlanta and began his march across Georgia, which ensured that the Confederates would have to deal with Abraham Lincoln and not the Northern Peace Democrats or Copperheads, who were willing to let the Confederacy live than to continue a war that was being won on all fronts. Other Confederate forces continued to resist for several weeks, but with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by the man that nearly all Southerners saw as the embodiment of their nation the war was effectively over.

Lee had fought hard and after the war was still under the charge of treason, but he understood the significance of defeat and the necessity of moving forward as one nation. In August 1865 Lee wrote to the trustees of Washington College of which he was now President:

“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid the restoration of peace and harmony… It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.

Unfortunately, by that time, despite his remaining prejudice and failure to acknowledge the evil of the cause for which he had fought, offered words which should have been heeded by every man and woman in the former Confederacy.

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Brigadier General Ely Parker

Lee’s words, do offer a lesson for all of us in our terribly divided land need to learn regardless of or political affiliation or ideology in the midst of a global pandemic that pays no respect to the lives of anyone, that knows no border, race, creed, nation, or religion.

After he had signed the surrender document, Lee learned that Grant’s Aide-de-Camp Colonel Ely Parker, was a full-blooded Seneca Indian. He stared at Parker’s dark features and said: “It is good to have one real American here.”

Parker, a man whose people had known the brutality of the White man, as well as a man who was not considered a citizen and would never gain the right to vote in his lifetime, replied, “Sir, we are all Americans.”

That afternoon Parker would receive a commission as a Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, making him the first Native American to hold that rank in the United States Army. He would later be made a Brigadier General in the Regular Army.

I don’t know what Lee thought of that. His reaction is not recorded and he never wrote about it after the war, but it might have been in some way led to Lee’s letter to the trustees of Washington College. I think with our land so divided, ands that is time again that we learn the lessons so evidenced in the actions and words of Ely Parker, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain, for we are all Americans.

Sadly, I think that there is a portion of the American population who will not heed these words and will continue to agitate for policies and laws similar to those that led to the Civil War, and which those that could not reconcile defeat, and almost immediately put into place laws that made newly freed slaves, into slaves by another name again during the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. For me such behavior and attitudes are incompressible, but they are all too real, and all too present in our divided nation.

But I still maintain hope that in spite of everything that divides us, in spite of the intolerance and hatred of some, that we can overcome. I think that the magnanimity of Grant in victory, the humility of Lee in defeat, the graciousness of Chamberlain in honoring the defeated foe, and the stark bluntness of Parker, the Native American, in reminding Lee, that “we are all Americans,” is something that is worth remembering, and yes, even emulating today.

But even more so we need to remember the words of the only man whose DNA and genealogy did not make him a European transplant, the man who Lee refereed to as the only true American at Appomattox, General Ely Parker, the Native American who fought for a nation that not acknowledge him as a citizen until long after he was dead.

In the perverted, unrequited racist age of President Donald Trump we have to stop the bullshit, and take to heart the words of Ely Parker. “We are all Americans.” If we don’t get that there is no hope for our country. No amount of military or economic might can save us if we cannot understand Parker’s words, or the words of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” Really, it does not matter if our relatives were second sons of European Gentry, religious dissidents, refugees of repressive regimes, African Slaves, Asians seeking a new life in a new country, or Mexican citizens who turned on their own country to become citizens of a new Republic, men like Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican governor of El Norte and one of the First U.S. Senators from California.

Let us never forget Ely Parker’ words at Appomattox, “We are all Americans.”

Sadly, there are not just more than a few Americans, and many with no familial or other connection to the Confederacy and the South than deeply held racism who would rather see another bloody civil war because they hate the equality of Blacks, Women, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans more than they love the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

That is why Parker’s words to Lee still matter so much and why we must never give up the fight for equality for all Americans. Likewise, whether one likes it or not, Robert E. Lee broke his sacred oath to the Constitution as a commissioned officer, and refused to free the slaves entrusted to his care by his Father in Law in 1859, who also refused to support his Confederate President’s plan to emancipate and free African American slaves who were willing to fight for the Confederacy until February 1865.

Lee the Myth is still greater than Lee the man in much of this country. Lee the man is responsible for the deaths for more Americans than the leaders of Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, or any other foreign power. He even cast aside such loyalists as George Pickett, whose division he destroyed in a suicidal attack at Gettysburg on July 3rd 1863, and then continued to damn Pickett for mistakes which were his own until the end of the war.

Both sides of my family fought for the Confederacy as officers and members of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. Most reconciled, but others didn’t, including the patriarch of my paternal side of the family. His decision ended up costing the family millions of dollars in the following years. The maternal side was smart enough to reconcile after the war and to later engage in the profoundly libertarian practice of bootlegging until the end of prohibition. I don’t know if any members of either side of my family were KKK supporters, but if they were I wouldn’t be surprised.  They lost almost all they had during the war by fighting on the wrong side and when their rebellion ended in defeat many refused to reconcile with the United States, or head the words of Robert E. Lee, and they deserved it.

But, despite his words Robert E. Lee refused to completely admit his crime of treason. He used the language of reconciliation without fully embracing it.

So for me April 9th is very personal. I have served my country for nearly 38 and a half years, and in the midst of a pandemic I continue to serve while wondering if the grim necessity of the times keep me from retiring.

That being said, I cannot abide men and women who treat the men and women that I have served with in the defense of this county as less than human or fully entitled to the rights that are mine, more to my birth and race than today than any of my inherent talents or abilities. That includes my ancestors who fought for the Confederacy on both sides of my family. Ancestors or not, they were traitors to everything that I believe in and hold dear.

As for me, principles and equality trump all forms of racism, racist ideology, and injustice, even when the President himself advocates for them. I am a Union man, despite my Southern ancestry, and I will support the rights of people my ancestors would never support, Blacks, Hispanics, Women, LTBTQ, and other racial, religious, or gender minorities.

So I am a Unionist and a continuing abolitionist when it comes to protecting and advancing the rights of those whose rights continue to be trumped by prejudice. So I am a supporter of Equal rights for African Americans, immigrants of all races, nationalities, and religions. Likewise, I am a women’s rights advocate, including their reproductive rights, and a supporter of LGBTQ people and their rights, most of which are opposed by the Evangelical Christians who I grew up with. I also will not hesitate to criticize the elected President of the United States when he pisses on the preface of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and attacks the bedrock principles of the Bill of Rights.

How can I be silent? I know that I cannot be a bystander, Even when in the midst of a pandemic these same people are not only being victimized by the Coronavirus pandemic, but by the government that should be doing it can to protect and defend the lives and livelihoods of all of us, citizens, those on the way to citizenship, or those who simply hope and long to be free by leaving their homelands to become truly free.

So I will stand fast on this anniversary of Appomattox and echo the words of Eli Parker to all, no-matter their status or unforgiving ideology that stand against them:  “Sir, we are all Americans.” Such people, who represent the most extreme and ideological pillars of the political Right and Left, may not understand this, but I certainly do.

The failure to work towards reconciliation and equality on both sides of the ideological spectrum will doom us all, and destroy the Republic and the ideals that were planted in the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, the XIII, XIV, XV, and XIX Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the end of DOMA, and the yesterday to be ratified Women’s Rights Act. The reversal of any of these achievements places us on a trail that only leads to an imperfect and imagined past which is often overplayed with myth and ideology to create a nation where diversity is the enemy, where race and religion matter more than the simple understanding that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” 

 

 

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D-Day at 70 Years and Forever: Courage, Sacrifice and Reconciliation…

d-day-opener1Omaha Beach

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” President Barack Obama at the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, June 6th 2014

Seventy years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgement area and begin the drive across France.

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

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

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

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

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

caen_ruins1The Ruins of Caen

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

Normandie, Fallschirmjäger mit MG 42

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

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinner-w-bg-sabah1Me with Iraqi General Sabah in his Quarters in Ramadi 2007

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

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

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

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

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Difficult Days: A Lenten Meditation

“As lousy as things are now, tomorrow they will be somebody’s good old days.” Gerald Barzan

The Good Old Days to Some…the Bad Old Days to Otehrs

The past few weeks being laid up dealing with Adolf the Kidney stone and his remove this week have been unusual for me.  I have been in pain and even now am dealing with the aftereffects of the procedure to remove Adolf I find that it has given me a pause during Lent that I seldom get.  The pause to look at life, mortality and what is and is not important. Now a Kidney stone is not normally a life threatening condition and was not in my case, but the condition has slowed me down from my normal hyperactive manner of doing things, even slowed down the pace of my writing.  It has not been fun but I have gained some spiritual grace that I think that I needed.  Tonight I am not feeling as well as I was this morning and hopefully this too will pass so I can get back to getting well.

It is difficult at times to be hopeful when all around there is bad news. We seem to be living the ancient Chinese curse that says “May you live in interesting times.” The times are certainly interesting with lots going on of historic significance that may years from now be remembered as one of those tumultuous times where the world changed before our eyes.  History of course is replete with such times, the rise and fall of ancient empires, the age of exploration, the Reformation, the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic era, the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World War with the Great Depression sandwich, the 1960’s, the post Cold War era and the post-911 era just for a start.  I could go back further in history for other epochal periods, but I think that the reason that today’s crisis seem so much more dire is that we are both the beneficiaries and the victims of the instantaneous communication revolution in which common people have real time access to events that are impacting their lives.  This causes many a great deal of anxiety both real and imagined, anxiety which usually finds expression in a desire for the good old days as well as seeks solace and security from those who feverishly exploit that anxiety.  It does not matter if the security comes from religion, political ideology and matters neither if it comes from the left or the right so long as the call resonates with them they will follow it.  They will faithfully follow even as the purveyors of the message drive up their worry and anxiety that they no longer can actually enjoy life or be thankful because they are so consumed with how “lousy” things are or “evil” their opponents are.

Fun and Games in the Good Old Days…

It is in times like these that one has to take a deep breath, look around at all that they have to be thankful for and just really examine of the nostalgia that they feel for “better times” is that or an escape from an unpleasant present and fear of the future if the other side wins.  The fact is that we have seen such times before and somehow made it through.  I hear from friends and relatives who lived through the Great Depression and World War II that those were good times in spite of everything happening, much of which is present today but somehow things are worse now.  Even I fall into the trap about somehow thinking that the times that I grew up in were somehow better than the present, this may be true for music but overall things were not that good for a lot of people but somehow we made it through them.  Lent is a time to step back from the brink, take stock and renew our life with God and our neighbor.

When I returned from Iraq back in February 2008 I soon discovered that the bombardment of bad news and über-partisan political battles took its toll on me.  I was neither as resilient as I thought that I was nor as consumed by the need to continue to ratchet up rhetoric on one side or the other as the more extreme elements on the right or left were doing.  PTSD or not I realized that the purveyors of the 24/7 bad news cycle were driving people with legitimate ideological differences to extremes that I had never seen, but which I recognized from history have a lot of precedent and can lead to making things even worse.  One only has to look at Weimar Germany to realize how things can go so very wrong when extremes on both sides of the ideological spectrums squeeze out those in the middle or chance at mutually beneficial solutions and that was in the days before type of information overload that is the bedrock of the political and ideological landscape of today.

I am not attacking those who get caught up in this but I do question the politicians, pundits, “news-networks” and talk show hosts who continue to ratchet up rhetoric to the point that many feel that the only alternative is some kind of “revolution.”  Again those that call for “radical change” or revolt against those who are in favor of that kind of change are both calling for revolution when revolutionary talk reaches a point where one side or the other does not see a way to resolve things in a civil manner then the those alternatives slip away and the only recourse is violence.  It is not the fault of one side or the other as those that stoke this talk are found on both sides of the American as well as other nations political and ideological spectrum testify to daily.  In the United States we also have a long history of apocalyptic thought which presents the lousy state of current events in any generation as something that will certainly bring the end of life as we know it or the return of the Lord, the Great Tribulation or whatever you chalk it up to. There are those on both the religious and secular side of the spectrum who have apocalyptic visions related to their world view.  For some reason we Americans do the apocalyptic quite well whether we believe in God or not.

I am not a radical, my temperament is such that I may have strong beliefs but realize that there are many other opinions out there than mine and that even if I do not agree with one side or the other on every issue it does not mean that I cannot find common ground.  I think this is part of the reason for the diversity of friends that I have from across the religious, political and ideological spectrum, we can agree to disagree and in the process still value one another and our opinions and remain friends who care about one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Courtyard of the Tegel Strasse Prison

The thing that has been most on my mind this Lent has been the idea of being reconciled both to God and to one another.  Lent is a season of self examination, repentance and forgiveness.  The call to “be reconciled to one another” is a never ending command and applies across the variety and spectrum of life.  Lent reminds us that that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” but that we are also all made in the image of the God who created us, redeems us and sanctifies us who calls us to himself and reminds us that mercy triumphs over judgment and “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” I am afraid that in times like these even the best intentioned of people can find themselves pulled into the orbit of those that in less stressful or trying times that they would never be involved with.  The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility… As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”

I know for some this message is lost and not because they are rejecting the message of the Gospel but because that have become so deeply involved in whatever cause they or their champions espouse that they have lost the ability at least temporarily to see the good that may rest in their opponents and their ideas.  As Bonhoeffer also wrote “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as ourselves.”  Now of course Bonhoeffer knew the evil that was the Nazis and eventually gave his life by supporting the German resistance to Hitler.  Loving our enemies does not absolve us from public responsibility but in ensuring that we do not ensnare ourselves in ideology that restricts our ability to love them as Christ has commanded.

I think in the past few years that I have gained a new perspective on life that has changed the way that I look at the world.  I know that things are not good right now and that there are a lot of things to be legitimately concerned about, but I know too that somehow our country as well as much of humanity have weathered worse and like Barzan said that for some these will be the good old days someday and that helps me to live in the present knowing that the future is not yet written and known only to God who in his grace condescends to love us and desires that we better love him and one another and not be conformed to any ideology that would prevent that.  I do pray that we will both see better days as well as be reconciled to God and to one another that is my Lenten prayer.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A War Crime Denier, an American Terrorist in Karachi, a Christian Bully and thoughts on Grace and Reconciliation on a Lenten Sunday

Molly Checking My Facts

Well sports fans I sit up with my little Papillion-Dachshund mix Molly musing tonight after watch a replay of a pre-season baseball game.  Today of course I have been dealing with the pain caused by Adolf my large and well dug in kidney stone who evidently will resist until the end and have to be blasted by a laser on Tuesday.  I didn’t sleep well last night and woke up in pain this morning and look to be doing the same tonight, hopefully the pain and sleep meds will kick in and I will get some sleep.  As I wait I shall write as Bucky Katt once said “you can wordify anything if you just verb it.” So tonight I shall spend some time with a war crime denier, an American traitor, an allegedly “Christian” political pundit and muse on grace and reconciliation, which are key themes in my Lenten journey this year.

So anyway….today was a weird day.  I had an irate Japanese “Rape of Nanking” denier comment on my article about that subject.  Sorry, the truth hurts war crimes and atrocities committed against civilians by any nation are immoral and to defend the indefensible or try to deflect criticism by referring to other nations that have done similar acts is simply being an accomplice to evil.  That goes for any nation including the United States and unfortunately our history is not always as pristine as some would make it out to be.

Moving on… there are conflicting reports that one of the great traitors in modern United States history, Adam Gadahn the chief spokesman for Al Qaeda was apprehended by Pakistani security forces in Karachi yesterday. A day after Gadahn urged Moslems in the US to emulate the Fort Hood terrorist Major Malik Hasan and attack high value targets in the United States Pakistani officials announced that he had been captured. However later reports that the Al Qaeda member captured may not be him after all.  This guy is a slime bag of the biggest order and I hope that if we didn’t get him this time that he will catch a Hellfire missile between his eyes so he can be the martyr that he urges others to be.  Lead by example Adam, its called leadership but then it is always easier to urge people that you don’t know or care about to do the dying for you.  Don’t worry someday you will get your 70 Virginians and they will kick your sorry ass for eternity.  If the Hellfire doesn’t get you Adam I hope that you get captured and sent to prison here in the US with the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN or the Terrible Blond Network) piped into your jail cell 24/7, an unending supply of Chick tracts and Gordon Klingenschmitt as your Chaplain, a fate worse than a fate worse than death.

While the aforementioned idiots are simply idiotic at least they don’t attempt to rationalize illegal or dishonorable activity by citing scripture and invoking Jesus like Townhall.com columnist Doug Giles did on Sunday.  Giles likes to fancy himself a defender of American and Christian values but is simply a bully whose imbecilic theological rants are about as Christian as those of Adam Gadahn, the American born Al Qaeda spokesman.  Giles prostitutes the Christian faith and wraps it around the flag so that the Gospel is indistinguishable from right wing politics.  The fact that he uses Jesus and says that Jesus would approve of such behavior is blasphemous and the fact that he has a degree from a seminary puts him on the same level as religious leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard clerics in camouflage.  I do believe that Christians should not divorce their faith from politics and that faith can inform and guide a Christian in life and even in politics but Giles and his radicalized followers are dangerous and will be the death of the Evangelical church.  His justification of the use of methods including deception and violence that in times past would have been denounced by the church are simply heretical and not a part of the Christian faith, even if he can “proof text” by citing disjointed and unrelated scriptural texts and by drawing false analogies to justify or prove his point.  While he as a conservative pundit may well oppose and even rightly criticize his political opponents it is wrong to use God or Scripture to justify unseemly and dirty politics even if one is tackling equally unseemly opponents.  I think this is why so many theologians, pastors and church leaders throughout history going back the Apostles and early Church Fathers distained politics and felt that Christians and their faith could only be corrupted by involvement in political movements.  The actions and words of Giles and his fellow travelers may make them feel better but only undermine their witness as Christians as they prostitute the faith for short term political advantage.

Though I did not get to Church today because of not sleeping and being in pain I was able to celebrate Eucharist at home with the Abbess.  If you have read my Lenten meditations you might notice the theme of reconciliation.  Such was the case in the lectionary readings for today, the Gospel being the parable of the Prodigal Son out of Luke Chapter 15 and the New Testament lesson being 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21, the latter which has been a major part of my theological journey since my return from Iraq.  I post the passage below because it speaks volumes about the ontological change that should be part of the Christian life imparted in the waters of Baptism and how that change should be a major part of how we relate to others in the world.  I think it stands in stark contrast to those of any political party who use Scripture and the faith for political gain and power.

“17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (NRSV)

As Karl Barth said “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” I dare say that Giles and other “Christian” radicals have forgotten the grace of God or somehow do not think that applies to their opponents.  In their zeal they misuse Scripture and justify hatred forgetting the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor and the witness of Christians who lived in truly evil times like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said Our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility… As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me, but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”

And so to you my friends I wish you a good night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true 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. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. 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 but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla 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, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often 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 change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were 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.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One 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 Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

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 Sahn 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.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

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. The French soldiers in Indo-china 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.  Nor was it fully appreciated 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.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers 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 have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the “Greatest Generation” was 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 fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. 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. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

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. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops 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 may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China 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 Dienbeinphu 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 Nurnberg 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.

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.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

D-Day- Courage, Sacrifice and Luck, the Costs of War and Reconciliation

d-day-openerOmaha Beach from a Landing Craft

“Long after our time on this Earth has passed, one word will still bring forth the pride and awe of men and women who will never meet the heroes who sit before us: D-Day.” President Barack Obama at Normandy 2009

“Friends and veterans, what we cannot forget — what we must not forget — is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century,” President Barack Obama at Normandy 2009

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” President Ronald Reagan at Normandy 1982

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.” President Ronald Reagan at Normandy 1982

Sixty-five years ago today the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgment area and begin the drive across France.  The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.  For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers.  Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.  While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended and had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.  Had the Germans been able to hold out it is conceivable that the British and Americans would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

dday37Soldiers Moving off of Utah

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

caen_ruinsThe Ruins of Caen-July 1944

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.   His decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this on fact.  There are those today, even in this country that makes the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday.

tiger2falaise16hhGerman Tiger Tank at Falaise

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.  Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefitted from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.  The Allies benefitted from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and travelled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefitted by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beach head.

Bild 101I-587-2253-15German Paratroops or Falsschirmjaeger in Normandy

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

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

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2- weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.  The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Master’s of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well travelled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.”  I too pray for that.  Maybe someday we will.  I only hope that he and his family have survived the war and are doing well.

Dinner w BG SabahBeginnings of Reconciliation: Old Enemies, New Friends General Sabah and Me, Ramadi 2007

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, world war two in europe