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A Bridge Too Far: History, Dissent, and North Korea

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Major General Urquhart: I took 10,000 of our finest troops to Arnhem; I’ve come back with less than 2,000. I don’t feel much like sleeping.

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: I’ve just been on to Monty. He’s very proud, and pleased.

Major General Urquhart: [incredulous] PLEASED!

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: According to himself, technically, Market Garden was 90% successful.

Major General Urquhart: But what do YOU think?

Lt. General Frederick “Boy” Browning: Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far…

Yesterday was our first full day back after our Memorial Day outing to Bethany Beach, a day of work as well as catching up. After our day of taking care of business we went and spent time with our friends at Gordon Biersch and then adoring our Papillon pups, I put on the classic film A Bridge too Far as a belated Memorial Day remembrance. For me as a veteran of Iraq the film conjures up images of heroic sacrifices of men and women who died or became victims of a plan gone wrong.

The film if you haven’t seen it depicts the failed Allied attempt of September 1994 to liberate the Netherlands, cross the Rhine and end World War Two by Christmas. It was a plan that depended much on luck, and ignored the capabilities of the Germans, who the Allies for the most part already believed had been beaten following the campaign in Normandy and the dash across France.

Despite the weakness of the Germans he Allied plan came close to succeeding yet failed and in doing so prolonged the war and inflicted much more suffering on the people of the Netherlands who were not liberated until the end of the war. The failure was one of a failed operational plan that had strategic consequences.

In the past few days I have been become even more concerned about the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the risks of a war that could have worldwide implications, and none of them good. Secretary of Defense Mattis warned of a potential catastrophe, even as the USS Nimitz departed the West Coast to join the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan in the operational area while the North Koreans launched more missiles. The concentration of three carrier battle groups, even for a short time provides the President a massive amount of military power in the region should he decide to launch a preemptive strike as he has more than once spoken about. The fact is that if war breaks out that the casualties will be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, and that is if the war stays contained to the Korean Peninsula.

I am also concerned that a war with North Korea could be the pretext for the Trump administration to sharply curtail civil liberties at home including the freedom of speech and of political opposition. Be assured that if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula that these rights will be suppressed and that anyone who opposes the government in  any way whatsoever will be labeled as a defeatist, traitor, or worse. We have seen the same pathology after the 9/11 attacks when those who were not opposed to actions agains Al Qaida were condemned because they opposed the expansion of the war into Iraq. I know this because I was one of those people who condemned these people; and sadly in retrospect in their condemnation of the invasion of Iraq they they were more patriotic than me because I supported it, knowing the dangers.

As far as the Allies were concerned Operation Market Garden was a delay in their plans to invade Germany proper, but for the Germans it was a pyrrhic victory which doomed more of their soldiers, civilians, and their victims to death. The Allied efforts were considered a part of a more righteous cause, while for the most part the German people remained under the spell of Hitler until the end, and even then those who opposed or even were thought to be “defeatists” in Germany were considered to be as bad or worse than the enemies of the Third Reich.

Milton Mayer who wrote the book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 described the thoughts of a German academic colleague in 1955. Mayer’s friend said:

“Once the war began,” my colleague continued, “resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment. Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was ‘defeatism.’ You assumed that there were lists of those who would be ‘dealt with’ later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever here, too. He continually promised a ‘victory orgy’ to ‘take care of’ those who thought that their ‘treasonable attitude’ had escaped notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda. And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.

“Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.”

That is something I worry about every day here as the Trump administration, facing failure on so many fronts, and under investigation of things that if any of the rest of us had even been accused of them would be considered treasonous, may embark on a war to save itself and at the same time use the extraordinary nature of such a conflict to consolidate power and crush dissent. That may sound far fetched, but all of his actions and words, as a candidate for President, as the President-Elect, and as President point in that direction and his most faithful followers show that they will even commitment treasonous acts and in some cases even resort to violence and murder to support him.

Trust me I want to be wrong about this more than anyone can imagine, but I cannot get rid of the feeling I have in my gut nor the terrible nightmares I have about this several times a week. I wonder if the Trump administration will gamble on an easy victory to end a very real North Korean threat to the region. If they do there will be no good outcome and we may lose freedoms that we never dreamt possible to lose.

If such an action does not succeed will the President then as he always does that his failure was a success? Will he pronounce like Field Marshal Montgomery that the failed attack was 90% successful or even more? And what of his military advisors? I dare not even attempt to answer that question anymore.

So until tomorrow I must ponder the words of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott in the film Gettysburg: 

“Devin, I’ve led a soldier’s life, and I’ve never seen anything as brutally clear as this. It’s as if I can actually see the blue troops in one long, bloody moment, goin’ up the long slope to the stony top. As if it were already done… already a memory. An odd… set… stony quality to it. As if tomorrow has already happened and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. The way you sometimes feel before an ill-considered attack, knowin’ it’ll fail, but you cannot stop it. You must even take part, and help it fail.”

Like I said, I want more than anything to be wrong about all of this but I fear that I am not and I cannot shake that feeling. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Once an Eagle: A Classic Novel of Military Life

“This classic novel of soldiers and soldiering ranks with Red Badge of Courage and All Quite on the Western Front as time-tested epics of war and warriors.”— John W. Vessey, Jr., Gen., US Army (Ret.)

Sam Damon (Sam Elliot) cries over a fallen friend

Tonight I started watching the NBC television mini-series adaptation of Anton Myrer’s classic novel of war military life and love Once an Eagle on DVD. I had been hoping to find the series on video or DVD for years and it was released again last year. I was introduced to the book through the series which I saw in High School when it came out in 1976. Back then I never missed an episode. I found the story which weaves the life of a soldier who rises from the ranks named Sam Damon who is played by Sam Elliott and a self-serving careerist named Courtney Massengale to be compelling then and caused me to get the book and read it back in High School and I found it even more compelling than the series.

Coutney Massengale (Cliff Potts)

Years later while deployed to Okinawa I saw a few episodes on AFN and purchased another copy which I took to Iraq with me in 2007. Reading the book there made even more of an impact on me.  I guess it was something about getting shot at and being out in locations with small groups of Americans and our Iraqis with the big battalions far away that made it more poignant. I was pleased to find it this week on DVD at the Camp LeJeune Marine Corps Exchange.

I guess for me the hook is that ever since I was a small child I dreamed of all things military and knew that I would probably spend a major part of my life in the military I was attracted to the story. Since I grew up in a Navy family and lived up and down the West Coast and the Philippines it was in my blood. Part of this was being surrounded by the Navy as well as the Marines. I remember seeing the movie The Green Berets when I was in second grade and listening to the Ballad of the Green Berets on the radio. A couple of my friends and I got sent to the principal’s office because we decided to play war a bit long at recess and didn’t go back to class. If there was something military on television I was going to watch it and I remember films like Patton, The Battle of the Bulge, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, The Desert Fox, M*A*S*H, The Sands of Iwo Jima and tons of others. I built hundreds of model tanks and armored vehicles, ships and aircraft and lived for the day that I could join.

The idealistic and altruistic character of Sam Damon struck a chord in me. The Character of Sam Damon is man who worked his way up from the ranks and not afraid to speak his mind who is able to lead men in the worst situations and accomplish the mission. He cares for his troops but knows his job and knows that men, even friends die in war. At the same time he does not recklessly throw his men’s lives away and they believe that he will get them through. The book takes Damon along with his wife “Tommy” who is not a big fan of the Army despite being an Army Brat and the daughter of a General through their sometimes tumultuous marriage as they are stationed in many places both the glamorous and the not so glamorous in the United States and overseas. It follows Damon’s career from the days before World War One thorough the Great War, the doldrums of the 1920s and 1930s, World War Two, Korea and as a special envoy retired from the Army in a fictionalized Vietnam.  It also traces his relationship with the ambition driven Courtney Massengale.  To avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail but the two characters are in a sense stereotypical of the best and the worst types of men that populate the Officer Corps of the Army, but in a broader sense any military institution.

Tommy Damon (Darlene Carr)

The book is very real in its descriptions of combat as Myrer was an enlisted Marine who was wounded during the invasion of Guam and his descriptions of military life including the hardships endured by military families and while the novel is set in an earlier time where military personnel and their families did not have the communication abilities as we do now, but even with such niceties deployments and family separations, especially those where the military member deploys to a combat zone take a terrible toll on military families.

The novel is very pertinent for those of us in the military because it makes us ask the hard questions of what we will do to further our career and the cost of such a life on our families. I am coming up on 30 years service including about 10 years in the reserves and have made many deployments and my wife has had to endure many separations including my current geographic bachelor tour. Thankfully I am close enough to see her most weekends but we are apart more than we are together.  It is funny that knowing what I knew from my life as a Navy Brat and from books like Once an Eagle that I chose such a life. It is in a sense a calling for me. I know that I’ll never be an Admiral nor do I want to be it is enough to have the privilege to continue to serve when most or all of my contemporaries from my early days in the military have long since left the service or retired. I thank God for that privilege as well as a wife who when she was looking forward to me retiring from the Army Reserve saw me decide to join the Navy to go back on active duty following a mobilization tour where I lost my civilian job, without asking her first. She has endured years of me being gone.  Someday I’ll lay it down but not yet as I still feel that sacred call and thankfully despite the hardship she still loves me but is not unaware of my shortcomings.

In spite of this I am a realist when it comes to the institution of the military. It is not perfect. We have our Sam Damon’s and Courtney Massengale’s but most including me fall somewhere in between these polar opposites to one degree or another. I think that is why men or women who are too idealistic sometimes struggle when their leaders don’t measure up to those ideals.  I remember who my idealism was shattered.  After that I have endeavored to do the best as a Line Officer, Priest and Chaplain knowing that that I won’t always get it right but also knowing that I will try to always uphold the best ideals of the Navy and the military.

The book is required reading in many advanced military schools and is on the Army and the Marine Corps required reading lists.  There is much to learn from it and a lot of wisdom on its pages.  When I finish the mini-series I will read the book again. I recommend it highly.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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