Tag Archives: september 11 2001

Marking the Illusion of Peace: December 6th 1941

A great war was already going on in Europe, Asia and the Middle East but most Americans lived as if war would never happen.  It didn’t seem to matter that that Nazi Germany had conquered all of Western Europe and that the Soviet Union was on the Ropes even as the United States Navy was already in action escorting convoys in the Atlantic. Of course the Japanese had been busy and were entering their second decade of war in China and had occupied French Indochina earlier in 1941. No war was something that happened to other people and nations.  The United States of course was immune to what was going on overseas and isolationism dictated much of the political debate often hamstringing the Roosevelt administration.

While the Government and the military anticipated that war was immanent the bulk of the country acted as if war would never happen. Various parties in Congress and special interest groups actively lobbied for the United States to remain clear of war and resisted the Roosevelt administration as it sought to strengthen the military. Thus as December 6th passed the nation focused on  everyday life.  People went to football games did Christmas shopping and spent time with family.

Now the country had been preparing for war, the Army, the Army Air Corps and the Navy  were expanding at a rapid rate. Exercises were held by large Army formations across the South in 1941 and bases were being built around the country.  In the years before the war the Japanese had attacked and sunk the gunboat USS Panay in China and German U-Boats had torpedoed and sunk the Destroyers USS Ruben James and damaged the USS Kearny as well as numerous merchant ships. Despite this many people failed to comprehend that war was immanent.  In fact there were groups that actively supported the political cause of Nazi Germany right here in the United States. Thus when people found out in the morning or in the afternoon of December 7th 1941 there was a collective sense of shock that had was new to the nation.

December 6th 1941 was the last night of an old world, a world of fantasy. It was the temporary end of the belief that the United States could be isolated from the carnage of war in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  For 70 years since we have fought to return to that fantasy world where if we close our eyes and mind our own business that nothing bad will happen.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War we seemed to believe that the world was different and that somehow we were unique, it was told to us by Republicans and Democrats so it had to be true.

Then we were attacked on September 11th 2001 and we went to war, except this time we decided were the wars would be fought but unlike World War II we abdicated the responsibility for conducting the war to a small sliver of the population, never more than half of one percent of the nation to go do the fighting and dying for the rest of us. Instead of a call to service we were told to go shopping. We entered wars with no certainty of what the end state would be.  Ten years later we are still fighting and despite the many successes and the valiant efforts and sacrifices of our military we are nowhere close to where our nation was to winning the war as we were within two years of the attack on Pearl Harbor and unlike that war we now face bigger threats than we were facing then.  War beckons in other lands and the post Cold War world is in shambles.

I certainly don’t have the answers to this but I do know that we must not let ourselves be lulled into even more complacency thinking that what happens overseas stays overseas.

The memories of December 7th 1941 have faded away. Few survivors of that day remain and those of the Greatest Generation are passing away faster than we think possible.  The collective memory is being left to family members, friends and historians. For that matter our collective memory of the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War, the First Gulf War and even our current wars seems to be waning.  As a nation we seem to have forgotten everything and have returned to the illusions of December 6th 1941.

These are dangerous times and while there may not be a Japanese Carrier Striking Force making its final approach to Hawaii there are real threats that can make our present “crisis” look like a picnic on a summer day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, world war two in the pacific

The “Comfortable” Experts and the Real Soldiers

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!” 

Guy Sajer “The Forgotten Soldier”

Currently well under one percent of Americans are serving in any branch of the military and of these not all have served with boots on the ground.  There is no shame for those that have not as land war is the prevue of the Army and Marines though a significant number of Sailors and some Air Force personnel have served alongside their Soldier and Marine comrades in arms.

Of those that serve there is not one who has not enlisted, reenlisted or renewed their Officer Oath of Office at least once since September 11th 2001.  There are those of us who have been in far longer but even we have made the commitment to continue in the service of our country knowing that anyone can be sent into harm’s way at any time.

Those that serve especially those that have served at the point of the spear in the remote badlands, or dangerous cities of Iraq and Afghanistan are a true minority group. We are a minority group composed of the best our nation has to offer. We represent every state and territory; we are citizens or in the case of many immigrants’ men and women seeking citizenship by risking their lives for a country that often despises their relatives based on their race, nationality or religion.  In fact this is not new; men have come to this country since our revolution from far countries because of the ideals that this nation represents.

This is a minority group composed of all races and whose families helped colonize this nation, came here in the following centuries and those that were here before the Europeans landed on this continent. We represent almost every religion and creed known to human kind. We come from cities, small towns, rural areas and island territories.  We are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents.  We are Americans and we know war not from books, though many of us study military history, strategy and the lives of those great Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen that have gone before us. We know war because we have seen it. We have lost friends and seen others maimed or injured in mind, body or spirit. We have seen the wounded and the destruction which war inflicts on often innocent people who have the misfortune of living in a combat zone.

We do not make policy we carry out the orders of our national leaders and obey the laws passed by Congress. We are professionals.  We are not perfect but we serve.  In a sense we embody what the character of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine said at Gettysburg in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and its film adaptation Gettysburg.

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other. Sorry. Didn’t mean to preach.” 

We serve at a time that our nation has been engaged in two very costly wars in terms of lives and treasure. We never thought that they would last as long as they have after all we were promised that and even told that the mission was “completed.” But the wars didn’t end and now our nation is involved in one, maybe two more in Libya and possibly Yemen.

We are told in spite of what we know from experience that the wars are going well and that we have turned a corner in Afghanistan even as the situation on the ground tells us otherwise.  We have the professional military experts in the think tanks telling us that the wars have to continue. Of course these men have never served in combat and what they know is gleaned from their interpretation of history and often dictated by their ideology and sometimes even worse by their connections to the defense industry, that which President and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower so charmingly called “the military industrial complex.” Of course now we can and the media and elected officials who promote war to sustain their political power and enrich the powerful in their home districts.

Then there are those, especially the young that grow up with war as a series of video games and since very few meet the standards to serve in the military for a wide variety of reasons think that war is cool.  Look at the top selling games, almost all deal with virtual close combat, without any cost to those that play them.

Marines in Afghanistan under attack

Such men and in some cases women need to learn about war in the uncomfortable manner described by Sajer, a Frenchman that served in the German Army on the Eastern Front because one of his parents was German.  The problem is that those that promote war as a business and those that sell war to kids via the entertainment industry really don’t care about the real human beings, the men and women who serve knowing that these wars are unlikely to end anytime soon.  Even more frightening are people of strong religious convictions who promote war in order to see their views, especially about the Middle East vindicated.

Such are the comfortable experts who debate in comfort and write with a detached certitude that they alone have the correct view of the world.  There is a good case to be made that such people be held accountable for the wars that they advocate and the lives lost because of their hubris.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, Political Commentary

Memorial Day 2011: Counting the Cost of War and Remembering its Brotherhood

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” William Shakespeare “Henry V”

“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Monday is Memorial Day, the ninth that we have observed during our current series of wars which officially began on September 11th 2001.  One could argue that they had begun sooner with attacks on U.S. Forces and installations overseas and even the attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  But we really did not go to war until that fateful Tuesday in September 2001.  As we come to Memorial Day I am a bit melancholy as the war continues, force reductions loom, threats abound and I observe my first Memorial Day without my father, a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who served in Vietnam who died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in June 2010.

Iraq Military Training Team in West Al Anbar

We did go to war but it was not like wars past where we relied on a true national effort to win the wars. The wars have been fought by a force profession force of Active and Reserve Component Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen that hovers a bit above a half a percent of the total population. Of those eligible for service most do not meet the entrance requirements for military service meaning that the prosecution of the war has been the task of a miniscule portion of the population.  Shortly after the 9-11 attacks President George Bush urged Americans to do their civic duty “go shopping” to get the economy moving.  As a career military officer I was aghast at his words. While he praised the military at every turn and increased military budgets, much of which went to defense contactors the actual heavy lifting was and continues to be done by men and women who volunteer to keep going back.  While the military fights the war Wall Street does business in a manner that is good for it and the vast majority of Americans are totally immersed in self-entertainment, the latest video gaming system or imbibing on a constant diet of “reality TV.”  Others on both sides of the political spectrum elect to shred their political opponents to itty bitty sheds and maneuver to gain political advantage and power without really caring what is happing to the country despite their proclamations of doing what is right for America.  In regard to the troops most of the political classes only seem to care when it affects their state, district or party.

Advisors in Afghanistan 

This Thursday 9 more Americans were killed in Afghanistan, eight in an IED blast while on a mission to root the Taliban out of a suspected strongpoint and another in a helicopter crash.  In Afghanistan we have lost 1514 military personnel killed in action or died of wounds. Another 11191 have been wounded. Additionally or NATO Allies have lost 889 military personnel listed as killed or died of wounds. In Iraq 4454 U.S troops have been killed and another 32227 troops have been wounded.  Additionally 318 Coalition troops have been killed in Iraq.  None of these figures include the high number of personnel with PTSD, mild to moderate TBI or other psychological and spiritual wounds.  5968 Americans have been listed as killed or died of wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan while another 43,418 have been officially listed as wounded.

Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen.  It is a day to reflect on the sacrifice of those that have died in the service of our country.  Originally established as Decoration Day and its roots stretch back to the Civil War.  Other nations have similar remembrances for their war dead.  Unfortunately because our military is such a small part of our population and now concentrated into a few major bases often out of sight and out of mind of most Americans the observance has become a kick off to the summer for most Americans who are blissfully unaware of the real costs of war.  In a way I can’t really fault them because when the war began with an attack on our shores our President did not call the nation to make sacrifices to win the war he told people to go shopping while “the few” would take the war to the enemy and avenge the devastation of September 11th 2001.  It turned the vast majority of the country into cheerleaders or bystanders.  History shows time after time that nations that wage war this way seldom achieve their goals.

As Clausewitz so aptly observed that war the nature or the “remarkable trinity of war” violent emotion, chance and rational policy which are balanced with the social trinity of the people, the commander and the army and the government (or in the case of non-nation state actors tribal, social or revolutionary leaders) necessitates that the people have to be part of the equation if one is to successfully conduct a war.  While it is possible to win short wars without much support of the people any long conflict necessitates that the people be engaged as much as the military and the government policy makers, especially in a democracy. Vietnam was a classic example of the social trinity gone bad. Policy makers failed to set goals for the prosecution of the war, military leaders attempted to fight the war with operational theories and forces that were not adapted to the type of war being fought and ignored the lessons of history regarding the type of war and eventually the people turned on the policy makers and the military as the war ground on with no apparent victory in sight.  The same can be seen in the current conflict in Afghanistan with the government pushing a policy that seems to have little strategic benefit or chance of success.  A military that can inflict punishing losses on the Taliban without destroying them or due to limited resources hold onto areas that they drove the enemy and a public that is divided between cheerleaders, critics and bystanders.  Few of the latter have any personal stake in the war other than bearing some of the financial cost and having to it occasionally referred to in the news cycle.  Our “trinity” is dysfunctional and will be our undoing despite the heroic efforts of those who give their “last full measure” on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

While we can discuss ways bring functionality back to our social trinity and the “remarkable trinity” or essence of war we must understand that our enemies, even non state actors often have a much more congruent view of war than we do and how to connect their strategic goals, military strategy and leverage the energy of the people against the United States and our Western allies.  They do not have our military power and wherever we meet them on the battlefield where we can employ our tactical superiority in weapons and training we have success but we have been unable to translate battlefield success into victory because we do not understand the nature of the conflict, the heart and will of our enemy and are dysfunctional in our own social, military, policy and political understanding of this war and how to win it.

What does this mean to those that have given their “last full measure” and those “happy few” that bear the burden of prosecuting the war? It means that their sacrifices may not be enough and will like the veterans of Vietnam come home without victory despite never losing a battle.  After Vietnam the force was cut back, military personnel who gave all they had on the battlefield were turned out of the service and even officers reverted to enlisted status to remain in the Army and Marine Corps.  Today even as the war rages cuts are being made to the force and those cuts will only get bigger as time goes on. Like Vietnam we already have a substantial number of veterans suffering from wounds physical, psychological and spiritual unable to get adequate care or assistance from an overburdened, underfunded, under staffed and often dysfunctional or even worse uncaring Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Others that have served most of their careers at war and are approaching retirement are seeing the benefits that they earned with their flesh and blood and the long sacrifice of themselves and their families being termed “a rich entitlement program” targeted for reductions in pensions and medical care.  People that make these decisions if they served in the military at all often served only in peacetime or in times of short military conflicts and thus really do not understand the terrible cost and burdens placed on those that serve and continue to serve in this “war without end.”

Since Monday is Memorial Day and I simply ask that people take a few minutes and reflect on sacrifices of those that served in this war, wars past or those that continue to volunteer and serve in harm’s way far from home in a cause that the government does not understand and the public no longer supports.  Yes people treat military personnel better than in times past, there is little hostility to the military but at the same time has little social connection to or understanding of, thus we are a small brotherhood forged by a war that most of our fellow citizens can comprehend.

One of my Brothers: RP2 Nelson Lebron in Iraq

As for all who served we are part of a Band of Brothers.  As William Shakespeare so well wrote in Henry V:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Kenneth Branagh Henry V: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yZNMWFqvM

At the same time I cannot count the number of men and women that have come to me and expressed their regret at never having served when they had the chance. By and large they are wonderful people that live with this regret. In a sense they know well the last part of the Henry V speech “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” For such men and women I can bear no hostility because the regrets that they live with are more than I would want to live with. When spending time with people living in regret I simply to do what they do in an honorable manner, take care of their families and support the troops in any way that they can.

One of my Band of Brothers MTT with 3rd Battalion 3rd Brigade 7th Iraqi Division

As for me I continue to serve affected by war in ways that I never imagined when I enlisted nearly 30 years ago. All those who have served, past present and future are my brothers and sisters and it matters not their social status, race, religion or politics as Shakespeare noted  “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition….”

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier” about his return home from war, society and that brotherhood, something that many who have served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan can share:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.

I had looked everywhere for Hals, but hadn’t been able to find him. He filled my thoughts, and only my acquired ability to hide my feelings kept me from weeping. He was attached to me by all the terrible memories of the war, which still rang in my ears. He was my only friend in this hostile world, the man who had so often carried my load when my strength was failing, I would never be able to forget him, or the experiences we had shared, or our fellow soldiers, whose lives would always be linked to mine.”

Most of us that have served in combat zones have memories like that and like the people in the train most people don’t understand.  One thing that I do know is that I am part of a brotherhood that extends from time in memoriam to the consummation of time when war will be no more, death will be swallowed up in victory and every tear will be wiped from our eyes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security, PTSD, shipmates and veterans