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”For Hate is Strong and Mocks the Song Of Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Christmas 2018


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Teump, the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands.

Looking at the news of the week; the resignation on principle by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria to the Turks, Russia, as ISIS, the crashing stock markets, and the completely preventable partial government shutdown brought about President Trump and his most fanatical followers, it is easy to despair. Frankly, there are many times that I do, and Inhave to remember how people before us went through great trials and tribulations.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

His words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

gburg dead2

The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

syria-war-holocaust-unicef-678x381

The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

 

 

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil war, faith, Foreign Policy, History, middle east, music, Political Commentary

Will We Hear the Bells This Christmas Day?

fightforthecolors2la

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before.

The words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

gburg dead2

The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

syria-war-holocaust-unicef-678x381

The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

North-Korea-Kim-Jong-un-nuclear-Starfish-800967

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it will certainly involve much travail.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under civil war, faith, History, music, News and current events

The Unfolding of Miscalculations: Syria 2015

russian jet in flames

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The tensions fuel by the incredibly complex and dangerous war in Syria just when up, as I like to say the “pucker factor” is very high, in fact it is getting close to stage ten. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations” and it seems that right now there are whole a lot of miscalculations going on.

Yesterday a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was blasted out of the sky by a Turkish F-16. Reports conflict, Turkey say that the Russian aircraft had violated its airspace multiple times and had been given multiple warnings before the shoot down. The Russians claim that the aircraft was on the Syrian side of the border and that the attack was an unprovoked violation, and Russian President Putin called it a “stab in the back.” Russia is accusing Turkey of backing DAESH, while Russia’s forces, which are supposedly there to fight DAESH are spending more time attacking Syrian President Assad’s non-DAESH Syrian opposition, including Turkoman Syrians fighting the Assad regime in the area where the jet was shot down. Some think that it might be payback for the Russians bombing the faction supported by the Turks.

Admittedly, Turkey has a right to self-defense and the Russians are operating in Syria without any kind of international mandate. That being said, the Russians are there at the behest of the Assad government, which even if we don’t like it is still the legal government of Syria, a long term ally and client of Russia, going back to the old Soviet days.

However, the feud between Russia and Turkey goes back hundreds of years. They hate each other, and this hatred goes back to the days of the Tsars and the Ottomans. The hatred is generations old, and is cultural, religious and political. Maybe that is why we in the west do not understand it, but I digress… 

The fact is that the actions of both nations, as well as most other nations in the West including the United States have helped to stoke the fire of the Syrian war, which is threatening to escalate into a regional conflict. I am not going to go into all the details of what has brought us to this point, because they are too many to cover. Some of course are saying that it could lead to a World War, but I do think that cooler heads will prevail. Of course I could be wrong, as Tuchman wrote, “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”

It is now time for President Obama to step up to the plate, and not rattle sabers, but to help pull everyone back from the brink. He needs to work with Russia’s President Putin to deescalate the crisis. Since everyone involved has a stake in what happens it Syria it cannot be ignored. The nations involved need to sit down and come up with a way to defeat DAESH and bring peace to Syria and Iraq. Of course this is easier said than done, especially since bullets are flying, blood is flowing, and tensions rising. The fallibility of human beings has been demonstrated time and time again in this war, and as Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death, and live ammunition.”

In 1962 President Kennedy faced the real possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had just read Tuchman’s The Guns of August which had just been published. He was shocked by the words of German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who when asked how World War One started replied “Ah, if only one knew.” Kennedy asked General Curtis LeMay what would happen if the Soviets did not back down, and the officer replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy could not go down that road, he referred to the book when he remarked, “If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, “How did it all happen?” and to receive the incredible reply: “Ah, if only one knew.”

The downing of this Russian jet shows just how easily things can spin out of control. It is time for calmer heads to prevail and walk this back before things get really out of hand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

Iran nuclear talks

Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

iran-nuclear-facilities

The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

iran-nuclear-program

The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

IRAN-DEFENCE-MISSILES

It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Real Conflict: Ethics and American Values Versus Realpolitik

Syria03_GQ_07Dec12_getty_b_642x390

“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security” Henry Kissinger

There are a times in a nation’s life that its leaders are confronted with situations that present conflicts between a nation’s values and realpolitik.

The fact is that there are “tribes” in foreign policy and national security debates. Some are the idealists, others pragmatists and some realists. There are gradients between the levels and sometimes depending on the situation an idealist might gravitate toward pragmatism or even realpolitik and visa versa. Sometimes it is a matter of politics, sometimes ideology and sometimes even  and no leader of no political is immune from these tensions.

The situation in Syria is one of those times where the conflicting agendas of the different foreign policy tribes conflict and where no matter what happens in Syria the conflicts between the tribes will remain and perhaps even grow more pronounced. The fact is that I often can find myself on several sides of the same argument. It might be the PTSD “Mad Cow” is causing these conflicts but it could also be that there are good arguments to be made on all sides of the argument. What is ultimately the right course or the wrong course is actually hard to say.

If we argue for the idealist position, which would argue that American values of stopping human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons, something prohibited under the Hague convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 against the realpolitik of what are the actual National Security interests of the United States, the vital interests which involve the survival of the nation itself, major interests which could impact national security or tertiary interests which might have some importance but do not threaten the survival of the nation, even of they are terrible crimes against humanity.

Whether one likes it or not these are legitimate ethical and policy conflicts. On one hand there is the position that the United States has taken following World War Two and the Nuremberg trials as well as its participation in the International Criminal Courts has a moral obligation to confront the use of chemical weapons even if other nations or international bodies stand aside. On the other hand the argument that what happens in Syria is not in the vital interests of the United States and that the United States should not take military action to stop the use of those weapons. The fact is that those that advocate military action in Syria be they politicians, pundits, preachers or profiteers need to remember the words of Carl Von Clausewitz that “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” I really don’t think that we have thought this through as a nation.

Of course these two positions are not exclusive. There are also ranges of action which span the full spectrum of action between the either or situation that most Americans seem to find themselves caught between. The fact is that the National Security Strategy of the United States is not based on military might alone, no matter how much it has been used as the first choice by American leaders. The reality is that military force is only one element, and perhaps the weakest element of the elements of national security police known as the “DIME.” That is the Diplomatic, the Informational, the Military and the Economic power of the nation. What we seem to have forgotten is that the other elements of the DIME other than the gut level military response have value and are perhaps even more important.

I think that a large part of this conundrum is found in the reflexive use of military force as the preferred means of action since the attacks of September 11th 2001. On that day the United States was attacked by the terrorist attacks of Al Qaeda militants and while the victims of those attacks were overwhelmingly American the citizens of over 60 other nations we killed in the attacks.

Those attacks demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this nation. When one looks at our actual national security policy it is clear that those vulnerabilities are not always fixed by military action in other countries. In fact they sometimes can become even more glaring as resources required for Homeland Defense and economic recovery are spent on military operations of dubious strategic value and which at times undermine efforts to build trust with other nations, build coalitions based on shared values and to undercut the efforts of extremists using diplomacy, information and economic power.

What we have to answer now is how we address a situation in Syria that is both a violation of international law but which military force alone cannot solve. Of course there is a conflict between our ideals and what are vital national security concerns. I would suggest that the real threat of military action can be a part of the answer if it helps the United States and the world make the case through diplomacy, information and economic pressure not only to stop the slaughter but to hold those responsible for it accountable in International Criminal Courts for the commission of war crimes. At the same time the reality is that the United States and the world cannot allow an Al Qaeda dominated organization such as the Al Nursa Front gain control of Syria.

The fact is that despite how clear cut we want things to be as Americans that much of what happens in the world takes place in a world of more than 50 shades of gray. Unfortunately American conservatives and liberals alike prefer to see foreign policy in the “either or” world of using pure military force or doing nothing, neither of which of themselves are the answer. The full continuum of national and international power must be brought to bear in these kind of situations, recognizing that not everyone shares our values or has the same strategic interests.

It may not be comfortable for anyone but it is reality. How we navigate it is key, maintaining our values while ensuring that our nation survives. If military action is decided on one has to remember what Clausewitz said: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”

To make a decision without understanding this or as we did in Iraq ignoring it is to risk disaster. Such are the stakes. I personally would rather see more negotiation in the hopes that the Syrian chemical and biological weapons are secured and those responsible for using them, be they Assad, his government or even the rebels attempting to frame the Syrians and deceive the United States against the Syrian people are brought to justice.

This is a messy business and not for the faint of heart. Lives of thousands of people in Syria, the region and potentially around the world are at stake and a military strike that fails to accomplish the political object would be worse than none at all.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Injustice in Syria and the Impotence of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bertold Brecht wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Guns of September: Beginnings, Endings and Beginnings

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“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”  T. E. Lawrence

In September 1939 Adolf Hitler led his Nazi regime into the bloodiest war in human history. In September 1945 that war ended when representatives of Germany’s ally Imperial Japan signed the instruments of surrender on the deck of the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. In those 5 years  over 60 million people died and the world changed.

Twenty five years before Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht into Poland the former leaders of the imperial dynasties of Europe as well as France  had led their world into the abyss of the First World War. In that war close to 37 million people, both military and civilian died.

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In both conflicts leaders schemed to ensure that their nations would come out on top and the human costs were simply counted as immaterial so long as the overall goals of conquest and domination were achieved.

Since the Second World War ended the world has not become a safer place. In fact because the United Nations which was in essence created to prevent war and mitigate its effects has been so politicized where just five nations on the Security Council hold the key to it being able to act forcibly to stop genocide and the used of weapons of mass destruction. More often than not at least one of those five nations, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France have ensured that whichever despot they they support is protected from any action by the world body through the use of their veto in the UN Security Council.

No we stand at the precipice of war again. This time in Syria. The United States, France and a number of other countries have concluded that the regime of Bashir Assad has employed the nerve agent Sarin against its own people in their bloody civil war.  This is disputed by the Russians as well as the Syrians but backed up by the Israelis and Saudi Arabians.

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As for the United States leading any strike on Syria to either degrade or weaken the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction that they might have it finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. If it does nothing then the Assad regime can claim hat it forced the United States to back down and continue to slaughter its own people. If the United States attacks there is some chance of the strikes having some effect on the Syria ability to make war on their own people but opens the possibility of a wider and more bloody conflict, a conflict that may solve nothing but actually make matters worse.

The United State is also hindered on the world stage and at home by the Iraq debacle brought on by the Bush Administration. Despite the fact that less than one percent of the population has served in the military since the attacks of 9-11-2001 and even fewer have served in combat zones the political leaders, talking heads, pundits, preachers and media in general referrer to the country as “war weary.” The retired former Chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay made the comment on Twitter that they must be tired of shopping since so few have actually served. If there is war weariness it is in the military which has been in continuous action since 9-11-2001 and if we want to be honest almost ever since the First Gulf War with stops in the Balkans and Somalia along the way. I have been in the military 32 years and I have lost count of the number of places that we have deployed forces to and the amount of time that I have spent away from home. I think I have been away from my wife 10 of the last 17 years due to deployments and assignments that took me away from home. But I digress…

The fact of the matter that there are a number of layers to the situation in Syria that all need to be addressed but will not be. Instead they will be spun by those in favor or those opposed to war and mostly for for a very fleeting political advantage. An advantage only as good as today’s polls.

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In the past couple of days the Obama Administration has been taking its case for action against Syria to the American people and Congress and also to other nations. The reasons for intervention have been primarily moral as well as citing the precedent of international law regarding chemical weapons. Real politic has not played much of a role, at least yet but it should.

The reality is that the Obama Administration as well as the UN, the Arab League, NATO, the EU and other nations with an interest in what happens in Syria have to deal with the moral and ethical level of the arguments for or against intervention. They also have to look at the legal justification which depending on which part of international law you examine could be used to argue for or against the legality of intervention. Finally there is the real politic of the situation, not only the chances of a successful intervention but the consequences of action versus inaction, action versus delay in the hopes of finding another solution and the results of whatever course of action is taken. After all, there are always results and even the most well intended and executed plans result in unintended consequences.

As I have said a number of times I think that President Obama is damned no matter what he decides to do and that this war no matter what we do in the next week will most likely spill over the borders of Syria into adjoining countries. That is already happening in the form of refugees going into Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, further instability in Lebanon and occasional skirmishes along the Syria and Lebanon borders with Israel. The question is not “if” but rather when and how the military conflict and sectarian violence spreads to other countries surrounding Syria. That has t be weighed with the consequences of and consideration of the “branches and sequels” to any intervention or non-intervention strategy employed by the United States and whatever allies choose to go along for the ride.

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I am not in favor of war. That being said I do not know if there is a way to avoid it yet still enforce the norms of moral behavior in terms of the use of chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

There are times that I wonder about those who believe that they can orchestrate policy that only benefits their country or political-economic interests. The fact is that the “war genie” is out of the bottle and where the situation in Syria ends is anybody’s best guess. What we do have to remember is that those rebelling against the Assad regime are not doing so for our benefit or for that matter any other nation’s benefit. What T. E. Lawrence said of the Arabs who revolted against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War is as true now as it was then:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

There are nations and groups attempting to use this for their own interests and ultimately it will blow back on them. The region is perched on the abyss of war, possibly without end. What happens now will be less decided by what happens in Washington or the capitals or Europe or the United Nations but with the people actually fighting the war, their active supporters and their proxies.

As far as the United States political scene if a single leader votes for or against war based purely on their individual or political party’s gain in either the 2014 or 2016 elections or to undermine the current President a pox on them. I want an honest debate about the real world consequences, ethical, legal, moral, economic, military and geopolitical of any intervention or non-intervention in Syria. We owe it to the Syrians, those people in the region as well as our own people, especially those who will certainly bear the burden of whatever war ensues.

Honestly, we really need to think this through before so much as one missile is launched.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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