Tag Archives: t e lawrence

Armistice Day at 101 Years

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Forty years after the guns went silent in on November 11th 1918, General Omar Bradley, spoke these words on the eve of Armistice Day, 1948:

Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…”

It was supposed to be the “War to end all war,” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However, the war to end all war birthed a series of wars which far exceeded the losses of the First World War as ideological wars, exponentially more powerful weapons, and systematized mass murder and genocide birthed new horrors.

Winston Churchill wrote:

“The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.”

In the First World War there were over 22 million military casualties including over 8 million dead of which over 126,000 were Americans. Close to 20 million civilians also were casualties of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed 45 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954.

In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” 

Because of that, I will remember all who served tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day, but I will not forget Armistice Day.

It is important not to forget the horrors and results of the First World War because both it and the Second World War, have faded from memory. Most people today cannot fathom killing on such a large scale, the overthrow of powerful nations and dynasties, the creation of new nations built from diverse, and often rival ethnic and religious groups such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or the re-establishment of ancient nations such as Poland.

Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today. Edmond Taylor accurately noted in his book, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922:

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”

The cost in human lives alone is incomprehensible. In the short time that United States forces went into action in late 1917 on the western front and the armistice, 126,000 Americans were killed, 234,000 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 8.2% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. More Americans were killed in the First World War than Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

But American losses were small in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war, one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of the nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. The Russians also lost over 73% of 12 million, Romania 71% of 750,000, Germany 65% of 11 million, Serbia 47% of 707,000, tiny Montenegro 40% of 50,000, Italy 39.9% of 5.6 million, Great Britain 36% of almost 9 million, the Ottoman Empire 34% of 8.5 million. But the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary which began the war in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lost 90% of the 7.8 million men that it sent to war.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million military casualties alone. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated and in the following months and years, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires were displaced. A Civil War in Russia killed many more people and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Germany too was torn apart by civil war that left it bitterly divided and planted the seeds of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds broke out. A flu pandemic spread around the world killing millions more. Economic disasters culminating in the Great Depression and social instability led to the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another, even more costly World War and a 40 year Cold War. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who gained fame during the Arab revolt looked at the results of the war with a great deal of melancholy. He wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

The his epic war poem, In Flanders Fields, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolized the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we Americans now call Veteran’s Day, and the British refer to as Remembrance Day let us blood shed by so on the battlefields of Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, the Somme, Galicia, the Balkans, Flanders Fields, at sea and in the air.

President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Kennedy was right, that our appreciation is not just to utter words, but to live by them. Sadly, the current American President has no understanding of such nuances. He continued thump his chest and spit in the face of allies while, courting nations hostile to the very ideals of the United States. Likewise, the President, a man who never served in the military, and spent the Vietnam War avoiding service and dodging the draft while later comparing avoiding sexuality transmitted diseases to combat again dishonored the men who spilt their blood in the First World War. Donald Trump does not understand anything about history, war, courage, or honor. Sadly, he is all too representative of a generation that neither knows or cares about those things. He and others like him will be the ones that lead the world into another disaster.

“Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I write in the hope of peace and an end to war. I will write about Veteran’s Day later today.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Trump Sets Stage for Turkish Offensive and Genocide Against Syrian Kurds

  

Awaiting Orders, Turkish Armor on Syrian Border

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was stunned to find out Sunday that President Trump announced that U.S. advisors and other troops backing the Kurds in Syria were going to be pulled out in order to aid a Turkish offensive against them. It was an announcement evoked strong bi-partisan condemnations in Congress, but it appears that the President will not make down.

       U.S. Troops Pulling Out to Make Way for Turkish Offensive 

During the war against ISIS, or the Islamic State, it was the Kurds who were our most effective and and loyal ally. It was mostly due to their military prowess and sacrifice, that we achieved a large measure of success in defeating ISIS on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. For the most part they did the dying for us and still are doing so. The Kurds were also responsible for clearing ISIS from much of northern Iraq.

Kurdish Forces in Action 

While crippled, ISIS is not yet defeated, its key leaders remain alive and the Kurds are necessary to ensure their final defeat. Our military commitment inside Syria has been minimal and achieved greater success than our substantially greater efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Joint operations with the Kurds in Syrian and northwestern Iraq have arguably been our most successful operations in the Middle East since we invaded Afghanistan eighteen years ago.

Over a hundred years ago T. E. Lawrence provides the template for success that we have used with the Kurds. While we have given them important help, it has been their war to win or lose. Lawrence wrote his superiors:

“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.”

We could keep doing that if we didn’t have a President who is willing to cut and run, and abandon the Kurds to the Turks under their leader Recep Erdogan. Erdogan is not just a Turk Nationalist, he is an Islamist. He and for that matter many generations of Turks have desired to crush the Kurds, a people left without a state when the borders of the former Ottoman Empire were redrawn after World War One. They live in Iraq, Syrian, and eastern Turkey. They are a distinct ethnic group who only want freedom and to be left in peace.

Now all the success against ISIS is in doubt and the Turks will have a free hand to exterminate the Kurds. History shows that they are quite good at genocide. The Armenian genocide was bloody and brutal. Between 700,000 and 1.5 million  Armenians were killed, others used as Slave Labor, placed in Concentration Camps, subjected to poison gas, infected with Typhus, in some cases pushed out to sea in overloaded unseaworthy small boats in condition that left them to drown.  Still others driven into the Syrian desert. The genocide began in 1915 and continued after the war, however, over the preceding decades they had been subjected to smaller yet brutal pogroms. At the same time the Turks conducted similar operations against ethnic Greeks and Abyssinians.

Now, the American President is presenting Turkey its long delayed chance to eliminate the Kurds. Sadly, with his emigration policies, those men and women who have fought alongside of us for the better part of a decade will not be afforded asylum and left to the bloody designs of the Turks, and the revenge of ISIS.

In response to his critics the President tweeted something so incredibly inane that I cannot begin to fathom it:

If he really believes this he should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. Anyone who says that they have Great and Unmatched Wisdom” as they threaten to destroy the economy of another country with good options for support, such as Russia and China, our economic and military competitors is a loon.

At this point I can only imagine the worst, unless Congress votes to overturn his unilateral action. The blood of the Kurds will be on our hands, and we will be saddled with the reputation of being an unreliable ally that cannot be trusted. That is already happening across the globe as long time allies explore non-U.S. based options for their security. In such a case no amount of military might can save us. We will be alone, but then that is what Trump wants. He thinks an omnipotent military, a tightly controlled police state, and economic isolation through tariff after tariff, including against allies will Make America Great? 

Although all of this is connected I digress. We are watching the President melt down before our eyes. His actions are erratic and setting us, all of us, his supporters and opponents alike up for disaster, economic, and possibly military. In his desperation to save his Presidency with impeachment looming, it is highly likely that he will become more unstable and devolve further.

But right now I expect the worst for the Kurds.

Anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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A Heap Of Swords Piled as Delicately as Jackstraws: One Cannot Be Pulled Out Without Moving the Others: The Middle East 2019

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been watching the events unfolding in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East with a fair amount of apprehension. Seldom has a region been so similar to Barbara Tuchman’s words in her epic work The Guns Of August:

Europe was a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving the others.

Armed to the teeth the militaries of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Israel, vast numbers of powerful Sunni and Shia militias: the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Houthi, and so many more, scattered from Yemen, to Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, and Syria, not to mention the vast power of the United States, its now somewhat recalcitrant allies, as well as elements of Russian, Turkish, and even Chinese military power prowl the region on the land, sea and air.

Ancient hatreds and rivalries, Sunni versus Shia, Persian versus Arab, Muslim versus Christian, Jew versus Muslim, Turk versus Arab, and even Christian versus Jew. Ancient hatreds that go beyond mere religious quarrels; not to say that wars of religion have been some of the most bloody and malevolent in history.

These ancient hatreds and rivalries have been aided directly by the United States and Europe following the World Wars. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the triumph of the British Indian Office over the British Foreign Ministry which allowed the House Of Saud to conquer most of the Arabian Peninsula and drive out the House Of Faisal Hussein which were relegated to Jordan and Iraq after helping the British defeat the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East.

I fear that the President Trump’s unjustified and highly questionable support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman bin Saud, who ordered the murder of an Saudi Arabian Journalist and resident of the United States, Jamal  Khashoggi, and for who all purposes seems to be of a business partner of, than the President of the United States.

T.E. Lawrence wrote during the early phases of the British occupation of Mesopotamia (Iraq) less than two years after the war:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

Lawrence’s words could be applied to the United States since 1990 and thereafter, especially beginning in 2003 during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now we have a President threatening to go to war by Tweet with Iran at the behest and on the word of his Saudi business partner without consulting Congress. At least the administration’s Of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton worked within the confines of the United Nations and Congressional authorizations before committing the military in Harm’s way. Even George W. Bush when rebuffed by the U.N. in Iraq, got Congressional authorization for his actions, but we now have a President threatening a major war that could result in catastrophic harm to the world, including the men and women of the U.S. Military, by tweet.

Please don’t get me wrong. I no longer trust the words of any of the players involved, including the Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Turks, Russians, and everyone else involved, and yes, even the Trump administration. What is scary is that many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are all in favor or bringing on the apocalypse.

I fear that war is coming, and there are too many players with swords in the pile to avoid it. Including an impulsive, unstable, habitual liar. Even if he doesn’t want war he may well lead us into it. Let the reader understand.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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“I Imagined it Would Be Different” Passing the Baton on my Last 9-11 on Active Duty and Reflecting on All We Have Lost

flight_175_photo

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

September 11th is a day that always makes me more introspective. It brings back so many memories, some that I wish I could forget; but I cannot get the images of that day out of my mind. The burning towers, the people jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and the scenes of devastation. I knew one of the victims in the attack on the Pentagon, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, Karen Wagner who commanded a Medical training company at Fort Sam Houston where I was serving as the Brigade Adjutant in 1987 and 1988. She was a very nice person, very gracious and decent, admired by everyone who knew her; I was shocked to see her name on the casualty list after the attack.

The emotions that I feel on the anniversary of these terrorist attacks which claimed the lives of so many innocent people, and which devastated so many families, still haunts me, and my subsequent service, especially in Iraq has changed me. Years after he returned from his time in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

Eighteen years ago I was getting ready to go to the French Creek Gym at Camp Le Jeune North Carolina where I was serving as the Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea just two months before and was preparing to transfer to the USS Hue City, a guided missile cruiser stationed in Mayport, Florida.

At the time of the attack I had already been in the military for over 20 years and I had actually taken a reduction in rank to transfer from the Army, where I was a Major in the reserves, to the Navy to serve on active duty. In those previous 20 years I had served overseas during the Cold War along the Fulda Gap. I had been mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996, and I had just missed being mobilized for Operation Desert Storm as my unit was awaiting its mobilization orders when the war ended. I had done other missions as well as the deployment to the Far East that returned from in July 2001; but nothing prepared me for that day. Like other career military officers I expected that we would be at war again and thought it might be back in the Middle East, and probably a result of some fool’s miscalculations; but like the American officers who were serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, I never expected what happened that morning.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 had started like so many days in my career. Routine office work, a couple of counseling cases and what I thought would be a good PT session. I was about to close out my computer browser when I saw a little headline on Yahoo News that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I paid little attention and figured that a private plane, something like a Cessna piloted by an incompetent had inadvertently flown into the building.

9-11 jumpers

That delusion lasted about two minutes. I got in my car and the radio, tuned to an AM talk station had a host calling the play by play. He started screaming “oh my God another airliner flew into the other tower.” Seeking to see what was happening I went to the gym where there were many televisions. I got there and saw the towers burning, with stunned Marines and Sailors watching silently, some in tears. I went back out, drove to my office and got into uniform. After checking in with my colonel a made a quick trip to my house for my sea bags and some extra underwear, and personal hygiene items. When I got back the headquarters we went into a meeting, and the base went on lock down mode. The gates were closed and additional checkpoints, and roadblocks established on base. Marines in full battle-rattle patrolled the perimeter and along the waterfront. I did not leave the base until the night of the 15th when things began to settle down and we all went into contingency planning mode for any military response to the attacks.

My wife, who as waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a friend saw the attacks on live television and knew when the first plane struck she told her friend that it was terrorism. Her friend responded “that damned Saddam Hussein.” Like so many of us who initially thought this, my wife’s friend was wrong. my friend Fregattenkapitäne Micheal Hufnagel, then the  First Officer Of the German Guided Missile Destroyer Lutjens was among the first to express support for the United States. Steaming next to the USS Winston Churchill helped put up a banner that said We Stand By You. It was an iconic moment. Eight months later I met Michael and we became fast friends, to this day.

LutjensHonors

Those were tumultuous days, so much fear; so much paranoia; and so much bad information as to who committed the attacks and what was going to happen next.

hue city boarding party

 

Honestly, I didn’t expect the war to go on for more than a few months, but months became years, and years became decades. I guess I was a lot like the German military officers who in the wake of the dramatic success of the Wehrmacht in the west and the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa  the German victory was so certain that resistance was futile and the best course was to follow orders, believing that victory over the subhuman Taliban and Al Qaeda was just around the corner. In the beginning I was little different than your average Wehrmacht officer, but by the time I left Iraq I realized just how wrong I was in supporting that misbegotten invasion.

I was so spellbound by Operation Desert Storm and operations in the Balkans that I ignored history. I knew the results of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the British, Indian, and Macedonian adventures there, but we were the United States. We would win. Then the Bush Administration forgot Afghanistan and went into a war with Iraq, which was doomed from the start, and which met every standard of the war crimes that we tried the Nazis for at Nuremberg. As the American Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson noted before those trials:

“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.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.

A few months later I deployed aboard Hue City to the Middle East where we supported the air operations in Afghanistan, anti-terrorist operations off the Horn of Africa and in Operation Southern Watch and the U.N. Oil Embargo against Iraq. I then did three years with Marine Security Forces, traveling around the world to support Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. For three years I was on the road one to three weeks a month traveling to the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and many parts of the United States. Then I was promoted and transferred to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, from which I was deployed with my assistant to Iraq, where we served as members of the Iraq Assistance Group in all Al Anbar Province supporting small teams of Marine Corps, Army and Joint Force adviser teams to the Iraqi Army, Border troops, Port of Entry police, police and highway patrol.

with-mtt-3-7-ronin

 

When I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while I am proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

War changed me, and my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before.

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

As hard as this has been these are good things, and as I go on I wonder what will happen next. I do not think that the wars and conflicts which have followed in the wake of the 9-11 attacks will be over for years, maybe even decades. I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war. One can only hope and as my Iraqi friends say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

I wonder too, if the words of T.E. Lawrence reflecting on his service in the Arab Revolt are not as applicable to me and others who came back from Iraq, “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” I have lost too many friends in these wars, including men who could not readjust to home, many like me. I have seen the men and women, broken in body, mind and spirit and I wonder if any of it was worth it, and if in some of our response, especially the invasion of Iraq has not made a bad situation even worse, and turned the war into a generational conflict.

As for me, I am now an old guy by military standards. I recently celebrated 38 years of service and will, God willing, retire next year. Sadly, I know all too well that those who I have worked with, and those who are yet to enlist will be continuing to fight a war which seems to be without end long after I retire, despite the efforts of President Trump to make a deal with the Taliban.

Tomorrow there were and will be many ceremonies and services to remember the victims of the attacks. I think that is fitting, Lest We forget. However, I don’t think any should be used as platform to promote war without end. We will be conducting a 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony in the morning. I am having my brand new junior chaplain do invocation and benediction. I have helped him and given him guidance, but he has produced a good result that didn’t need much of my guidance to be something that honored the victims of 9-11, the U.S. military, and our allies since, as well as the innocent victims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and so many other places this unending war has touched. It is time for me to step aside and let the young men and women who were children when this began to be up front. My goal now is to help the young folks get recognized for good work and train them to represent the best in the Chaplaincy and to be guardians of the First Amendment, not religious theocrats.

So please, have a good day and whatever you do do not forget those whose lives were forever changed by those dastardly attacks and all that has transpired in the years since. Honestly I did not think that we would still be at war today. It is hard for me to believe that we still are at war and that there is no end in sight.

As Erich Maria Remarque wrote “I imagined that it would be different…”

At the same time I do hope that things will get better and that some semblance of peace will return to the world.

Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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

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

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

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Unexpected Death, Friends, and Conditions Requiring me to Probably Postpone Retirement

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are so many things I could Write about today, but late this afternoon I found that one of our friends from Gordon Biersch passed away yesterday. The cause is still undetermined bit we were with him here Monday. Mitch and his wife Barb have been friends for years.

I am reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.”

I am shocked. Just a couple of weeks ago I lost another friend, younger than me. Confronting mortality is difficult. From the first time I had a gun held to my head during a robbery to the last time I was under fire in combat I have imagined what it would be like to die. I’m not obsessive about it, but when a friend suddenly passes away, it makes me think. T.E. Lawrence wrote words with which I can heartily agree:

“Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.”

Most of the times Mitch came here he came here to read and socialize. You couldn’t say anything negative against him. He was quiet, polite, friendly, and interested in other people. He was also intelligent, and while he primarily read fiction, was quite well versed in other subjects. I really feel bad for Barb, she lost a great husband. Word of his passing reverberated throughout the bar and restaurant. One of our bartenders was on the verge of tears when he found out. Most of us were just in shock.

As for me, he was about my age, which is another reminder of my mortality, and another reason to be thankful about my life and the blessings I have.

I also found out today that if I need surgery on my right knee that since I am within six months of my approved voluntary retirement date that I may have to cancel my planned retirement and go with a retirement date based on my statuary retirement when I am 60. That would mean a retirement date of April 1st of 2020. It won’t make people happy but according to the head of the retirement branch since I was approved for voluntary retirement I could cancel that request in order to serve out the rest of my statuary retirement time. Since I have a chaplain coming in to replace me in October it shouldn’t even a problem. The details will probably be a pain in the ass, but if I can get my knee fixed while still on active duty it will be worth it. I don’t want to be pushed into the VA system when my injury might preclude employment. I don’t mind the VA system if I am able to work, but I don’t want to be unemployable immediately after I retire because I need surgery and a recovery period, so maybe I need to cancel my current retirement plans and settle for April 1st, 2020. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to getting the heck out of Dodge when I could. There are a lot of things I see coming in the Military, the Navy, and the Chaplain Corps that I have great concerns about, and if I had the choice I would retire tomorrow. However, when I submitted my retirement papers last July I never expected the injuries I incurred the following month, the delays in treatment, and the non-response of my right knee to all treatments so far.

Honestly, by now I expected to be able to walk and jog again with a minimum of discomfort. Instead, both knees try to go out on me and hurt like the devil. My surgeon tells me that my left knee is as good as it will get and will likely require a replacement in a few years. I am okay with that, so long as my right knee gets fixed or replaced before I retire. It hurts a lot worse than the left knee, which was the case before I got hurt. This requires actions that I would not have considered until now.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, life, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy

Joyeux Noël, Christmas Eve 2018: History and Memory, the Stubborn Humanity Within Us

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I rewatched the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is one of my Christmas traditions. When I watch it I cannot stop. I don’t look at my social media, I don’t tweet. Although it recounts an incident that occurred over a century ago, I am drawn to it out of a feeling of camaraderie, and a hope that people of good will can, and maybe will someday put and end to the scourge of war. I guess one reason I have to put down everything else is that I cry through most of the film.

I do not think that  end of war will happen anytime soon, for as Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote some fifty years before this incident, “for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” 

But I dare not, even in the age of a madman in the White House and warmongering dictators and despots wreaking havoc on the world, give up the hope of peace. I tend to watch it before or after reading Stanley Weintraub’s book: Silent Night: the Story Of the World War One Christmas Truce. 

It was a book that I refused to read until after I returned from Iraq in 2008. Of course as a military historian I knew of the Christmas Truce, but it was something that I tried to keep a distance from after September 11th, 2001. After my experience of Christmas on the Iraq – Syrian Border In 2007 I could no longer ignore it.

Weintraub Wrote:

Christmas 1914 evokes the stubborn humanity within us, and suggests an unrealized potential to burst its seams and rewrite a century.

I say that my time in Iraq did that to me. I cannot forget the Masses that I celebrated on the border and my time with Americans, Iraqi Soldiers, and local Bedouin during those days.

In the film, one of the main characters is the Chaplain of the Scottish battalion played by Gary Lewis tells a Lieutenant:

“Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe just to be together, maybe just to forget the war.” 

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The war was supposed to be over by Christmas, or so the planners had said. Instead after a series of massive battles that produced unprecedented number of casualties the war settled into a stalemate. As the sides exhausted themselves in a series of meeting engagements throwing the flower of their idealistic youth into the great maw of the front to be torn apart by massed artillery and machine gun fire the planners sought new ways to find military victory.

In December 1914 with neither side having the ability to force the issue and casualties already running over a million dead and wounded the armies dug in. Massive trench networks were constructed in the mud of France and Belgium as the artillery continued its impersonal work of destroying men, machines and the homeland of millions of civilians.

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Despite the stalemate the high commands of the various nations continued to through their troops into meaningless attacks to gain a few yards of their opponent’s trench networks. The attackers always suffered the worst as they went “over the top” and were cut down by well sited machine guns and networks of defensive redoubts.

As Christmas neared individual parties of British and German troops began to fraternize exchanging gifts and attempting despite the wishes of their commanders to maintain an attitude of live and let live. On Christmas Eve German troops began to decorate their trenches with Christmas trees and lights, carols were sung and Christmas greetings exchanged as the local truces became widespread and soldiers met in no man’s land to talk and give each other gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, food and souvenirs.  In some places the sides helped each other collect and bury their dead and some Chaplains even led Christmas services in which men of both sides worshipped.

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The truce would not last as the high commands of each side issued strict orders against them and within days had moved the units that they believed most “infected” by the Christmas spirit to other locations and replaced them with units inculcated with the message of the inhumanity of their enemy. Such messages often included the religious understanding of this being a “holy war” against enemies of God and humanity. It is funny that though Muslims are frequently demonized for committing Jihad, that Christians have a terrible record when it comes to finding theological reasons to kill those that they believe, even other Christians to be the enemy.

Christmas Day December 1914 World War One

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This really wasn’t surprising, after all for in the years leading up to the war many school children, especially in France and Germany had been propagandized. Churches and ministers cooperated in the carnage.

In the movie Joyeux Noel the British Padre who had cooperated in the Christmas truce is relieved by his Bishop and sent home. The Bishop then preaches to the newly arrived soldiers, those replacing the men who had found peace for a moment. The sermon is not a work of fiction, it is actually part of a sermon that actually was given in Westminster Abbey in 1915. It was a sentiment that fit the mood of the high command who sought to minimize the danger of peace without victory. It was a sermon, the likes of which were preached by ministers, preachers, priests and bishops throughout that terrible war. It is a sermon that many preachers, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu even today mimic with terrible consequences.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

Unfortunately I have met and heard men preach the same message against those they hate, a message that twists the words of Jesus in a diabolical way to justify the worst acts of nations and peoples. In the year 2018 wars rage around the world. Some are conducted by well organized professional militaries but many by militias, paramilitary and terrorists groups. In some cases the brutality and inhumanity exhibited makes the industrialized carnage of the First World War seem sane. Even now preachers of various religions, including Christians, Moslems and Jews advocate the harshest treatment of the enemies of their peoples all in “the name of God.”

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Eleven short years ago I was traveling up and down the western border of Iraq with Syria. I was visiting our Marines that were advising the Iraqi Army and Border Forces, conducting Christmas services for them and also visiting Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians. In a couple of instances Iraqi and Jordanian Christians working as interpreters came to the Eucharist services, for one it had been years since he had received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. While out and about visiting Iraqis we were hosted by Iraqi troops and well as Bedouin tribesmen and their families. The warmth and hospitality and faith of these wonderful people was amazing.

T.E. Lawrence wrote that the Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” 

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I think that for me that Christmas week was the one that will remain with me more than any and despite being in a war zone, it for me was a time of peace on earth and good will toward men. Some people cannot imagine how a career military officer could feel that way. In the movie the French company commander is confronted by his father after the truce, and after the military postal censors had reported the many incidents of fraternization with the enemy to the various high commands in France, Germany, and Great Britain.

The Country? What does it know of what we suffer here? Of what we do without complaints? Let me tell you, I felt closer to the Germans than to those who cry “Kill the Krauts!” before their stuffed turkey…  no, you’re just not living the same war as me. Or as those on the other side.”  

Weintraub wrote:

“To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.”

During World War One there were men who retained their conscience and tried to mitigate the effects of the war and suffering. Likewise there were those who could not let go of their hate. One such Soldier was Adolf Hitler, whose story is recounted in Weintraub’s book:

Although he was out of the line in reserve, discussion arose about crossing into Niemandsland to share Christmas with the British. He refused. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” Hitler argued. “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?” More than patriotic scruples were involved. Although a baptized Catholic, he rejected every vestige of religious observance while his unit marked the day in the cellar of the Messines monastery to which they had retired on the 23rd. “Adi” was distinctly odd. He received no mail or parcels, never spoke of family or friends, neither smoked nor drank, and often brooded alone in his dugout. In the ruins open to the sky, Corporal Frobenius, a Lutheran theology student also decorated with the Iron Cross, read the Christmas gospel to a joint congregation of Catholics and Protestants, but not to Corporal Hitler.

Hitler’s Nihilism, racist nationalism, and unrepentant rejection of his religious heritage while gaining the support of the most religious Christians in the Reich would be part  of his life until he took it in his Berlin Bunker In 1945, and it would be shared by all too many men since the First World War until the present.

I will not be one of them.

Maybe someday we will begin to understand, until then, like so many others in so many wars before, I am still dreaming of home.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, Military, movies, Political Commentary, world war one