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Reading and Reflecting amid the Maladies of Age

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Mickey Mantle once quipped: “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

But 50 plus years of athletics and military service have take their toll. Not long ago I was walking and running 5 to 12 miles a day. Today on the way out of my subdivision to see one of my orthopedic, sports medicine surgeons I saw a man running, I was jealous, and I mused upon the signal sent by the elderly HMS Rodney sent to new HMS King George V during the chase for the German Battleship Bismarck: “I think your 22 knots is faster than mine.”

But, there are blessings as well. While today was a day of doctors appointments and waiting in pharmacies, I got a chance to read. Days like this allow me to energize my reading. Of course I followed the news of the day, but I was able to finish historian Eric Foner’s collection of essays; Battles for Freedom: the Use and Abuse Of American History, as well as re-read in its entirety the late Eric Hoffer’s Classic The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature Of Mass Movements.

I have read many of Foner’s books dealing with American Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement in my own studies. He is one of the best at dealing with those subjects and if you are a serious student of that period, you need to read his works.

Likewise, Hoffer’s book is a classic and sadly people often quote him out of context, knowing nothing of him, his times, or his life. The True Believer is often quoted in order to justify hatreds against others, be they foreigners, the establishment, racial or religious minorities, or simply whatever political order they despise. This can be from the Left or the Right. Hoffer understood it well, he had lived through the World Wars and the Cold War. He had seen dictatorships arise from different points of the political spectrum, but each shared common characteristics.

The True Believer is an uncomfortable read for those who are not simply trying to find quotes to support their ideology. I think that I was much more uncomfortable with it today than I ever was in the past.

When I first read the book I was trying to understand religious fanaticism, hatred, and terrorism. It was quite good for that purpose but I did not go back and look at how I could in Hoffer’s book. That came to me today as I read it with a different eye in a different time. So I wrote a review of it on Amazon and Goodreads and my takeaway is that any of us can become A True Believer.

Last week I finished reading Peter Hart’s book on the Somme Campaign of 1916. It is a massive book that in addition to explaining the strategy and tactics behind this brutal and bloody battle, contains many first hand accounts of the soldiers who fought in it. If you have been to war, if you have seen its devastation, the vivid written accounts of these soldiers, who describe carnage that few, if any modern soldiers have ever experienced are terrifying. If you haven’t been to war, just read it and think about the battle scenes in movies like Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Gallipoli, Stalingrad (the German Version), or series like Band Of Brothers or The Pacific; the more graphic the better. Unfortunately, you won’t experience the olfactory ambiance of death, or experience any discomforts of heat, cold, mud, swarms of flies, and physical and mental exhaustion,which complete the experience. The Alsatian German Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary.

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

But I digress…

I have not done nearly as much interaction on social media over the past couple of days. I find reading or watching films or series that make me think or laugh, or maybe both, or discussing the matters with Judy or my dogs. Minnie is quite the conversationalist, and Pierre is becoming one too. Izzy, remains the incredibly sweet but somewhat serious security officer. For her it’s just the facts.

Anyway, my life will be filled with various medical appointments, surgical procedures, physical therapy, sleep management, orthopedic and dermatology consults or follow ups. It’s kind of like the old children’s song Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Eyes and Ears, and Mouth and Nose; except that my teeth and toes are fine, all the rest has gone to shit. Besides waiting on two knee procedures, hip and shoulder evaluations, having to walk with a cane, carrying my wallet, phone, iPad, and keys in my old replica German Medical bag, which is kind of a man purse. All the while I am recovering from a treatment to burn off pre-cancerous cells off of my scalp and face which have left me looking like the rusted wreck of the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, but apart from that I am just fine.

Now I will get through this, unless one of my physically active dreams or nightmares results in another injury. My veteran readers know that I have had two emergency room visits when I crashed into my nightstand breaking my nose, or the floor, as like happened last week when I landed on the kneecap of the knee that I am to have platelet rich plasma treatments two weeks from now. Thankfully, I didn’t fracture it, or at least I assume that I didn’t because the surgeon hasn’t called me about it.

So, I persevere with the ear worms of the theme from Rocky III, The Eye Of the Tiger, and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive blending into the constant ringing of my Tinnitus ravaged ears while walking like Dr. House, without the Vicodin.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Armistice Day Centenary: A Day of Conscience

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.

Peace,

Padre Steve

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The War to End All Wars….and a Peace to end all Peace

It was the War to end all war

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent across Western Europe and the war which had killed 16 million soldiers, sailors and civilians and wounded another 21 million more came to an end. It had begun as a conflict in the Balkans which rapidly drew in all of Europe’s major powers.  The central focus of the war was the Western Front where the armies of Germany battled those of Britain, France, Belgium and later the United States.  Battles with names such as the Marne, Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, the Aisne, represented the pinnacle of killing as soldiers battled in the mud of massive trench systems and Generals sacrificing thousands of men in a day for the gain of a few hundred yards of territory throwing them against mountains of barbed wire, landmines, well emplaced machine gun nests and mortars. Massed batteries of artillery tore men to shreds leaving many men so pulverized that they would ever be identified.  Poison gas both choking agents and the long lasting mustard gas added to the hell that was the war in the West.

During the war the war Imperial Russia had fallen to a Communist revolt and surrendered, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in October of 1918 and even the Allies had faced near calamity on the home front. In 1917 the French Army mutinied after years of futility with only Marshal Petain the hero of Verdun able to quell it.

The men who drafted the Peace to end all Peace: Clemenceau, Wilson, Lloyd George

Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated his throne on November 9th amid a revolution at home which tore the country apart.  The new German Government accepted an armistice in the belief that the Allies would honor President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.  Instead they were subjected to humiliation and starvation as the Allies refused to end their blockade of Germany until the Peace Treaty was signed. Hundreds of thousands more Germans died as a result of starvation and disease as their cities were wracked by violence as order collapsed.  It was the Socialist government which had inherited the country that had to fight the Communists in the streets allying themselves with the Army High Command to form Freikorps from units and individual soldiers under commanders willing to fight.

Soviet style revolution in Germany 1918-1919

In France at the Palace of Versailles the Allies led by the British and French brushed aside Wilson’s attempt at a just peace and placed draconian sanctions on the new German Republic which had no choice but to accept the surrender terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. The Army was to be reduced to 100,000 men with no heavy weapons, the Navy to a token force of obsolete ships, the air force disbanded.  Massive war reparations were imposed which were impossible for the Germans to fulfill and which were only paid off this year.  The final ignominy was the fact that the Germans were forced to bear the sole responsibility for the war. The German economy collapsed in the aftermath, France occupied key German industrial areas in the Saar and Ruhr and the nation fell into more disorder as the Deutschmark lost all of its value as hyperinflation made the money worthless.

Freikorps helped restore order when the Army dissolved

Eventually order returned to Germany with a brief period of relative prosperity which lasted until the world-wide Great Depression which through Germany back into chaos. Government after government was formed and dissolved and the last Chancellors of the Republic were forced to rule under the emergency conditions of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution.  Eventually extremists on the left and the right brought further chaos as the eventually leading President Hindenburg to appoint the Leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP as Chancellor.  We know the rest of the story. A World War that killed far more than the first 22-25 million military and 62-78 million civilians, a war of extermination on the Eastern Front, the Holocaust, and fearful weapons which ushered in the Atomic and Nuclear age.  Europe was shattered, Britain’s wealth drained and empire unsustainable, France divided and impoverished and other nations in political or economic crisis with the Soviets controlling Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain.

Cold War

In Europe and Asia a “Cold War” between the Soviet Communists and the West took the place of the previous war.  The United States would fight wars in Korea and Vietnam while the Soviets would rule with an iron fist in Eastern Europe and at the height of the Cold War invaded Afghanistan.  The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan caused crisis in both the United States and the Soviet Union and Afghanistan helped mark the end of Soviet power and the end of the Soviet Union.

Around the world colonial empires fell through either revolts of colonized people or the abdication of empire by nations exhausted and economically broken by war. The many of the newly free “nations” were artificial and as a result experienced their own civil, tribal and religious conflicts the effects of which are still felt.  The end of the Cold war brought more change and for a time there was a period of American superiority but wars engulfed the Middle East as Iraq attacked its neighbors and was defeated in the Gulf War.  However the effects of that war were felt as Moslem extremists took power in Afghanistan and others including the Yemeni born Saudi Osama Bin Laden began a campaign of terror to drive the United States out of the Middle East that culminated in the attacks of September 11th 2001 and now the war that seems to have no end.

And it was the War to end all war and a peace that ended all hope of peace….God help us as it is unlikely that this war will end anytime soon for us or our allies even if we withdraw from Afghanistan.  Our enemies are too beholden to their ideology to stop their attacks until they win or are destroyed, the war will continue and God only knows how many soldiers and civilians will die in the coming years over 90 years after the War to end all War ended and the Peace to end all Peace began.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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