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Armed Forces Day 2013: A Sober Reflection on a Nearly Invisible Holiday

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Today is Armed Forces Day and unfortunately most of the country will not notice unless they are attending a Baseball game where it is being observed or some special event on a base, national cemetery, monument or VFW hall. There are also protests, sometimes involving veterans. Last year at the NATO Summit in Chicago which coincided with Armed Forces Day a number of veterans protested by throwing away their Global War on Terror Medal. I actually have little problem with people protesting wars, even the current one so long as they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the politicians, pundits, think tank wonks and lobbyists that profit from war and not the soldiers that fight them.

Now there are a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a career officer and son of a Vietnam veteran Navy Chief I appreciate those events and the people that put them together. Being a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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Likewise there are wonderful people that honor the Armed Forces every day. I think especially about the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor Maine and the Pease Troop Greeters of New Hampshire. These men and women, many veterans themselves or related to veterans are amazing. They have been welcoming veterans back since early in the war and provide many services to the men and women of the Armed Forces that pass through Bangor Maine International Airport and the Portsmouth International Airport, the former Pease Air Force Base in Pease New Hampshire.  I have had the honor of passing through both locations, Bangor on more than one occasion. While I know that there are many others that do this they are in the minority in this country.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much like Pakistan. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war. For the most part the war effort is that of a tiny percentage of the population.

As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that have been going on for so long. The fact is that most Americans do not feel that they have a personal or vested interest in these wars because they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars and the military is worn out while taking 50% of the cuts of the Congressional Sequester.

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We have now been at war continuously for nearly 12 years and truthfully there is no end in sight. In that time every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam every single one volunteered to serve in time of war. I think that this makes the current generation of veterans quite unique.

Many of these volunteers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war was popular, except in the very beginning when casualties were low and victory appeared to be easy and quick. We like short wars. We left Iraq in December 2011 and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for God knows how long, even though we are drawing down or forces there.

In Afghanistan we followed the same path trod by the British and Soviets in trying to topple regimes and plant our respective versions of civilization in that land of brutal Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords who war on each other as much as any foreign infidel.  It is a path that leads to heartbreak which ties down vast amounts of manpower without any significant strategic gain for the United States or NATO.  This even as war drums beat across the Middle East and nuclear armed Pakistan slips into political and social chaos and keeps a major supply route for the US and NATO to Afghanistan shut down.

The fact is that American and for that matter other NATO and coalition military personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or at sea are in the minority in all of our countries. Thus when a few of the few of these veterans choose to make a public spectacle of themselves by tossing a medal away they get cheered and lots of media attention. Some liberals applaud the medal throwers and conservatives vilify them without getting what is really going on. Both miss the tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society that is the result of public policy since the end of the Vietnam War. A relatively small professional military in comparison to the population is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved and corporations, lobbyists and think tanks get rich.

Rachel Maddow the MSNBC host of the Rachel Maddow Show wrote in her outstanding book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter… With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it- uncomfortably- every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us… war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.” 

Now, going back to the protestors for a minute. The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important and for Americans is protected under the First Amendment. That being said I think it is important that when one protests a war that they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President and not the soldiers. The fact is that the lobbyists, pundits that promote war don’t care about the protesters or the troops. This is because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and their businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I may disagree with the manner of how and when veterans protest wars that they have served like those that threw their medals away in Chicago last year. However, I am not going to question their motives, integrity or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.

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When a society sends off its sons and daughters to fight in wars that no one understands, and the vast majority of people no longer support it is no wonder that some veterans make such displays. Likewise it is understandable why other veterans have major issues with such protestors, just as many Vietnam veterans still feel the hurt of how a nation turned its back on them. For example I still have a terrible time even thinking about Jane Fonda, the images of her manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun when my dad was serving in Vietnam.

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Protests may make some feel good, but they often miss the bigger point of why wars like these go on for so long.  That they do is because misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military and those that do not. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping”* as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

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I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated but I am grateful to those people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel in thought, word and deed like the Maine Greeters and Pease Greeters. The interesting thing about these groups is that they are made up of citizens from across the political spectrum, veterans and non-veterans who simply care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

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I just hope and pray that the end in Afghanistan does not turn into an even worse historic debacle than suffered by the British or the Soviets during their ill fated campaigns. Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit from this no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

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Peace

Padre Steve+

President Bush’s actually words were “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop…” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011011-7.html

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, philosophy

Remember and Pray: Lessons from 9-11-2001 Today

9-11 Memorial Ceremony (US Navy Photo)

Today many of us took the time to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Some were large ceremonies and others small, while many just took the time to remember the lives of those lost, to reflect and pray. Many talked about what they remembered and where they were that fateful day and others remembered the event silently, the pain still too great to express.

The events of 9-11-2001 are now 11 years past yet danger still looms. American military and diplomatic personnel, Federal agents of various police and security agencies, contractors and American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) serve in harms way exposed to violence and terror. The Middle East is ablaze in violence between competing Islamic groups, the Sunni-Shia Moslem divide becomes greater with every day as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon become more violent. The conflict threatens adjoining nations including Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Israel and Iran edge closer to war and extremists do all that they can to incite others to violence by their acts. Today Egyptian Islamic extremists stormed the US Embassy in Cairo and ripped down our flag allegedly in response to a film being produced by an American extremist the Koran burning “pastor” Terry Jones which they believe is blasphemous.

Pundits, politicians and preachers, that Unholy Trinity that seems to find life in the death and misery of others stoke the fires of hate, among the “faithful” of their religions and nationalities. The truth be known I get angry every time these extremists act or do things the are done with the sole intent of bringing harm to others while advancing their dark agendas.  I get tired of those that from places of safety and security provoke violence and urge wars that they know others will have to fight and without any cost to themselves. They make their pronouncements all claiming that God, however they define him is on their side. That is blasphemy, no matter which God you believe in.

The world is a very dangerous place. It is not only a time for vigilance and military preparedness, it is a time for reflection, prayer and peace making.

God of the ages, before your eyes all empires rise and fall yet you are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror and in these moments of remembrance. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love. By your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and work in large ways and small for those things that make for peace. Bless the people and leaders of this nation and all nations so that warfare, like slavery before it, may become only a historic memory. We pray in the strong name of the Prince of Peace. Amen. (From the September 11th Litany published by the National Council of Churches)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, national security, News and current events

Why Aren’t Any Politicians Talking About the War and Why don’t Voters Care?

“The military is at war and the country is not.” Former US Representative Patrick Murphy

Seven more American Soldiers were killed in Afghanistan when their UH-60 Blackhawk was either shot down or crashed due to other reasons yesterday. 41 were killed in July and 10 last week. But who cares? The news of each incident went across the ticker on the bottom of the cable TV news feed and the obligatory 15 second spot on the headlines of the hour before it is subsumed by the latest political lie-fest or celebrity scandal. Have we no shame?

It seems that nobody really gives a damn about the war in Afghanistan or for that matter anywhere else that the United States and its allies are fighting. I mean really. Think about it.  The war constantly ranks among the lowest of issues that American voters rank as important and it certainly doesn’t seem to register as important among most political candidates unless hey can be photographic hugging a tank so they can show that they support the troops.

From what I see it looks like the only person in the Washington DC political sewer who even thinks about the war is Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta in frustration said Tuesday:

“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country…. I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”

84,000 U.S. Military personnel are currently serving in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of DOD civilians, contractors as well as FBI, CIA, NSA, DHS, and State Department employees are also in harms way. Likewise another 30,000 or so troops from NATO or other coalition allies are risking their lives serving alongside of our personnel.

In July the Army recorded a record number of suicides. We don’t hear about the numbers of wounded because frankly aside from those directly affected and their friends or families most people would just prefer to ignore the war.

But then they can. Liberals have been accused of being anti-military and some are. But even the supposedly conservative God-fearing , military loving and Islam-Facist, Commie bombing Republican Presidential team of Romney-Ryan refuses to acknowledge the war when speaking in front of the World War II era battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk. No one of either party seems to have a plan for actually successfully ending the war and all seem to be content to let the war fester. I found that reprehensible. Whatever happened to Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman? Oh wait they’re dead.

But there is no real shared sacrifice in this country when it comes to national defense. There is no draft, no taxes have been levied to support the wars and many Defense contractors responsible for producing the weapons of war needed to fight the current war and prepare for future wars seem only to care about their bottom line. Future weapons systems are over-budget, long-delayed and fail to meet the expectations of either the services or the nation. Name the system. The F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightening, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Army Future Combat System and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. All either truncated, delayed or cancelled. Billions of dollars spent and little to show for the expenditure of the nation’s treasure.

I think that national leaders of both parties need to be held responsible. I think that American citizens and political leaders who lamely put bumper stickers on their cars saying “I support the troops” should put up or shut up.

If we are going to keep fighting wars without end let’s at least do it together. Let’s re-start the draft and levee special taxes. Let’s sell war bonds, let’s plant Victory Gardens and donate our scrap metal, plastics and electronics to be recycled to build weapons like we did in World War II. Let’s find new energy sources to better power our weapons systems since no one cares about renewable energy for anything else.

But then let’s not inconvenience anyone, after all the troops all volunteered for this.

I hate to sound cynical but when the military has been at war for going on 11 years and it the lowest priority of voters and politicians then something is terrible askew.

Don’t you think? Or am I just pissing in the wind?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, Political Commentary

The War that Cannot Be Won: Afghanistan 2012

“There is no single piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier . . . no single military problem that has arisen and not been solved, and yet there is still no result.”  Sergei Akhromeyev, Soviet General Staff Chief 1986

Sometimes one wonders if anyone actually reads history and if they do whether they actually want to learn from it. Back in 1979 the Soviet Union had advisors in Afghanistan. A lot of them. A local and indigenous Communist Party had some measure of political power and this was before the Soviets invaded.

However in March 1979 a major unit of the Afghan National Army in the city of Herat mutinied against the Soviets and the Afghan government. Before the mutiny was put down 50 Soviet advisors as well as 300 of their dependents were brutally murdered by Afghan Army personnel. A further 5000 Afghans died in the revolt.

Since 2009 the trend of Blue on Green killings, that is Afghan Soldiers or Security Force members killing US or NATO personnel has been increasing at a troubling rate. We should not be surprised, the one thing that the Afghan loathes above all is the foreign soldier on Afghan soil.  While some Afghans may desire a more modern society and something more akin to the Western democratic political model to include women’s suffrage they are in a distinct minority.  The fact is that as General Barry McCafferty recently noted regarding the murder of two US military advisors in the supposedly secure Afghan Interior Ministry “we may be seeing a watershed event after billions of dollars and 16,000 u.s. casualties. we see how shallow the impact we have on this primitive society is.” 

Approximately 130,000 US and NATO troops including a number of my friends are deployed in penny-packets across Afghanistan and are increasingly isolated and in danger.  The “inadvertent” burning of copies of the Koran in a garbage dump by US personnel has resulted in the deaths of at least 4 US military personnel and the wounding of 8 more and put our bases on lockdown as thousands of Afghans protest and attack them.  More than two dozen Afghans have died in the recent violence.

As deployed they are able to achieve local success but unable to secure the country. Dependent on supplies delivered by air or along tenuous supply lines hundreds of miles long these forces though numerous are dispersed and deployed in areas where their inherent technological and operational superiority is negated by weather, terrain and restrictive rules of engagement as well as a counterinsurgency strategy in which these advantages matter little and that they do not have enough troops to accomplish.

US and NATO forces are embedded with the Afghan Army, Police and Border forces, many of whom are either incompetent, corrupt or allied with Taliban or Al Qaeda. Most Afghans feel that any foreign occupier is a mortal enemy and mistakes such as the recent Koran burning only add fuel to the fire of hatred no matter how many times our leaders apologize. Formerly unclassified but now classified reports easily available on the internet including at US Government websites paint a picture of mutual distrust and animosity that can only be described as toxic between the Afghans and NATO personnel, especially Americans.

To make matters worse the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are surrounded to the west by an ever more bellicose Iran, to the south and east by an unstable and often adversarial “ally” Pakistan through which 30-40 percent of their supplies transit.  To the north the United States and NATO are dependent on agreements with the former Soviet Central Asian Republics Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with most having had to transit Russia.  In the 1980s the Soviets only had make a withdraw across the border into their own country.

Another potentially disastrous situation would be for a war to break out between Iran and Israel or with the United States and our allies. The way our troops are deployed means that they cannot be easily concentrated to parry any threats and their isolation prevents them from being used as an offensive asset should a war break out against Iran.

The fact is that US and NATO forces are now in a very similar position to the Soviets in the mid to late 1980s.  We are engaged in a war where military success is not going to win the war. No matter what any politician says there is nothing that can change that unless they would be willing to commit to greatly increasing the number of ground forces in Afghanistan with the costs and logistical problems that would entail.

President Obama is in a “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” position.  If he keeps the status quo the danger persists and maybe increases. If he were to begin a more precipitous withdraw there would be the same dangers and possibly more during the withdraw. But mitigating against a faster withdraw is the 2012 election in which his Republican challengers would accuse him of “losing the war and betraying our troops.” However the chance to end the Afghan War from a position of strength was lost in 2003 when we diverted our efforts to the invasion of Iraq. That action gave Al Qaeda and the Taliban the breathing space that they needed to make a comeback and that was not on President Obama’s watch.

Geopolitically the presence of 130,000 US and NATO forces does nothing for regional or US national security and prevents those forces and the attendant resources needed to support them unavailable for any other dangers in the region. The goal of “creating a stabile and secure Afghanistan” is a myth. Afghanistan is not Iraq and will for generations remain a backward, tribal and religiously intolerant society that will never embrace western ideals that conflict with their culture.

The question now is how do we get out of this place, seal it off to keep terrorist threats from emanating from it and endangering US, NATO and Allied interests in the region.  The reality is also that no matter what we do that any defeat or withdraw will be grist for Al Qaeda, Iran and other Islamist propaganda.  The inability of the Soviets to “win” in Afghanistan was of the factors that brought down the Soviet Empire and ended the myth that Soviet Communism was invincible. The same could happen to the United States.

When presented with a cataclysmic strategic situation on the Western Front in 1944 Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what should be done. His simple response was “End the war you fools.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch56NAL1C-I

We are not yet in a cataclysmic situation but the time to make decisions is now not later because there is nothing that can change the strategic or operational conditions in or outside of Afghanistan. Facts are facts and politicians from both the Republican and Democrat parties should stop trying to turn this into short term political advantage and look at the actual strategic interests of our country as well as our broader security and economic interests in the region.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, middle east, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Padre Steve Reviews “The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity” by Michael O’Hanlon

The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity (An eSpecial from The Penguin Press)

• Format: Kindle Edition
• File Size: 1685 KB
• Publisher: The Penguin Press (November 15, 2011)

I was recently asked to do a review of Michael O’Hanlon’s new book The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity by the folks at TLC Book Tours http://tlcbooktours.com/ I am a historian and have served 30 years in the United States Army and United States Navy. As such I try to look at the nuances of Defense policy from a historical as well as current point of view.

O’Hanlon’s book deals with a topic that is receiving much attention and debate in the wake of the 2011 Congressional Budget impasse and deal and the recently release of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the FY 2013 Department of Defense Budget request. O’Halon’s book was published in the midst of the budget impasse in which could bind Congress into cuts well in the excess of the proposed $500 Billion in cuts proposed by the Pentagon and the Obama Administration. Cuts that could total over a trillion dollars over the next decade.

O’Hanlon deals with the economic necessity of Defense budget cuts laying out his thesis in the first two chapters dealing with the history of US military budgets since the Second World War with particular attention to the post-Cold War cuts under the Bush and Clinton administrations. In the following chapters O’Hanlon argues for what I would call a strategy of calculated risk in which Defense budgets and the necessary force cuts are balanced with the economic realities of our present time. He does not argue for massive cuts and disengagement from the world that some argue for, at the same time he realizes that defense cuts are necessary but cannot be too great.

He then goes on to discuss the potential reductions for ground forces as well as air and naval forces within the context of potential threats, especially those posed by Iran as well as the potential threat from China.  He argues for a leaner military but also acknowledges the danger of cutting too much.

His conclusions regarding force size and composition will be attacked by some and defended by others.  I think that his arguments regarding ground forces which support going back to the approximate numbers in the Army and Marine Corps in 2001 are reasonable presuming that there is a substantial reduction of US forces in Afghanistan and no other major ground campaigns arise.  The current personnel authorizations were only made reluctantly after years of war by the Bush administration whose first Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was no advocate of large ground forces.

O’Hanlon also discusses the possibility of savings through some base closure as well as reductions in some Air Force and Naval capabilities while attempting to minimize the effects of the reductions by crew rotations of forward based warships and more use of drone aircraft. He also discusses the US capabilities in intelligence and Homeland Security in the context of the overall defense structure.

One thing that I find lacking in O’Hanlon’s treatment of the defense strategy and budget is the lack of attention paid to the overall industrial base required to support the replacement or modernization of our current forces. He argues in favor of keeping production lines open but neglects the fact that most of the US defense industrial base is now the property of about five major corporations. At one time we had more shipyards  and other facilities that made the rapid production of war materials in times of national emergency which at the end of hostilities could revert to civilian industrial production. Much of that capability is now gone, outsourced to China and South Korea.

O’Hanlon has some good proposals and his numbers are not much different than those proposed by the Pentagon. His analysis does included what is called the DIME, the diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic aspects of national security strategy. He describes his vision for a military that despite cuts can still be mission capable. One may argue with his overall strategic thinking and his detailed proposals and many will. I have issues with some of the proposals.  Likewise anyone attempting to project a vision of a national security strategy and military force structure is always fraught with the ever present reality that no one can predict the future. However history tells us time and time again that we seldom are right and that threats yet unimagined can shred the most well thought out and detailed plans.  Making such decisions in an election year makes them all the more prone to being wrong because the political establishments of both parties

It is a good read for anyone seriously interested in national security strategy.It is not perfect by any means but worth the read.  It it is published in paperback as well as the Amazon Kindle edition.

The Author: Dr. Michael O’Hanlon is is director of research and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, homeland security and American foreign policy. He is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and adjunct professor at John Hopkins University. O’Hanlon is the author of several books, most recently A Skeptic’s Case for Nuclear Disarmament. His writing has been published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and he has appeared on TV or radio almost 2,000 times since 9/11. Before joining Brookings, O’Hanlon worked as a national security analyst at the Congressional Budget Office and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Congo/Kinshasa (the former Zaire). He received his bachelor, masters, and doctoral degrees from Princeton, where he studied public and international affairs.

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Filed under books and literature, Foreign Policy, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, national security

Casing the Colors in Iraq

Today the colors were cased in a ceremony at the US Airbase co-located at the Baghdad International Airport.  It really is hard to believe that this excursion in Mesopotamia is over.  The ceremony marked the formal end to the US military operation in Iraq although a few thousand troops are finishing the retrograde of equipment from the country.

The fact that we might not end up in Iraq again if the Iranians push their Iraq Arab Shia friends too hard. They may share a common strain of Islam but there really is no love lost between the Arabs and the Persians as many Iraqis will derisively call them.  The Iraqis are a proud people and remember Persian rule like it was yesterday. The Persians treated Arabs like dirt and though it was centuries ago the Arabs have not forgotten.  My Iraqi friends both Sunni and Shia recognized that Iran was a threat and hope that if Iran ever attempted to take Iraq over that we would help defend Iraq.

The current US involvement is over after 4484 American service members were killed in action and 32000 wounded.  318 coalition Allied troops died.  The Iraqi Security Forces have lost 8825 soldiers killed with a further 1300 killed during the initial invasion of the country.  Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed and some agencies have estimated far higher totals.  Of course the Iraqis are still taking casualties as extremist groups both Shia and Sunni continue their blood feud and the Shia majority tries to solidify its power over the minority former ruling party Sunni.  Over a trillion dollars was spent on the war by the United States and long term costs are expected to reach 2-3 Trillion dollars.  Of course Iraq is still reeling from all of the damage and its involvement in wars with Iran from 1980-1988, the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and the United States response Operation Desert Storm, the post war sanctions and the enforcement of an oil embargo and a no-fly zone to keep Saddam contained even as he butchered thousands of Iraqis who rose up against him after he was driven from Kuwait and the the current war which began in 2003.

But the numbers are not just numbers, behind every one is a family, wives, husbands, parents, siblings and children as well as friends.  Every one has a name and a face and all meant something to somebody and left a void when they died or were irreversibly changed by the war.  That pain and cost will go on for a long time and there are no words that adequately compensate for these losses. Faith and trust in God’s grace help some but others struggle, even believers.  That I know for a fact because I still do.

I remember flying into Baghdad in 2007 it was the height of the “surge” and I was going to provide Chaplain support to US Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border, Police and other Security Forces in Al Anbar Province.  At the time the base was shelled and when we exited the aircraft it was no peacetime drill we left in our full gear and were brief on what to do should we encountered incoming fire.  It was in Baghdad that I first experienced a rocket attack when one flew over my head.  But now the bases are empty, it must be surreal to be one of the last Americans leaving the country.

For me the end of our involvement is a strange experience.  It was hard to believe in 2007 that we would ever leave. The great edifices that we erected around country some of which were going up even when I was there are mostly empty except for some taken over by the Iraqi military.  Former military bases even in this country are a surreal site.  I have been to a number that were closed following the end of the Cold War.  Fort Wolters Texas near Fort Worth is an example. When I would go to a small section of the base used by the National Guard I would go past many mostly unused buildings including what had been a brand new hospital which opened just before the base was closed following Vietnam. The last time I flew through the former George Air Force Base  when going to and returning from Twenty-Nine Palms it was a ghost town except a few businesses and hundreds of former commercial jets parked on the tarmac. I remember going through recently closed American bases in Germany in the 1990s and saw installations empty. I was also the final Federal Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when it was transferred to the National Guard.  Built during World War II it was a throwback to a different era. The base has been revitalized as a sizable ground and aviation training center by the Guard with much new construction but the sight of all the World War II “temporary” wooden buildings was amazing. Vast areas of the base we unused and some complete areas were demolished. I helped in getting the main Post Chapel Renovated in order that the existing congregation would be able to continue with a contract Chaplain paid by the Guard and activated or drilling Guard Chaplains.  We had to decommission or convert some to other uses and saved one which was donated to a church 40 miles away who paid to have it deconstructed and rebuilt on their own land. But I digress…

When I was in Iraq in many places there were the remains of Saddam Hussein’s military.  The base that I operated from had a number of abandoned or damaged Iraqi bombers and fighter aircraft parked at it.  Of course most of the existing buildings were converted to American use.  The biggest of these were the Al Faw Palace complex at Camp Victory but Camp Fallujah was the site of one of the Baath Party resorts used by Uday and Qusay Hussein.  I stayed there couple of days while traveling from Baghdad to Taqaddum which was my base of operations because of the capability to get around by air to where I needed to go and proximity to many advisor teams supporting the Iraqi First and Seventh Divisions.

Back then all were major bases with a large American presence which was inflated by many of the contractors, American and from other countries that supported base operations from the chow hall, to the laundry, the fire department and even the cleaning of the shower trailers and countless porta-johns.

People will debate for many years whether the war was worth it and I can only say that I hope that history will show that it was despite the huge loss of life, the destruction of a country and the vast expenditure of the national treasury.  It is probably too early to make that judgement, we tend to be pretty bad in making those decisions in the moment.  That is one of the problems in this age of information overload.  We have lots of data but no historical context and we make decisions that we think are correct but find out years later were tragically erroneous.

At the same time we cannot go back in time and change the past. For good or for bad we have to go forward from now and hopefully in time Iraq and its people will recover from the effects of over 30 years of war and economic sanctions.  We will find out over the next 10 to 50 years what the real effect is.  But for now we are left with a weak Iraq, a strong and threatening Iran and our own diminished military capacity and weak economy as well as a war that is not going well in Afghanistan.

I doubt that that can give comfort to the families of those that died in Iraq or came back wounded in mind body or spirit.  I know that I came back different, PTSD has a way of doing that.

But I am proud of the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Iraqi officers that I served alongside in the badlands of Al Anbar Province mostly far away from the immediate help of any big units if they got in trouble.  I know how valiant and skilled they were fighting Al Qaida Iraq and other insurgents and even foreign fighters from places like Chechnya aided by Iran and others.  It was a brutal fight at times but the men of the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and our advisors helped turn the tide during 2007 and 2008.  Without their diligence and toughness combined with the help of Iraqi civilians the war would have ended differently.

Tonight as I walked the dog to the beach I looked up at the sky. In our neighborhood there are not many street lights and most are clustered in one small area. Since many residents are not here in the winter many of the homes are dark as well and there are areas that have no houses but are lots covered in pine trees.  In the dark I was thinking about Iraq and I could hear the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.  I looked up at the sky and saw the most stars I have seen since being out on the Syrian border in December 2007.  I was reminded that I left part of me in Iraq and I pray for the Iraqis that I served with and those that provided us hospitality during our missions.

As I walked I thought of the words of Otto Von Bismarck one of the greatest statesmen that every lived.  Our war in Iraq was a preventive war.  Bismarck said that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”  I pray that in our case that he was not right and that we think long and hard before entering another preventive war with anyone.  Bismarck, who knew war commented that “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the vast majority of our elected leaders have ever done that.  Bismarck was certainly no pacifist but warned us that “I consider even a victorious war as an evil, from which statesmanship must endeavor to spare nations.”

The world is not a safe place and our near about 140,000 US and NATO troops are still engaged against a stubborn enemy in Afghanistan that has been aided by wavering allies such as Pakistan and sworn enemies like Iran.  War seems to threaten on many fronts.  I pray that we will be prudent before entering another.

I have rambled a bit tonight because I have so many thoughts and images of the war.  I trust your indulgence.  But for now the colors have been cased and our military involvement in Iraq is over.  We can only pray that Iraq will recover and become a free and prosperous country that treats its citizens well and that we too will recover from this war.  But then Bismarck is sometimes quoted saying that “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” I do hope that if he did say this that he was right.

Peace and and as my Iraqi friends would say Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

The “Comfortable” Experts and the Real Soldiers

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

Guy Sajer “The Forgotten Soldier”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marines in Afghanistan under attack

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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