Tag Archives: veteran’s day

Honoring Vietnam Veterans

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I had the honor of delivering the invocation and benediction at a ceremony and luncheon in honor of Vietnam Veterans and their families at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Americans from the embassy in Saigon. About 400 Vietnam vets and the families, or in some cases their surviving spouses or children were on hand along with about another hundred or so other people including civic leaders, government officials, and members of other military associations or groups, as well as members of college ROTC and high school Junior ROTC programs.

We often get requests to support ceremonies for active duty members, retirees, and veterans groups, especially and there will be a number more coming up with the commemoration of 76th anniversary of the attack upon Pearl Harbor. Since this one fell on a holiday weekend and I had no services to conduct I took this on to ensure my chaplains who were not conducting services didn’t have to break up their weekend and to ensure that those that were conducting services didn’t have to rush to or from their services to cover this event which took up most of the afternoon. I also took it because it dealt with Vietnam veterans. My dad and many of the men who shaped me as a young soldier and officer were Vietnam veterans and I always feel that I owe them and their families my time.

I think that it is fitting and important to honor these men and women. The Vietnam War still leaves its mark upon the country, like an unhealed wound, as Americans who supported the war, opposed it, went to war, or found ways to avoid serving as our current President did wrestle with what happened in that era, of which the war was just one component of a larger social upheaval that marked a definitive break with much of our past.

I had the honor of meeting and speaking with some of those present today, as did Judy who went with me. I also ran into one of my now retired colleagues from EOD Group Two, and was able to mix with some of the high school Navy Junior ROTC cadets, sharing with them my experiences as an NJROTC cadet in the 1970s and how it helped me become who I am today.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

Veterans Day 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Veterans Day and I have been reflecting on the many friends, comrades, and shipmates, not all of whom are American that I have served alongside, or have known in the course of my 36 year plus career.

As I think of them I am reminded of the words spoke by King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It is a peculiar bond that veterans share. On Veterans Day the United States choses to honor all of its veterans on a day that was originally dedicatedly Armistice Day, a day to remember the World War One, or the War to End All War. But in a broader more universal sense we who have served, especially in wars that do not fit with our nation’s ideals, share the heartache of the loss of friends, comrades, and parts of ourselves with the veterans of other nations whose leaders sent their soldiers to fight and die in unjust wars.

It is now ten since I served in Iraq and nine years since my PTSD crash.  However, I still would do it again in a heartbeat.  There is something about doing the job that you were both trained to do and called to do that makes it so.  Likewise the bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience.  Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together, even soldiers of different countries and sometimes with enemies.

I remember the conversation that I had with an Iraqi Merchant Marine Captain on a ship that we had apprehended for smuggling oil violating the United Nations sanctions.  The man was a bit older than me, in his early 60s.  He had been educated in Britain and traveled to the US in the 1960s and 1970s. He had the same concerns as any husband and father for his family and had lost his livelihood after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.   He was a gentleman who provided for his crew and went out of his way to cooperate with us.  In our last meeting he said to me: “Someday I hope that like the Americans, British and the German soldiers at the end of the Second World War can meet after the war is over, share a meal and a drink in a bar and be friends.”  That is my hope as well.

In the final episode of the series Band of Brothers there is a scene where one of the American soldiers, Joseph Liebgott who came from a German Jewish family interprets the words of a German General to his men in the prisoner compound.  The words sum up what the Americans had felt about themselves and likewise the bond that all soldiers who serve together in war have in common, if you have seen the episode you know how powerful it is, I ended up crying when I heard it the first time and cannot help but do so now that I have been to the badlands of Al Anbar Province.

“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

We live in a time where it is quite possible or even likely that the world will be shaken by wars that will dwarf all of those that have occurred since the Second World War. Since I am still serving I prepare myself every day, and speak frankly with those who I serve alongside of this reality.

Tomorrow, or today if you are reading this on Sunday I will be giving the invocation and benediction at a banquet in honor of Vietnam veterans from our area. My dad was a Vietnam veteran. It will be an honor to provide it, but in doing so there hangs a cloud over my head, knowing that there is no end to war and that as Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

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

So until tomorrow,

I wish you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Momentous Days

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few days have been pretty busy both at work and socially so try as I might I was too tired to write anything but even so to quote Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Kormann) in Blazing Saddles, “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives”.

The period of time from November 9th to 12th is filled with historical events that when one just takes a moment to step back and look at them are amazing to comprehend.

Let’s look at November 9th to start with, in 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the German throne as a popular revolution began the Weimar Republic. Just five years later Adolf Hitler attempted to overthrow the Republic in what is know known as the Bier Hall Putsch. In 1938 the Nazis, using the excuse of the death of a German diplomat in Paris unleashed the Kristallnacht terror against German Jews, but in 1989 the same day was when the Berlin Wall fell.

November 10th is the birthday of the United States Marine Corps at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, it is also the anniversary of the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

November 11th is Veteran’s Day which began as Armistice Day in 1918. The armistice ended the fighting on the Western Front but the subsequent collapse of the old order, economic, political, and social chaos that followed brought about further wars and remade the world with consequences that are still being felt today. Today in the United States we use the holiday to honor all of our military veterans, but somehow most people don’t understand the real reason why we celebrate this day.

November 11th is also recognized as Independence Day in Poland when it declared its independence from German, Austrian, and Russian control in 1918.

November 12th begins the 75th anniversary of one of the bloodiest naval battles of the Second World War, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

I should be putting something out in honor of the Marines later tonight as well as Veteran’s Day tomorrow as I hang out with Judy and the puppies and start getting our home ready to host friends on Thanksgiving and my staff for a holiday get together the following week.

So as the Germans say bis spater.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Veteran’s Day 2016: They Thanked us Kindly and Made Their Peace…

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ninety-eight years ago the war that was supposed to end all wars came to an end. Barely two years later, T.E. Lawrence wrote of its end:

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.”

That seems to be the way that it always is.

In November 1914 millions of soldiers were fighting in horrible conditions throughout Europe. From the English Channel to Serbia, Poland and Galicia; French, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Russian troops engaged each other in bloody and often pointless battles. Often commanded by old men who did not understand how the character of war had changed, millions were killed, wounded, maimed or died of disease.

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Grave of a British Airman in Habbinyah Iraq

After four years, with the Empires that were at the heart of the war’s outbreak collapsing one after the other there was an armistice. On the eleventh  hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month the shooting stopped and the front lines quieted. By then over 20 million people, soldiers and civilians alike had died. Millions more had been wounded, captured, seen their homes and lands devastated or been driven from there ancestral homelands, never to return.

The human cost of that war was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

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T.E. Lawrence

It was supposed to be the War to end all War…but it wasn’t, it was the mother of countless wars, wars which continue to this day in the vast expanses of desert where Lawrence served.

It has been a century since that bleak November of 1914, and ninety-six years since the time where for a brief moment, people around the world, but especially in Europe dared to hope for a lasting and just peace. But that would not be the case…

The victors imposed humiliating peace terms on the vanquished, be it the Germans on the Russians, or the Allies on Germany and her partners. The victors divided up nations, drew up borders without regard to historic, ethnic, tribal or religious sensibilities. But then, it was about the victors imposing themselves and their quest for domination, expanding colonial empires and controlling natural resources rather than seeking a just and lasting peace. The current war against the Islamic State is one of the wars spawned by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East between the French and the British at the end of the war. It was a war that keeps on giving.

Of course we have known the disastrous results of their hubris, a hubris still carried on by those who love and profit by war…war without end which continues seemingly with no end in sight.

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I am a veteran of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as the Bosnia mission and the Cold War. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who enlisted during the Korean War. I serve because it is the right thing to do, not because I find war romantic or desirable. It is as General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Hell.” If called to go back to Iraq, where I left so much of my soul, I would in a heartbeat.

Today we pay our day of homage to our honor veterans, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. But sometimes it seems so hollow, for in all of our countries those that serve are a tiny minority of those eligible to serve, who are much of the time ignored or even scorned by those that feel that providing for them after they have served is too much of a burden on the wealthy who make their profits on the backs of these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

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I have walked about since returning from Iraq often in a fog, trying to comprehend how a country can be at war for so long, and there is such a gap between the few who serve and the vast majority for whom war is an abstract concept happening to someone else, in places far away, and whose experience of war is its glorification in video games. Personally I find that obscene, and feel that I live in a foreign world. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front: 

“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.”

Similarly Guy Sager wrote in his classic The Forgotten Soldier: 

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

Major General Gouverneur Warren wrote to his wife two years after the American Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

Sometimes I find it obscene that retailers and other corporations have turned this solemnity into another opportunity to profit. But then why should I expect different? Such profiteers have been around from the beginning of time, but then maybe I still am foolish enough to hope for something different. Please don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the fact that some businesses attempt in at least some small way to thank veterans. I also know there are many businesses and business owners who do more than offer up tokens once a year, by putting their money where their mouth is to support returning veterans with decent jobs and career opportunities; but for too many others the day is just another day to increase profits while appearing to “support the troops.”

As Marine Corps legend and two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler Wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

But the marketers of war do not mind, almost Orwellian language is used to lessen its barbarity. Dave Grossman wrote in his book On Killing:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

There is even a cottage industry of war buffs, some of who are veterans seeking some kind of camaraderie after their service, but most of whom have little or know skin in the real game, and at no inconvenience to themselves. As far as the veterans I understand, but as for the others I can fully understand the words of Guy Sager, who wrote:

“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!”

It was to be the War to end all war” but I would venture that it was the war that birthed countless wars, worse tyrannies and genocides; That war, which we mark the end of today, is in a very real and tragic sense, the mother of the wars that have followed. War without end…Amen.

As so to my friends, my comrades and all that served I honor you, especially those that I served alongside. We are a band of brothers, no matter what the war profiteers do, no matter how minuscule our number as compared to those who do not know what we do, and those who never will.  We share a timeless bond and no-one can take that away.

I close with the words of a German General from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel today. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching the general address his troops after their surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

In hopes of peace,

Padre Steve+

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Memorial Day Weekend 2016: The Buddy Poppy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is Memorial Day Weekend, a weekend where we remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank the living veterans, that day is Veteran’s Day. Nor is it the day to thank those men and women who currently wear the uniform and fight the wars of our country. This weekend I am reposting a number of articles from past years to remind my regular readers and those new to my writings about how important this remembrance is, not just to me, but to all of us. I do not say that lightly. Memorial Day is the offspring of the families of the American Civil War dead, when people who lost loved ones in the cause of liberty and the defense of the Union honored their loved ones.

While the Buddy Poppy was something that came out of the First World War, and Armistice Day, which after the Second World War became Veteran’s Day. In time it has also become connected with the original Memorial Day. So today’s post is my first reflection of this weekend on the Buddy Poppy and Memorial Day.

No matter what your political views, ideology, or religious beliefs, please take time to remember the high human cost of freedom this weekend, especially on Monday when we observe Memorial Day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1915.

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.

Besides the American Flag the Buddy Poppy is perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of Memorial Day. This poppy as we know it came about when Mrs.VFW Moina Michael read McRea’s poem and inspired wrote this verse:

We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

She then had the inspiration to begin wearing Red Poppies on Memorial Day and sold the poppies to friends and others with the money going to those in need. A French woman visiting the United States, a Madame Guerin discovered the new custom and took it back to France where she began to make artificial red poppies to sell with the proceeds going to the widows and orphans of the First World War. The custom spread to other countries and in 1921 the Franco-American Children’s League sold the poppies but disbanded in 1921. Madame Guerin approached the newly formed Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, the VFW in 1922 for assistance and in 1922 the VFW became the first American organization to sell poppies. Two years later the Buddy Poppy program began. The artificial poppies were made by disabled veterans who were paid for their work in order to provide them some form of income and distributed by other veterans across the country. Today the VFW continues to distribute the Buddy Poppies which are still produced by disabled Veterans at the nation’s Veteran’s Administration Hospitals.

I remember the first Buddy Poppy that I every received. It was just before Memorial Day 1970, before it became a 3 day weekend falling on the last Monday of May. We were living with my Grandparents in Huntington West Virginia as my dad sought suitable housing for us in Long Beach California while he was in the Navy.

Our initial move from the small town of Oak Harbor Washington, where my dad had been stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to Long Beach had not gone well. The first place we lived was in a dangerous neighborhood and with my dad traveling frequently to Naval Shipyards around the country to help commission new ships the stress on the family, especially my mother in dealing with that and two young boys was too much. Dad sent us back to Huntington where my Grandparents and numerous other relatives still lived for the duration of the school year as he sought better housing.

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Memorial Day then was filled with visits to cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of departed relatives as well as flags on the graves of relatives who had served in the military. We made a number of stops that day at the Bowen and Dundas cemeteries as well as others where relatives were interred. Afterward we had a home cooked meal prepared by my maternal grandmother Christine and then made a trip on a city bus to my paternal grandmother Verdie.

Holidays, were much like that for us during that time that we lived in Huntington, until my dad came back and brought us back to Long Beach in June. Just before my dad arrived to take us back to Long Beach my mom, her cousin Valerie and I were shopping downtown, which at the time before I-64 took traffic around the town and led to a new mall and shopping complex being built just out of town, was a bustling place of commerce and activity. Major retailers all had their stores downtown, while the best movie theaters and restaurants were there as well.

We were coming out of the old SS Kresge store on Fourth Avenue and an elderly man wearing a VFW cap approached us and handed me a poppy. He had to be in his 70s so I presume that he was a Veteran of the First World War. He chatted briefly with my mom and Valerie and I am sure my mom gave him a bit of money for the poppy. I kept it for many years and it was eventually lost in one of our moves. But I will not forget it and any time I see a Veteran distributing them I make sure that I get one.

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Babe Ruth and President Warren G Harding with the first official Buddy Poppy of 1923

For me the Buddy Poppy is a symbol of thanks for the sacrifices made by so many, those who did not come home from wars being killed or missing in action, as well as the wounded and the families of the dead and those that came home forever changed by their time in war. This year marks the 90th anniversary of it being the official flower of remembrance for those who died in our nation’s wars.

The poppy has even more significance for me now having served in Iraq. Seeing war’s devastation and knowing so many who have either been killed or wounded in the wars that we have engaged since September 11th 2001 has impacted me in ways that I could not have imagined before the war. Likewise having come back changed by my experience and having to deal with the affliction of severe PTSD I sense a camaraderie with those men who came home changed from war and in many cases returned to a country that did not understand them.

I will be observing the “Go Silent” moment at 12:01 Monday with the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association to honor those who have given the last full measure.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Day After Veteran’s Day

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is the day after Veteran’s Day and I still am in a reflective mood about it. Of course if there were no war, if war had become a thing of the past, a sad chapter in the course of human history, the day would be less personal. It would simply be a day where people looked back in time possibly honoring ancestors, but not to their left or right, remembering their family members, friends, and neighbors who fight the wars that most people avoid. Herman Wouk, in his classic novel War and Remembrance wrote:

“In the glare, the great and terrible light of this happening, God seems to signal that the story of the rest of us need not end, and that the new light can prove a troubled dawn. 

For the rest of us, perhaps. Not for the dead, not for the more than fifty million real dead in the world’s worst catastrophe: victors and vanquished, combatants and civilians, people of so many nations, men, women, and children, all cut down. For them there can be no new earthly dawn. Yet thought their bones like in the darkness of the grave, they will not have died in vain, if their remembrance can lead us from the long, long time of war to the time for peace.”

The First World War was supposed to be the war to end all war, instead became war to end all peace. That war ended at the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, and the eleventh day of 1918. However, the subsequent turmoil after that first “Armistice Day” which ended the fighting of the First World War, has birthed war without end. The Treaty of Versailles and the Sykes-Picot agreement ensured that war would be part of the last century and will be a part of life for the foreseeable future. Agatha Christie, the great English author who served as a volunteer nurse in the First World War, wrote, “One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”

General Robert E. Lee wrote his wife Mary Custis Lee in 1864 as the bloodshed of the Civil War came to a climax, “What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.”

As I noted, Veteran’s Day 2015 is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected, “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war, as well as the ordinary men and women who serve during war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says, “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course; people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not.

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young” wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am “pissing into the wind,” but I cannot stand by silently and pretend that war can be glamorized and glorified for the benefit people who never serve.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest, I feel a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty. This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front.

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which I believe, will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote, “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude that cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others. Thus I write to ensure people remember, so that those who do not know war will never have to experience it.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War, and other works that I plan on writing, “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.” 

Anyway, that is all for today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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They Thanked Us Kindly: Reflections on Veteran’s Day 2015

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As a career military officer and veteran of the Iraq campaign as well as Operation Enduring Freedom I get very reflective around Veteran’s Day. For me it is a melancholy time. I remember those who have gone to war, those who did not come home, and those who came home, especially those who came home wounded in body, mind, or spirit; those who were forever changed by their experience of war.

One of my heroes is T.E. Lawrence, the immortal Lawrence of Arabia. After World War One ended and the politicians, diplomats, and business leaders betrayed those who served, as well as the people of many nations with a terrible peace, Lawrence 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.”

One hundred and one years ago, in November 1914, millions of soldiers were fighting in horrible conditions throughout Europe. From the English Channel to Serbia, Poland and Galicia; French, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Russian troops engaged each other in bloody and often pointless battles. Often commanded by old men who did not understand how the character of war had changed, millions were killed, wounded, maimed or died of disease.

After four years, with the Empires that were at the heart of the war’s outbreak collapsing one after the other there was an armistice. On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month the shooting stopped and the front lines quieted. By then over 20 million people, soldiers and civilians alike had died. Millions more had been wounded, captured, seen their homes and lands devastated or been driven from there ancestral homelands, never to return.

The human cost of that war was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

It was supposed to be the War to end all War…but it wasn’t, it was the mother of countless wars.

It has been a century since that bleak November of 1914, and ninety-six years since the time where for a brief moment, people around the world, but especially in Europe dared to hope for a lasting and just peace. But that would not be the case…

The victors imposed humiliating peace terms on the vanquished, be it the Germans on the Russians, or the Allies on Germany and her partners. The victors divided up nations, drew up borders without regard to historic, ethnic, tribal or religious sensibilities. But then, it was about the victors imposing themselves and their quest for domination, expanding colonial empires and controlling natural resources rather than seeking a just and lasting peace. The current war against the Islamic State is one of the wars spawned by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East between the French and the British at the end of the war. It was a war that keeps on giving.

Of course we have known the disastrous results of their hubris, a hubris still carried on by those who love and profit by war…war without end which continues seemingly with no end in sight.

I am a veteran of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as the Bosnia mission and the Cold War. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who enlisted during the Korean War. I serve because it is the right thing to do, not because I find war romantic or desirable. It is as General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Hell.” If called to go back to Iraq, where I left so much of my soul, I would go in a heartbeat.

This week as we do every year we will pay our homage to honor our veterans, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. But sometimes it seems so hollow, for in all of our countries those that serve are a tiny minority of those eligible to serve, who are much of the time ignored or even scorned by those that feel that providing for them after they have served is too much of a burden on the wealthy who make their profits on the backs of these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

I have walked about since returning from Iraq often in a fog, trying to comprehend how a country can be at war for so long, and there is such a gap between the few who serve and the vast majority for whom war is an abstract concept happening to someone else, in places far away, and whose experience of war is its glorification in video games. Personally I find that obscene, and feel that I live in a foreign world. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front: 

“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.”

Similarly Guy Sajer wrote in his classic The Forgotten Soldier: 

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

Major General Gouverneur Warren wrote to his wife two years after the American Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

Sometimes I find it obscene that retailers and other corporations have turned this solemnity into another opportunity to profit. But then why should I expect different? Such profiteers have been around from the beginning of time, but then maybe I still am foolish enough to hope for something different. Please don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the fact that some businesses attempt in at least some small way to thank veterans. I also know there are many businesses and business owners who do more than offer up tokens once a year, by putting their money where their mouth is to support returning veterans with decent jobs and career opportunities; but for too many others the day is just another day to increase profits while appearing to “support the troops.”

As Marine Corps legend and two-time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler Wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

But the marketers of war do not mind, almost Orwellian language is used to lessen its barbarity. Dave Grossman wrote in his book On Killing:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

There is even a cottage industry of war buffs, some of who are veterans seeking some kind of camaraderie after their service, but most of whom have little or know skin in the real game, and at no inconvenience to themselves. As far as the veterans I understand, but as for the others I can fully understand the words of Guy Sajer, who wrote:

“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!”

It was to be the War to end all war” but I would venture that it was the war that birthed countless wars, worse tyrannies and genocides; That war, which we mark the end of today, is in a very real and tragic sense, the mother of the wars that have followed. Today, war threatens in so many places; the Middle East, Ukraine, Asia, and Africa. Terrorism has apparently returned with a vengeance. War without end, amen.

As so to my friends, my comrades and all that served I honor you, especially those that I served alongside. We are a band of brothers; no matter what the war profiteers do, no matter how minuscule our number as compared to those who do not know what we do, and those who never will.  We share a timeless bond and no one can take that away.

I close with the words of a German General from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel today. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching the general address his troops after their surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

In hopes of peace,

Padre Steve+

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