Tag Archives: vietnam war

The Most Dangerous Error… Vietnam, Iraq, and Wars to Come

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned yesterday that I was going to do some more writing about the Iraq War. This article discusses the war in the context of strategy and the fact that Americans seldom learn the lessons of war and repeat our mistakes regularly. I sense that under the leadership of Donald Trump that we will find ourselves in new and vastly more bloody and destructive wars that will make the wars of the past 15 years seem like child’s play.

We need to learn from history and we seldom do, as B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is the failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That error is a common affliction of authority.” 

In 1986 an Army Major working at the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote a book about the history of the US Army in the Vietnam War, and it turned out to be a work of military prophecy. The young officer, Andrew Krepinevich wrote in his book, The Army in Vietnam: 

“In the absence of a national security structural framework that address the interdepartmental obligations associated with FID operations, and considering the lack of incentives for organizational change within the Army, it is presumptuous for the political leadership to believe that the Army (or the military) alone will develop the capability to successfully execute U.S. security policy in Third World countries threatened by insurgency. This being the case, America’s Vietnam experience takes on a new and tragic light. For in spite of its anguish in Vietnam, the Army has learned little of value. Yet the nation’s policy makers have endorsed the service’s misconceptions derived from the war while contemplating an increased role in Third World low-intensity conflicts. This represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy.” (The Army in Vietnam, Andrew F Krepinevich Jr., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986. p.275)

Krepinevich retired from the Army in the 1990s as a Lieutenant Colonel and has been busy in the world of think tanks and national security policy. Unlike his book, which is probably one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War and as I said before a book that is somewhat prophetic his later work has not been as well received. He has his critics. But despite that criticism once cannot deny the accuracy of his predictions concerning the Army’s subsequent operations in low intensity, or counter-insurgency campaigns beginning in Somalia and encompassing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Krepinevich had been alone in his criticism, or his book not been widely read one might excuse policy makers of the 1990s and 2000s who sent the Army and the military into counterinsurgency campaigns involving massive numbers of troops and the commitment of blood and treasure that had practically no value to the national security of the United States. Instead thousands of American and Allied lives were sacrificed, tens of thousands wounded and one nation, Iraq that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11-2001 left devastated and crippled empowering Iran the sworn enemy of the United States no regional rival. The exhaustion of the war and the subsequent war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria allowed Vladimir Putin’s Russian to become a major player in the Middle East for the first time since the days of the Soviet Union.

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One cannot say that the Iraq war was worth the lives and treasure spent to cover the lies and hubris of the Bush Administration. Nor can one say that the effort to change the tribal structure of the fiercely independent Afghan peoples after driving Al Qaeda from that “Graveyard of Empires” been worth the expenditure of so many American lives and treasure. In fact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged the United States in more ways than their proponents could every admit. The military, now drained by years of war is hamstrung and will be hard pressed to meet legitimate threats to our national security around the world because of the vast amounts of blood and treasure expended in these wars.

In 1920 T.E. Lawrence wrote about the follies of the British government in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq. His words could have been written about the Bush Administrations 2003 war in Iraq. Lawrence wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times:

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

Krepinevech, like Lawrence before him was right, but he was not the only one. In 1993 Ronald H Spector wrote in his book After Tet:

“Americans dislike problems without solutions. Almost from the beginning of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam they have attempted to find “lessons” in the war. The controversy about the appropriate lessons to be learned continues with the same vigor and lack of coherence as the debates about the war itself.

Lessons are controversial and fleeting but lessons long. The memories of 1968 have remained and served to influence attitudes and expectations well into the 1990s. The ghosts of Vietnam haunted all sides of the recent deliberations about the Gulf War. In the wake of that war, President Bush hastened to announce that “we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” 

Doubtless many Americans would like to agree. It is easier to think of the Vietnam War as a strange aberration, a departure from the “normal” kind of war, like World War II and the recent war in the Gulf, where the course of military operations were purposeful and understandable and the results relatively clear cut. Yet the Vietnam War may be less of an aberration than an example of a more common and older type of warfare, reaching back before the Thirty Years’ War and including World War I. A type of warfare in which a decision is long delayed, the purposes of the fighting become unclear, the casualties mount, and the conflict acquires a momentum of its own. In a world which had recently been made safe for conventional, regional and ethnic wars, Vietnam rather than World War II may be the pattern of the future.” (After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, Ronald H Spector Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 1993 pp. 315-316

That is certainly the case in the wars that the U.S. has waged since Vietnam, with the exception of the First Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm which was an anomaly. While there is a good chance that such wars will continue, it is also possible that major wars between nuclear armed powers or those armed with other weapons of mass destruction or those using cyber warfare to cause mass casualties and disruption to the world.

After serving in Iraq with the advisors to the Iraqi 7th and 1st Divisions and 2nd Border Brigade in 2007-2008 and seeing the results of the great misadventure brought upon our nation and Iraq by the Bush administration I cannot help but recognize how disastrous the wars unleashed after 9-11-2001 have been. I have lost friends and comrades in them, I have seen the human costs in our Navy hospitals and still deal with men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by war.

I believe that had we actually accomplished anything enduring it would be another matter. But the human, economic, strategic and even more importantly the moral costs of this war have been so disastrous to our nation as to make the loss of the Twin Towers and the victims of 9-11-2001 pale in significance.

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It is tragic that these wars have gone on so long that many of the young Marines and Soldiers fighting them have no understanding of why they deploy and deploy to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and they are far more knowledgeable than the population at large, many of whom are untouched by the personal costs of the war. We as Americans love to say “we support the troops” but most don’t even know one. For the most part big bases from where our troops train and deploy are far from where most Americans live and might as well be on a different planet. We are invisible to most of the country, except when they see a color guard at a sporting event or bump into one of us in uniform at an airport.

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The sad thing is that we don’t learn from history. Krepinevech, Spector and Lawrence could have written what they wrote yesterday. Instead they all wrote many years before the 9-11 attacks and our military response to them. As a historian, a career officer and a chaplain I cannot help but think of the terrible costs of such wars and how they do not do anything to make us more secure. The fact is that we do not learn from history much to our detriment despite the great human, spiritual, moral and economic effects of such wars.

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What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “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….”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq, leadership, Military, national security, philosophy, Political Commentary, vietnam, War on Terrorism

The Exploitation of the Military for Political Ends: The Military as Backdrop for Presidents

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every President of the television age has used the military as a background for various speeches and announcements of policy, especially in regard to war. In February 2003 I was at one of these rallies when President George W. Bush rallied us to the upcoming war against Iraq. It was a “go to war” speech and he was cheered wildly and I joined in that cheering, and after all we all knew that the Iraqis had WMD, were part of the Axis of Evil, and were aiding Al Qaeda; and we were all wrong. As a result of that decision thousands of Americans were killed, tens of thousands wounded, and uncounted thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded, or driven from their homes. The result of that war was the complete destabilization and radicalization of the Middle East.  Fifteen years after that ill-fated decision to go to war the situation in the Middle East and the world is worse than it could ever been imagined it to be then.

But that was a go to war speech, the military personnel were used as a backdrop for enunciating the reasons to go to war. We were ordered to attend and ships were positioned for the best possible propaganda effect. My ship had just come out of the yards and had too much scaffolding to be a part of the display, but our crew was assembled as part of the backdrop for the speech.

That being said President Bush never attacked any political enemies or any other Americans, nor did he call opposition to his strategy by members of the media or anyone else as treasonous or called them the enemy. Instead, Saddam Hussein was the enemy and because we believed what we had heard in the media and from others in the military we approved.

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On Tuesday President Trump gave a speech to Marines at Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar in San Diego.  In his speech the President talked of his wall, pay raises for the military, a “space force,”, and pointing to the assembled members of the media attacked the “fake news.” The Marines cheered wildly, and I shook my head because I knew that at one time earlier in my life, carried on by the emotion of being in the presence of the President and a lifetime of absorbing Fox News, talk radio, and conservative internet pundits for hours on end every day I probably would have cheered with them. I did that in 2003. It took me until 2007 while I was deployed in Iraq to figure out just how wrong that I was.

President Bush deserves legitimate criticism of his decision to attack Iraq, he has to be commended for not attempting to silence or demonize his opposition. The conservative media led by Fox News and radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh did but he didn’t. But unlike President Bush, President Trump backs hostile regimes and denounces critics at home. Say what you want about him but President Bush would not have done that in a million years.

What President Trump did was to lead young Marines who are sworn to defend the Constitution into cheerleaders for his attack against the First Amendment. As the did this I looked into the Marines assembled behind him, including officers and I wondered why didn’t anyone object by at least turning their head, or remaining silent instead of cheering or taking selfies.

This is so different than the lead up to the Iraq war. President Trump has declared war against his opponents at home while refusing to condemn the actions of the Russians, and appears by his words and actions leading us to war in the Middle East against Iran and its proxies, as well as North Korea.

General Ludwig Beck who commanded the German Army in 1938 resigned his post because he believed that Hitler in his desire to destroy Czechoslovakia by military force would lead to the destruction of Germany. Beck went into the opposition and died during the failed attempt to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi State on July 20th 1944.

Now Beck did have his flaws. He was not a supporter of the Weimar Republic. He was Anti-Semitic, and he was at heart a Monarchist. Despite that he joined with others of various political, ideological, and religious persuasions to try to overthrow Hitler. One thing that he said has stuck with me since my return from Iraq in 2008 and when I see things like the rally at Miramar I have to ask, where were the officers who should have known better?

Beck wrote:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

I have spent almost half of my Navy career assigned to the Marines or supporting them. I am a graduate of the Marine Command and Staff College and a Fleet Marine Force qualified Navy Officer. I love and admire the Marine Corps. When I came to the Navy and was serving with the Second Marine Division as it was being readied for a possible invasion of Kosovo in 1999 I was asked by Colonel Robert Neller, “Chaplain, after all those years in the Army, what do you think about the Marine Corps?” My answer was “Colonel, this is the Army that I always wanted to serve in.” Colonel Neller is now the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

But what happened Tuesday reduced the Marines in attendance to political pawns in an ideological war to destroy the Constitution and replace it with a government based on xenophobia, greed, and fear. But then how could they not be?

Polls around the world show an increasing number of young people willing to ditch democracy in favor of authoritarian government models. This applies to both left and right wing variants. This is no different in the United States. The fact is that those who are old enough to remember the tyranny of the Nazi, Fascist, Nationalist, and Racist regimes of the Second World War have for the most part passed away. Likewise it has been nearly thirty years since the end of the Cold War and its existential threat of worldwide nuclear destruction, the Iron Curtain, the enslavement of tens of millions of people behind it, and the proxy wars between United States and Soviet surrogates not to mention the Soviet invasion  of Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. In the United States  and many, if not most of these young Marines were raised in homes where they digested a steady diet of Fox News, conservative talk radio, and right-wing websites. Coupled with the unique and almost mythological culture of the Marine Corps it is not hard to understand.

The terrible thing is, that if the President that these Marines were cheering does what he has repeatedly said he would do, attack North Korea or Iran, that many of the young men and women in attendance at the rally will die or be horribly wounded, and the country that they serve will suffer greatly.

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One of the greatest Marines to ever serve this country understood all too well the threat of men like President Trump to the country and the cost of war. That man was two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler. Butler warned of the costs of war nationalism, and fascism. He 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….”

Butler was cashiered, threatened with court-martial, and retired by President Hoover for speaking the truth about Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He would certainly speak the truth about President Trump. If only more veterans and military men would do so today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

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

The Bond

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is going to be a busy and sad day as we gather with friends to remember the life of our friend Dave Shaw. I wrote about his unexpected loss over the weekend and as such, since I am not going to have time to write anything new I am going to reach back into the archives an re-post an article that I wrote back in June of 2011 about the bond that is shared by those who go to war. Dave served as a Navy Corpsman aboard various Navy ships, hospitals, and with the Marines. He retired as a Chief Petty Officer, as did my dad. He was a friend and brother, and, like so many others he will be missed.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

In the midst of the petty politics surrounding the Afghan War so so ponderously and pompously purveyed by politicians and pundits of all strains I feel the need to speak up for that small band of brothers that has served in these wars. They are to steal a phrase applied to a previous generation the “New Greatest Generation” something that I am loathe to apply to much of the population at large. You see the cost of these wars is finally beginning to sink in, at least the financial cost. I’m not so sure that the human cost factors in for most people because the tiny percentage of the population that serve in the wars. The fact is that the volunteer military is an insular community which for the most part is based on bases away from most of the population. We used to have big bases in or near major cities, the New York Naval Yard, the Presidio of San Francisco, Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Fort Devens Massachusetts near Boston, Fort Benjamin Harrison Indiana at Indianapolis. But after the Cold War they and hundreds of other bases were eliminated and with them a connection to the active duty military. That is not the fault of the people in the big cities it just happened that way, no the military with a few exceptions is based away from most of the population. As a result people may support the troops but most have no idea what they do, how they live and what they suffer.

In spite of that this new Greatest Generation’s accomplishments will largely go unheralded by history. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” of World War Two they will probably not receive the full honors and accolades due them. This brotherhood of war who have served in the current War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have now been serving in a war that is now twice as long as the American involvement in World War Two. Many, like me have been in this since the beginning and many have made multiple deployments to the combat zones. And many of us, if not most of us would go again. I know that I would because part of me is still in Iraq; for me this war is still un-won and un-finished.

The battles, Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Marjah, Kandahar, Anaconda, Wanat and thousands of other places significant and insignificant are vivid in the minds of those that were there. Unfortunately for most of their countrymen they might as well be on a different planet.

With no disrespect to the Greatest Generation of World War Two, all of the current Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen volunteered to serve in time of war. At any given time only about one half of one percent is in uniform. In the three years and ten months of the Second World War about 16.1 Million Americans served in the military, the vast majority being draftees. Likewise the current generation has fought the war alone. The vast bulk of the country has lived in peace untouched by any inconvenience to daily life such as gas and food rationing, requirements to work in war industries and the draft as were citizens in World War Two. In the Second World War Americans shared the burden which in large part has not occurred in this war. While many have pitched in to help and volunteered to help veterans and their families the vast majority of people in this country are untouched by the war, not that there is anything wrong with that. This is simply a comparison of the situation that those who served in World War Two and the present conflicts faced. So I have to say that our current “Greatest Generation” is only a small part of the generation, as the line in Henry V “we few, we happy few who fought together….”

These Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen from the United States as well as our Allies who serve alongside of us are my brothers and sisters. They too are volunteers and represent a miniscule portion of their countries population. I am friends with military personnel from the UK, Canada and Germany who have served in the various combat zones or at sea and met quite a few others from France, the Netherlands and Australia. Of course my Iraqi friends who I served with while with our advisers in Al Anbar province who are not only trying to bring peace and stability back to their country but have to worry about the possibility that their families become the target of terrorists.

There are a number of things that unite us in this relatively small brotherhood. However, I think that this brotherhood could also be extended to our brothers who fought in Vietnam, French, Vietnamese, Australian, South Korean and American, the French who served in Algeria and the Americans and others that served in Korea. All of these wars were unpopular. All had little support on the home front and often returning veterans found themselves isolated and their sacrifices ignored or disrespected. For those Americans who serve in the current wars I can say that at least to this point the public has been much more supportive than they were to our Vietnam brothers, many of who were even disrespected by World War Two vets who had fought in “a real war.” I cannot count the Gulf War in this list as it was hugely successful and the returning vets were hailed as conquering heroes with ticker tape parades.

Our shared brotherhood includes our scars, physical, psychological, neurological and spiritual. Those who served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, French Indo-China and Algeria have a common shared experience. All fought people who didn’t or don’t like foreigners no matter how noble our intentions and who by the way have a long history of outlasting people that they believe to be invaders or occupiers. We have had to fight wars with no front lines, no major units arrayed against us, but rather asymmetrical threats propagated by creatively devious foes who use low tech easily available technology and a willingness to sacrifice themselves and others to force attempt to kill us. Thus we have cleverly designed and often quite powerful IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices which can obliterate a HUMMV.

These threats create a situation where there is no front line and thus where every excursion outside of a FOB (Forward Operating Base) or COP (Coalition Outpost) is automatically a trip into a potential danger zone. Enemies can infiltrate bases posing as local nationals in either military uniform or as workers, rockets and mortars can be lobbed onto even the largest and most secure bases at any time and any vehicle driving by you on the road could be loaded with explosives and just waiting to blow you up while insurgents with automatic weapons and Anti-Tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) have taken down helicopters. When you have taken fire on the road, in the air and had rockets whiz over your head you this becomes a reality that you never forget.

As a result we many men and women with physical wounds as well as wounds that have damaged the psyche or the soul. PTSD is very common either from a direct encounter or the continual wear and tear of being in a danger zone wondering if you were to get hit that day every day of a tour. I have lost count now of people that I know who have mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. Traumatic Brain injury is another condition men and women attacked by IEDs, mortars and rockets experience. Likewise there are the injuries that shatter the soul. These are the images of ruined buildings, burned out vehicles, wounded bodies, injured children, refugees and wars desolation that can leave a person’s faith in God, or ideals that he or she believes in weakened or even destroyed. There are the smells of smoke, death, diesel, garbage and sewage that when encountered far away from the combat zone send us back.

The wars have been costly in lives and treasure. The “up front” casualty numbers are below; they do not include those with PTSD or mild to moderate TBI. They also do not count those that have died later after their service in VA or other civilian care, those that did not report their injuries and those that have committed suicide.

Iraq KIA US 4463 UK 179 Other 139 Total 4781

Afghanistan KIA US 1637 UK 374 Other 537 Total 2548

US Wounded Iraq 32227 Afghanistan 11191

The financial cost: over 1.2 trillion dollars and counting.

As many idealistic and patriotic military personnel question God, their National Leadership and even themselves because of their experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot get the image of a refugee camp on the Iraqi Syrian border full of Palestinian refugees who have nowhere to go; they had been invited to Iraq under Saddam and have been sitting on the border trying to get home for years now. The Palestinian authority wants nothing to do with them. I cannot smell smoke or hear a helicopter or pass a freshly fertilized field without being reminded of Iraq.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters. I have seen quite a few of my colleagues at the Naval Medical Center and Naval Hospital deploy and deploy, the medical personnel don’t get much of a break. These are my friends and I do get concerned for them and pray earnestly for their safe return. I wish that I could go with them because I know them and have already walked with them through the dark valley of the shadow of death in the Medical Center ICU or the wards and clinics of the Naval Hospital. We already have a bond that will not be broken.

It is now four years since I was in the process of leaving for Iraq and three 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.”

As do we.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

The Memorial Day Order

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“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln the Gettysburg Address 

As we contemplate the importance of Memorial Day and remember the men and women who gave their lives for this country it is important to remember why we do this. Memorial Day grew out of local observances following the Civil War, a war that claimed the lives of over 620,000 American Soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy. New demographic studies by historians estimate the losses at closer to 750,000. Hundreds of thousands of other people had they lives shattered by the war, killed, wounded, maimed, crippled, shattered in mind and spirit, the country in many places devastated by war’s destruction. Using the 620,000 number that would have meant that 2.5% of the population of the country died in the war. People needed to make sense of the losses.

To put this in perspective, if the same number of Americans were to die today in a way the total would be over seven million people. Seven million my friends. War reached into every home in some way, and sadly or perhaps thankfully we have no concept of such losses today.

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In 1868, Major General John Logan who had been an excellent corps commander during the war was serving as the Commander of the nation’s first true Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic which gave those veterans a place of refuge in a country that was leaving them behind and forgetting their sacrifice in the name of westward expansion and a growing economy. Let’s face it, money has almost always been more important to Americans than the troops who sacrificed their lives for the nation, but I digress…

Anyway General Logan issued this order on May 5th 1868:

HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC, General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If our eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.

By order of

JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief

N.P. CHIPMAN,
Adjutant General

Official:
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.

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General Logan’s order is remarkable in its frankness and the understanding of the war in the immediate context of its conclusion. In 1868 the day would be observed at 183 cemeteries in 27 States and the following year over 300 cemeteries. Michigan was the first state to make the day a holiday and by 1890 all states in the North had made it so. In the South there were similar observances but the meaning attributed to the events and the sacrifices of the Soldiers of both sides was interpreted quite differently. In the North the Veterans overwhelmingly saw themselves as the saviors of the Union and the liberators of the Slaves. In South it was about the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers in what became known as the “Lost Cause.” But in both regions and all states, the surviving Soldiers, family members and communities honored their dead.

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In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Frederick Douglass both spoke about the meaning of the sacrifice made by so many.

Holmes, a veteran of the war who had been wounded at Antietam ended his Decoration Day 1884 speech:

“But grief is not the end of all…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death, — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and glory of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”

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Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist who lobbied Lincoln for emancipation and to give Blacks the chance to serve their country had two of his sons serve in the war spoke these wars:

“Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.”

It is important for the country not to forget those who served and the cost of those who have given the last full measure of devotion to duty and those who still carry the scars of war on their bodies and in their minds and spirits. I am one of the latter and I have known too many of the former.  Maybe that is why am so distrustful of those who advocate for war but have no skin in the game.

An Alsatian-German Soldier named Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

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

I agree with him and pray that those who direct the course of this nation will take the words of General Logan, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Frederick Douglass and Guy Sager to heart before they embark on war, and when they remember those that have served.

May we never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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They Shall Not Have Died in Vain: Memorial Day 2015

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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.

There is a poignant scene in the film The Longest Day in which Richard Burton, playing the wounded British Royal Air Force Flying Officer David Campbell looks at the body of a dead German soldier and says to an American paratrooper who is lost from his unit: 

“It’s funny isn’t it. He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean war.” 

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Back when the movie was filmed in the early 1960s there were still many World War II veterans around and the United States and most Western European nations still had some form of draft or conscription which ensured that most people still had some connection with the military. It’s not like that now. In the United States far these than 1% of the population is serving in the military, and this includes the National Guard and reserves. The numbers are similar throughout Western Europe. Those who have served in combat or even deployed to combat theaters are far fewer. As a result the people of the United States and Western Europe as a whole are so disconnected from military service, not to mention the terrible human cost that is war. As William Tecumseh Sherman said: War is Hell. 

I came back a different man from Iraq. It seems that for me with every passing year Memorial Day becomes more of a melancholy observance. It is a weekend and observance that I feel deeply having lost friends in war and served in Iraq as well as Operation Enduring Freedom. It is also a day in which I feel more and more disconnected from the vast majority of my fellow Americans. I don’t know, but just from my observation it seems that for most Americans the weekend serves as not much more than the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer holiday and vacation season.

Now I could be wrong, but it seems to me that for most Americans, the vast majority who have themselves never served a day in uniform and who have no more than a passing relationship with anyone who is either serving in our current wars or has served in any war, that war is at best a spectator sport.

This is an attitude that has been nurtured by our politicians of all parties, political pundits and preachers for decades. As a result there is a grave disconnect between the society at large and the men and women who serve in the military and in our wars.

To be fair I don’t think it is a matter of ordinary people not caring, not that at all. Many do and I am thankful to them. That being said there are many who though they say they support the troops find war to be some sort of sporting event where we send our heroes out to do battle against the enemies of freedom, while making no sacrifices themselves and even call military health care, retirement benefits and disability pensions “entitlement programs” which need to be reigned in. Yes, that is right. Send the volunteers to war and then abandon them. Sadly, with the exception of the end of World War Two, this is always how this nation has treated its veterans and their families.

The real fact of the matter is that the wars that we have fought since World War II have not been national affairs. If they were we would not be continually fighting wars that most people neither understand and which in many if not most cases we would be better off staying out of completely. That being said I am appreciative of those who do things to care for and honor our veterans, honor our fallen and do practical things for the survivors. There are some really wonderful people, many who have never served who do what they can for those who fight and die in or come back forever changed from these misbegotten and unpopular wars.

At the same time there are a lot of what I call War Porn addicts, especially the pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot get enough of war. As a Christian I hate to say that many of the worst of the war porn addicts are the supposedly Christian pundits, politicians and preachers who cannot seem to find enough new wars to get us involved in even as we struggle to deal with what is on our plate already. If you ask me these sons-of-bitches are traitors who do not love the troops, do not love this country and should be forced into the front line so they can see, smell and taste death.

What I find the most offensive are the war mongers and profiteers who have never served. I feel this way about those who did all that they could to avoid serving in the military and those who did the very minimum to satisfy outward appearances of service while avoiding anything difficult, especially deployment to combat zones. Of the latter I can think of five to six currently serving and very outspoken conservative members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that fit the description. I shan’t mention the members of the previous Presidential administration who through their outright lies caused the deaths of nearly 4500 American military personnel in Iraq. I speak about men who in their writings, their appearances on news networks and their think tanks and corporations that do nothing but profit off of war. Some are current or former politicians, others supposedly “academics” and others men who smell a profit in war. 

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I find such people to be loathsome and wonder how on Memorial Day weekend they can show their faces. But then they are rather shameless. Sometimes their actions make me wonder if the sacrifices made by those who serve are in vain. However, I strive to resist that and pray that our sacrifices will not be in vain. While they profit from war others pay the bill and it has always been this way. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor wrote after World War One in his book War is a Racket:

“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….”

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Maybe I feel this way because I grew up in a military family where my dad was frequently deployed and served in Vietnam, a place where some of my friends fathers died, and because I have been in the military 32 years between the Army and the Navy. Maybe it is partly because I am a military historian, theologian, priest and chaplain who has seen the horrors of war and the wounds that remain for life in the bodies, minds and spirits of those that fight in them. I cannot speak of how my heart feels when I see young men and women, wounded in war, their lives forever changed bravely struggling to go on even as the war mongers, war profiteers and chicken-hawks profit off of their suffering. As I said before, these people are traitors and if I had my way we would drive them at bayonet point into the arms of the Islamic State so they can taste what war is all about. Maybe then these sons-of-bitches would think twice before sending another young American to die so they might make a profit.

So for me this is a rather melancholy time. A time where I struggle a time when I get so angry. That being said I also echo the words of Civil War Veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who spoke these words in 1895:

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…. nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

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I honor the fallen, my brothers and sisters who have given the last full measure of devotion in serving this country, those that I know personally or have served with and those who did so before I was every born. Why you might ask? 

The reason is simple and I think that Abraham Lincoln said it best as he closed his Gettysburg Address:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Return from Gettysburg: Table Talk and Meeting a Hero

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I am on the way back from Gettysburg following our Staff Ride. As always it was a very interesting trip and as much as I get to expound on what I know, I also get to learn. As the late Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver so eloquently put it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love going up, not just for the teaching opportunity, but to spend time with the students, and sometimes their family members over lunch, dinner or drinks at the various watering holes. These occasions of table talk are probably some of the most important parts of learning and relationships. They are something that have become an anomaly in our modern higher education process, which driven by the need for profit, or by austerity in public or military educational systems, or fear of legal liability, have all too often sacrificed this all too important manner of learning.

I remember reading Martin Luther’s Table Talk, which is a collection of writings by his student’s gathered around the table as they ate and drank. They show Luther at his best and worst, expounding on some of his less systematized ideas, as well as his ability to expound on subjects outside of the lecture hall or the theological debate, sometimes while certainly under the influence of good German beer.

This type of learning was common at one time, but now is a dying art. One of the things that it does for me is that my student’s questions, comments, experiences and ideas also spur my thinking and cause me to do more research, discover more and learn more. I then attempt to assimilate what I have learned and then develop those thoughts into things that I am either writing or teaching.

For me this is about a commitment to the truth, as I quoted from Star Trek the Next Generation on Friday, that my first duty, is to the truth, and as one of my students mention to me last night can be painful, especially when long cherished myths, are crushed by the weight of facts. For him it was the ugly truth of the Lost Cause and especially in the role of religion in the South to justify slavery, secession and following the war segregation, discrimination and sometimes even lynching. For him, as it was for me, so many years ago at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was difficult. But if truth matters at all, we cannot ignore it as so many do and cling to myth, as Captain Picard said ” be it scientific, historic or personal truth.” 

I was fortunate that my professors at Southwestern, especially my professors of Church History, Systematic Theology and Philosophy of religion challenged me and laid waste to the myths that I believed that I am who I am today.

I think I am going to start doing table talk sessions for any interested students during our next term.

I also had a unique honor on this trip. One of my students brought his dad, a retired Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran. He was a very interesting man and was engaged in the lessons of the trip, even since his son had provided him a copy of my text, asking when I would get it published. He didn’t try to draw attention to himself, we had some nice conversation over dinner and drinks with the rest of the students, and at the end of the Staff Ride, which is at the Solder’s Cemetery he walked up and thanked me. He the said “let me give you my coin.”

For us in the military a being presented a commander’s coin or unit coin is an honor. I have a lot of them, including one from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who I met at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend when I was the chaplain of the ship that carries the name and legacy of Hue City.

When I looked at the coin it was inscribed “Colonel Walter Marm, Vietnam, 14 November 1965.” In the center a depiction of the Medal of Honor. The front, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, United States of America. Colonel Marm was a platoon leader then, a young lieutenant, in Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Ia Drang. You might recognize it, the battle was chronicled in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” and film We Were Soldiers

If you want to read about his heroism you can google him or go to this site, which is just one of many where you can read about this American hero.

http://www.medalofhonorspeakout.org/bio/walter-marm

Interestingly enough President Obama will award the Medal of Honor posthumously on November 6th to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing who died defending the Angle on day three at Gettysburg.

So this indeed was a special trip, a reminder to me of the lost art of table talk in education, as well as the heroes who do not draw attention to themselves. Yes my friends, it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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