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Iraq, ISIS and Al Qaeda: Sowing the Wind…

In recent days I have been reading the statements, speeches and documents of senior members of the Bush administration justifying the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Until it invaded Kuwait in August 1990, that regime was considered an ally against the Iranian Mullahs. But that changed when he invaded Kuwait, following an American diplomatic miscalculation which he interpreted as our acquiescence to his plans.

Of course like Paul Harvey used to say, we know “the rest of the story.” The administration of George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition and obtained the support of the United Nations Security Council to drive Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. Interestingly enough the coalition included Sunni and Arab, Shia regimes including that of Syria. Twelve years later following the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the son-of-Bush, George W. Bush and his administration desperately tried to link the most disparate group of nations to the actions of Al Qaeda; Iran, a mortal enemy of the Sunni Al Qaeda extremists, North Korea, a rogue nation in its own right, but with no proven contacts with the terrorist group, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a rather unique regime which managed under a secular mantle to unify a disparate country well enough that hundreds of thousands of Shia Arabs gave their lives in nearly decade long war with Shia Iran.

The imbecilic decision to attack Iraq, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the knowledge that the previous Bush administration rejected the idea of overthrowing Saddam and occupying the county was disastrous. Likewise the decision to lump the Shia regime of Iran, which realized the militant Al Qaeda threat and was working through back channels to cooperate with the United States against it, was stupid. The decisions destroyed the balance of power in the region and eliminated the one relatively, though admittedly despotic secular state that opposed both Al Qaeda and Iran ran contrary to an sane understanding of geopolitics and national security.

After eight years of struggle the United States withdrew its military forces pursuant to an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration with the Shia dominated government of Iraq. The rest is history. That government under Prime Minister Maliki did all that it could to keep itself in power while marginalizing the largely secular Sunnis who rose to drive out Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening helped bring about the resurgence of the Al Qaeda terrorist extremism, in its new and more lethal form of the Islamic State.

Too late the Iraqi government, Iran, the United States, Europe, the United Nations, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have woken up to the threat. ISIS now controls large chunks of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it is dismantling Al Qaeda and supplanting it as the terrorist organization of choice for young Jihadists around the world. The brutality and single minded devotion of of ISIS to radical Salafi and Wahhabi Islam makes Al Qaeda and the Taliban look like the Boy Scouts. It is well funded through black market oil and through rich benefactors in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and its recruiting efforts are bringing in volunteers around the world.

Now the world is faced with a beast that need not have been created. But, the hubris of the Bush administration to destroy the long standing balance of power in the region, eliminate Saddam and alienate Iran, just when we needed both; as well as the short sighted religious devotion of Sunni- Wahhabi and Salafist fundamentalists who funded Sunni militants and terrorists with petrodollars for two decades has opened the door to Pandora’s box. The beheading of American Photo-Journalist James Foley, the killing and persecution of Christian and Yadizi minorities who have lived in Iraq for millennia and the slaughter of Shia Moslems by the ISIS Caliphate demonstrate the level to which ISIS will go to achieve their ends.

There will be no quick end to this war. It will be a war of unimaginable duration, brutality and excess because it will be a war of radically opposed ideology infused with fanatical religion and even racism? The West, too long in denial of the importance of ideology in war, despite having fought ideological, religions or racial wars will be slow to appreciate this fact. However, when it does after yet another massive terrorist strike, the media will whip Americans and Europeans into a frenzy and the gloves will come off and the battle will be joined. The war will take years, maybe decades and the effects will be felt around the world. The brutality will drive moderates to the extremes and it will become a clash of civilizations, probably only rivaled in brutality and destruction by the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Of course none of this is what I want, and I do hope that I am wrong, but I sense that it will play out this way. The details are yet to be decided, but this ideological war, the offspring of the American hubris of the second Bush administration, European greed and the shortsightedness of wealthy Sunni Arabs in promoting a dangerous brand of Islam have brought us to this point. All of us have sowed the wind and now, we will reap the whirlwind.

In such a conflict I wonder about the words Joshua Chamberlain spoke at Gettysburg almost a century and a half ago: “…men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”

Peace Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, middle east, national security, Uncategorized

Padre Steve Plays Devil’s Advocate: The Complex and Often Confusing Issue of Religious Liberty

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“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this and my view is as long as the religious practice is not harming anyone who cares?

I believe like Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article. Instead my intent is to point out some of the inconsistencies of those who proclaim their rights also seek to limit the religious and even the civil rights of others based on their religious beliefs.

What I will do in this essay is to play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

This has to be done because of the number of laws being passed by various states which are labeled as acts to protect religious liberty. Unfortunately the reality is that these laws grant license for the Christian majority in those states to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious beliefs. These individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise, but it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others.

In fact those that shout the loudest are also those who seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the United States. Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters. Precedent matters and once legal precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus each decision sets a precedent and these precedents can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?

In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion, or other hated minority group is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power. The list is long. Some of the countries include Sudan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Of course there are many more but those are just some of the places where members of minority religious face discrimination, persecution and even death.

The rights we have as Americans provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution. The Baptists are a good example. In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.

On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” the forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands. The example of the siege and destruction of Munster Germany by combined Catholic and Lutheran forces after “enthusiasts” seized power is just one example.

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The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere in Europe for centuries. They were the “Christ killers” and that was even enshrined in the liturgies of churches. But the Jews had a surprising amount of freedom and influence in the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.

Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation. Hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence.

Then there were the Huguenots in France. They were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.

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Spain was another brutal place for religious liberty. Even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were brought before the Inquisition. Protestants, Jews, Moslems were all persecuted in Spain, and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”

The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Pogroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.

The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration so long as you didn’t make trouble and paid your taxes. One cannot really call it liberty for the Empire and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical. These included the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Then along came the United States where our forefathers ensured religious liberty in our Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It is a wonderful thing, but we have not always done well with it and there are always those trying to carve out addition “rights” for themselves or their faith communities. Sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this experiment, often being involved with acts of religious and civil intolerance worthy of our European ancestors.

That being said many religious people, particularly Christians and churches have done many good things in promoting human rights, religious rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

In Colonial America most of the colonies had official state religions. In Massachusetts that was the Congregationalist Church and it conducted many of the witch trials and the persecution of people deemed heretic including Quakers and Baptists.

dyer-hanging1Hanging the Quakers in Massachusetts

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery. These denominations included the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.

After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Some Christians and churches advocated for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants to California who were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

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While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves. They allowed the practice of slavery counting Blacks as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being. my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

We drove the Native Americans off of their lands, hunted them down and confined them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations. This practice was actually recently defended by the faux “historian” of the Christian Right, David Barton.

If we believe Barton’s “history” the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians. But then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith? If you are Barton you assume that what happened was due to the sin of the Native Americans who had to be subjugated by Christians.

Likewise nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land. It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty. The problem is that those who fight the hardest for their religious liberty frequently want to deny the rights that they have to others that they disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

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Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.

However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion. Some Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.

The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to? Not on your or my life, but in the past the Vatican has blatantly done so and hopefully under Pope Francis this too will change.

One of the key issues of religious liberty is the right of those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty? I may not agree with what they broadcast but they have the right to do it.

Many Conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are keen to support their rights to publicly exercise their religion, even in the government. But they are not good when it comes to other branches of Christianity or non-Christian religions.

The Metropolitan Community Church comes to mind. It is a predominantly Homosexual Christian church many of whose members were driven from their home churches due to their sexuality. Many, except for being gay are very conservative in their theological beliefs. That church has been in the forefront of the fight for marriage equity as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.

The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group? We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members. What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

There are so many issues regarding religious liberty. What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object?

Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigiously minded. Usually these cases are long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose. I am not in favor of government using such symbols to advance the rights of any given religion, even Christianity. But that being said there are times where religious symbols are part of our American culture where we have memorialized our war dead without the intent of promoting a religious cause. However, if one symbol is present we should not object to others.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so. Some in polite and well-mannered but others are pretty unseemly. That being said I do not think that the religious beliefs of anti-abortion people should be the law for unbelievers or for that matter a believer with different views on abortion.

The problem is that many who call themselves “pro-life” are not pro-life at all but simply anti-abortion. Many Christians who call themselves “pro-life” bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they use to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite the aversion and opposition to it by the Early Church a and the evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Likewise the belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system is promoted as the Gospel. The same people often treat the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies. Some have acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations. Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with using the government to suppression other religious or splinter groups. The tragic example of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound looms large. David Koresh was a labeled as a “dangerous” cult leader. Nor do many Conservative Christians have a problem in limiting the rights of American Moslems and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood. I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder. As David Barton the President of “Wallbuilders” an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

Barton’s friend and ally Gary North wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

So as you can see the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.

To play the Devil’s advocate here let me ask this question: “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion for any group?” If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say “everything goes” does this mean for everyone or just us? Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights? Those are all hard questions. As you can see there are a tremendous amount of issues at play when we attempt to legislate or regulate religious practice.

I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished. But I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression. This would not be to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others, just as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of, makes me a bit of a prostitute. But still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.

The waters get pretty muddy and my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their agenda, be it religious or secular. As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue go to court or establish a new law which enshrines any group with the ability to discriminate against others based on the majority’s religious beliefs.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the Christian faith and will actually do great damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.

This causes me great concern as I value the right to the free exercise of religious expression and the right of others not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.

Religion can and often has been abused and used by the faithful as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, laws and legislation, pro-life anti-abortion, Religion

Where Were You on 9-11-2001? Share Your Memories

I was reminded today about how the terrible events of September 11th 2001 are part of our national fabric and how those that remember that day have in some way been affected by it. Most of us I am sure remember where they were when they found out and what they were doing. I have written about my experience at Camp LeJeune but I know that others have just as vivid memories.

I was asking one of my sailors where he was on 9-11. He is young, just a year in the Navy and he replied that he was in 3rd grade. He explained that he remembers his teachers and other adults in states of shock and disbelief. He said that as a kid the significance was not understandable, that the pictures looked like a movie.

One of my friends who I served with in Germany early in my Army career was a hospital administrator at a large medical center on the New Jersey side of the Hudson across from Manhattan when the towers were hit and how he watched from his office as the towers burned and fell.

I have many friends from the USS Hue City which I reported aboard in December 2001 who were at sea and after the attack patrolled the East Coast. Another one of my friends who works with me on our pastoral care staff was in the gym at 29 Palms following a combined arms exercise with the 2nd Marine Regiment when the news showed the second aircraft hitting the South Tower of the WTC. He informed his disbelieving commanding officer of the attack.

My wife Judy was in a doctor’s office waiting room when the news came on the television. She said to a friend who was with her that “it was terrorism” and the friend said “that damned Saddam Hussein.”

I had friends that served as first responders or provided support to first responders at the site. Many were clergy, both Navy Chaplains serving with the US Coast Guard and civilian clergy.

Quite a few of the young Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen that I have served alongside joined following in the days, months and years after 9-11-2001 because of that terrible event. Others who had done their time on active duty volunteered as Reservists or National Guardsmen to return to active duty .  They are part of the 9-11 Generation, a new Greatest Generation, who have served in the longest and most far flung war in our nation’s history.

I believe that we should never forget that day and the lives of those that were killed or injured during the attack, the families who lost husbands, wives, children or parents and those that laid down their lives going up to save lives even as the buildings came down. Some of us knew people killed in the attacks. One of my Army Officer Basic Course Classmates, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner died in the Pentagon. Other friends and comrades have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For their sake we should remember and never forget 9-11-2001.

Many of us have gone to war, deploying more than once to Iraq, Afghanistan or the Arabian Gulf, the Horn of Africa and other less known theaters of the Global War on Terrorism. Over 6,000 of us, twice the number killed on 9-11-2001 have died in those wars, tens of thousands of others wounded and forever changed. The name Operation Enduring Freedom is no misnomer, it has gone on far longer than anyone of us imagined that it would.

However on 9-11-2001and in the days following that day Americans stood as one. Liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, straight and gay, religious people and non-religious people, secularists and humanists, Christians of all denominations, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, followers of Wicca and earth based religions and American Moslems who often took the brunt of others anger for the actions of the terrorists all stood together. We were Americans again.

We have lost unity that over the past eleven years and all of us, especially those  probably share some of the blame for the division. I do hope that as we remember the events of 9-11-2001 that we somehow recover a sense that we are all in this together and come together as Americans no matter which political party is in power.

Tomorrow at the Naval Hospital that I serve we will mark the events of 9-11-2001 with a small ceremony at morning Colors and have moment of silence at the time of the first attack. Others around the country, especially at the World Trade Center where the Freedom Tower is rising, the Pentagon and in Somerset County Pennsylvania will have more elaborate ceremonies. Regardless of where we are we will be one in spirit.

I invite anyone reading this to share in the comments your memories of the day, perhaps your experiences of it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, News and current events

Padre Steve Remembers 9-11 and the Forgotten War

It has been nearly eleven years since that fateful Tuesday when the world changed.

I can still remember it like it was yesterday despite the intervening years.

I was in my office at Camp LeJeune where I was serving as Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division. I had just finished an early morning counseling case and had delayed my early morning PT in order to handle the case and after I checked e-mail I was about to close my internet browser when I saw a small headline on the Yahoo News headline section.

The headline simply read “Plane crashes into World Trade Center Building.” My immediate thought was “some dumb ass flew his Cessna into the building.” I simply thought that some inexperienced pilot had gotten lost and crashed his plane into a tower. Thinking nothing more I closed out the page and left the office. It was 0900.

I got in my car and the radio was tuned in to a local right-wing talk radio station, yes I used to listen to it all the time. The talk show host was former Congressman Bob Dornan. He was talking with someone about what kind of aircraft had struck the building when he shouted “oh my God another plane has crashed into the other tower!”

I was stunned. I knew that it had to be terrorism. I drove to the gym since they had multiple televisions and I figured that I could find out more there. I walked in and saw Marines, Sailors and civilians gathered around the sets. Every TV was tuned in to different news programs, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC as well as shows such as the Today Show and Good Morning America. Some whispered to each other but the silence of most was deafening. I remained a few minutes, transfixed by the images on the set. I then left the gym, got in my car and went back to the office where I showered, got into uniform, made a check of the news which was now reporting a strike on the Pentagon and the collapse of the South Tower of the WTC.

I drove to our battalion command post where I met with our Commanding Officer, Colonel Lake and Executive Officer Major Foster. We all knew that this was the beginning of a war and all of us had been through countless instances where we had been notified to get ready to deploy, most recently during the Kosovo action where Marines were to take a lead roll had the Serbians not backed down. While we talked the North Tower of the WTC collapsed. The emotions on everyone’s face showed, it was hard to believe that so much had happened and the great towers were smoldering heaps of rubble with possibly tens of thousands of victims crushed or incinerated in the ruins. I was instructed to get my gear and be back for a staff meeting as Colonel Lake was heading to division to meet with the Staff of 2nd Marine Division.

I made a quick run to my town home, hugged the dogs since Judy was out and grabbed my gear and some extra uniforms and underwear and headed back into the base through the back gate. I deposited my gear in my office and went around the building so see our Marines and Sailors assigned to our Truck Company, MP Company, Medical Company and Headquarters Company and all were waiting for more word, most gathered around televisions and watching breaking news. Some came to me and asked what it meant and expressed concern for families and friends in the affected locations. Then I went back to our headquarters where we heard from Colonel Lake what was known and what our actions would be. We were placed on high alert, patrols by full combat ready Marines were to patrol vulnerable areas of the base while roadblocks and checkpoints were established near every major headquarters aboard the base. The base was also locked down and only Marines, Sailors or Civilian workers returning to work were allowed aboard.

Later in the day I met with the chaplains who served our independent battalions, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Recon Battalion and 2nd Tank Battalion. I explained what I knew from my meetings with the Division Chaplain and Battalion Commander. We concluded our meeting with prayer for the victims of the attacks, the responders and for our Marines and Sailors.

It was both grim and surreal as the day passed and night fell. We remained in that condition four days. Meals were served at the Chow Hall, MRE’s issued and we went everywhere in full combat gear. I visited Marines at their guard posts during the night and worked counseling those who were concerned about family members or friends. They did so for good reason as nearly 3000 people were killed in the WTC, Pentagon and aboard the four hijacked aircraft.

Within a month U.S. Forces were engaged in combat in Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power and sending Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda into hiding. Various units of the division were deployed to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa over the coming weeks and months and even as we did so rumors circulated about Iraq.

I knew that the war would not be the short war that everyone hoped for and within 6 months I would be deployed with the USS Hue City and the USS John F Kennedy Carrier Strike Group to the Arabian Gulf, Horn of Africa and Gulf of Oman.  We would take part in maritime interception operations off the Horn of Africa and in the Arabian Gulf where we took part in the UN Oil Embargo on Iraqi smugglers.

I would travel to the Middle East frequently over the coming years supporting Marines from the Marine Security Force Battalion and later deploy to Iraq from EOD Group Two. I have lost friends and see the effects of the war every day at Camp LeJeune.

Osama Bin Laden is now dead, and it has been 11 long years of war. However it has been a war that for the most part has not been a national effort. After 9-11 the nation was not called to sacrifice, it was told by political leaders to “go shopping.” The brave men and women of our military and their families have made incredible sacrifices over the past 11 years. 2024 have died in Afghanistan while 4486 died in Iraq before the withdraw of US forces in December 2011. Another 32,223 were wounded in Iraq while 15,332 have been wounded in Afghanistan. These numbers do not count American contractors, State Department, CIA, FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

They also do not count the thousands afflicted by PTSD or other illnesses contracted in the combat zone, nor does it count the large number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have taken their lives on active duty or following their discharge or retirement. Then there are the lives of over 1500 coalition soldiers, mostly British, Canadians and Australians who have given their lives in these wars. Finally there are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghan civilians who have died or suffered injury or have been dislocated or exiled as a result of the wars.

Then there is the economic cost which amounts to trillions of dollars for both wars which have been funded by borrowing against our economic future.

Despite this for most Americans the war in Afghanistan is unpopular, little understood and distant, far from daily life. This is backed by polling data and by words of some politicians of both major political parties, in every major poll over 60% of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the cost and needs to end.

One of the most glaring examples of how political leaders think about Afghanistan, but certainly not the only one is Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney did not mention either Iraq or Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, although he did mention “strengthening the military.” He explained it later in an interview by saying to Fox News anchor Brett Baier “When you give a speech you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important….”

The sad fact is that no matter why Romney left out any mention of an ongoing war out of his speech that his words “you talk about the things that you think are important” are indicative not only of him but the majority of Americans. The reality is that Romney and most Americans have no personal connection with the war or the military. The war has been fought by a relatively small professional military that represents less than one percent of the population. Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly who lost his son, a Marine Lieutenant in Afghanistan noted at the 2012 American Legion national convention:

“America as a whole today is certainly not at war, not as a country, not as a people… Only a tiny fraction of American families fear all day and every day a knock at the door that will shatter their lives….” 

This Tuesday we will reflect on something called Patriot’s Day and pause to remember the events of that bloody Tuesday of September 11th 2001. I hope, probably in vain that the American people and their leaders will do more than mouth a few words, talk about how terrible the day was and go back to business as usual. I hope, probably again in vain that Americans will wake up to the fact that tens of thousands of Americans are in harm’s way and that even more and probably more terrible wars loom just over the horizon.

I have no idea what it will take to actually engage the vast bulk of the American population that what happens in Afghanistan is still important. Nor do I think that most people have any idea that a war with Iran could be disastrous for US and coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.

It is odd to think that we can think about 9-11 and then ignore the subsequent wars the way that we have done. I really don’t.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The 9-11 Generation: The Few

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”

Winston Churchill referred to the Royal Air Force’s heroism in the Battle of Britain.  He remarked “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  By comparison with that tiny force the American military is massive. However in comparison with the missions that it has been given since September 11th 2001 and its size relative to the population of the United States it is a small force; a force that much more has been asked than anyone could have imagined on that terrible day.

Since the attacks of September 11th 2001 over 2.8 million young Americans have volunteered to serve in the nations military.  Since that fateful day some 5.5 million Americans have served in all branches of the military both active and reserve, many like me were on active duty that fateful morning. Today about 2.2 million serve in the various components of the military, just 1.4 million on active duty out of a total estimated population of 120 million men and women aged 18-49 fit to serve.

That makes the accomplishments of those that have served so much greater.  Never before has our country asked so much for such a long period of time from such a miniscule segment of the population.  Every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman and Coastguardsman that currently serve volunteered in a time of war to either join or extend their service in the military. Over 2.3 million have served in Iraq or Afghanistan with many more that have served in the Middle East and other regions supporting those wars as well as other anti-terrorist operations around the world.  While we have been committed to wars that may not be “winnable” we have accomplished so much and exacted revenge upon Osama Bin Laden and many of those who planned and perpetrated the attacks of 9-11-2001.

Many were children some as young as 8 years old when the attacks took place who have grown up in the years following the attack.  Others pressed the upper age limits to enlist many seeking age waivers to do so.  The vast majority of the men and women who enlisted because they felt it was their duty, not for money, not for glory.  They came from every State, District and Territory where Old Glory flies as a symbol of freedom.  The represent every race, creed and political party, and come from what the media like to call the “Red States and the Blue States” only for them it is not a question of “Red or Blue” but “Red White and Blue.”  Others have come to the United Statesfrom other nations because they felt that there was something great and noble about this nation and our ideals.

Some would wrongly call this military and those that serve in it a mercenary force, but no it is not and they are professionals that serve our country in time of war.  Mercenaries simply sign on for the money and fight for any regime that will employ them.  We are not mercenaries.

Over the course of this war some of those ideals have faded and of those that go back time and time again do it often because they do not want to abandon their friends or see their sacrifices wasted.  The war has taken and continues to take a toll on this small segment of America.  Over 6200 have died in action and over 45200 wounded, 77 wounded just today September 11th 2011 in Afghanistan.  The numbers do not count the large numbers suffering from PTSD or other combat stress related injuries nor does it count those that have died by suicide following deployment.

Among the many speeches today I was most taken with that of Vice President Joe Biden. The Vice President talked about this generation in a speech today at the Pentagon. The speech was one of the most moving that I have heard about our military in a long time.  It made me even more proud of all that I serve alongside.  I have excepted this passage:

“Many of them were just kids on that bright September morning. But like their grandparents after December 7, 1941, they courageously bore the burden that history placed on their shoulders. And as they came of age, they showed up to fight for their country – 2,800,000 Americans of the 9/11 Generation were moved to join our military since the 9/11 attacks, to finish the war that began on 9/11. They joined knowing full well that they were likely to be deployed in harm’s way – and in many cases deployed multiple times in Afghanistan, Iraq and in other parts of the world….

Over a decade at war, they pioneered new tactics, mastered new languages, developed and employed advanced new technologies. They took on responsibilities once reserved only for those with years of seniority- responsibilities that extended far beyond the base or the battlefield to politics, economics, and development tasks….And one more thing about this generation of warriors-never before in our history has America asked so much, over such a sustained period, of an all-volunteer fighting force. So I say without doubt or exaggeration that the 9/11 generation ranks among the greatest our nation has ever produced.” (See the video or read the speech at http://foxnewsinsider.com/2011/09/11/video-and-text-vice-president-biden-speaks-at-the-pentagon-reflects-on-the-courage-of-the-911-victims-and-their-families/

I have long contended that this generation of patriots who serve in our military as well as in our Federal police and intelligence services are a “new greatest generation.”  All of us have served to defend this country many making multiple deployments to combat zones.  I have made just two combat deployments and feel that I have not done enough, especially compared to those that have done far more of these deployments.  However I would guess that I will get at least one more in before my long career is done.

All Americans and millions of people around the world owe so much to these men and women as well as those from other nations that stand together with us.  For us it is not just remembering that terrible day that changed the world, but to give ourselves to serve and hopefully keep this from happening again.

Always remember9-11-2001, never forget that day or those that died at the hallowed grounds of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that lonely field outside Shanksville Pennsylvania.   But please never forget those that continue to give the last full measure of devotion, the 9-11 Generation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Uneventful Monday on the Eve of War: September 10th 2001

It is hard to imagine that 10 years ago the furthest thing from my mind and probably anyone else’s mind was that a brazen attack would be launched on the United States. We never imagined that by10 AM the following morning that nearly 3000 Americans would be dead, the World Trade Center Twin  Towers would be in ruins, the Pentagon ablaze and a final airliner down in rural Pennsylvania.  It was unimaginable but it happened.

As far as potential threats to national security I had my eyes on China and North Korea having just returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea.  During that deployment a Chinese fighter plane forced a Navy P-3C Orion down on Hainan Island and my battalion was alerted for a potential rescue mission.  Thank God that never happened.  If there was any concern about the Middle Eastit was the continual run-ins that we were having with Iraq and terrorism against American forces in the Middle East such as the suicide bombing of the USS Cole.  Despite the atrocities committed by the Taliban and presence of Al Qaeda Afghanistan seemed too remote to be of any real threat to the continental United States.

On September 10th I was the Chaplain for the Headquarters Battalion Second Marine Division at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. I spent that Monday taking care of routine business.   I had the usual counseling appointments for Marines dealing with marriage and financial problems and administrative work punctuated by a meeting or two and a nice run.  I also spent time working with a couple of underperforming chaplains who had been fired from their battalion chaplain jobs and who assigned to me in the hopes that their careers might be salvaged.

The weather that day was wonderful temperature was 86 degrees at Marine Corps Air Station New River just across the water from LeJeune.  That evening Judy and I grabbed a quick bite to eat and hung out with our dogs, our 13 year old fat red Dachshund Greta and our wild child 9 month old Papillion-Dachshund mix Molly. I figure that we spent the evening watching television and or reading and each taking a little time to check e-mail.  I was involved with a couple of theological discussion boards and I was in trouble with my old church for an article I had published in a conservative Catholic theological journal.  It was amazing how spun up people got on that forum re-fighting theological battles between Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

That night we went to bed not expecting anything of importance to occur.  War seemed far off and a terrorist strike on the centers ofUnited Statesfinancial and military power was unimaginable to us.  The thought that the next day would begin a war that would still be going on today was equally unthinkable.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring. I don’t venture to guess except that I pray that no new attackers will succeed in creating any more havoc in our nation or kill anymore of our countrymen.  But I have my doubts. To quote Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt when he received the reports of the German disaster in France in September 1944…. “I am not optimistic.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on 9-11-2001: How the Day Changed Me….

We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of a date that changed the country.  I wrote about it last year in an article entitled 9-11-2001: A Date that Will Live in Infamy 9 Years Later.  This year I am going to post a couple of short reflections leading up to the anniversary on how that event changed me.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was getting out of my office at Camp LeJeune after an early morning counseling case and some administrative duties I was getting ready to head to the French Creek gym.  I was about to close out my browser when I saw a little note on the Yahoo.com homepage: “Airplane crashes into World Trade Center.” It was about 0900 that tragic morning.  I thought to myself, “some dumb ass just crashed his Cessna into the building.

The day was clear and absolutely gorgeous, a slight north wind and low humidity, a well deserved break from what had been a hot and humid summer.  Not that I had seen much of the Carolina summer having returned from a deployment to Okinawa, Mainland Japan and Korea in late July. When I got to my car the local talk radio station was broadcasting a second or third tier national talk radio host and he was screaming “oh my God another plane just flew into the towers!”

I drove over to the gym where I joined a large crowd of Marines and Sailors transfixed as we watched the towers burn.  I went back to my office showered and went over to my battalion headquarters and was there when theSouthTowerwent down at 0959.

Since then a lot has changed.  I have made two deployments and traveled to the Middle East many more times.  I came back from my deployment to Iraq with a serious case of PTSD and a health distrust of the media, politicians, preachers and especially the talk radio hosts that I used to listen to as often as I could.  I remember being in Iraq in between missions to the far reaches of Al Anbar Province and watching the news on the televisions at the dining facility and wondering just what war that they were covering.

Before Iraq I could be considered a pretty solid “conservative” but now I really don’t know what I am.  Some call me “liberal” and in fact I was told to leave my old church last year because I had become “liberal.”  However, despite what some of the talk pundits and right wing preachers say just because a person is “liberal” does not mean that they are unpatriotic or do not care about our country or freedom.  After serving in Iraq and seeing how certain people have equated patriotism with adherence to their political agenda I wholeheartedly believe that a person’s patriotism has nothing to do with their politics or their religious beliefs.

Before IraqI was jaded by what happened to my dad’s generation after Vietnamwhen liberals called returning Veterans “baby killers” or “Nazis.”  In fact I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” in 1972 and in 1981 had some ass at UCLA call me a “ROTC Nazi.”  As a result I had little love for the Left.  After September 11th I followed the “conservative” talk radio crowd and Fox News more than I had ever before.  The emotions that they stirred up were primal.  But experience and reflection caused me to get beyond the pain of my past and the emotion of the present.  Just as I detest those that characterized my dad’s service or my service as being criminal I also detest those that say one cannot be critical of those that advocate for war regardless of the human and economic cost or actual strategic benefit.

I rejoiced when our SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden and every Al Qaeda leader that we have ushered into the arms of Allah.  They have caused unmitigated suffering around the world, not just to us but to their own Islamic neighbors and deserve no pity and since they refuse to give quarter should be shown none. If that sounds harsh I can’t help it. The attacks of 9-11 and the wars that have followed are personal.

At the same time I question the strategic purpose and value of the campaign in Afghanistan.  I see it as a potential disaster on the order of Stalingrad or Dien Bien Phu should the Pakistanis shut off the supply routes that constitute the major support to our troops there, especially if they did so in the winter months.

At the ten year mark I grieve for those that have lost their lives as well as loved ones in the attacks or in the wars that have followed.  On September 11th 2001 2977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on United Flight 93 which went down inPennsylvania.  One of those killed at the Pentagon was Lieutenant Colonel Karen Wagner was a classmate of my in 1983 at the Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course.

Since then 4474 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraqand 1760 in Afghanistan.  NATO or coalition allies, excluding the Iraqi and Afghani military or police forces have lost another 1270 military personnel.  Another 45,170 Americans have been wounded.  I know a decent number of those wounded and some of those that have died.  The losses are intensely personal and to think that we have lost well over twice the number killed on September 11th 2001 in two wars, many that were children aged 8-12 years old on that tragic September day.  Of course the numbers do not count those that died by their own hand after they returned from the war, a number that grows daily.

I have been changed by that tragic event. I still shudder when I see the video of United Air Lines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower or see the videos of the towers crashing down.  They are hard to watch and while I will observe the anniversary with prayers and a lot of reflection I do not know how much of the continuous media coverage of the anniversary that I will be able to watch.

The events of that tragic day changed me, and changed countless numbers of other Americans as well as others around the world.  While we yearn to return to the days before9-11-2001 that is impossible, there is too much water and too much blood that has passed under the bridge.   I know I can’t go back.  Maybe that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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