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Repeating Historical Myths: The Trump Administration and the “Stab in the Back”

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of the many flagrant lies, historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by President Trump and his supporters  is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens.

It is true that some myths can be positive and inspiring so long as they remain recognized as myth. But myths which are believed as truth lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others. The vast majority of the time this is done for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents, or to justify indefensible polices at home or abroad.

Myths also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

Just two days ago President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “stabbing President Trump in the back” following the G7 meeting in Quebec. The choice of words was not only unfortunate but buttresses every action that the President has taken to delegitimatize faithful allies and partners since long before his inauguration.  In doing so he embraced an infamous term used so often by the Nazis and others on the German right following the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to the fact that the German army was collapsing, the U-Boat campaign had failed, and the Navy’s High Seas Fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and incapable of defeating the Royal Navy and breaking the blockade that was strangling Germany.

The Stab in the Back was a fundamental belief of Hitler and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.”(Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

Today the President leads the way in promoting lies patently false myths in the name of his personal greatness which he shrouds himself while conflating that with making America great again all the while endangering the country. He has been promoting conspiracy theories for nearly a decade and has never stopped doing so or offered an apology for those words.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Sadly, it appears that the United States led by President Trump is following the path of Hitler’s Germany in terms of how it views the world and treats other nations and history will not be kind to us.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war one

The U-9 and the Advent of Submarine Warfare

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In September 1914 most naval experts held the submarine was not much of a threat. The submarines of the day were limited in range, diving depth, speed, armament and endurance. The U-9 was powered by kerosine engines on the surface which charged batteries which were used when the boats were submerged. Later submarines would be powered by diesel engines.

U-9 was small, displacing only 543 tons on surface and 674 submerged. She was just 188 feet long and had a beam of just 19.7 feet. As such, the living conditions for her crew of 4 officers and 25 enlisted men were less than spartan. She was armed with four 20 inch torpedo tubes, two forward and two aft and carried six torpedoes, four in the tubes and two reloads for the forward torpedo tubes.

The boat was commissioned in April 1910 and on the outbreak of the First World War she was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen.  On September 22nd 1914 with enormous battles raging on the Western Front and the High Seas Fleet in port the soon to be famous submarine was patrolling in the North Sea. The U-9 was about 18 miles off the Dutch Coast near the Hook of Holland when she encountered three ships of the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron.

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The squadron was composed of four obsolete Cressy Class Armored Cruisers, the HMS CressyHMS, Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Euryalus. each displacing 12,000 tons and mounting two 9.2” and 12 6” guns. Manned primarily by recently called up reservists the ships were derisively known as the “Live Bait Squadron” and on that September morning they would unfortunately live up to that title. However, Euryalus had been detached from the squadron on September 20th to return to Harwich to coal. The squadron commander, Rear Admiral Christian aboard Euryalus was prevented from transferring his flag due to high seas and command passed to Captain John Drummond of Aboukir.  Adding to the approaching tragedy was the fact that First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had sent a commander to the First Sea Lord, Sir Louis Battenberg that the ships should be removed from that duty because of “the risks to such ships is not justified by the services they render.” Battenberg initially agreed but was persuaded by his Chief of Staff, Admiral Charles Sturdee to keep them on station because they were better than nothing. Churchill assumed that his order had been obeyed and never followed up and the rest was history.

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HMS Cressy

The ships were steaming in a line ahead formation when Weddigen on the U-9 spotted them about 0600. They were not zig-zagging to lessen the chance of submarine attack and thought they had posted lookouts had no idea that U-9 was stalking them.

Otto Weddigen 

Weddigen on worked the boat into what he felt was a better firing position and launched his first torpedo at the center cruiser, the Aboukir at 0620 from a distance of just 550 yards. The torpedo struck her midships and broke her back. She began to sink and within 25 minutes capsize taking 527 of her crew of 760 down with her. Weddigen described the scene:

“There was a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation.”

Thinking that Aboukir had struck a mine the Cressy and Hogue moved in to rescue survivors. Weddigen had surfaced to observe the British and then fired two torpedoes into Hogue from a range of just 300 yards and then dived as Hogue opened fire. The torpedoes struck the ancient armored cruiser causing massive damage, which was compounded by the fact that her watertight doors were still open. Thus, within 15 minutes of being hit  Hogue capsized and sank.

Sketch of HMS Cressy Sinking 

The British now knew that a submarine was responsible for the attack and the last ship and after reloading his forward tubes attacked Cressy at 0720 firing two torpedoes from her stern tubes. Weddigen then surfaced in order to bring his bow tubes, now reloaded, into action and fired another shot.  As he did so the British cruiser opened fire and attempted to ram the surfaced U-9. But Cressy was unable to avoid the fate of her sisters, struck by two torpedoes she capsized and then sank at 0755.

In little more than an hour and a half U-9 had sunk three cruisers with a loss of 1459 British sailors. Only 837 crew members from all three ships survived.

Drawing of HMS Aboukir Sinking with HMS Hogue in Background

Weddigen then moved off as he knew that the British would be looking for the U-9. When the boat returned to port Weddigen  and his crew were hailed as heroes. Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the boat was one of only two ships of the Imperial Navy awarded the Iron Cross, the other being the Light Cruiser Emden.

The plucky U-9 would survive the war, sinking another cruiser, the HMS Hawke on October 15th 1914, less than a month after sinking Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy. She would also sink 13 other merchant ships or fishing boats for a total of over 50,000 tons. She was withdrawn from front line service in 1916 and assigned to training duties. Weddigen was killed on March 18th 1915 when his new command the U-29 was sunk.

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The U-9 Returns to Wilhelmshaven on September 24th 1914

Future First Sea Lord Dudley Pound then serving on the Battleship St. Vincent wrote: “Much as one regrets the loss of life one cannot help thinking that it is a useful warning to us — we had almost begun to consider the German submarines as no good and our awakening which had to come sooner or later and it might have been accompanied by the loss of some of our Battle Fleet”.

Submarines would go on to be one of the most feared and effective weapons developed for naval warfare. German U-Boats nearly brought Britain to its knees in both World Wars and the submarines of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet decimated the Japanese merchant fleet and inflicted great losses on the Imperial Japanese Navy. While the US Navy replaced its losses in early 1942 it was the submarine force that according to Admiral Chester Nimitz “held the lines against the enemy.”

Today the most deadly submarines ever built prowl underneath the surface of the world’s oceans. Nuclear powered and advanced diesel electric boats armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, and giant nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines armed with long range nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles provide an invisible deterrent.

Unlike 1914 today all navies take the submarine threat seriously. Should any significant naval war be fought in the Persian Gulf or the Pacific submarines will certainly have an impact not only at sea but in strategic strikes on enemy installations and land based units.

In 1914 no one would have thought that the success of the tiny U-9 would eventually lead to such a dominating weapon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, world war one

A Crisis of Character: Trump Emulates Kaiser Wilhelm II and War Beckons

Two of a Kind: Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

With every passing day the words of Theodore Roosevelt keep echoing in my mind. The President and hero of San Juan Hill noted: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” That is especially true as we all await to see if the actions of President Trump live up to his Tweet storms to defy the Constitution, and unleash missiles on Syria and the forces of Russia and Iran located in that suffering country.

I could never in a million years believed that I would see the day when the manifold transgressions of an American President threaten the both the Constitution and potentially the very existence of the United Staes.  First growing number of  of crises involving multiple indictments of Trump surrogates involved with the supposedly non-existent Russian interference and the President’s threats against the press, political opponents, prosecutors, and his own Department of Justice regarding the Trump campaign collusion with Russia are frightening on their own merits. But then there is the of potential nuclear war with North Korea. But for just a dash of spice let’s mention the President’s tweets of looming strikes on Syria and taunts against Russia. Frankly as recipes for disaster go this is like adding Ghost Peppers to a Sarin laced cheesecake, but I digress…

I think that it is important to see the President’s words and actions in light of a number of factors. The first and foremost of those is character, just as Theodore Roosevelt noted. President Trump may be a character; he may even be a hoot when he gets peed on by Putin paid prostitutes (if such rumors are true) but he shows little evidence of actually having character or being a man of honor.

That dear reader is really the problem, thus it is important to know how the character other leaders at other historical  influenced how they treated people, reacted to criticism, and led their nations into disaster.

In the American experience one is hard pressed to find a President with a similar temperament and character that corresponds to Donald Trump. Yes, Nixon had some similarities, Jackson as well, but both men even at their worst did, at least in public restrain themselves and Nixon, when confronted with the reality of certain impeachment did the country a favor by resigning. Of course American history is replete with other Presidents and leaders with a corresponding lack of character but none tweeted with their iPhone in one hand and the nuclear football in the other, although I assume that he has to put at least one down to eat his friend chicken as he gets his political strategy and intelligence briefings from Sean Hannity and Steve Doocey.

But the times have changed. At onetime there were leaders in the Republican Party who chose to honor the Constitution and their oaths over blind party loyalty or their determination to pass a certain legislative act. Their resistance to President Nixon was instrumental in his resignation in 1974. But there seem to be few current members of the GOP congressional delegations willing to stand either for fear of the Trump base, or blind determination to press on with tax cuts even if it means the sacrifice of the Constitution, nuclear war, or their own integrity.

But all that being said I do think that there is a leader from historywho in temperament was much like President Trump, who ended up helping to lead his nation and the world to the abyss of World War. That is not Adolf Hitler who many people often compare the President. I think that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his reliance on his radicalized base, including armed mobs in the street, and hyper-partisan allies in the right wing media, especially Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp which serves as his de-facto state media are similar, but they do not speak to the President’s unstable, narcissistic, and paranoid behaviors. I think that the better comparison is to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with whom the President seems to share many similarities, both in temperament and words.

As tensions built in the lead up to the First World War Kaiser Wilhelm alternated between threatening Russia with destruction and pleading with his cousin Czar Nicholas II for peace.

In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark wrote of Wilhelm in words that are strikingly reminiscent of the President.

“It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.

‘I am the sole master of German policy,’ he remarked in a letter to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go”

“Wilhelm frequently –especially in the early years of his reign –bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with the prevailing policy.

“It was in this last area –the unauthorized exposition of unsanctioned political views –that the Kaiser achieved the most hostile notice, both from contemporaries and from historians. There can be no doubt about the bizarre tone and content of many of the Kaiser’s personal communications in telegrams, letters, marginal comments, conversations, interviews and speeches on foreign and domestic political themes. Their exceptional volume alone is remarkable: the Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for posterity…”

Max Hastings wrote that Wilhelm “was a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.” Sean McMeekin in his book July 1914 wrote that Wilhelm had an “insecurity complex, a need for constant attention and acclaim. As one of his many critics put it, the kaiser needed to be “the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” He also noted “Eager for praise, taking offense at the merest slight, the kaiser was a difficult man to work for. Bismarck had disdained to gratify Wilhelm II’s fragile ego after he became emperor in 1888, which led to his sacking two years later.”

Like President Trump the Kaiser did experience some push back from different governmental ministers, and was somewhat restrained during the month leading up to the war, but his constant belligerence, instability, and unscripted remarks helped set the diplomatic and governmental crisis that led to the war. Of course this was not his fault alone, the Austrian-Hungarians, Serbians, Russians, French, and British all had a hand, but the Kaiser, through his words and actions during the three decades preceding the war bears much responsibility for what happened in 1914. If the Kaiser had had a Twitter account he would have certainly used it in a similar manner to President Trump.

But Germany had no checks and balances to restrain Wilhelm. He was an absolute monarch. Americans do still have institutional checks and balances to Presidential overreach or abuses should we choose to follow the Constitution, but for that to happen the leadership of the Republican Party must also act, as did their predecessors during the Nixon administration to put principle or party, and rule of law over blind obedience. This is not about partisanship; it is about the Constitution, our form of government, and yes, even the prevention of nuclear war, that being said I don’t think that todays Republicans would pass the test that Wilhelm’s advisors failed in 1914.

Character and temperament are very important in times of crisis and elevated tensions. Character is also fate. We should all tremble when we think of the lack of character and maturity shown by our President.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war one

The Harlem Hellfighters and Chicago “Black Devils”: Battling Racism and Germans on the Western Front in 1918

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The theme of Black History Month this year is African Americans in Times of War to coincide with the centennial of the end of the First World War.

In 1918 African Americans who in spite of the prejudice, intolerance and persecution they endured at home as a result of Jim Crow, still loved their country. They were men who labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America. Their stories cannot be allowed to be forgotten, nor can we allow Jim Crow and the intolerance of other movements which demean and persecute those who love this country because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

The African America men who volunteered included raw recruits as well as veteran soldiers who had already served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers, and when the United States entered the First World War, they were not wanted. Instead, the veterans  were left on the frontier and a new generation of African American draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.

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However in the beginning they too were kept out of action. These men were initially regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.

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Despite this the leadership of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force of General John Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command.

Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division. The Hellfighters stayed in line and under fire for 191 days, longer than any other American regiment, they also suffered the highest casualties of any American regiment, nearly 1,500 during a time when only 900 replacements were received. 170 soldiers of the regiment were awarded the Croix de Guerre for the valor they displayed in combat.

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The first of the Hellfighters so honored was then Private, later Sergeant Henry Johnson who was nicknamed Black Death for his prowess as a fighter. With Private Needham Roberts, Johnson fought off a platoon sized German patrol. They both were wounded and when they ran out of ammunition Roberts fought with the butt of his rifle and Johnson a Bolo knife. When Roberts was knocked unconscious Johnson fought alone and saved his comrade from capture. Some estimate that Johnson killed 4 and wounded up to 30 Germans in the fight. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama on June 2nd 2015, because he had no living relatives it was accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson.

The 370th “Black Devils” from Chicago were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.

These units performed with distinction. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur and Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.

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The 157th (Colonial) Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:

“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”

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While many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the black soldiers among the French, Southerners in particular warned the French of  the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.

“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”

Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”

Stowers

The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor reads as follows:

Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.

The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.

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Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre

Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.

Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49thMassachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”

Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country.

A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been ten years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me as opposed to . I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Momentous Days

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So as the Germans say bis spater.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Character and Leadership: Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Theodore Roosevelt noted: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

As the dual crises of indictments and potential nuclear war swirl around the White House I think that it is important to see the President’s words and actions in light of a number of factors. One of those, as Theodore Roosevelt noted is character. Thus it is important to know how the character other leaders at other times influenced how they treated people, reacted to criticism, and led their nations.

In the American experience one is hard pressed to find a President with a similar temperament and character that corresponds to Donald Trump. Yes, Nixon had some similarities, Jackson as well, but both men even at their worst did, at least in public restrain themselves and Nixon, when confronted with the reality of certain impeachment did the country a favor by resigning.

But that was a different time. There were leaders in the Republican Party who chose to honor the Constitution and their oaths over blind party loyalty or their determination to pass a certain legislative act. Their resistance to President Nixon was instrumental in his resignation in 1974. But there seem to be few current members of the GOP congressional delegations willing to stand either for fear of the Trump base, or blind determination to press on with tax cuts even if it means the sacrifice of the Constitution, nuclear war, or their own integrity.

But I do think that there is a leader who in temperament was much like President Trump, who ended up helping to lead his nation and the world to the abyss of World War. That is not Adolf Hitler who many people often compare the President. I think that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his reliance on his radicalized base, including armed mobs in the street, and hyper-partisan allies in the right wing media, especially Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp which serves as his de-facto state media are similar, but they do not speak to the President’s unstable, narcissistic, and paranoid behaviors. I think that the better comparison is to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with whom the President seems to share many similarities.

In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark wrote of Wilhelm in words that are strikingly reminiscent of the President.

“It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.

‘I am the sole master of German policy,’ he remarked in a letter to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go”

“Wilhelm frequently –especially in the early years of his reign –bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with the prevailing policy.

“It was in this last area –the unauthorized exposition of unsanctioned political views –that the Kaiser achieved the most hostile notice, both from contemporaries and from historians. There can be no doubt about the bizarre tone and content of many of the Kaiser’s personal communications in telegrams, letters, marginal comments, conversations, interviews and speeches on foreign and domestic political themes. Their exceptional volume alone is remarkable: the Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for posterity…”

Max Hastings wrote that Wilhelm “was a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.” Sean McMeekin in his book July 1914 wrote that Wilhelm had an “insecurity complex, a need for constant attention and acclaim. As one of his many critics put it, the kaiser needed to be “the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” He also noted “Eager for praise, taking offense at the merest slight, the kaiser was a difficult man to work for. Bismarck had disdained to gratify Wilhelm II’s fragile ego after he became emperor in 1888, which led to his sacking two years later.”

Like President Trump the Kaiser did experience some push back from different governmental ministers, and was somewhat restrained during the month leading up to the war, but his constant belligerence, instability, and unscripted remarks helped set the diplomatic and governmental crisis that led to the war. Of course this was not his fault alone, the Austrian-Hungarians, Serbians, Russians, French, and British all had a hand, but the Kaiser, through his words and actions during the three decades preceding the war bears much responsibility for what happened in 1914. If the Kaiser had had a Twitter account he would have certainly used it in a similar manner to President Trump.

But Germany had no checks and balances to restrain Wilhelm. He was an absolute monarch. Americans do still have institutional checks and balances to Presidential overreach or abuses should we choose to follow the Constitution, but for that to happen the leadership of the Republican Party must also act, as did their predecessors during the Nixon administration to put principle or party, and rule of law over blind obedience. This is not about partisanship; it is about the Constitution, our form of government, and yes, even the prevention of nuclear war.

Character and temperament are very important in times of crisis and elevated tensions. Character is also fate. We should all tremble when we think of the lack of character and maturity shown by our President.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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