Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pagans Have it Rough Too

I like to tell people who say they don't have time for "organized religion" that in fact it's pretty disorganized. Boring rituals? Trouble getting a congregation together? Difference over dogma and ritual? This piece from by Lee Ann Kinkaide suggests that our pagan friends suffer from the same problems. MP+

In a grove near you, pagans are gathering to celebrate Samhain, the night when the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and others, is thin. We will wear cloaks and have ritual daggers, called athemes, at our waists. The prerequisite silver jewelry will gleam in the firelight. Natural fabrics flow as freely as the mead. There will be an unfortunate excess of tie-dyed material. In other words, we will look most like your picture of witches.

This picture leaves out an important detail, and I don't mean the whole human-sacrifice-and-stealing-Christian-babies thing. Planning a ritual, whether it's for Halloween or any other holiday, is a conflict-filled battle. It's like trying to herd jack rabbits on horseback. Those who practice witchcraft tend to be strident nonconformists, and the very nature of paganism, which has no unifying body or text, means that we have no obligation to believe the same thing or listen to anything beyond the dictates of our own consciences to unite in perfect accord. Often we flow together, achieving unity in which we are transported beyond ourselves, connected with the earth we love and the energy we feel from it.

And just as often, we don't.

Read the whole article here.

Yoga, Curry Make for Good Army Training

There's been a joint US-India military exercise going on recently, but the press briefs from last week didn't catch my eye as much as this one today did. It's always nice when spirituality and cultural awareness are part of the takeways from training. MP+

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

CAMP BUNDELA, India, Oct. 30, 2009 - It's 6 a.m. and as the sun rises, U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon Vacchelli sits on a mat in the grass, cross-legged, eyes closed and index and thumb fingers pressed together with his palms facing up.

Hummmm. Hummmm, he murmurs.

Off and on for the past two weeks, Vacchelli and others in the 2nd Squadron, 14th Calvary Regiment, took off their running shoes and traded their standard Army physical training for a little inner peace.

Army Pfc. Pherelle Fowler, with 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, stretches during yoga class at Camp Bundela, India, Oct. 24, 2009. During the two-week exercise, U.S. soldiers participated in Indian sports, ate Indian food and participated in other cultural events. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

Sports included hitting, or trying to hit, a white ball with a polo mallet through a goal, while riding a bicycle.

And hamburgers and fries were swapped with mutton curry and naan.

The soldiers deployed here to train with the Indian army's 7th Mechanized Infantry Battalion. Dubbed "Yudh Abhyas," loosely translated as war preparation, it is the largest military exercise to date with the Indians. The two armies soldiered side by side, firing weapons and trading equipment. But perhaps the most valuable lessons learned were not those on the battlefield.

Read the whole article here.

Another Canadian Soldier Killed in Afghanistan

The latest Canadian rotation in Afghanistan suffered a second fatal casualty yesterday when Sapper Steve Marshall, an engineer with 11 Field Squadron, 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, was killed by an IED while on foot patrol southwest of Kandahar City in the Panjwai district. Sapper Marshall was twenty four years old and had just over two years service with the Canadian Forces. He becomes the 133rd Canadian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. He had been in theatre for only one week.

Brigader-General Vance, the Canadian commander in theatre, was quoted by CBC News as saying that "Steven will be remembered as the life of his section. He had an incredible sense of humour and a contagious grin that never left his face even in the most difficult of times. He would embrace every situation and always found and shared that silver lining with his mates." A video of the Brigadier-General's press brief may be found here.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

In other news, Alanna Boyes, the widow of Lt. Justin Boyes, killed earlier this week, said this about her husband.

"Before he left, I told him he was a gallant warrior of the 21st century because whether it was leading a combat operation, doing house renos or changing a poopy diaper, he knew what to do. He said recently we're not losing this war. But if we do, it's because we lost it at home first. Please support our boys, they are making progress."

The ramp ceremony for Lt. Boyes occurred in Kandahar this Thursday. At the ceremony, CBC quoted Padre Yvonne Mills as praising Boyes for his "keen, calm, and motivated nature" and "a dedicated friend, caring for others, he was athletic and a devoted husband, father, son and brother."

Friday, October 30, 2009

Christian Science Monitor Warns About Proposed Islamic Global Blasphemy Law

An interesting comment by the CSM about the limits of religious law in a pluralistic world. MP+

As a new member of the UN Human Rights Council, the US must persuade other countries not to go along.
By the Monitor's Editorial Board
from the October 27, 2009 edition

Remember the Danish "Muhammad cartoons" that set off riots by offended Muslims more than three years ago? The debate pitted freedom of press and speech against notions of freedom from insult of one's religion. It rages still – but now in a forum with international legal implications.

For years, Islamic nations have succeeded in passing "blasphemy" resolutions at the United Nations (in the General Assembly and in its human rights body). The measures call on states to limit religiously offensive language or speech. No one wants their beliefs ridiculed, but the freedom to disagree over faith is what allows for the free practice of religion. The resolutions are misguided, but also only symbolic, because they're nonbinding.

Symbolism no longer satisfies the sponsor of these resolutions – the Organization of the Islamic Council. Under the leadership of Pakistan, the 57-nation OIC wants to give the religious antidefamation idea legal teeth by making it part of an international convention, or legally binding treaty. Members of the UN Human Rights Council are passionately debating that idea in Geneva this week.

Vatican row delays Anglo-Catholic text

Sounds like some internal dissenssion at GHQ Tiber WRT last week's overture to conservative Anglicans. MP+

From Times Online
October 29, 2009
Richard Owen in Rome

A row has broken out behind the Vatican walls over the "confusion" surrounding Pope Benedict XVI's opening to disaffected Anglicans, according to a papal biographer.

Andrea Tornielli, the biographer of several modern Popes including Pope Benedict, said that just over a week after its existence was revealed by the Vatican, the text of the Apostolic Constitution laying down the conditions for the creation of a new "Anglo-Catholic" section of the Church was still not ready for publication.

This was not because of translation problems but "something more serious", Mr Tornielli said. There was still debate behind the scenes over priestly celibacy, the "most sensitive point for public opinion".

Read the whole article here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Data Shows Suicides in CF Increased Last Year

Canadian Press ran a story yesterday reporting that the suicide rate within the regular Canadian Forces is climbing since the number of suicides in 2008 (15) is compared to the number for 2007 (11). The report also drew attention to the fact that the CF does not release data on suicides for CF reservists, who also serve in Afghanistan. The story was also picked up by CBC and other news outlets.

In an interview mentioned in the CP article, Commodore Han Jung, the Canadian Forces' top doctor, said that the CF suicide rate per 100,000 compares favourably to the US military, in part because tours of duty overseas are much shorter for Canadian personnel.

In a separate story, CBC put a human face on one of these suicides, Pte. Frédéric Couture, wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, who killed himself at home in Quebec a year later.

Canadian Soldier Killed In Afghanistan

A young infantry officer, Lt. Justin Garrett Boyes, became the 132nd Canadian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. According to CBC News, he was killed yesterday, October 28th, by an IED (improvised explosive device) while on a foot patrol 20km from Kandahar in the Panjwayi district. Lt. Boyes was serving as a mentor with the Afghan National Police at the time. Two Canadian soldiers were also wounded.

Lt. Boyce belonged to the 3rd Battalion of the Prince Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, out of Edmonton, Alberta. He was 26 and was ten days into his second tour of Afghanistan. He leaves behind a wife and son, and a brother serving with 2 PPCLI.

The MND's statement may be read here.

In related news, CBC News also released figures suggesting that Canadian soldiers have a proportionately higher chance of being killed in Afghanistan than do other ISAF troops.

Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

President Obama Attends Repatriation at Dover AFB

In mil-speak, a "repatriation" is the return of the remains of the fallen from theatre. It's a new thing in military history. In previous wars, Canadian and American dead were mostly buried where they fell. Now they come home for burial. In Canada, because we've had a relatively and blessed few deaths, each of the fallen returns to CFB Trenton, where the dead soldiers and their families are honoured by the Governor-General, the Minister of Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, and/or other digniaries. I've heard one American soldier say gently that Canada's ceremonies are "over the top", by which he meant, I think, that his country can't spare the resources or the energy for our level of ceremony.

He's right in the sense that with over 4000 dead returning to the US through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, it would be unfeasible to make all repatriations into high ceremonies. However, today President Barack Obama did something that his predecessor never did, and flew out to Dover before sunrise to attend the repatriation of fifteen US soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agency staff killed in Afghanistan. The bodies came off the plane in flag-wrapped transfer cases, carried by soldiers, and after prayers by a chaplain, began their final journeys home.

President Barack Obama salutes as a carry team carries the transfer case containing the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., who, accordng to the Department of Defense died in Afghanistan, during the dignified transfer event at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

To be fair to President George W. Bush, he preferred to visit privately with the families of fallen soldiers. However, it's possible that Obama felt the need to make this pilgrimage as he weighs whether to commit more US troops to go to Afghanistan in the coming months. American Press reported that Obama was moved by attending the repatriation:

"It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said later Thursday, hours after his return to the White House. "The burden that both our troops and their families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts, and it is something that I think about each and every day."

Kudos to Obama for making the journey.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

US Administrator Resigns in Afghanistan, PTSD Part of His Story

By all accounts, Zabul Province in Afghanistan, east of Kandahar and on the Pakistan border, is one of the most primitive place on earth one US Army officer has said that it is so undeveloped it is "Biblical". It has been in the news of late because a US State Department employee named Matt Hoh, who worked in Zabul, issued a very public four page resignation letter that was picked up in The Washington Post and showed up last night on the Jim Lehrer News Hour and a host of other places, I am sure. In his resignation letter, he stated that the US, like the Soviets before them, are attempting to "bolster a failing state while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people". The Post has labelled Hoh "the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war".

There's a lot of debate in the blogopshere about whether Hoh is an isolated prima donna or whether he is right to say that our future in Afghanistan looks pretty grim.

It's above my pay grade to decide if Hoh was right to resign or not. He evidently felt in his articulate, four-page letter that he was right. What caught my attention in the story is that Hoh, 36, who served with the US Marine Corps before taking a contract with the State Department, admits that he suffers from PTSD. In December 2006, while serving in Iraq, he was in a helicopter that crashed near the Haditha Damn. Hoh escaped, but was unable to save several friends from drowning.

"It wasn't until his third month home, in an apartment in Arlington, that it hit him like a wave. "All the things you hear about how it comes over you, it really did. . . . You have dreams, you can't sleep. You're just, 'Why did I fail? Why didn't I save that man? Why are his kids growing up without a father?' "

Like many Marines in similar situations, he didn't seek help. "The only thing I did," Hoh said, "was drink myself blind."

What finally began to bring him back, he said, was a television show -- "Rescue Me" on the FX cable network -- about a fictional New York firefighter who descended into "survivor guilt" and alcoholism after losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks."

It's possible that this experience will be used to dismiss Hoh's objections to the war. One Canadian blogger, whose views I greatly respect, puts it this way: "Junior-grade diplomat with PTSD pulls pin after 2 months. Check. The simple statistical fact is that PTSD sufferers are more likely to jump ship or otherwise be sent home from tours. And the two-month point of a tour is about the lowest you go, and the most bewildered you feel. The only notable thing about this seems to be the better-than-average quality of the departure letter."

The last comment, about the two-month mark in a tour, whether you have PTSD or not, is a good takeaway point for this military chaplain, as well as the need to be aware of the baggage that some guys are carrying when they are asked to climb some pretty big and lonely hills. As to Matt Hoh, it remains to be seen how he'll be viewed by historians. Politicians and journalists will make of him what they will. Hopefully the PTSD angle isn't exaggerated here.

Padre supports British troops in Afghanistan

From the UK MOD news blog. The quote at the end of the article is quite good. MP+

A People In Defence news article
28 Oct 09

Support for British troops on operations in Afghanistan comes in many different forms, including chaplains, who cater for many religious beliefs as well as being a source of support for all those who need them.

One such chaplain, who serves the Royal Air Force, is Reverend (Wing Commander) Andrew Turner, who currently ministers at Kandahar Airfield, a coalition military base for the International Security Assistance Force with reputedly one of the busiest single runway airports in the world, second only to London Gatwick.

Reverend (Wing Commander) Andrew Turner officiating at the Battle of Britain Sunset Ceremony held at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan
[Picture: Sgt Gemma Bibby, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

Padre Turner also assists at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, the main British military base in Afghanistan.

Having started his working life training to be a solicitor, followed by a job as an Administrative Assistant for the Ipswich Health District, Padre Turner's thoughts switched to joining the Ministry.

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notable Quotable: On the Convenience of War By Remote Control

"The debate is that we've been doing this so long we're now bombing low-level guys who don't deserve a Hellfire missile up their ass." Roger Cressey, former US National Security Council official.

That quote is from Jane Mayer's excellent and provocative piece, "The Predator War", which appeared in last week's (Oct 26, 2009) issue the The New Yorker magazine. As it turns out, Cressey is a proponent of using the remotely controlled Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drones to reach out and kill militants on either side of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Some facts that might surprise you from the article include:

1) The Obama administration, which has been accused by some of dithering on Afghanistan, has in fact launched more Predator attacks in its first nine and a half months in office than the George W. Bush administration launched in its final three years. Many of these attacks occured in Pakistan.

2) The US runs two Predator drone vehicles. The American military operates nearly two hundred Predator drones. An unknown number are operated by the CIA.

3) In 2009, Predator drone strikes have killed between 326 and 538 people. An unknown number of these were civilians, so-called collateral damage.

The ethical questions raised by the article are important. Targetted killings have been used before by Britain and Israel to preempt terrorist organizations, but the Predator program raises of accountability and convenience. As the program expands, which targets are deemed legitimate, how are the costs of collateral damage assessed, and what is the impact on local populations?

These questions became very real for me and some fellow Canadian Forces chaplains today when an infantry lieutenant-colonel who had been in theatre showed us some Predator footage taken very recently in Afghanistan. In these eerily clear videos, taken at night, human bodies show up in the thermal imaging as busy black dots. For the commander viewing this imagery in a command post, it is vital intelligence - those black dots could be insurgents planting roadside improvised explosive devices, or moving into or away from an ambush position. However, the commander seeing these images may only have a brief window of time to order an airstrike that will obliterate those little black dots.

Watching these videos in class, I was reminded of what counter-insurgency expert Andrew Exum was quoted as saying in Mayer's article about the impact of this technology on the warrior ethos: "As a military person, I put myself in the shoes of someone in FATA (Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas "and there's something about pilotless drones that doesn't strike me as an honorable way of warfare. As a classics major, I have a classical sense of what it means to be a warrior. There's something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment iof we go too far down this road." Which sounds good for Exum, perhaps, but for the young Lt.Col who showed us that footage, the chance to blow up the dudes who killed some of his men the previous day with an IED is too good to pass up, and a legitimate way to pursue his goals.

You can read an interview with Mayer here, and there is also a transcript of Mayer's Oct 22 interview with Rachel Maddow here.

Mike Jernigan Again on Living With PTSD

Earlier this month I posted a link to the NYT's Homefires series on Mike Jernigan, a US Marine who wounds in Iraq included the loss his vision in Iraq. In this piece he speaks more about coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jernigan is an amazing guy and well worth reading to understand what wounded veterans are living with. MP+

The New York Times
October 25, 2009, 9:00 pm
The Minefield at Home
By Michael Jernigan

In August 2004, while on patrol with my Marine unit in Mahmudiya, Iraq, I was severely wounded by a roadside bomb. My wounds included a crushed skull and right hand, traumatic brain injury and the loss of both my eyes.

I am not alone. In the past eight years, many of the 35,000 American soldiers wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home. But many of us have also returned with deep emotional wounds, and those are harder to see.

In fact, they’re often invisible, which is why so many returning soldiers feel so lost back home. Those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder — I’m one of them — feel like strangers here, carrying around a burden many people are unaware of or just can’t understand. The possibilities for misunderstandings, collisions and alienation are great.

Read the whole piece here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Good Soldiers

Most war stories follow the same narrative arc: a young and inexperienced group of soldiers go to battle. They are "baptized" by battle. Not all come home. Those who do come home are changed, damaged, and often disillusioned.

The fact that this arc verges on the cliche does not diminish its truthfulness, nor does it detract from the sadly profound and necessary duty of soldiers to follow this arc when country and politicians ask that journey of them. Journalist David Finkel accompanied an American army unit to Baghdad in 2007 and his account of their journey is literary, truthful, and moving.

Finkel tells the story largely through the eyes of Ralph Kauzlarich, the commander of an infantry battalion, the 2-16th, 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which was stood up in 2006 and sent to Iraq in 2007 as part of the famous "Surge" effort to suppress the insurgency and pacify the country. Kaulzarich emerges as a likeable man, faithful to his family, to God and to his soldiers, a good commander and as someone who, perhaps naively, believed in his mission. His stock phrase, "It's all good", which soldiers use often when things aren't so good, becomes a sort of theme or leitmotif for the book.

"He would say it on his way to the chapel, where he would attend Catholic Mass coducted by a priest who had to be flown in by helicopter because a previous priest was blown up in a Humvee. He would say it in the dining facility, where he always had two servings of milk with his dinner. He would say it when he went in his Humvee into the neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad, where more and more roadside bombs were exploding now that the surge was under way, killing soldiers, taking off arms, taking off legs, causing concussions, exploding ear drums, leaving some soldiers angry and others vomiting and others in sudden tears. Not his soldiers, though. Other soldiers. From other battalions. "It's all good," he would say when he came back. It could seem like a nervous tic, this thing that he said, or a prayer of some sort. Or maybe it was a declaration of optimism, simply that, nothing more, becuase he was optimistic, even though he was in the midst of a war that to ther American public, and the American media, and even to some in the American military, seemed all over in April 2007, except for the president, the praying, and the nervous tics.
But not to him. "Well, here are the differences,", George W. Bush had said, announcing the surge, and Ralph Kauzlarich had thought: We'll be the difference. My battalion. My soldiers. Me. And every day since then he had said it - "it's all good" - after which he might say the other thing he often said, always without irony and utterly convinced: "We're winning." He liked to say that, too. Except now, on April 6, 2007, at 1:00am, as someone banged on his door, waking him up, he said something different. "What the fuck?" he said, opening his eyes" (pp. 6-7).

That wake-up call for Kauzlarich was the first of many attacks on the 2-16th that would kill fourteen soldiers and wound dozens, leaving many with horrific burns, multiple amputations, and brain injuries. For over a year this battalion occupied an eastern neighbourhood of Baghdad called Rustamiyah, a neighbourhood infested with insurgents and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) capable of burning through the most heavily armoured parts of American vehicles. Upon their arrival, one 2-16th soldier looked at the streets strewn with trashpiles and said "We ain't ever gonna be able to find an IED in all this shit" (p. 17). It turns out to be a prophetic remark.

Finkell tells the story of the 2-16th's year in Rustamiyah with great sympathy, literary skill, and a great understanding of how soldiers think and act. His sympathy also extends to the Iraqis: the interpreter the Americans called Izzy, trying to support his family at the risk of death from insurgents ("You see, I'll feel happy when I just get killed by a bullet in my head - because I expect worse than that" p. 167), or Qasim, an Iraqi police colonel who sticks with the Americans after most of his men desert.

Most haunting of all are Finkell's descriptions of the Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire:

"Here was another family - father, mother, two children - with filthy faces, in filthy clothing, hiddled against a filthy wall on a filthy street, and was this the family Kauzlarich had in mind when he was still at Fort Riley talking about success? "The end state, in my opinion, the end state in Iraq, would be that Iraqi children can go out on a soccer field and play safely. Parents can let their kids go out and play, and they don't have a concern in the world. Just like us," he had said, and then asked: "Is that possible? (p. 250). That paragraph is typical of Finkell's style - the use of repetition ("filthy") to hammer home a point, the movement back and forth between pre-deployment hope and the disillusionment of the unfolding mission, and the irony hanging in the unanswered question "Is that possible?"

For all its moments of sadness and tragedy, there are moments of black comedy as well, as in this description of a rocket attack on the 2-16th's base:

"You guys getting hit?" It was another FOB, calling in to the 2-16th operations center.
"Yeah", said the sergeant who'd grabbed the phone.
"Can you tell us anything about it?"
"Yeah. It sucks." (p. 221)

I was disappointed that there was little mention of chaplaincy in the 2-16th, other than the mention of an RC padre being blown up early on (see above). Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to military chaplains, who will learn much about the how soldiers process (or fail to process) combat, about the effects of PTSD and of injuries, and about the impact of war and separation on families. This passage describes the toll on marriages and families by the time soldiers are preparing for their mid-tour leaves:

"For a lot of soldiers, home is a place of disaster right now," a mental health specialist amed James Tczap, who worked in Combat Stress and was a captain, said one day. "It's a broken relationship, a fractured relationship, a suspicious relationship. Even the functional relationships are challenged by the disconnect." Worse, even, he said, was the belief soldiers held that when they went home on their mid-deployment leave, everything would be better than it ever was. "There's an anger in guys when they go back. They want to go home and be normal, and they're not quite normal," he said, and added, "Coming back from leave is the worst part of the deployment". (p. 179). This comment, by the way, is born out by the experience of my chaplain colleagues who report that the soldiers who take their mid-tour leaves in third country locations do better upon return to theatre than their colleagues who go home to Canada.

Today, more than a year after the 2-16th did its part in the surge, there is some hope that it was all worthwhile. US troops no longer patrol Iraqi cities. Scheduled US deployments there are being cancelled. Finkell's concluding words suggest that as Kauzlarich left Baghdad on the last helicopter, this hope was more believed than perceived: "Up rose the helicopters with their hatches still open, allowing Kauzlarich a last perfect view of the surge. Instead of opening his eyes, though, he closed them. They had won. He was sure of it. They were the difference. It was all good. But he had seen enough" (p. 273).

Different Takes on NATO

I was in Chapters today and while I was tempted by former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier's autobiography, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, I opted for Mark Zuelkhe's excellent book on the Canadians in Normandy, Holding Juno. Apparently though everyone else is reading Hillier. Chantal Hebert writes in the Toronto Star that Hillier's book will be the final "nail in the coffin" of the Canadian mission in Kandahar, and that the Big Cod's scathing critique of the mission will prevent the PM from continuing it in its current form even if he wanted to.

Ms. Hebert's own paper interviewed Hillier and found that he certainly has no intention of encouraging anyone in Ottawa from ending the mission. To continue the Normandy theme a bit longer, Hillier says in the interview that ony pursuing reconstruction and aid projects in Afghanistan "be like going to shore at Normandy on the sixth of June (1944) and driving around ... sightseeing and leaving the enemy the opportunity, flexibility and initiative to attack you when they want."

Apparently Hillier's book does not come as a great endorsement of NATO. In another piece in the Toronto Star, Hillier is quoted as saying that without some breathing some life through NATO's "rotten lips into those putrescent lungs" the alliance will have no future.

There may be some signs that NATO is going to avoid this zombie fate. Besides producing spiffy Eurovideos, reports from yesterday's meeting of NATO heads in Bratislavia suggest that they are coming around to US General McChrystall's troop-heavy COIN strategy for Afghanistan. US Defence Secretary Gates is quoted as saying that "There seems to be a renewed [NATO] commitment that we have to do this and get this done right. This is an alliance issue".

Which raises an interesting question. If NATO comes around to backing the US in an expanded military footprint in Afghanistan, will that encourage the Prime Minister to reverse our position and continue substantially past 2011, especially given his rising poll numbers? After all, the Big Cod apparently says in his book that the US had pretty much "written us off" in 2003 because "of a poor reputation the Canadian military had developed in the view of its allies as hesitant to commit, reluctant to engage and held hostage by bureaucrats in Ottawa." After all the blood and treasure we've spent since 2003, do we really want to go back to that state of affairs while our NATO allies are going forward?

Notable Quotable: John R. Allen on How Many Anglicans Might Go To Rome

John Allen is Vatican reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. This quote comes from a panel discussion aired yesterday on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:

"ALLEN: Well, the signals from the Catholic side, at least, is that expectations are this is going to be a fairly small number of folks. When Cardinal Levada was asked this question at a Vatican briefing earlier in the week, he said that there were 20 or 30 Anglican bishops in various parts of the world who had put out feelers, but of course putting out feelers is different than signing on the bottom line. And at the grassroots the expectation is that at least in the early stages you’re talking about fairly small pockets of people who will be coming over."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Military Picture of the Week

It's Friday and it's time for another Military Picture of the Week, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel.

Never a good thing to find that your banana hammock is leading the parade.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Top Canadian Anglican Not Worried About Rome's Overture

Excerpt from the official response of Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, to the recent Vatican overture to Anglican church members to convert to Catholicism.

"From a Canadian perspective I do not foresee a groundswell of response to these provisions. I say this knowing that even among those who have separated themselves from the Anglican Church of Canada, there is an abiding desire to remain in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to maintain a place within the family of churches we know as the Anglican Communion."

The Primate appears to think that most Anglicans will prefer their "imperfect communion" and its commitment to "dialogue" over Rome's embrace. He's probably right that we won't see huge numbers of defections, and certainly, for ACC church leaders, this may be another chance to be rid of some troublesome priests. However, the Primate's Johannine hope that we will all "be one" (John 17:21)seems somewhat faint today.

Read the Primate's statement complete here.

Notable Quotable: A Canadian Captain on Afghan Detainees

Quoted in Thomas Rick's blog The Best Defence, these words by a Canadian intelligence officer recently in Afghanistan offer a new take on the supposed mistreatment of Afghan detainees. MP+

"[I]t's fair to say that every high level insurgent in the province has been through the mill at least once. More problematic to me was the disposition of detainees while in custody, either left to sit around in the intelligence office, or sometimes next to the brigade commander as shown here for extended periods. It's fair to say that any bona fide insurgent in ANA custody probably learned more from the experience than the other way around."

Rome's Anglican Overture Raises Celibacy Question

I was posting in jest yesterday about how Rome's invitation to Anglicans would expose RC congregations to jokes about married clergy. As yesterday's news is digested, some are now questioning if, as a friend of mine wondered aloud yesterday, this is the beginning of the end for celibate Roman clergy? MP+

Offer Raises Idea of Marriage for Catholic Priests
Published: October 21, 2009

ROME — In making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to become Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI once again revealed the character of his papacy: to reach out to the most fervent of like-minded believers, even if they are not Catholic. Yet some observers wonder whether his move could paradoxically liberalize the church — or at least wedge it open — on a crucial issue: celibacy.

The invitation also extends to married Anglican clergy. And so some have begun to wonder, even if the 82-year-old Benedict himself would never allow it, would more people in the Roman Catholic Church begin to entertain the possibility of married Catholic priests?

Read the whole article here.

PBS Frontline Documentary Nails the Afghanistan Question

I'm a great fan of PBS' Frontline documentary show, and their show on Afghanistan, Obama's War,absolutely captures the potential and the pitfalls of the current moment and America's choice of how to proceed in Afghanistan.

Besides the interviews with key players like General McChrystall, the best parts of the show come from journalist Martin Smith's time spent with a US Marine company in Helmand province. Watching the great patience of these soldiers as they leave their spartan base daily for long and dangerous patrols, as they reach out to local Afghans and try to persuade them that they can be safe and secure from the Taliban, makes you appreciate the difficult task that we in the West have given to our soldiers there.

During one of these conversations, the question of one Afghan villager, "If you guys can't win this war, how can we help you?" sums up the problem - when can we provide enough security for the locals to feel secure, and when will the locals trust that we have the will to stay long enough to do this job?

For students of military chaplaincy, the last few minutes of the show features a chaplain leading worship at a Marine FOB in Helmand province. MP+

Watch the full documentary online here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Church Joke of the Week

I was thinking after my last post that if Rome is serious about welcoming Anglican clergy and their spouses, then they had better be prepared for the subgenre of church jokes involving clergy families, such as the one below. MP+

A pastor's wife was expecting a baby, so he stood before the congregation and asked for a raise. After much discussion, they passed a rule that whenever the preacher's family expanded, so would his pay cheque. After six children, this started to get expensive and the congregation decided to hold another meeting to discuss the preacher's expanding salary. A great deal of yelling and bickering ensued about how much the clergyman's additional children were costing the church and how much more it could potentially cost. After listening to them for about an hour, the pastor rose from his chair and spoke, "Children are a gift from God, and we will take as many gifts as He gives us". Silence fell on the congregation.

In the back pew, a little old lady struggled to stand, and finally said in her frail voice, "Rain is also a gift from God, but when we get too much of it, we wear rubbers." The entire congregation said, "Amen."

Anglicans Welcomed Home?

A lot of conversation at the breakfast table this morning on my chaplain's course at CFB Borden about the invitation issued to Anglicans by Rome yesterday. My protestant colleagues are wondering if I'm going to be swayed by this fellow:

The New York Times reported and other media reported yesterday that the Vatican has made a very public invitation to conservative Anglicans, disaffected from their own church, to convert to Roman Catholicism while keeping some key Anglican characteristics. Here's an excerpt from the NYT coverage:

"[Vatican City] In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican said Tuesday that it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions.

Anglicans would be able “to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a news conference here."

Read the whole article here.

The Globe and Mail today was sceptical of this overture in its editorial:

"Conservative Anglicans will welcome this, but it is a one-sided attempt to reconcile faiths. The Anglican leadership in England, wracked by the defection of conservative churches, had no choice but to accept. Catholics who look for flexibility from their own leadership for themselves, over doctrinal and moral questions - communion for divorcees, abortion, female ordination - get the party line.

Catholic and Anglican faithful in Canada need a different kind of reconciliation. Weekly church attendance is in decline, seminaries are emptying, and some dioceses are struggling financially. Concrete co-operation in Canada would mean consolidation of churches and occasional joint observance of services and sacraments."

Other Globe and Mail coverage here.

Well known conservative Anglican commentator Kendall Harmon offered his own comments, saying that the invitation shows that Rome has lost its faith in Anglican attempts at unity and reconciliation: "They [Rome] don't see a future of greater Anglican unity they see one of greater Anglican splintering. At this level, it represents a shout which one wonders if any Anglicans will hear."

Read Harmon's entire text here.

For my own part, there is much to think through here and I hope to study this in more detail. However, I am mindful of several colleagues in the Anglican Church of Canada, faithful and devoted women priests with great gifts, and wonder what this invitation means to them?

British Soldier and Artist Exhibits His Work From Afghanistan

Part of the story of our involvement in Afghanistan is being told by artists, and much of their work has yet to be seen. Today the UK Ministry of Defence released this image by Matthew Cook, a solider in the Territorial Army who is also an artist and who has portrayed some of his experiences while in theatre. This drawing "shows a Chinook helicopter resupply at the Forward Operating Base in Sangin, Afghanistan. The orange smoke grenade marks the helicopter landing site and indicates wind direction."

See more on Matthew Cook and his work here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Military Wife Writes Book on Her Experience

I haven't read this book yet, but I can relate to the author's experience somewhat since my own wife, Kay, became a military wife somewhat late in life, with no real history in her family of anyone serving in the military. Books like this help explain the role of the "forgotten soldier", the military spouse. MP+

Author Draws on ‘Outsider’ Perspective
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

NEW YORK, Oct. 19, 2009 – Alison Buckholtz had no desire to marry into the military, but when she fell for her husband, an active-duty Navy pilot, she became a Navy wife.

Alison Buckholtz, author of “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War,” published by Tarcher/Penguin, visits with “Sesame Street” character Elmo on the New York set of a Sesame Workshop “Talk, Listen, Connect” video, Oct. 14, 2009. Courtesy photo by Gil Vaknin

The couple married shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Buckholtz’s military education began at the same time.

“I basically thought servicemembers were robots and their spouses were unambitious, at best,” she said. “That was because, growing up, there was no member of my family who had served. I didn’t have any teachers who were in the military, no neighbors.

“I really knew no one [who had served in the military],” she added.

She was thrilled to have her preconceived notions of military life shattered, however. “What I found was much richer and more interesting than what I had thought it to be,” Buckholtz said.

Buckholtz would identify her husband only by his first name, Scott, and his occupation -- an EA-6B Prowler jet pilot who’s serving a 12-month individual augmentation assignment with an Army unit in Iraq. Her learning curve on how to be an officer’s wife was a steep one, she acknowledged. Most military wives whose husbands held the rank her husband held when he deployed for his command tour aboard an aircraft carrier beginning in 2007 hadn’t started out at that level, she explained.

Read the whole article here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Notable Quotable: General Stanley McChrystal

"We don't need 31 flavors to win a war."

General McChrystal explains why he's banishing Baskin Robbins and other fast food outlets from American bases in theatre. From Newsweek magazine, 5 October, 2009. Read the piece online here.

General McChrystal meets with U.S. and Afghan commanders at Forward Operating Base Delhi in Helmand Province. From the NYT Magazine, Oct. 14, 2009.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending

This story from the NYT on how libraries are beginning to offer ebooks caught my eye for several reasons. As a former library board member, it was clear that even ten years ago the changing nature of literacy and changes in media were going to challenge libraries to diversify their holdings. Also, of late I'm looking into ebooks, though I am still trying to determine if I want to go the Amazon Kindle route or the Sony ebook reader route. Depends on what's available for either platform, but either way, if I can borrow ebooks from my library, then it doesn't matter what the holdings are in my small town library and that's a big plus. MP+

Here's the article from the NY Times:

Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending

Published: October 14, 2009

Kate Lambert recalls using her library card just once or twice throughout her childhood. Now, she uses it several times a month.

The lure? Electronic books she can download to her laptop. Beginning earlier this year, Ms. Lambert, a 19-year-old community college student in New Port Richey, Fla., borrowed volumes in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold and a vampire novel by Laurell K. Hamilton, without ever visiting an actual branch.

“I can just go online and type my library card number in and look through all the books that they have,” said Ms. Lambert, who usually downloads from the comfort of her bedroom. And, she added, “It’s all for free.”

Eager to attract digitally savvy patrons and capitalize on the growing popularity of electronic readers, public libraries across the country are expanding collections of books that reside on servers rather than shelves.

The idea is to capture borrowers who might not otherwise use the library, as well as to give existing customers the opportunity to try new formats.

“People still think of libraries as old dusty books on shelves, and it’s a perception we’re always trying to fight,” said Michael Colford, director of information technology at the Boston Public Library. “If we don’t provide this material for them, they are just going to stop using the library altogether.”

Read the whole article here.

Military Picture of the Week

From my brother the Mad Colonel. Don't know the provenance of this one but it looks like a chorus of Navy SEALS (or the Asian equivalent).

Friday, October 16, 2009

British police officer boosts Afghan female police

Every now and then a story comes along which hints at the profound degree of change our involvement in Afghanistan can bring. Unless you're a total cultural relativist, I think you'd agree that it's a positive change. This story from the UK MOD speaks to how the role of women in Afghan society is changing. MP+

MOD police officer boosts Afghan female police
A Military Operations news article
15 Oct 09

Isabella McManus training a female Afghan police recruit in the use of firearms
[Picture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

MOD police officer Isabella McManus is the first British female police officer to work in Afghanistan training and mentoring the Afghan National Police. Since her arrival the number of women who want to join Afghanistan's Police Force has doubled.

Isabella McManus has been in the MOD Police for 22 years but decided to give herself a new challenge and volunteered to serve in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, as a mentor and advisor to the local police force.

Explaining how she became so involved with female recruits in particular, Ms McManus said:

"It wasn't my job to start mentoring the women specifically but they struck a chord with me. They were ignored entirely at the police headquarters and it wasn't right.

"They needed a uniform giving them some status and they needed training and equipment. I've fought those battles for them every step of the way and we are getting somewhere. The women are empowered and it's great to see.

"Someone needed to develop them and champion their cause. I have 22 years of experience in the service and I am only too happy to pass this knowledge on to them. I love to help people and that is why I am so passionate about getting the right results for these women."

Read then whole story here.

US Defence Department and Sesame Street Team Up

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
NEW YORK, Oct. 15, 2009 – To the envy of all the neighborhood kids, I was invited to New York yesterday to attend the taping of a special Sesame Workshop production aimed at helping military children.

I was in awe when I walked down the real-world Sesame Street. As I passed the laundromat and Mr. Hooper’s famous storefront, the years slid away with each step until, once again, I was a 5-year-old glued to an episode of “Sesame Street” on my early 1970s TV set.

I was transported back to the present when down the hall I heard the familiar, high-pitched tones of that furry red Muppet who has gained superstar-like status in recent years. Elmo and his good friend, Rosita, were rehearsing a scene on a brightly lit park set.

Used to more lighthearted shows punctuated with lessons of letters and numbers, it took me a while to adjust to the serious topic Sesame now was tackling: coping with the loss of a loved one.

The video is the latest offering from Sesame’s Talk, Listen, Connect initiative, a multimedia project that helps to guide military families through multiple challenges. The first two productions, developed with help from the Defense Department, dealt with deployments and the visible and invisible wounds of war.

Read the whole article here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

NATO explains itself for a new generation

By chance I visited the NATO website today and came across three edgy, unnerving short videos promoting NATO's mission ("You want a life of freedom and stability. So do we. Peace and security. That's our mission.") on the occasion of its sixtieth anniversary (1949-2009).

The three short films, which give the impression that they might have been directed by M. Night Shyamalan (actually the director is Nico Beyer), show images of fear and threat that resolve into ordinary, everyday scenes where men, women, children and, happily, cats and dogs are safe and happy. In the documentary on the making of these films, Jean-Francois Bureau, NATO Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy, explains that NATO wants to reach a young, technologically hip generation born after the Cold War.

See the films here. You'll require Adobe Flash Player 9 or higher.

With the US Marines in Helmand Province

Ever wondered what life is like as a combat soldier in Afghanistan? The New York Times has published a slideshow and audio commentary by photographer and journalist Peter von Agtmael. His images and the sounds accompanying the photos capture the heat, fatigue, and terror of a foot patrol where hostile eyes and potential ambushers are everywhere.

You can watch the slideshow and here the commentary here.

Afghan Prison Update

I posted some articles here last week about a Canadian political controversy regarding the treatment of Afghan detainees handed over to the Afghan authorities. This week the British MOD reported on how the British military is taking steps to improve conditions for Afghan detainees. The first piece from the British Ministry of Defence describes a joint project with Afghan police in Helmand province to open a new detention facility:

British soldiers help open new Helmand prison
14 Oct 09

British soldiers mentoring Afghan police officers have helped open a new £1.3m prison in Lashkar Gah this week which will dramatically improve security and conditions for prisoners in Helmand.

The new prison facility will house inmates in cells for the first time
[Picture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

For decades, Helmand has had to make do with a prison that was little more than a squalid village-like compound, surrounded by a high wall and watch towers.

There were no facilities for inmates, except a well, and the prison guards only ventured inside once a day to deliver food. Petty thieves lived among murderers and Taliban prisoners, policing themselves.

But conditions have been turned around with the opening of the new prison which has security features and facilities that meet international standards.

Read the whole story here.

Last month the NYT reported that the US was preparing to issue guidelines improving conditions for Afghan detainees at the US prison in Bagram. Here is a bried excerpt:

"Some of the changes in the American detention policies are already under way. The Pentagon is closing the decrepit Bagram prison and replacing it this fall with a new 40-acre complex that officials say will be more modern and humane. In a recent policy reversal, the military for the first time is notifying the International Committee of the Red Cross of the identities of militants who were being held in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by United States Special Operations forces.

The Bagram prison has become an ominous symbol for Afghans — a place where harsh interrogation methods and sleep deprivation were used routinely in its early years, and where two Afghan detainees died in 2002 after being beaten by American soldiers and hung by their arms from the ceilings of isolation cells. Bagram also became a holding site for terrorism suspects captured outside Afghanistan and Iraq."

Read the whole NYT piece here.

On Living with Our (Growing Number of) Muslim Neighbours

Last week the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a report saying that nearly 1 in 4 of the world's population, some 1.57 billion people, is of the Muslim faith. Some impressive facts from the study:

"The project, three years in the making, also presents a portrait of the Muslim world that might surprise some. For instance, Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon, China has more Muslims than Syria, Russia has more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined, and Ethiopia has nearly as many Muslims as Afghanistan.

"This whole idea that Muslims are Arabs and Arabs are Muslims is really just obliterated by this report," said Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University who reviewed an advance copy.

Pew officials call the report the most thorough on the size and distribution of adherents of the world's second largest religion behind Christianity, which has an estimated 2.1 billion to 2.2 billion followers."

Read the whole report here

At roughly the same time as the report was published, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at a US university panel on the future of Muslim-Christian relations. Here is an excerpt from the coverage posted on the Ethics Daily website:

"To promote peace among religious cultures, Blair proposed a three-prong plan, urging people to first take the time to understand each other, then use words to show respect toward each other’s cultures and, ultimately, to take action to foster positive relations between cultures.

Taking action was the most essential part, Blair said. “If we show by our actions we are engaged in understanding,” he said, “that’s what will succeed.”

As an example, Blair explained how his Tony Blair Faith Foundation has established a program connecting youth in culturally diverse schools in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Participants communicate online to discuss differences and similarities in their cultural and religious values, dispelling common stereotypes."

Read the whole piece here.

These two pieces remind us that if the 21st century will indeed be defined as a century of religious conflict, as some have predicted, then our understanding of religions and their makeup needs to be nuanced and clear. A view of Islam as an implacable enemy of the West may be true of some segments of Islam such as Wahabi fundamentalism and radical jihadism, but as Blair and others remind us, we cannot allow this view to colour our relations with 1/4 of the world's population. MP+

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

With a US Chaplain in Basra, Iraq

It often seems to me that while every chaplain's story is the same, each one is illuminating in its elements of call and service. Also, the ice cream angle is a nice touch here. :) MP+

Face of Defense: Chaplain Provides Guidance, Friendship
By Army Spc. Maurice A. Galloway
Special to American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq, Oct. 9, 2009 – An Army chaplain deployed to Iraq is determined to provide spiritual and emotional support to all soldiers under his care.

“As a civilian pastor, I can’t go to your office to check up on you, but as an Army chaplain, everywhere you go, that’s where I am,” said Army Chaplain (Maj.) Michael J. King, 17th Fires Brigade, from Vine Grove, Ky.

King’s job is to provide soldiers of the 17th Fires Brigade an open door to talk, spiritual guidance and a friend in their time of need.

Army Chaplain (Maj.) Michael J. King makes a strawberry soda float, while Army Maj. Kellard N. Townsend and Army Staff Sgt. Caroline A. Keller watch at the 17th Fires Brigade chaplain-sponsored, morale-building event, “Thunderbolt Floats,” in Iraq, Oct 1, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro

“It all begins with a call to serve God,” said King as he reminisced on the steps that led him to become a chaplain. “I was a teenager when I first gave my life to Christ and I can remember having this longing to serve in mission work. I did a few mission trips and enjoyed them. Early on, I wanted to be a youth pastor, but ended up teaching high school instead.”

After three years of teaching biology to high school students, King entered the seminary, followed by four years of pastoral work. Still, something was missing: a longing or need, King said, to serve an even larger audience.

Following the allure to walk in the footsteps of his father, who retired as an Army chief warrant officer and served three combat tours in Vietnam, King decided to join the Army Reserve.

Read the whole article here.

Say What? The Johannine Michael Jackson

“This is it/ Here I stand, / I’m the light of the world/ I feel grand.”
Lyrics from a posthumously released Michael Jackson song.

Only a little pretentious. Lux mundi meets The Light That Failed.

One Veteran Slowly Learns to Manage PTSD

Mike Jernigan is a US Marine who was severely wounded and blinded in Iraq. The New York Times has been covering his slow recovery and integration into civilian life. In this latest instalment, he describes how he is learning, with help, to cope with the violent dreams that are part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). MP+

One of the things that I am learning as I am living with P.T.S.D. is that these feelings can be dealt with positively, that these different symptoms do not have to control my life. I am doing my best to live my life and be happy. There is no magic pill that will make things better. By facing the difficult emotions and learning how to positively react to them my life becomes easier. The emotions are still there — they will probably never go away. But when I face them sober and head on I can live my good dreams and not be controlled by the difficult ones.

Read the whole piece here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Debate on Canadian Involvement in Afghan Prisons Stalled?

The Canadian parliament continues to debate an ongoing investigation by the Military Police Complaints Commission into the handling of transfers of Afghan detainees from Canadian military custody to Afghan prisons, where the detainees are allegedly subject to torture and mistreatment. According to the Commission's website, the these hearings "focus on allegations that certain members of the military police failed to investigate senior officers in the chain of command who had responsibility for directing the transfer of detainees to the Afghan authorities, allegedly in the face of the risk of torture."

On September 29th, Murray Brewster reported in the Canadian Press that the Canadian government has told the Commission "that subpoenaed witnesses will be allowed to appear at the inquiry, but they will be instructed to say nothing when hearings begin next month" in the interests of national security. Read Brewster's piece here.

On October 4, Macleans magazine reported that Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, will not have his tenure as chair continued after it expires on December 11th. According to Macleans, this termination date "is well before any resolution to the often-delayed public interest hearings into allegations that Canadian military police knew - or should have known - that some of their Taliban prisoners handed over to local authorities faced possible abuse in Afghan jails". Read the whole Macleans article here.

According to the latest on the Commission's website, hearings regarding Afghan detainees were delayed by Department of Justice motions brought forward on October 5th, and the hearings were to resume on Wednesday, October 7. There is no more recent information posted on the Commission website at this time. In an article posted today by the Toronto Star, "Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists his officials intend to "co-operate at every stage" with MPCC Chair Peter Tinsley."

From a Mad Padre point of view, this story raises important ethical issues about the handling of detainees, and certainly Canada wants to avoid any repetition of a disgrace such as the 2003 revelations of torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Grahib prison. The difference, however, is that Abu Grahib was a US military facility, and the abuse there was conducted by US personnel. In Afghanistan, Canadian military personnel are working as part of ISAF to support a government that is, at least nominally, democratically elected and legitimate. If our military has no confidence in the Afghan government's ability to oversee its prisons, the only alternative is to keep detainees in ISAF custody, and the whole point of our mission is to help the Afghan government, army and police to stand on its own. What is not being covered adequately during this process, in my opinion, is the work of Canadian police and military advisors and mentors to the Afghan army, police, and judiciary. I know personally several of these mentors. It would be a great shame if their work is being lost in this debate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Drag Dragon Boat Day

14 Wing's Dragon Boat team participated in an event on Lake Banook, Datmouth (near Halifax) as part of the Kiwanis Make-a-wish Community Dragon Boat Festival on Sept. 26th. Organized by a young and energetic air maintenance lieutenant and with a wide range of trades, ranks and ages represented, we scraped together about 20 adventurous souls. About half of us made a trip down the previous Thursday to practice for an hour, and for many of us, including myself, that was the first time in a dragon boat.

I'm reasonably comfortable in a canoe, but the dragon boat paddle and stroke are quite different than canoe paddling. Timing is everything, and a good vertical insertion of the paddle's blade into the water is essential. After one practice, we were grateful we were just doing the 200 metre distance, and not the full 2 kilometres.

14 Wing team demonstrates close order drill with their paddles:

Dragon boats on the lake, preparing for a heat. Most of the day the sun was out, but it was often quite cold.

Mike the Paddling Padre:

In our first heat, we barely came in under a minute for 200 metres. Our competition was much younger, with at least one group being from a local cadet corps. A lot of folks had more paddling experience than we did. However in our second heat we decreased our time by a few seconds and we were more together. You can soon tell watching a boat if the crew is working together, and you can feel the difference in the boat when all the blades are in the water at the same time.

Here we are heading out for our third and final heat of the day. That's me seated third up from the back in the black ball cap:

Our coxswain or steersperson or whatever the appropriate dragon boat term is was very experienced and was kindly leant to our team. Without him we wouldn't have done nearly so well.

The final heat, all straining to be first to the finish:

It wasn't about winning, but we were pleased to be awarded gold. Another team came ahead of us (platinum elite paddlers, maybe?) but we all felt good about the day and about the $3000+ we raised for Kiwanis Make-a-wish charity. Here we are at the awards bit afterwards:

I'm told that a new dragonboat can start at $5000 and easily go up to $15K. We are hoping to lobby the Wing to buy a dragon boat for a permanent team, and do more of this. Judging by the day, it would be good investment in morale and team spirit.

US Military Announces New Steps To Address Domestic Violence

Any military chaplain knows that a duty call to a military residential neighbourhood after hours may well involve some sort of domestic violence. While domestic violence also happens in the civilian world, for soldiers, stress and past incidents involving exposure to violence and trauma can trigger angry moments that can impact family members. The US military has had several high-profile cases where murder of a spouse by a member back from a deployment happened even though warning signs were there. Today the US military announced a Domestic Violence Awareness Month, something other militaries including my own should take note of. MP+

Defense Department Works to End Domestic Violence
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2009 – The Defense Department is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for military families, the director of the department’s Family Advocacy Program said in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

When domestic violence does occur within the military community, however, there are places to turn, David Lloyd said.

“Domestic violence is always an issue in the military because military people come into the service with all the issues that are present in the civilian sector,” he said. “We don’t want victims to suffer in silence.”

In 2006, the department passed the Restricted Reporting Policy, Lloyd said. Restricted reporting allows victims who are unaware of the support and resources available for them to get that information, get an assessment of their safety and receive help with safety planning.

All of this is done without notifying military law enforcement or the military commander, which means that if the alleged abuser is a servicemember, the incident won’t end up on a permanent record.

The other option is unrestricted reporting, which is the option used when a victim wants to get law enforcement or the command involved, Lloyd said.

“In that situation, the law enforcement … personnel would investigate the allegations of what had happened and of course would present it to the commander,” he said. “The commander would be able to take steps, including issuing a military protective order.”

Read the whole piece here.

Military Image of the Week

One of many pictures from the recent 60th National Day Parde in Beijing on September 15. This one shows "Soldiers from the PLA Airborne Corps massag[ing] their comrades during a break at a training session at the 60th National Day Parade Village in the outskirts of Beijing (REUTERS/Joe Chan).

Is it just me, or do some of these guys look less comfortable massaging their colleagues than others? And what would the drill command for that be, anyway?

Monday, October 5, 2009

On the Perils of Hot Sauce

When I was in a store in New Orleans and saw bottles of hot sauce with labels like "Nuclear Death", I had the sense to avoid them. This piece by Jeremy Clarkson in the UK's The Sunday Times tells what happens to people who aren't so sensible. MP+

The Sunday Times October 4, 2009

Help, quick – I’ve unscrewed the top on a ticking bomb
Jeremy Clarkson

Like any responsible parent, I would not leave a loaded gun in the children’s playroom or keep my painkillers in their sweetie tin. But it turns out that for two years there has been a nuclear bomb in one of my kitchen cupboards, between the tomato ketchup and the Rice Krispies.

It’s an American chilli sauce that was bought by my wife as a joky Christmas present. And, like all joky Christmas presents, it was put in a drawer and forgotten about. It’s called limited-edition Insanity private reserve and it came in a little wooden box, along with various warning notices. “Use this product one drop at a time,” it said. “Keep away from eyes, pets and children. Not for people with heart or respiratory problems. Use extreme caution.”

Unfortunately, we live in a world where everything comes with a warning notice. Railings. Vacuum cleaners. Energy drinks. My quad bike has so many stickers warning me of decapitation, death and impalement that they become a nonsensical blur.

Read the whole piece here.

When Mothers Go to War

From last week's New York Times:

Women at Arms
Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom
Published: September 26, 2009

When Specialist Jaymie Holschlag returned home after 12 months in Iraq, a new set of children awaited her.

Her son, Seth, 10, who had moved in with his grandfather, switching towns and schools, was angry and depressed. His grades had plummeted and his weight had ballooned by 60 pounds. Her 4-year-old daughter, Celeste, scarcely knew her. And in Specialist Holschlag’s absence, new rules had taken hold — chocolate syrup on waffles, Mountain Dew with dinner. Any hint of a return to the old order met with tirades and tantrums.

Specialist Holschlag, a single mother and a combat medic, had changed profoundly, too. The violence in Ramadi had staked a claim on her patience, her tenderness and her resilience. She snapped at her children routinely, at times harshly.

Read the whole article here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Patience of Creation - Today's Sermon

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood
18th Sunday After Pentecost, Lectionary Year

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8. Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-9).

He was out of uniform when he appeared in the door of my office, but I could tell his was military. He was bulky and strong, but he looked confused and defeated, and as soon as he sat down his eyes welled up with tears. After I invited him to talk, he said “Padre, I got home last night and she was gone”. As he continued to tell his story, I heard much that was familiar. It wasn’t the first marriage. It may even have been a common-law relationship. There was a three-year old daughter. It had been strained by his problems with anger and by his addiction to anger. At some point the man’s wife had reached her breaking point and had moved out, taking the daughter and going to live with her parents. If this man didn’t realize what he had before, now he knew what he had lost.

Today’s gospel reading from St. Mark spoke to me in the midst of a week when my work and my cases as a chaplain all seemed to point to the frailty and to the value of marriage. Now marriage is not a subject that a cautious preacher really wants to venture into. He or she knows that any congregation holds its share of people who have been severely burned by our attempts to form this most permanent and most difficult of human relationships. Not all church-going couples are happy or healthy. They may be struggling with old or new scars from addiction, infidelity, or cruelty. And not all churchgoers are couples. Look out at the pews and you will probably see the divorced, the abandoned, and the abused. The people who hang around churches on a regular basis know that sometimes, perhaps too often, marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Then there are the people who don’t go to churches much. Ironically one of the few times you see them in church is at weddings. I remember one priest friend, who worked in a beautiful church, had a wealthy middle aged man walk up to him after the service. “Nice place you got here”, he said, looking around. “What do you do here the rest of the time?” These folks come to see their children and their friends children launched into adulthood as hopeful, happy couples. They may hear the words “for better or for worse”, “in sickness or in health”, and “till death to us part”, but I doubt that many take them seriously. These words are part of the ceremony, part of the schtick, like the limo and the tossing of the garter. These folks know that half of marriages end in divorces. They live in a world of broken and blended families, serial monogamy, same-sex relationships, and other constantly evolving experiments in human living. I heard a well-known playwright say on the radio Friday that people today have no idea what marriage and the family are any more, and that we as a society are basically making it up as we go along.

Today, as so often in the life of the church, we hear God’s word speak to us in clear and challenging terms. I didn’t plan today’s readings – I am usually a lectionary preacher, which means that I follow the scheduled readings of the mainline Christian churches for each Sunday. Often these readings force themselves into my thoughts in totally unexpected ways. This week, I am somewhat dazed after walking with many families and individuals like the soldier in my opening story, and yet I must make sense of what our Lord says in today’s gospel about marriage. The words are certainly familiar to us from the traditional marriage service, especially “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” – I’ve read themselves before more than a few lovely and fresh-faced young couples.

In Jesus’ day, it was however very easy for a man to separate from his wife. According to Jewish law, as found for example in Deuteronomy 24:14, a husband could divorce his wife if disliked her or found “something objectionable about her”. In a society where few women had any security or status outside of marriage, divorce would have been disastrous. Given the sympathy and sensitivity that Jesus shows towards women in the gospels, it’s not surprising that he should this use of Jewish law to be sinful. As he tells the Pharisees, this law was given to them because of their “hardness of heart” and it has done nothing to make them less hard or less sinful. Therefore Jesus points to a higher law, the law of his father’s creation, as we heard in our first reading from the book Genesis. Quoting Genesis, Jesus says that the Father’s design for humanity was that men and women were intended to be together:

And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a Man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”. (Gen 2:22-24)

As I said, these words are echoed in the older marriage ceremonies, but outside the ceremony, in the cold light of day, most people in our society would not take them seriously for a minute. Atheists would say that the idea of God as a creator in Genesis is absurd, since science teaches us that we evolved. Feminists would say that the idea of women being created from man has been used by the church for thousands of years to keep women in second-class status. Gay rights advocates would say this scripture does not recognize the reality of same-sex attraction, which may even be genetic. Finally, those who have experienced abuse in marriage would say that the Church has long erred in pressuring abused spouses to stay in marriage because Jesus spoke out against divorce.

These are all powerful and persuasive arguments, and yet we need to think hard about what Jesus is saying when he points to the story of creation (indeed, we need to think hard about everything Jesus says, but that’s another matter). Let’s take stock for a moment. We’re Christians. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the son of God the Father, who created us. I would argue that it doesn’t matter how you believe in creation. You can believe that God created the earth in seven days as Genesis describes, or you can believe that the creation story in Genesis is a metaphor for an evolutionary process that began billions of years ago with the Big Bang. For me, all that matters is that you believe that God created us, that it didn’t all happen by accident, that it’s not all pointless. God created us in his image, to be in relationship with him, and for a purpose that will be fully revealed to us in time.

This summer Kay and I went to a place called Joggins here in Nova Scotia, home of the world-famous fossil cliffs and fossil museum. We met a tour guide, a young scientist who couldn’t accept the idea of God as creator. Standing beside the fossilised remains of a three hundred million year old tree, he told us that either you believe in the science of evolution, or you believed in a Jewish-Christian fairy tale about the creator God.

Fossilised tree trunk, Joggins, NS

How sad, I thought, that for such a bright young man the choice was so stark and so clear. Later, standing on another beach at sunset, listening to the eternal chorus of the surf, I thought, where was the creator God three hundred million years ago, when that fossilised tree was part of a steaming jungle, home to lizards that would one day become the primates we are descended from? Where was God six hundred million years ago, in the PreCambrian period, when simple cells were releasing the oxygen that would give earth its atmosphere? Was God thinking then about the humans that would one day inherit this act of creation? Was he thinking about human marriage, and about all the problems that go with it?

That night I became aware of a simple insight. God is patient. God is very patient. He has to be, if he is the creator, and if the fossil record is true, as I believe it is. When St. Paul says in Galatians that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent us his Son” (Gal 4:4), Paul was speaking more than he knew. For a great “fullness of time”, for hundreds of millions of years, God waited for humanity to come along. He prepared the ground for us, and the air, and the water. He began a relationship with humans as described in the Old Testament, and after guiding and teaching his people, he sent his Son to save us, and that Son continues to offer his salvation to us. If the God who created us is this patient, how patient are we?

When that bewildered and hurt young soldier came into my office and told me his wife was gone, I tried to help him see where hope was in his life. He had a wife that hadn’t abandoned him and who wanted him to get better. He had a chain of command that wanted him to get help. It would take work, but if had patience, as others had patience in him, he could get better. Too often I feel that our problems in relationships, as in life, are for want of patience. We want instant results. We seek quick divorces when our spouse disappoints us, or when someone better seems to come along. Please note that I’m not arguing that one should patiently endure an abusive spouse. I think some marriages need to end, and the church I think understands this. But we also need to remember that when Paul spoke of how the greatest virtues are faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians 13 (a passage often heard at weddings, by the way), he was also speaking about patience. I don’t know of any meaningful kind of faith, hope, or love that doesn’t require patience. Faith, hope and love are after all the opposite of instant gratification. Faith, hope and love require that we dig deep and trust God at those points when, in our marriages, and in our lives, when all seems sad and pointless.

God’s creation is, I think, a work in progress. St. Paul says that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). God in Christ is continuing the work of creation, shaping it and making it into a better place. That’s why, I think, scripture so often refers to Christ as the one who goes ahead of us, continuing to reshape and redeem the world (example, Hebrews 12:2 where Christ is “the perfecter and pioneer”). Those of us who feel called to marriage, which can sometimes be a hard and a disappointing calling, know in our hearts, even when we fail at it, that marriage still has wonderful potential. That’s why divorce and failure in marriage hurt so much, I think, like a miniature fall from Eden. When Christ forbade the Pharisees the convenience of the quick divorce, he was reminding them that God created marriage so that we might flourish in God’s creation, creating children and creating new life and new possibilities as husband and wife, a new creation. So I think of that young soldier who came to my office, or I think of a young military wife I know whose preparing to welcome her broken husband home from overseas, and I want to tell them – don’t give up. Don’t lose hope, or faith, or patience. God’s work of creation isn’t finished yet. We are part of a wonderful work in progress, and God has not given up on us. Amen.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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