Friday, January 29, 2010

Two Doctors at War

One of the reasons why people responded to shows like M.A.S.H. was the paradox of watching doctors, committed to saving and restoring lives, working in a combat environment designed to injure and destroy the human body. The MASH doctors were cynical captives to the military, but for many doctors combat medicine is a calling that leads them away from their civilian practices. I just finished two books from two different wars that explore this calling from a doctor's point of view.

Ray Wiss. FOB Doc: A Doctor on the Front Lines in Afghanistan Vancouver: Douglas McIntyre, 2009.

Ray Wiss is a Canadian emergency medicine physician who volunteered for service in Afghanistan with the Canadian Forces in 2007. As a former infantry officer, his training qualified him to serve much of his three month tour at Forward Operating Bases or FOBs (hence the title, FOB DOC). Wanting to share his experiences and motivations with his friends, he started keeping a diary by email, which grew into this book. Wanting to continue his services to CF members and their families, he agreed that proceeds of his book sales would go to the Military Families Fund, a charity started by General Rick Hillier in 2007.

Wiss starts his account by saying clearly that he wants his book to edify a country that is split “pretty much right down the middle” between Canadians who oppose the war and those who support it because “those Muslims are out to get us” (5). Having dialogued last week with a friend who considers the mission a waste of time and money and considers Afghanistan to be no more threat to Canada than is Iceland, I applaud Wiss’ motives and welcome his book. With the ongoing detainee controversy in parliament, the uncertain future of the deployment and the continuing casualties, Canadians need as much sanity and information as they can get, and Wiss supplies both.

Doctor Ray Wiss at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.

As something of an outsider to the contemporary military, Wiss is an ideal guide to military vocabulary (his glossary of terms is helpful) and to military life in a combat zone. As an older guy he can see young soldiers with an amused yet sympathetic eye. Noting his younger comrades’ fondness for playing highly realistic and violent video shooting games, he can find it incongruous that they would do so as medics in a combat zone, and yet he adds “This is what they have always done to relax, probably since they were eight or nine years old. There is no reason for them to change just because they have gone to war. One only has to listen to them describe the way they felt when their comrades were killed to know that it is perfectly clear to them that the war is real” (52-53).

The reader comes to appreciate Wiss’ compassion, not only for Canadian troops but for the Afghans, both NATO-friendly ANA (army) and ANP (police) but also civilians and even the Taliban wounded he encountered. The non-medical reader will admire Wiss’ professionalism (he helped introduce the portable ultrasound machine to combat medicine as a way to catch internal injuries and bleeding early in the treatment and evacuation process). Wiss explains his craft in simple and jargon-free terms, while conveying the drama and nervous strain of having small windows of time to examine and stabilize badly wounded troops before they are sent to the advanced Role 3 hospital in Kandahar.

What the reader should not expect is dispassionate, objective journalism. Wiss is unashamedly supportive of our troops, and this passage, in which he objects to the deaths of two soldiers, killed when their armoured vehicle rolled over, as “not combat related”.

“The accident occurred because our troops and our vehicles are operating under combat conditions. [The troops] drive down roads that are barely worthy of the name, dirt tracks with no signs to show them turns or road edges or hills. They drive down inclines that are at the very limits of their vehicles’ tolerance. They drive at night with the lights off, looking through night-vision scopes that restrict their field of view and rob them of their depth perception. They ride with their hatches open, standing up in the turret. This exposes them to enemy fire and to the risk of being thrown or crushed if the vehicle rolls over. … They do all these things because that’s the only way they can do their job. That job is the hardest one in the world: to kill someone who is trying to kill them. They need every edge they can get. The only way to get that edge is to work at the limits of machine and human tolerance. They train for that and almost always it works to their advantage.” (124). It’s powerful, descriptive and emotional writing like this that is the strength of Wiss’ book.

More time and more reflection might have made for a more literary book, but if you want immediacy, honesty, and an eye-witness sense of what life in a combat zone is like, you’ll want to read this book. Wiss comes across as an interesting guy and I’d like to know more about him, including his account of getting shot as a volunteer in Nicaragua during its civil war of the 1980s. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him. At the end of the book he asks two questions. “The first is whether Afghan civilians are worth protecting. The second is whether the Tabliban is so evil that they need to be opposed with lethal voice”. Ray Wiss can answer these questions unequivocally. I’m not sure that his country can answer them.

Brendan Phibbs. The Other Side of Time. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

(Republished under the title The War For Our World: A Memoir of Life and Death on the Front Lines in WW II, Globe Pequot Press, 2002). Quotations below from The Other Side of Time edition.

I wouldn’t know anything about Brendan Phibbs if my wife hadn’t picked up a pocketbook at a library sale recently. He was a young US Army combat doctor who wrote a book, The Other Side of Time, describing his experiences in France and Germany in 1944-45. Unlike Wiss, who writes in the moment and in very plain, accessible prose, Phibbs’ style is learned and has the wise, world-weary quality of an older man looking back across many years.

Phibbs served with the 12th Armored Division as a battalion surgeon. He describes an early training lecture on his role. “The surgeon marches with that battalion, sleeps in the mud and snow with it, suffers fire and hardship with it. He commands some thirty medical soldiers who will work in the aid station or march as company aid men, right among the riflemen and gunners. The battalion surgeon will set up the aid station in combat in the first available defilade (shelter). … You are going to spend your professional lives within a few hundred yards of the enemy and you’d better learn to dig holes quickly and deeply if you want to live long enough to be promoted. Artillery, mortars, patrols, cold, wet, mud, snow, and misery: these, gentlemen, are the facts of life in battalion aid” (41). Or as one of Phibbs’ doctor colleagues said on the front lines, “We’re not Johns Hopkins, buy by God we’re adequate. Efficient, even, when you think of where we are, what we’ve got to work with” (p 220).

The 12th Armored was one of the spearhead units of the US Army’s advance through France and southern Germany in the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945. Phibbs traveled in this vanguard, stabilising wounded and entrusting them to ambulances that had to make dangerous and long journeys back to more established army hospitals, trying to bypass bands of wandering and cut off German soldiers along the way. He saw many colourful characters, including a French nun who smuggled ammunition for the resistance under her habit and past the Gestapo, a Basque Major, a Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War who led a band of fighters escaped from German forced labor, incredulous that the US Army ordered them to stop looting from Germans when US soldiers did the same (“how could [our Colonel] say what he really felt, that the men in old clothes and caps with their slung weapons rang the chimes of Red Square in 1917?” (285). Phibbs was present when the US liberated a concentration camp near Landsberg and his accounts of the distress of the prisoners has the particular horror of a doctor’s obersvations. “The monstrous eyes, great round bird’s eyes, owl eyes, unlike anything I’d ever seen or imagined in a human face, were, I now realized, the result of the starvfation that had drained all the orbital fat away – there were no supporting tissues around the eyes, and the eyeballs lolled, huge, in the tight-skinned sockets” (316).

Phibbs was politically and socially observant as well. He recalls the difficulty his fellow soldiers had when blacks began entering the Division as combat soldiers, and while the blacks couldn’t strike back at their white colleagues, Phibbs remembers one black sergeant who called out a German prisoner for using the words “verdammt Neger”. After the now-bloodied German apologized and was led away, Phibbs “asked the sergeant where his home was. "He came from Mississippi, he told me, and he gentled his knuckles as he talked. ‘Jackson, Mississippi’. These last words came out very slowly and thoughtfully while he blew over his fists. Jackson, Mississippi, I thought, get ready for some interesting subsurface forces.” (307-08). Those subsurface forces were of course Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, which became possible in part because men like that black sergeant nursing his knuckles won a new identity and pride for themselves.

Phibbs returned to Chicago after the war but like many veterans felt life less keenly than he did in wartime. The individual pursuit of wealth seemed empty and demeaning compared to the moments of altruism and selfless he witnessed, and to which he rose himself. He moved out West to practise medicine, with a special focus on the working poor, and was still doing so at age eighty-eight when the Tucson Weekly interviewed him. His advice for staying young, “Keep working. And pick good grandparents.”

A deeply spiritual and thoughtful man, Phibbs had little time for most of the chaplains he met in the army. To him theyhad been corrupted by the income and privilege that came with their military rank, buying into the military caste system by sacrificing their commitment to the poor and lowly. “With a straight face I once suggested to a set of chaplains that a true religious impulse would have bid them refuse rank, and further would have sent them out among the huddled military masses to share barracks and mess, hardship and persecution, bringing the word of God to the oppressed in the manner of Jesus. Reactions varied from paranoid to Vesuvial: hell hath no fury like a threatened benefice” (103). I would recommend this section, Chapter Ten, of Phibbs to any military chaplain who wants to learn what mistakes to avoid in his or her ministry.

At the end of his memoir, Phibbs, like many veterans, looks into a terrible but beloved past to find meaning. Two of his final paragraphs are haunting and worth repeating in full.

“There must be somewhere a plane where everything exists, shining with its own merit, eternally. If there isn’t, what’s the point of decency? The Iroquois or the Nazis could eradicate a people who spoke and worked kindness and beauty; extinction descends, but is everything lost? We can’t believe that it is, or creation stops.

Someplace in the eye of some God there must be eternal being and value, but for us, we’re trapped in time. It’s a passage, of people, loves, events, spaces, happy approaching, terribly sad leaving” (340).

Soldiers and civilians alike owe much to people like Brendan Phibbs and Ray Wiss. They combine their passion for the medical arts with a deep interest in the world around them and a genuine altruism that, while seemingly frail in and of itself, throws a bright light on the cruelties and selfishness around them. Thank you, doctors, for your work, for your words, and for a hope that persists against the odds.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Will No One Rid Us of This Troublesome Evangelist?

In my last post I mentioned Pat Robertson's stupid comment about how the Haitian earthquake can be explained because the Haitians made a pact with the devil to free themselves of French colonial rule (I'm not making this up - C.L.R. James is spinning in his grave - I'm pretty sure the deal with the devil isn't in his The Black Jacobins but it's been a while). We all know that the Haitians have this voodoo/devil thing going, despite the fact that there was a Roman Catholic cathedral in Port au Prince and there was a Bishop who died in the earthquake, and despite the fact that the Diocese of Montreal in the Anglican Church of Canada has strong ties to Haiti and its seminary and forty something Anglican parishes, but we'll let that pass.

Since this got a lot of comment on this blog's Facebook feed viz my last post, here's the Robertson quote as repeated in the Globe and Mail:

‘They were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, ‘Okay, it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed …”

I'm with fellow CF blogger Flit, who called PR "a miserable ignorant moron". However, I give full marks for sarcasm to the ethereal Tabatha Southey, who had a lovely piece in last Friday's G&M. Here's a big chunk of Southey's column:

"Also by Mr. Robertson's understanding of history, the Haitians were “under the heel of Napoleon III” even though Napoleon III hadn't even been born when the Haitians revolted in 1791. That kind of pre-fetal domination could be humiliating for any people, I imagine.

Perhaps, as the death toll in Haiti mounts, a few more questions about Mr. Robertson's story need to be asked.

First of all, didn't just about everyone kick out the French at one point or another? Didn't we pretty much kick out the French? Aren't the French basically the most kicked-out nation in the world, having been kicked out of nearly every country but France? Did all of those countries deal directly with the devil, and if so why did the devil insist that the Haitians alone pay this ghastly price?

When Hurricane Katrina came along, Mr. Robertson and others on the Christian right speculated that God had sent it to punish New Orleans for decadent ways. But Louisiana also effectively kicked out the French, so why curse them for decadence instead? God's being arbitrary about the French thing.

(Also, I'm hardly a biblical scholar, but I'm pretty sure the devil went down to Georgia, not Louisiana.) When you go to a country and the bread's good, you know the French were there. And yet there are parts of the world that have both great bread and very few French people, but are not cursed for having made the French leave. Again, it seems unlikely to me that the devil would have driven such a hard bargain only with Haiti.

Possibly, the devil, eternal as he is, shuffling through history, brokering all these deals, was just bored at the time. He had no “forbear to trifle longer with thy grief” rhetoric left in him when it came to ridding another country of the French. Hence the “okay, it's a deal” that Mr. Robertson insists is in the historical record.

Maybe in Haiti the devil just shrugged and said, “Oh yeah, right, you want the French gone. Okay, it's a deal. I'll have my people send over the standard contract. Now I gotta fly, kids. I'm wanted in Vietnam.”

In which case, I hardly think the deal would have involved Haitians cursing themselves in the crushing-poverty-major-fault-line way that Mr. Robertson insists they collectively signed off on.

I imagine that where the French were concerned, the devil sighed and said, “Really, are you sure you want them gone? Have you tried the pastries? The pastries are good. The little round cookies with the filling? Really? Not interested? Freedom, right?

“Well, okay, the French will be gone. But you're going to have to rake the leaves for me. That's the deal. And bag them,” he might have added as he was leaving, but only if no one was arguing with him about the raking part.

Mr. Robertson, who also called the Haitian earthquake “a blessing in disguise,” might want to check his sources on this “true story.” That's pretty heavily disguised.

Besides, everyone knows that the devil mostly makes deals over music lessons."

Thanks, Tabatha, we needed that.

British Military Discovers Scriptural References on US-Made Gunsights

One of the more bizarre stories I've seen in the military news of late. The British military has discovered that 400 recently purchased Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights, made by a US firm owned by a devout Christian, bear scriptural chapter and verse references within their part numbers. Some have raised concerns that this story will be exploited by jihadist propaganda.

The story is covered here in the Daily Mail. A UK Ministry of Defence press release states: "The MOD was not aware at the time of purchase of the night-sights from US company Trijicon that the markings had any broader significance. Our priority is to buy the best-performing equipment available on the market. In this case, Trijicon were selected as they offered the best-performing optical sights. We are now exploring with Trijicon how best to proceed."

Mad Padre's opinion: Inappropriate. After Pat Robertson's theological musings on Haiti, Christianity didn't need this story.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

UK Military Program Addresses Invisible Wounds

Since at least the First World War, militaries have recognized that their members are exposed to pyschological as well as to physical risk. This profile of a British program called Trauma Risk Management has much in common with approaches such as peer to peer counselling and support used in Canadian programs such as OSISS (Occupational Stress Injury and Support), and there are other similarities to American programs such as Battlemind. All good stuff, and their widespread adoption by militaries is heartening. MP+

A People In Defence news article
18 Jan 10

The Royal Navy's Operational Stress Management Team at Portsmouth helped pioneer the now widely used Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) for troops who may have encountered traumatic episodes whilst deployed on operations. They are now looking at other techniques to assist in identifying potential stress-related issues and the best way to deal with them. Report by Leigh Morrison.

With the unseen mental effects of taking part in combat missions becoming more recognised and understood, pre- and post-operational psychological support is now available in all three Services, along with assistance and advice for personnel whilst they are deployed on operations.

Although it is thought that post-traumatic illnesses cannot be prevented, they can be successfully treated. The key to a successful outcome is early identification. It is this premise which has led to the research, development and usage of Trauma Risk Management (TRiM).

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Gift of Spiritual Speech"

A Sermon preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 17 January, 2010

Epiphany 2C, RCL readings Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11,John 2:1-11

Last Sunday, Padre Gordon said something that has stuck with me all week. He said of the 23rd Psalm that “The Lord can’t be your shepherd unless the shepherd is your Lord”. What Gordon was saying, as I understood it, is that the word shepherd is an easy word to relate to. Shepherd implies love and care and protection, and who wouldn’t want those things? Lord, however, is a harder word to relate to. To say that someone is our Lord means that we have given some degree of control over our life and our freedom to that person, and that can be a hard thing to say. So when we say “The Lord’s my shepherd”, if we want to sincerely say and pray it, we need to accept Jesus’ lordship as well as his protection. In short, we need to be able to say “Jesus is Lord.” As I was thinking along those lines, this line from the designated readings for this Sunday sprang out at me:

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12)

Before we start thinking about this text, let me ask you this question. What do you think spiritual speech would sound like? Would it be a couple of theologians or biblical scholars arguing over fine points of Greek and Hebrew grammar? Would it be someone at a revival speaking in tongues? Would it be some otherwise ordinary and even earthy people trying to watch their language, as was the case last month when I was on a SAR flight and the AC said over the intercom “Better watch your language, folks, the padre’s on board”? Yeah, like I haven’t heard that joke before.

Most people, I suspect, would say that spiritual speech would be something different from ordinary day to day language. To such a view, spiritual speech would be something akin to the language of the Kings James bible, something formal with lots of “thees” and “thous” and “shalts”. I beg to differ. It seems to me that since I live in the ordinary, day to day world, I want spiritual speech to be relevant and understandable. I remember a story told by Fr. John Spencer, a Newfoundlander, about a parish priest who’d greet people before the service with “How’s she going there”, speaking like everyone else in the outport. However, when the service started, he reverted to what Fr. John called a “stained glass” voice, saying plumily, “Beloved brethern, let us pray”. His point, as I understood it, was that when spiritual speech is inauthentic, when it doesn’t speak to people where they live, it has no power or life in it. It is not spiritual speech.

Spiritual speech is one of St. Paul’s greatest themes. In 1 Corinthians 13, as you often hear at weddings, Paul writes that no matter how learned or how wise our talk is, unless we speak with the love and presence of God, then it is just talk, just wind on the air. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13:1). For St. Paul, spiritual speech is exactly that, it is “speaking by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 12:3). Just as the air from our lungs has to pass over our vocal chords for us to produce speech, so for Paul the pneuma or wind of the Holy Spirit has to pass through our lips for us to speak spiritually.

It’s important for us to understand that spiritual speech is a gift from God. Our text for today comes at the beginning of a well-known passage (1 Cor 12:1-12) on spiritual gifts, but for Paul the greatest gift of all is our ability to speak of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ. When we say Jesus is Lord, says Paul, that speech is a gift of the Spirit. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit’. Likewise, the words that we say as part of the Anglican eucharist, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” would, according to St. Paul, be a spiritual gift. The gift of spiritual speech is what the church calls confession. Confession is our ability to say who our Lord is and why we believe in him. The importance of confession is stated elsewhere in the New Testament, in 1 1 Peter, which exhorts Christians to be ready to make their confession: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). What is our hope? Our hope is found in verses like John 3:16, in our creeds, and in our belief that Christ will come again to in glory to judge and to redeem. Where did this hope come from? It come from God and from the messengers of God.

You weren’t born with that hope in you. Someone brought you to faith. Perhaps for you it was a parent or a Sunday school teacher. Maybe it was as a minister or a priest. Perhaps it was a powerful and prestigious preacher or perhaps it someone who in their sincerity and humility showed us something of the goodness and love and service of God? You may have heard that the word angel comes from the word angelos or messenger, and the word gospel comes from the word evangel or good news. Just as in the Nativity story hope came to the shepherds from the angels in the Nativity story, hope came to you thanks to some person or persons played the role of God’s messenger. Through that person something of the reality of God was revealed to you. In that moment of revelation, you received the gift of confession, the ability to say Jesus is Lord. In time you came to be aware of other gifts – gifts of ministry or music or service – but that first spiritual gift of confession was and is the most important.

I realize that some of us here today may not feel that they have received the gift of confession yet. You may not feel that you have reached a point where you can say Jesus is Lord, or you may wish that you could say it with more conviction. If you are in those categories, I would say that you are very close to the kingdom of God, and myself or any of the other padres would be delighted to speak with you and pray with you about receiving that gift.

Wanting to say that Jesus is Lord is very different from saying, as Paul notes, “Let Jesus be cursed!”. When Paul wrote this line, he may have been thinking of a time in his previous life, when he was known as Saul, when he persecuted the followers of Jesus. Saul felt that Jesus was a curse that misled faithful Jews away from their faith, and he wanted to destroy the cult of Jesus, but as you remember from the book of Acts, Paul was changed on the road to Damascus. This story is a reminder of God’s power to reach us and change us, and we should never doubt the potential of this power. It’s tempting to doubt this power when we experience misfortune or sickness in his lives. I’ve met several people lately who are experiencing multiple sorrows and tragedies at once, and it’s heartrending. Whenever we feel like saying that we are in place where God can’t help us, or where we feel that God has given up on us, then we are not speaking with the spirit of God. At such times we would do well to pray the prayer of the father in Mark 9, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).

The gift of spriitual speech allows us, at our most trying moments, to say "Jesus is Lord" and thus invoke a power greater than any on earth. The words "Jesus is Lord" have the power of creation from the void, of resurrection from death, of light over dark. When faced with personal sorrows and tragedies, we say "Jesus is Lord". When faced with natural disasters such as the one unfolding in Haiti, we say "Jesus is Lord". To our society's love of violence, shallow appearances and empty sexuality, we say "Jesus is Lord". To poverty that appears to be utterly entrenched and insoluble, we say "Jesus is Lord". To those who would persecute and even kill us, we say "Jesus is Lord". At the time of our death, we say "Jesus is Lord".

In some of the Christian churches, this time of the year is called Epiphany. An epiphany is a word that means a eureka moment, a flash of inspiration. In church terms, Epiphany means God’s revealing his glory and his love for us in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ. In our first reading we heard a prophesy of that revelation when Isaish says that God will come to save his people and will rejoice over them like a bridegroom rejoices to see his bride (Isa 62:1-5). The idea of Christ as the bridegroom of the church (as seen in the hymn The Church’s One Foundation) comes from this and other passages of scripture. In John’s Gospel today we heard the story of the wedding in Cana, where Jesus “first revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). It would be nice for the winelovers among us if this miracle were repeated frequently, but I think St. Paul would say that it’s not necessary. For Paul, our gift of being able to see God in his Son, and to say that his Son Jesus is Lord, is in itself a miracle, a gift of the Spirit which is freely given to us – to all of us. It is the gift which unites all Christians, regardless of our denominational differences, for the common gift which allows us to say “Jesus is Lord” is our greatest shared gift.

Michael Peterson+

In Kandahar, mourning a father figure

There are different metaphors for the role of the Non-Commissioned Officer, an older soldier, usually a senior sergeant or warrant officer, who gives stability, mentoring, and discipline to young soldiers as required. In German, as I understand it, the term for NCO, feldwebel, means "field wife", someone who cares for their soldiers. In the case of Sgt. John Wayne Faught, the 139th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan, the term used by those who knew him was "father figure".

Sgt. Faught was forty-four, old for an infantryman, and served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry out of Edmonton. He was on his third tour in Afghanistan and was looking forward to retirement in a few years. Sgt. Faught was killed this Saturday, January 16th, by a mine while on foot patrol with Afghan National Army soldiers. The Globe and Mail commentary suggests that this incident was a rarity in the region where Faught was killed, and supports the idea that our troops are making a difference and are seen as defenders by the local population:

"Residents of Nakhoney described how they believed Canadian soldiers had succeeded in driving the Taliban out of their vineyards and farmlands for good.

"For six months, we haven't seen any Taliban in this area. We thank the Canadians for their sacrifice. Their patrols help keep this area safe for us," said Haji Baran, the Afghan commissioner responsible for the district where the explosion took place, about 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.

Dozens of villagers poured into the commissioner's office yesterday as word spread of the Canadian soldier's death. Many expressed fear and worry that the Taliban were attempting a return to their village.

"We try to keep them out of our area, but at nighttime it is difficult," said a 50-year-old farmer, Haji Mohammad."

The same G&M article also reports some comments by my chaplain colleague, Padre Kevin Newhook. You can read the article here.

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

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Indiscriminate Firing in Camp is Encouraged"

A friend from my Civil War reenacting days (which are firmly behind me now, I think) passed on this account of an event he attended in upstate NY some years ago which sounds worse than anythng I ever attended (and I could tell some stories). The advertisement for the event included the promise that "indiscriminate firing in camp is encouraged" gives you some idea of what a sterling historical event this was. Here's a taste of his description:

"The weapon of choice was the chromed Remington revolver, with at least two extra cylinders. The “battlefield” was a baseball field next to a bar (yes a saloon, tavern). When any of the combatants needed to reload, they entered the bar, ordered a beer and sat on the bar stool to reload. [An amenity.] Our mouths were agape by time the “battle scene” was ready to start, as there’d been continuous firing going on all day. The small valley, where the camp was situated, was covered by a thick cloud of burnt powder smoke."

You can read the whole grisly thing here.

Coincidentally I was going through some photos the other day and found this one of the group I belonged to, The Columbia Rifles, back in their heyday. This photo was taken at the Genessee historical village near Mumford, NY, in 2000, I believe. I'm second from left, year rank. Steve Tyler, who offers thoughtful comments to this blog from time to time, is centre front rank with the big blanket roll.

I was really proud to be a member of the Columbia Rifles. They were serious historians who cared about the quality of their impression (impression is a reenactor term meaning the kind of soldier and historical period one is trying to portray). We wore authentic natural fabrics, many of them made by hand, and limited the gear and comforts we allowed ourselves in the field. In this picture you can see our basic impression, that of generic Union infantry from the eastern US Army of the Potomac. We eschewed fancy and overdone impressions like Zouaves, US Marines, or dismounted cavalry.

I had to give up the CR after I got busy in parish ministry. The organization is still alive, though we are older and busier than we were back when this picture was taken. Maybe one day we'll get together as old men and portray the Grand Army of the Republic, the post Civil War social organization of Union army veterans.

Friday, January 15, 2010

US Military Urged to Care for Caregivers

There is a military chaplaincy angle here which I've seen first hand in a chaplain colleague who recently returned from a six month tour at the NATO military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. His exhaustion was written all over his face. This piece is worth reading by chaplains, medical people, social workers, and the like. MP+

Officials Urge More Care for Caregivers
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2010 – The military needs to step up efforts to head off compassion fatigue among its caregivers, a National Guard official said here yesterday.

“I do think not enough of it is being paid attention to by the active or reserve component,” said Public Health Service Capt. Joan Hunter, director of psychological health for the National Guard Bureau.

Hunter spoke at the 2010 Suicide Prevention Conference here sponsored by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. She defined compassion fatigue as the emotional residue or strain of exposure of working with patients recovering from traumatic events. Warning signs, she explained, include a decrease in performance, inattention to self-care, irritability and anger, absenteeism, and conflicts with workers and peers.

“It starts out in a very insidious way, but can escalate very quickly,” she noted.

Read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Notable Quotable: Steve Coll on Al Qaeda

"The attempted Christmas attack also put Al Qaeda’s resourcefulness on full display. In its third decade, under severe pressure, it has evolved into a jihadi version of an Internet-enabled direct-marketing corporation structured like Mary Kay, but with martyrdom in place of pink Cadillacs."

Steve Coll in this week's New Yorker magazine offers what I think is some helpful and sane perspective. Despite the chaos in airports after the Underpants Bomber this Christmas (I was in the chaos, it sucked), Al Qaeda has basically painted itself into a corner and the Obama approach to terrorism is finding traction. Read the whole piece here.

A Small But Mighty Runner

Like my previous post, this story is also about a soldier who deals with unexploded ammunition and bombs, but this story is, fortunately, happier. It's also a story I will keep firmly in mind the next time I hesitate to go for my run. MP+

Face of Defense: Soldier Grabs Guinness Record
By Roger Teel
Special to American Forces Press Service

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Jan. 12, 2010 – Army 2nd Lt. Sophie Hilaire does not particularly fit the general image of an explosive ordnance disposal warrior.

Army 2nd Lt. Sophie Hilaire sprints to the finish of the Philadelphia Marathon, setting a Guinness World Record for women by running the Nov. 22, 2009, race in 4 hours, 54 minutes wearing full battle gear. Photo courtesy of Island Photography

At 120 pounds, one wonders how she possibly could be strong enough to function in an 85-pound bomb suit, handling the physical and mental demands of defusing improvised explosive devices.

But Hilaire is strong enough to run a marathon in full battle armor. In fact, she holds a world record for it.

Read the whole article here.

Requiem for an ATO

This young man is a British Army ATO (Ammunition Technical Officer), Captain Daniel Read of the Royal Logistic Corps, who served in Afghanistan as a High Threat Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Disposal Operator. The military acronym for this sort of work is CIED (Counter-Improvised Explosive Device). CIED specialists are the soldiers who locate and dispose of the increasingly complex bombs and mines (IEDs) which are the Taliban's preferred weapon against NATO forces in Afghanistan. It's important and dangerous work, as shown in last year's film, The Hurt Locker.

Capt. Read was killed last week in Afghanistan doing what he loved to do. He was 31 years old, and married. One of his commanding officers said of him, "He had dealt with many numbers of IEDs, rendering them safe in a calm and professional manner. Dan never showed any fear, just a clear focus on his job and a dedication to duty that few outside the ATO profession can equal." You can read the whole MOD press release on Capt. Read here.

By chance, last week I attended the medical repatriation of a Canadian CIED operator at Halifax Intl. Airport last week. A corporal from 14 Wing, one of the many Air Force and Navy members serving alongside the Army, was caught in a secondary blast following the blast that killed Canadian soldier Lt. Nuttal just before Christmas. When our corporal made his way through the terminal on crutches, it was to spontaneous applause from passengers, many of whom had teary eyes. Our corporal was lucky to come through with concussion and soft tissue damage, but he will have work to do to get better.

So if you see a Canadian or NATO soldier wearing a CIED patch on their fatigues, wish them well and tell them you appreciate their work. They are some of the real heroes of this war.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Clio and the Basterds

Call me old-fashioned (like that's a stretch) but I miss the historical military films that actually tried to offer a complex narrative that more or less resembled an approximation of an event that more or less actually happened. OK, there's some post-modern historiographical slack in that thought, but I'm thinking of films from the late sixties and early seventies like Waterloo or The Battle of Britain that were reasonably accurate in their history telling. Granted, the same era gave us films like Kelly's Heroes, with its heist and western movie influence and its wonderfully anachronistic Donald Sutherland as a stoner tank commander, but a few years after that came A Bridge Too Far, perhaps the last gasp in the traditional war movie.

Three decades later we have Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which I finally saw the other night. This blog does not deal in film reviews as a general rule, but as I watched QT's WW2 film, I wasn't really sure what to make of it. On the one hand, he plays with film conventions and cliches in a way reminiscent of Kelly's Heroes on steroids. As David Denby wrote in The New Yorker last August, "Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him—there’s hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside the cinema except as the basis of a nutbrain fable".

When Hitler, Goering, and the whole Nazi hierarchy gets roasted and machine-gunned to death inside a Parisian arthouse cinema in 1944, I realized that this film's train had left the history station and was now racing towards pure fantasy. As Denby and others have pointed out, it's gonzo wish-fulfilment: "Oooh, Nazi's are evil and they are snappy dressers, so let's see how many we can kill in really unpleasant ways". Is there an ethical point to it all? Didn't we already know that the Nazis were awful? Didn't the Nazi's lose the war, and wasn't that point made by Bruno Ganz as Hitler in the recent German film Downfall? As Dana Stevens notes on, "Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?" If you want to have fun at the expense of Hitler and his gang, I would far perfer Mel Brook's treatment of the Third Reich in The Producers (either film version works), which, unlike QT's film, doesn't leave one feeling dirty. As Denby notes, "Tarantino’s fans will wait for the director’s cut, which no doubt shows Shirley Temple arriving at Treblinka with the Glenn Miller band and performing a special rendition of “Baby Take a Bow,” from the immortal 1934 movie of the same name, before she fetchingly leads the S.S. guards to the gas chamber."

As a footnote, the night after I watched Basterds, I caught Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, which further convinced me that history as we know it in the movies is, like the glaciers, in full retreat. Victorian London not good enough for you? Add radio-controlled weapons of mass destruction. The menace of the league of red-headed gentlemen not threatening enough? Replace them with a dude who wants to take over the world. Sherlock Holmes in his drawing room too fusty? Make him into an action hero with a hot girlfriend. Should we have been surprised that it would have turned out any other way? Great fun, sure, but there was more realism in the London of Charles Dicken's Scrooge than there is in this version.

Watch for Clio, the muse of history, to turn up in the movies in high heeled knee boots and Madonna bra, brandishing a plasma pistol and kicking Nazi ass. Or has that been done already?

Notable Quotable - The NYT on the Blackwater Mercenary Trial Dismissal

Thoughtful editorial from the NYT on why democracies shouldn't rely on mercenary soldiers. MP+

"There are many reasons to oppose the privatization of war. Reliance on contractors allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny. And freewheeling contractors can be at cross purposes with the armed forces. Blackwater’s undersupervised guards undermined the effort to win Iraqi support.

But most fundamental is that the government cannot — or will not — keep a legal handle on its freelance gunmen. A nation of laws cannot go to war like that."

Read the whole piece here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book review: Rodney Stark on The Crusades

My chaplain friend and colleague Paul Lynn, with the US Army currently at Fort Bragg, NC, shares my interest in reading and church history. Paul returned from theatre just before Christmas and he's been kind enough to pick up some of my posts on his blog Worth My Salt, to which I've added a permanent link here in the section "Blogs I'm Visiting".

Paul has written a review of church historian Rodney Stark's book on the crusades which I'm crossposting here. The word "crusades" has become ideological of late, figuring prominently in radical Islamist propaganda as favoured by Osama Bin Laden and others. A powerful revisionist school in western thought portrays the crusades as unwarranted aggression against peoples of other faiths. Paul's review has me curious to see how Stark works against that grain. MP+

Friday, January 08, 2010
God's Battalions: Book Review

I was about three quarters of the way through with this amazing book when I emailed a friend about it. My friend holds a PhD in Religion from one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. His focus is Church History, specializing in the area of major concern from the book, "God's Battalions." My friend has also been a full professor for a lengthy bit of time, meaning, he knows his stuff.

I knew he would know the author. I wanted to get behind the intent of the thesis.

Here it is in final form on the last page (p. 248): "The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions."

The author, Rodney Stark, of Baylor University cooks up a great book. It is scholarly, heavily footnoted, and he interacts with other reputable historians throughout. But, it is very readable!

I think back to reading David McCullough's early American history in "1776," and how much of a fun and fascinating read that was. For the reader, especially those interested in Christian history here, "God's Battalions," felt like a 1776. The comparison doesn't come because I'm combining Christianity-Americana, but essentially it is relevant to where I am, and perhaps you, too. If not, it's certainly provokes a historical paradigm shift.

In God's Battalions one can not analyze the Crusades without first reviewing the "Muslim Invaders," in Chapter 2. If your Christian History from college has become fuzzy, this will certainly shore it up. The layout of the geography, and key leaders and players make it come back in focus.

I loved the detail of the medeival military minutiae, e.g., armor, weapons, tactics, strategies, methods of killing devices, descriptions of cavalry and infantry, and Knights, as well as the heart and ethics of Soldiers or Christian Crusaders. I also loved the portraying of vivid battle descriptions. Hooah! And, pardon me, if you find this offensive, but I found myself comparing modern American Soldiers to European Crusaders. Of course there were gaping differences, but many similarities as well. You will find yourself connecting some dots that have been hanging in limbo.

My friend cautioned me that this wasn't Stark's forte, but I was impressed with the depth in which he reflected and wrote. It doesn't come across off-the-cuff. So, God's Battalions becomes in many ways an "existential," or historical "re-do," in Army parlance. What many of us have commonly come to think about the Crusades, Stark undercuts it with a look beyond the Karen Armstrong kind of popular synoptic regurgitation.

If you pick it up, like me, you may have much trouble putting it down. I'm not going to be specific here, but if I were a pastor there are some specific take-aways that could apply to "mission" and "ministry to men." I loved it. And, I highly recommend it.

For Military Families, Stress Doesn't Always End With Reunions

Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Michael Henry, his wife, Kelly, and four children enjoy a Hawaiian holiday vacation. Henry, a family medicine doctor, had returned home to his family Dec. 2, 2009, after completing a yearlong deployment in Iraq.

Spouse Describes Reunion, Reintegration Challenges
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2010 – Kelly Henry was hoping for a picture-perfect reunion when her husband returned after a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Michael Henry, his wife, Kelly, and four children enjoy a Hawaiian holiday vacation. Henry, a family medicine doctor, had returned home to his family Dec. 2, 2009, after completing a yearlong deployment in Iraq. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

But what she got was far from a Hollywood scene.

“All four [of my kids] cried within 48 hours of my husband coming home,” said Henry, wife of Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Michael Henry, a family medicine doctor assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C.

Henry described the ups and downs of reunion and reintegration and lessons learned yesterday in an interview with American Forces Press Service.

The floodgates first opened when her husband arrived home early Dec. 2.

Read the whole piece here.

Military Picture of the Week

Despite record snowstorms throughout Britain, it's good to see from this MOD Image of the Day that the British military has not lost its sense of humour. MP+

Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Army's premier rapid reaction force, based in Colchester, were back at work yesterday, Thursday 7 January 2010, despite the heavy snow. But during a morning coffee break, troops and civilian staff from the Brigade Headquarters took the opportunity to put some new recruits through their paces. These recruits took the form of maroon-bereted snowmen who stood guard outside the base. A brigade spokesmen said: "It is seldom the weather is good enough for the snowmen to train with us. They have worked hard, are very stoical and don’t seem to mind the cold." [Picture: Corporal Rupert Frere RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

A New Generation of GI Bill Students At School

Shortly after WW2 my father, like many other Canadian and US veterans, started new campaigns on campuses - in my Dad's case, it was McGill University in Montreal, which until very recently had been a bastion of the privileged. He only told me a few funny stories about what it was like, but reading this fascinating NYT account of a new geenration of veteran students helps me understand my dad's journey a bit more. MP+

Cameron Baker, an Air Force veteran, in class at Columbia.

January 9, 2010
From Battlefield to Ivy League, on the G.I. Bill
Cameron Baker, an undergraduate at Columbia University, made a point of wearing a “Coalition Forces” T-shirt at the start of the fall semester. He was not bragging or making a collegiate attempt at ironic humor.

Mr. Baker, 26, really was among the coalition forces, having done back-to-back deployments to Iraq with the Air Force and three more years there with a private contractor. He wore the shirt to quietly broadcast his involvement in Iraq, alerting professors and classmates to tread lightly should the conversation turn to war.

It was a different coping mechanism that backfired on him.

Mr. Baker gravitates toward the front of classes to compensate for hearing loss from repeated exposure to mortar fire. Recently, in his course “Issues in Comparative Politics,” a professor played a short news clip about the electoral process in Iraq. For a split second, a roadside bomb went off in the video, and Mr. Baker, caught off guard and right up close, started shaking.

“I wasn’t in the classroom anymore,” he said later that day. “I wasn’t transported all the way back to Baghdad, but I could feel just the rush of emotions that accompanies something like that — the immediate adrenaline rush, the anxiety that comes with it, the hypervigilance, when I start trying to become very aware of my surroundings, to ensure that nothing is going to go off behind me.”

Read the whole story here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review - Jon Krakauer's Pat Tillman bio

Jon Krakauer. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Early on in the West's latest intervention in Afghanistan as part of the "War on Terror" (a term that has gone out of vogue somewhat of late) came the inspiring and tragic story of the life and death of Pat Tillman. Tillman was a star in the National Football League who left a contract of over three million dollars to enlist as a grunt in the US Army, only to be killed in a friendly fire incident in April, 2004. Tillman's story has been told by Jon Krakauer, with great sympathy for his subject and an almost incandescent anger for the US administration and military that, he claims, caused the death of Tillman and then covered it up.

For a journalist unfamiliar with the military, Krakauer (he is sports and adventure writer as I understand it) has clearly done his homework. His recreation of the incidents leading to the death of Tillman is meticulously detailed. Briefly, the small unit of US Army Rangers that Tillman was part of was divided, and the detached sub-component was attempted to rejoin the unit when it was ambushed in a nightmarish series of canyons that made identification of enemy forces highly difficult. In the subsequent confusion, American soldiers exchanged fire on each other and Tillman was killed. At first the story was that Tillman had been killed by Taliban forces, and only later the truth came out that this was what militaries call a "blue on blue" or friendly fire incident.

Pat Tillman was apparently a bright and thoughtful person who had extraordinary gifts of athletic ability and charisma. Football fans will enjoy Krakauer's account of his rise through high school and college play to the NFL, even if it is, somewhat annoyingly, counterpointed with "meanwhile, in Afghanistan ..." sections. Joining the military was the farthest thing from his mind until the 9/11 attacks, after which, like many Americans, he felt a desire to serve and protect his country.

Tillman's decision to enlist was not an impulsive one. Following his lifelong practice of journaling, he sat down in April 2002 and wrote a document called "Decision" in which he gave his reasons for leaving football to join the military. It is a more thoughtful document than one might expect from the stereotypical jock (Tillman was gifted academically as well as physically) and it speaks well for his character. "Somewhere inside, we hear a voice, and intuitively know the answer to any problem or situation we encounter. Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us whether or not to follow. More times than not we pointed in a predictable, straightforward, and seemingly positive direction. However, occasionally we are directed down a different path entirely. Not necessarily a bad path, but a more difficult one. In my case, a path that many will disagree with, and more significantly, one that may cause a great deal of inconvenience to those I love. ... Despite this, however, I am equally positive that this new direction will, in the end, make our lives fuller, richer, and more meaningful" (pp. 137-38).

Tillman and his younger brother, who enlisted with him, endured the rigorous training that allowed them to become part of the elite US Army Rangers. This was a significant achievement for a man older than most recruits, even a pro athlete, as it required mental as well as physical endurance to get over the hurdles of initiation into Ranger culture, which according to one comrade of Tillman's was "cocky and arrogant and muscle bound" (225). After his first tour in Iraq Tillman refused overtures from the NFL to secure him a discharge and a return to pro ball, even though he was now having doubts about the war and had made some efforts to start a dialogue with prominent dissenter Noam Chomsky. Even with his misgivings, Tillman willingly went with his Ranger unit to Afghanistan in 2004.

The counterpoint for Krakauer's admiration for Tillman is his anger at the war and its military and civilian masters. In setting up this story, Krakauer quotes the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus that ""In war, truth is the first casualty", and this becomes the central theme of his book. Both in the book and in a radio interview on NPR I heard last September, (here the interview here and read a transcript here) Krakauer is angry with the Bush administration for its handling of the response to 9/11 and its decision to invade Iraq. Several incidents from the 2003 decision become for Krakauer templates for the administration's mendacity. One is the capture of several US soldiers in March of 2003, including Jessica Lynch, "which threatened to contradict the assurances made by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and others that Americans would be 'greeted with sweets and flowers' and victory would be achieved quickly" (183). Following the capture of Lynch and her unit of lost and poorly armed supply and maintenance troops, the US Marines become involved in a firefight in Nasiriyah and seventeen Marines were killed by friendly fire. Analyzing this incident, Krakauer says that"Chaos is indeed the normal state of affairs on the battleground", which is fair enough, but in the face of fratricidal casualties that inevitably result from this chaos, "denial and dissembling are [the military's] time-honored responses of first resort" (202).

A quick search of the internet (, Wikipedia) will reveal varying numbers of US friendly fire casualties at Nasiriyah, but for Krakauer the incident and the subsequent board of inquiry, which he claims was a whitewash, showed how the US military and administration would "misrepresent the truth to bolster public support for the war of the moment" (204). The coverup of this casualties and the subsequent portrayal of Jessica Lynch as a courageous heroine (Krakauer calls it a "hoax") would be the playbook the US military and PR machine would follow thirteen months later when Tillman was killed.

At the end of April 2004, when Tillman's body returned to the US, the story of abuses in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was beginning to break in the news, while George Bush was preparing for his second election campaign. Thus, according to Krakauer, "White House perception managers saw an opportunity not unlike the one provided by the Jessica Lynch debacle thirteen months earlier" (295). Tillman was recommended by his unit for a posthumous Silver Star, a decoration for valour, and nothing was said at the time about his death from fratricide, though the chain of command, including General Stanley McChrystal, now directing the war in Afghanistan, were warning the Bush administration as early as April 22 that an ongoing investigation would likely return a friendly fire verdict. This was precisely the verdict returned on 4 May, the day after Tillman's memorial service; the report cited "gross negligence" and failures of leadership as a cause for Tillman's death. However, on 8 May, a second investigation was ordered, and returned the same finding on 16 May, but it was not until 24 May that the Tillman family, beginning with Pat's brother and comrade Kevin, was told of the finding. Tillman's mother learned about it from a journalist and the official military announcement that Tillman was "probably" killed by friendly fire was made on a Saturday morning, in hopes that the story would "diminish over the weekend" (308).

Krakauer believes that the Tillman family was badly served by the military after Pat's death. If you think about the timeline here, Tillman was shot on 22 April, and his body and his brother both came home to Delaware Air Force Base on 26 April. His memorial service was 3 May, so more than one week passed between his death and funeral, during which Tillman's family and friends heard how their son had died heroically in action. During that period, should they have been told about the concerns within the chain of command about the circumstances of Pat's death? That question seems to me to be debateable. The investigation was still underway during this week, and the circumstances of Pat's death were far more unclear than were the deaths of four Canadian soldiers killed by US aircraft in Afghanistan in 2004, deaths that were immediately understood as being fratricidal. The first report, called a 15-6 investigation, was not passed up the chain of command for approval until 4 May.

What isn't debateable is that the second 15-6 investigation, completed on 16 May, confirmed the results of the first but was then "kept under extremely tight wraps, treated as if it were a grave threat to national security" (305). More than a week passed after that before the Tillmans learned the truth via a poorly managed process. Clearly the family was poorly served. Given that the military was being shaken by the Abu Ghraib story at this time, and doubtless was concerned about further damage to its image, I conclude with Krakauer that the withholding of the truth from Tillman's family for so long was an ethical lapse.

What isn't so clear to me, and here I think Krakauer's anger is misplaced, is his account of some of the secondary issues that disturbed the family. As a chaplain, I'm interested in Krakauer's account of the memorial service that was held in theatre by members of Pat's unit. Pat's brother Kevin had told his commander, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, through his sergeant, that his brother did not want prayers or a chaplain. Kauzlarich told the sergeant that ""you can tell Specialist [Kevin] Tillman that his ceremony ain't about him, it is about everybody in the Joint Task Force bidding farewell to his brother, so there will be a chaplain and there will be prayers" (314). According to Krakauer, Pat had made it clear on his military record that he did not want a chaplain, minister or prayers involved in his funeral, and left the details of his memorial to his wife. This was in keeping with the Tillman family's values (Krakauer in an NPR radio calls them "freethinkers"). Kauzlarich's refusal to honour the family's requests, and a subsequent press interview where he attributed the family's anger to their being "atheists" lacking any way to make Pat's death meaningful, becomes for Krakauer another instance of the military running roughshod over the Tillman family and utterly failing to understand their feelings.

If you read David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, about US soldiers in Iraq, memorial services are routinely held by military units for their fallen comrades, and they typically involve a chaplain and prayers for the deceased. These services are as much for the surviving comrades as they are for the fallen. They help a unit acknowledge its loss and to regain its resolve and stability. Here I think Krakauer confuses a memorial service in theatre with what happens at a funeral after a fallen soldier is repatriated to the US, when the family is in control of the service. Kauzlarich, who is the central character in Finkel's book (the events of which happened two years after Tillman's death) had many such memorial services in his unit in Baghdad. While he may have refused Kevin Tillman's request in more sensitive terms, Kauzlarich as a CO was within his rights to do the memorial service in theatre according to military custom. Also, while Krakauer calls Kauzlarich an "evangelical Christian" (314), a term which suggests a protestant fundamentalist, Kauzlarich is according to Finkel, who was with him in Baghdad for six months, a Roman Catholic. It is a small objection, but it leads me to doubt Krakauer's comprehension and handling of the religious aspect of the story. There are villains in this story, to be sure, but Kauzlarich, who emerges in Finkel's book as a competent and caring CO, should not one of them. Kauzlarich and the Tillmans were at different spiritual places, but the Lt. Col's 15-6 did confirm the circumstances of Pat's death.

At the end of the book, I feel that Krakauer wanted someone in authority to step forward and own up to the truth of Pat Tillman's death. He has learned enough about combat and war to understand that some friendly fire deaths are not preventable, and are part and parcel of the chaos of conflict. What angers Krakauer is that the idealism of a man like Pat Tillman, who accepted all the risks of conflict just as he accepted his responsibilities as a citizen, was the victim that used his life and death "in order to further careers or advance a political agenda" (343). However, in his last pages I feel Krakauer's anger gets him onto a sticky wicket. While he praises his subject's "robust masculinity" idealism, he deplores the fact that this idealism was willingly offered to a deceitful regime prosecuting "a reckless blunder", and so Pat Tillman's idealism becomes not a tragic flaw but "a tragic virtue". I can't help but conclude that after 340 pages, Krakauer veers perilously close to calling his subject a dupe, even if he doesn't intend to. Pat Tillman was an extraordinary soldier. Countries like the US and Canada need men - and women - possessed of such virtues. There is nothing tragic or simplistic in these virtues. They are a precious resource, and deserve better stewardship than Tillman's received. Perhaps, if Krakauer's anger were more tightly focused, this point would be made more clearly.

Notable Quotable - John Ibbitson on the Afghan Mission

Other than the "Can the Mission be Saved" headline coming on the heels of yesterday's repatriation of casualties in Afghanistan, which really irks me, John Ibbitson asks some good questions in the latter half of his piece in yesterday's Globe and Mail. MP+

"[The Canadian Forces] have done far more than could ever have been asked of them. The Afghanistan deployment, whatever else it has achieved, has transformed the Canadian army from a shrunken and grievously underfunded embarrassment in the 1990s to a strengthened fighting force that has operated effectively now for years in a foreign and often hostile land.

But if the goal was to stabilize and secure the region, then that goal has not been achieved.

Neither, however, can the mission yet be described as a failure. Morale appears to remain high among the troops. There are no stories of Canadian soldiers bitterly condemning the incompetence of their officers and the futility of the war. Kandahar is not Canada's Vietnam. It is no Iraq.

Sergeant Kirk Taylor, one of the four soldiers who died Wednesday, so believed in Canada's mission in Kandahar that he had prepared a public statement defending the cause to be released in the event of his death.

The “mission in Afghanistan is vital for us not only as Canadians but as human beings,” he wrote, describing the mission as a chance for Canadians to help Afghans develop solutions to Afghan problems.

Few countries have sent an expeditionary force overseas for such a long time, with such ambiguous results, and yet with such continued commitment to the mission from the forces themselves.

There are other questions: What will become of Canada's ramped-up military after the Afghanistan deployment ends? Will the forces be retrained at their current strength, their equipment renewed and replaced? Or will a cash-strapped federal government permit the gradual erosion of the army to pre-Afghanistan levels?

These are difficult political issues. But they will need to be raised, even as Canadians once again mourn the return of their war dead."

Read the whole piece here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Five Canadians Return Home

Today at Trenton, Ontario, was the repatriation ceremony for four Canadian soldiers and a journalist killed in Afghanistan on 30 December.

Quoting from the DND press release, these five are "Sergeant George Miok of 41 Combat Engineer Regiment, based in Edmonton, Alberta; Sergeant Kirk Taylor of 84 Independent Field Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, based in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia; Corporal Zachery McCormack of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment (Fourth Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), based in Edmonton, Alberta; Private Garrett William Chidley of The Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton, Alberta; and Michelle Lang, a Canwest journalist from Calgary, Alberta".

The four soldiers were part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team. PRTs are typically composed of reservists, and as their name suggests, provide the aid and civil liason work that combat operations are designed to make possible. Reservists in my experience are keen to volunteer for this duty, and they come from units that are typically small, close knit and highly linked to their local communities. I'm not sure but this may have been the heaviest loss of life from the Army Reserve in one day since we started the Afghan mission.

The four soldiers are:

Sergeant George Miok

Sergeant Kirk Taylor

Corporal Zachery McCormack

Private Garrett William Chidley, the one Regular Army soldier of the group.

The fifth Canadian to return to Canada today was Michelle Lang, a journalist with the Calgary Herald. She is the first Canadian journalist to have been killed in Afghanistan; three have been wounded covering the conflict. I haven't found any data on Canadian war correspondents killed in earlier wars - she may be the first Canadian journalist killed in a war zone. Other Canadian journalists have faced danger to be sure - CBC journalist Melissa Fung was taken hostage by the Taliban last year.

As well, the funeral of Lt. Andrew Nuttall, killed in Afghanistan on 23 December, is scheduled for tomorrow in Victoria, BC.

Lt. Andrew Nuttall

DND maintains a list of our fallen Canadian soldiers here.

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

In Between Holidays, Nothing Happens But Magic

The title of this post is taken from the title of a piece by Manny Fernandez that appeared in the New York Times on 30 December of last year, the same day that my wife Kay and I left New York after an all too brief visit. As Fernandez says, the period between Christmas and New Years "is a week of suspended animation in the city, in between holidays, when the great systems of New York — the schools, the courts, the communications media, Wall Street, City Hall, the bodegas in Queens — slow to an administrative crawl or shut down altogether, when New York City belongs not to New Yorkers, but to Spaniards, Italians, Canadians, Germans, Californians. Tens of thousands of people have left town to go back home, while tens of thousands of others have left home to come to town."

For three days we heard languages from all over the world as we wandered around Manhattan, plus of course the local accents of "New Yawkahs". I thought some of the best voices were those of signs. Here are some signs worth repeating.

Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin off Times Square - Anglo-Catholic liturgy done with great devotion and skill.

Clash of cultures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Wall art at the Borders store beneath the Times Warner Building.

Banner in Central Park:

As a man in the Hernandez article says, "I don't think there's any city in the entire world like this." Ditto, buddy.

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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