Friday, January 29, 2016

Military Picture Of The Week

According to the daily "On This Day in MIlitary History" feed from Department of History and Heritage, Dept. of Ntl. Defence, on this day, 29 January, in 1936, No. 7 (General Purpose) Squadron was formed at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, on the Ottawa River. 

This photo shows one of two Hawker Tomtit two-seated trainers that were used by the squadron.  According to Harold Skaarup, Canadian Warbirds of the Biplane Era - Trainers, Transports and Utility Aircraft, the RCAF owned two Tomtits, Nos 139 and 140 (shown here).  They had a top speed of 200 km/h and a ceiling of 19,500 feet.  The Tomtit had a reputation as a  sweet plane to fly and remained in RCAF service until 1943.

I especially like the snow on the ground in this photo, and can imagine the discomfort of the ground crew working in a frigid Ottawa winter.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mental Health In The Military: From Generation To Generation

Today in Canada a very welcome national conversation is happening on the subject of mental health.  As part of that conversation, You can follow it on T|witter using the hashtag . It's very encouraging to see the Canadian Armed Forces taking this conversation seriously.

As part of that conversation, the Globe and Mail is reporting on a study, "conducted by the Department of National Defence and the University of Manitoba, (which) found that exposure to child abuse and trauma among soldiers is proportionally higher than in the civilian population."  (See also CBC coverage of the study here).

The study finds that that exposure to childhood abuse for members of the Regular Force is "47.7 per cent – and higher still in reserve forces with 49.4 per cent, compared with 33.1 per cent in the Canadian general population".

The study does not speculate why these percentages are higher than in the general population.

My immediate reaction to these figures is that they may be explainable, at least in part, due to the fact that military service tends to run within families.   Military families are prone to stressors - frequent absence of parents (usually the father) due to deployments and training, separation from extended families and other support networks due to frequent postings, alcholism and divorce.   If a father has a mental health injury due to experiences of combat or time in war zones, and never sought diagnosis or treatment, that can only exacerbate the problem.

My own father was a veteran of NW Europe (WW2) and Korea, and spent almost thirty years in what we today would call the old Army.  His father was also a professional soldier who served with the US and Canadian armies and saw in the Spanish American War, the Moro Insurgency in the Philippines, and then the First World War, when he was wounded multiple times.  I never met my paternal grandfather, and dad never talked much of him.  One photo of the two of them survives.  Grandad is a big burly man, his arm resting on the slender shoulders of my dad, who was then perhaps ten years old.  Grandad is a big presence in that photo.  I have no idea what my dad's childhood experience of him was.

I love my Dad and respect him, and whatever demons he carried, he kept them at bay most days, but during my childhood he was a functional alcholic who could turn mean.   Mine wasn't a bad childhood, and my own experience of abuse was doubtless far less than many.  But, as a third generation soldier, I can look back and identify a chain of mental health issues that went largely unrecognized and unaddressed. 

So if you're part of a multigenerational family, it's important to examine and deal with your past and your family of origin issues, because you've got enough weight in your rucksack as it is.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Three Journalists Reflect On Covering Today's Wars

This interview between War on the Rocks' editor Ryan Evans and three working journalists - Nancy Yousseff, David Wood and Paul Shinkman is well worth listening to.

The three discuss the difficulties journalists face in covering wars today, their profound admiraton and even love of military personnel and the need to be objective, and the increasing lack of news organizations in covering defense issues. Those in uniform tasked with working with the media and civilians interested in healthy deomcracy will all get something from this conversation.

It's all good stuff, but about half way through the discussion, when they discuss moral and physical injury and the human cost of war, it gets riveting.  You realize that these are three people who care deeply about their work and its importance. 

Some of David Wood's other work on severely wounded veterans, a subject he obviously cares for deeply, can be found here.

Friday, January 22, 2016

What Sarah Palin Got Wrong About PTSD

I confess that I am not a great fan of Sarah Palin. Part of me thinks she embodies everything that is wrong with political discourse today, though I am grateful for her return to the media spotlight in the perverse way that one has when witnessing clowns engaged in a custard pie fight on a burning train careening towards a collapsed bridge. in other words, it's difficult to parse the horrific from the entertaining.

One thing I didn't know about Palin was that she is a military mom. That came to the spotlight this week when her son, a US Army reservist and Iraq war veteran, was arrested on 18 January after being charged with domestic assault and weapons possession while intoxicated. There's a bit of a fact sheet on this here.

The only reason I am mentioning any of this here is that Ms. Palin went public this week and appeared to shield her son from responsibility by blaming neglct President Obama and the US government for neglecting US veterans with PTSD.

“It’s a shame that our military personnel even have to wonder, if they have to question, if they’re respected anymore,” the former Alaska governor said. “The question, though — that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, do you know what we go through?” 

These comments prompted a ton of comments from the US Army people I follow on Twitter, who noted with varying degrees of outrage that PTSD was never a blanket excuse for personal responsibility. Others felt that by invoking the stereotype of the "damaged vet", Palin had reinforced public suspicion that veterans are inherently violent and unstable.

As an alternative to that stereotype, I refer you to this thoughtful article, which includes some voices of veterans who have successfully confronted their own PTSD.

Bottom line: Ms. Palin got it wrong about PTSD. While she may feel protective of her son, he bears responsibility for addressing his condition, and his family has enjoyed the financial means to seek treatment above and beyond what may be provided. Using this issue politically, and blaming the government while ignoring the battered girlfriend, has no part of honesty, honour, or decency. MP+

Thursday, January 21, 2016

One American Soldier's Proposal To Address Military Suicides

This guest piece in Tom Ricks' Best Defence Blog caught my attention today. The author`s proposal, that the Department of Defence actively monitor its members' social media activity and intervene when there are posts, comments, or google searches suggesting suicidal ideation, may dismay some.

I`m not sure how that would even work in other countries' militaries such as my own. In one sense I agree with the author. Whatever the reasons for military suicide, be it prior deployments, the young adult demographic, or pre-existing mental health concerns, watching our comrades, whether in garrison or online as their FB friends, is the key. If you see something, you need to intervene, whether as a friend, as an NCO, or as an officer. That`s your responsibility.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Theology: Is It Heretical To Wonder 'What Would Jesus Pack?'

Today's Friday theology takes the form of two questions.

1) Is the question "What would Jesus pack?" heretical?  Show your work, and be sure to reference Matthew 5 (those pesky Beatitutdes!).

2) According to your answer to (1), discuss the merits of these Texas pastors' positions on firearms vice those of the Catholic Church in Texas.


Military Picture Of The Week

From a feature in the Globe and Mail about the Indian military's parade to celebrate the country's 67th Republic Day.  The caption identifies these troops as being from the Border Security Force. 

I'll go out on a limb and say that any military that parades mounted on camels has its bad ass bona fides in order.

More pics here.  Dog owners note 6 of 11.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Escape From Waithood: One View Of Terrorism And Its Causes

A street scene in ``Waithood``

If there has been a theme in some of my recent posts, it`s about the importance of religion as a motive for human actions.

Twitter today introduced me to a Somalian entrepeneur/activist named Mohamed Ali who gave a TED talk in 2013, found here.

The TED talk is more like an inspirational secular sermon than it is cogent analysis, but it has the merit of limited a speaker to a few powerful idea.  Ali`s central idea is ``waithood``, meaning the limbo of economic hopelessness by which young people are left hopeless and ripe for manipulation by terrorist groups like Somalia`s Al Shabab.  Here`s an excerpt.

It is the story of the disenfranchised,unemployed urban youthwho sparks riots in Johannesburg,sparks riots in London,who reaches out for something other than waithood.For young people, the promise of the city,the big city dream is that of opportunity,of jobs, of wealth,but young people are not sharing in the prosperity of their cities.Often it's youth who suffer from the highest unemployment rates.By 2030, three out of five people living in citieswill be under the age of 18.If we do not include young peoplein the growth of our cities,if we do not provide them opportunities,the story of waithood,the gateway to terrorism, to violence, to gangs,will be the story of cities 2.0.And in my city of birth, Mogadishu,70 percent of young people suffer from unemployment.70 percent don't work,don't go to school.They pretty much do nothing.

I agree with this argument to some extent.   I am sure that slums and refugee camps breed terrorism in ways that affluent suburbs do not.  Giving people a sense of ownership in their lives, neighbourhoods, cities and societies is undoubtedly the way forward.  

But does Ali`s argument explain why someone would want to become a suicide bomber?  In his scenario, what happens in the young person`s mind between when he is recruited from Waithood and when he blows himself or herself up?  What of the educated and relatively privileged, like the young Saudi hijackers of 9/11?

It seems to me that there is more to terrorism and fanaticism than a materialist analysis can account for.


Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday Theology: Why The Church Needs Worship

I don't know who Jonathan Aigner is in churchland circles.   I just now that somehow Twitter, erratic wandering star that it is, led me to his essay on worship this morning and it's worth a read.

Ironically I read it two days after learning that a church I served as a priest in the last decade has dwindled to the point that it will close later this year.  I also learned that another church in my old diocese, once a coveted billet for ambitious clergy, closed just before 2015 ended.  There's a lot of that going around these days.   When I was ordained, a friend of mine said that the Anglican Church of Canada is folding up like a cheap suit at an August wedding.  Twelve years later, his comment seems prescient, or maybe it wasn't obvious to me at a time.

How much of this decline is due to demographics?  A lot, undoubtedly.   How much of it is due to secularism, what Charles Taylor called the age of disenchantment?  Surely that has something to do with the decline as well.  Others will say that the established churches are paying the price of their embrace of liberal theology.  It may be true that the evangelical churches are doing better, but some data suggests they are merely holding their own.

Aigner's suggestion that the decline of liturgy is also a factor is also worth considering. 

Set aside, for a moment, the idea that differences over styles of music and praise are the church`s equivalent of society`s culture wars.  Think instead about how the way we worship can influence us, train us, and form us as Christians.

My seminary taught me an old Anglican battlecry, lex orendi lex credendi, meaning roughly 'what is prayed is what is believed`.  As Aigner argues, when we turned liturgy into traditional worship, a menu item at the buffet table of the Christian experience, we lost much.  We lost the ability of prayer to shape us week by week, year by year.  We traded tradition for fad.   We embraced social justice, thinking that it was enough that we advertised our churches as inclusive, welcoming, and ecologically friendly.  We didn't ask ourselves if just community itself would suffice, or wonder what would differentiate such a church from, say, the Sunday morning running club.  We innovated and tried to be relevant.  Well intentioned women squeezed themselves into dancewear and twirled ribbons up the aisle.  One church I visited in Guelph, Ontario (now closed) invited worshippers to pray to the spirits of the four winds, without feeling the need to explain who they were or what they had to do with the triune God.  We embraced trendy prayer books from New Zealand or Iona, so no two churches looked or prayed the same.

And we wonder what happened?

Today I see signs of the liturgical revival that Aigner is calling for.  A university chaplain in Halifax told me about the popularity of sung evensong with undergraduates at his chapel.   At an Antiochan Orthodox parish I attended last Easter, the place was packed, converts mixing with New Canadians/old country Orthodox.  At the base where I work, the Roman Catholics are rediscovering the Latin mass.

I respect the faithfulness and piety of my evangelical friends.   The church needs them.  For me, though I need my own place in liturgy, my own places to respond during the service so I can own the work of the church.   I need the eucharist prayed faithfully and seriously by my priest.  I don`t want to wonder what will come out of the pastor`s mouth next, or ask myself if I can agree with it.

I may be arguing for a nostalgic, boutique form of church that will never attract more than the educated or the aesthetic.  Time will tell.  Certainly the old infrastructure of the church will be pared away.  Lovely old buildings will continue to close.  An epoch will end.

I suspect, though, that what arises next will look much like the liturgical church that Aigner is calling for.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What`s Religious? What`s Political? Religious Literacy And Current Events

There has been some shop in my office this week about an interview in the Ottawa Citizen with Andrew Bennett, Canada`s Ambassador for Religious Freedom.  

In the interview, Bennett argues that diplomats and foreign service officers need to be more aware of the role that religion plays in politics and international affairs.  Bennett is quoted as saying: “We need to ensure that if we want to be really nuanced and winsome in how we engage countries that are deeply religious, that we can actually employ language that enables us to have a deeper engagement,” he said. “If we can’t do that, then we risk developing or having a serious diplomatic blind spot.”

One could argue that the same can be said of Canadian Armed Forces personnel operating in environments where religion has a prominence that is far greater than one would find in secular, pluralistic Canada.

Since Saudi Arabia and Iran broke relations last year following the Kingdom`s execution of a dissident Shia cleric, I`ve heard and read several media explanations of the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, dating back to events following the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and how this split in Islam maps over the contemporary Middle East.

I am sure that this sort of background is useful, particularly in North America where most people have only the haziest of understandings of Islam.  But is it true, as Mr. Bennett suggests, that we can`t understand the world unless we understand the religious factors at work in societies and conflicts?

The answer is probably a qualified yes.   A round table of scholars assembled by the US Council on Foreign Relations discussed the Saudi-Iran split yesterday, 6 January, and focused mostly on the geopolitical rivalry between the two regional powers. 

One of the participants, Philip H. Gordon (a CFR Senior Fellow)  noted that this conflict does break along sectarian lines, but was reluctant to dwell on it.  He said ``... this notion of sectarianism and eternal hatred, you know, it has not been an all-out war between Sunni and Shia for 1,400 years.  There have been times when they have been able to cooperate.  And those times end when there are political reasons for them to end, you know, after the Iranian revolution, when whether within a country or between countries there`s some change in the regional order.  So in the `79 revolution in Iran, after the US 2003 invasion of Iraq.  If you change the balance between Sunni and Shia, again either between countries or within countries, you get the rise in tension.''

Writing in The Nation yesterday, Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, described sectiarianism as ''a recruiting tool'' used by regional rivals, and pointed to the complexity of the religious landscape.

''Just as the political collapse in Yemen and the takeover of Sana by the Houthis over a year ago pushed Saudi Arabia to intervene there, the prospect of the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad being overthrown pushed Iran to send aid and troops to Damascus. Tehran also convinced Lebanon’s Hezbollah to enter the fray on the side of Assad, preserving the Syrian land bridge for Iranian resupply of munitions to its Lebanese client. The Iranian investment in Syria has nothing to do with Syrian Shiism. Iran’s allies in Syria are an assortment of Christians and Sunni secularists and New Age Shiites (the Alawites) with a gnostic and mythological approach to religion that bears about as much resemblance to clerical Iranian Shiism as Theosophy does to Episcopalianism. Besides, the Alawites who run the Baath regime in Syria are atheists.''

On the other hand, for those who suspect that all conflict in the Middle East is driven by oil, Jon Schwarz in The Intercept analyzes a fascinating map of oil deposits overlaid with sectarian divides and suggests that it`s not a coincidence that most of Saudi Arabia`s oil weath lies in the part of the country dominated by its Shia minority.

Closer to home, one can ask if religion helps to understand the armed ranchers currently occupying a federal wildlife centre in Oregon.   Writing in the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells analyzes the political motivations of the occupiers, and suggests that they arise from frustation arising from rural poverty in the so-called ''flyover states'' and the rule of far-off elites.   In that respect, the white protesters in Oregon may have more in common with the Black Lives Matter activities in US cities than either group would care to admit.

However, a religious studies scholar, Mark Silk, looks at the role of Mormonism in the Oregon event.  Silk notes the ties between some of the protestors' thinking seems indebted to the ''Skousenite''offshoot of Mormonism, which combines libertarian thought with apocalyptic expectation, and believes that Mormon warriors will cleanse the US and reclaim if for God. One can only hope that the law enforcement officials tracking the Malheur occupation are talking to Silk and people like him to better understand what is going on here.

These two contemporary examples suggest that religion is complex and can often underlay political conflicts.   To dismiss it in the way that some liberal commentators do (I`m thinking of Bill Maher, who I otherwise enjoy), assuming that religion is a vestigial remnant of our prehistoric superstitions, is to grossly over-simplify.  At the same time, religion does not by itself explain the essence or persistence of some conflicts, and we should not allow our conflict analysis to reinforce notions that religion is a negative, destabilising force in the world.   Religion is an aspect of human behaviour that plays a role from the simplest of everyday rituals to large-scale conflict.  Diplomats and military personnel are well-advised to keep this in mind.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bonus MilPic: Sgt. Karen Hermeston, First Canadian Army Female Photographer

Too good not to share - a small tribute to a pioneering military photographer.  More on Sgt. Hermeston here.

H/T to Canada 150th Twitter feed.

Military Picture Of The Week

(For a bigger version of this photo click here.)

Our MilPic of the Week was released by the Canadian Armed Forces, and shows a scene from HMCS Winnipeg, a Halifax-class frigate, participating in OPERATION REASSURANCE in the Mediterranean Sea. 

I'm sure they have bigger guns on board.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What To Read In 2016

Happy New Year!

If, like me, you found a stack of books under the Christmas tree, you probably have enough on your plate for a while.

However, if you're also like me, you're motto is "When In Doubt, Buy A Book".  Reading is a tub I plan to thump a lot in 2016, after sounding off about it last month.

To that end, I've been tracking some blogs and their reading lists, based on the best of what they saw published last year.

One of those blogs is From The Green Notebook, run by a thoughtful US Army officer, Joe Byerly.    His list of recommended reading can be found here.

The only book I read last year from Joe's list is Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next War by P.W. Singer and August Cole.   When I started reading it,  I wasn't that optimistic about the literary merits of a novel written by two defence analysts, so I wasn't that disappointed by the somewhat creaky plot and cardboard characters.   However, imagining how technological trends will play out in a major-power conflict, it is interesting.  Joe's review of it is perhaps kinder than what I would say, but I don't disagree with him.

Speaking of fiction, it's refreshing to see so much fiction (and even a book of poetry) on Joe's list.  he offers some insightful thoughts here on why military people should read fiction.  Perhaps fiction is something that soldiers, sailors and air personnel don't need to be sold on, judging from this article.  When I first went to the Royal Canadian Regiment, there was a yellowing sheet of paper pinned to the wall, with a list of books on leadership.  One was Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers.   Steven Pressfield, an ex US Marine, talks on his website of how tattered copies of his novel on the Spartans at Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, still circulates through Marine and Army platoons in Afghanistan.  I re-read Gates of Fire during my Christmas leave and I can see why.  If all you know about Thermopylae is from the terrible film 300, you need to read this book.

If I had to recommend one novel from my (too slim) reading last year, it would have to be Anthony Doerr's magical book All The Light We Cannot See, about two children before and during World War Two.  There's a good discussion of it, hosted by NPR's ageless Diane Rehm, here.  Doerr's novel may some a little Oprahesque (I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that) compared to Gates of Fire, but it has the truth and delicacy of a fable, and some of the finest writing I've read in a while.

Another military-themed reading list I'm tracking is produced by the Young Turks at War on the Rocks.  Lots to pick from there.

I'm frankly embarrassed at how few books (OK, 3) I read from this list by NPR or this top ten list by the NYT (though I did give a copy of Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk to a bereaved friend on the strength of its reviews at the time).

That's probably enough to get started on.

What did you read in 2015 that you think we should read?

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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