Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

From Fort Jackson, SC.

If anyone wants to visit this weekend, I have a couple of days off. I’ve been trying to think who is in this area that I know. Saturday and Sunday are free (JeremyTaylor@q.com). I’ll probably just do homework, but I thought I’d share this quotation from the end of Act of Valor, which I feel explains so much:

‘Your father was a good man — growing up without him is going to be hard. It is going to hurt. You will feel alone, out to sea, with no shore in sight; you’ll wonder, why me? Why him? Remember, you have warrior’s blood in your veins — the code that made your father who he was is the same code that will make you a man he will admire. Respect.

Put your pain in a box — lock it down; like those people in those paintings your father used to like. Real men, made up of boxes — chambers of loss and triumph of hurt and hope and love. No one is stronger or more dangerous than who can harness his emotions — his past.

Use it as fuel, as ammunition as ink to write the most important letter of your life.


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I am in the midst of seminary in order to apply for chaplain candidacy in the National Guard. Reading Doris Bergen’s The Sword of the Lord is a fascinating adventure into the sometimes incongruous world of military chaplains. From the Latin root capellanus, the chaplain’s name originally stems from being designated the relic-carrier of St. Martin’s cape in battle. From deliverers of sacraments in medieval times to the modern counselor in our pluralistic age, chaplains have taken on various roles in the last 1500 years. One thing is sure: the prime mission for the chaplain comes down to interaction with men and women who are facing some of life’s hardest challenges–forsaken and desolate outposts away from family and facing hostility in combat and possibly death.

As an enlisted man going on two years now, I’ve come to understand that the most difficult toll as a father and husband is not being there (and I can’t speak with great authority as I’ve been separated only for stateside training stints none of which totaled more than eight months). Still, I understand the difficulty of limited communication when life back home goes on. Divorce, bankruptcy, earaches, betrayal, flooding, the death of the grandpa who raised the soldier–amidst all of the struggles these things back home still go on.

I learned more about God in those eight months than I believe I learned in the previous five years prior–His goodness and grace is indeed more than enough. I have an idea of what kind of chaplain I’d like to be, one whose “ministry of presence” goes where men go, sacrifices in the same ways, eats the same rations, lives the same life. You may have heard the story of the “immortal chaplains.” I had not prior to Bergen’s work. They exemplify the servant leadership of all that a chaplain might aspire to be.

It was their “great getttin’ up morning” when they could shine as heroes. Methodist minister George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Reformed Church in America minister Clark V. Poling, and Roman Catholic priest John P. Washington were all relatively new chaplains and held the rank of lieutenant. They had met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard, and were sailing on the US Army Transport Ship, the Dorchester on February 3, 1943. Captain Danielsen had warned the men that Coast Guard radar had detected U-boat activity and ordered the men to sleep in their clothing with their life jackets on–due to this discomfort and the ship’s heat, many men had ignored the order. Our chaplains most likely followed it.

I would guess that George, Alexander, Clark, and John were asleep at 12:55 a.m. when the German torpedo from U-boat U-223 ripped through the Dorchester–it was a perfect hit which would cost the maximum number of lives. Why? It was in the early hours of the morning, and there was inadequate steam to sound the full 6-whistle signal to abandon ship. In twenty minutes time, the entire ship which had lost all boiler power would sink by the bow. Not one signal. Not one flare. Not even enough power to radio for help. 904 souls were aboard the ship, and the options were not good. Even if one had a life jacket, minutes in the nearly ice-cold water of 34 degrees left one unable to even grasp at a line thrown as hypothermia set in.

The ship was dark as electricity was knocked out, trapped men screamed below the decks, the wounded needed treatment, and death was imminent. Each man knew for a fact that the surface of the dark waves would soon be yards above his head and a watery, pitch-black suffocation impatiently beckoned. Thank God our chaplains had followed orders and worn their life jackets! As lieutenants, our chaplains’ arms and legs worked frantically to get as many men as possible into lifeboats and to cull some sense of order into chaos as life jackets were passed out until the makeshift, scrambling line that stretched realized a new horror: there were only four life jackets left. Dozens and dozens of men still in line. Maybe it was George who mentally counted, four Jump!, three Jump!, two Jump!, one Jump! And then maybe a young enlisted sailor from Kansas had his eyes meet George’s, twenty years old maybe, a fiancee back home, and there was no life jacket for him. Imagine the breath caught quick as George looked at him, shook his head, and pursed his lips.

Based on the eventual statistics, the chaplains who all had their life jackets on had a 25% chance of survival as 230 would find rescue. And then they made a decision to give themselves no chance so that other men might find theirs. George, Alexander, Clark, and John each took their arms, raised them above their heads, and pulled that life jacket off in order to hand it to another man. See the line was still there so that they could count four more. Didn’t matter who it was, probably didn’t try to find a friend or acquaintance, the first enlisted man nearby would do.

Grady Clark, who survived, says that he swam–imagine him feeling his arms slowing down as they went numb. He looked back and by providence, the flares finally lit up the night sky. He saw them. “The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.” Other survivors tell Ishmael-like of floating and being the witness now to tell us the story of the chaplains who stood arm-in-arm and singing. I would like to imagine the floating men, some of whom would survive, hearing the words to “Though I May Speak”:

Though I may speak with bravest fire and have the gift to all inspire, and have not love, my words are vain; as sounding brass, and hopeless gain. Though I may give all I possess, and striving so my love profess, but not be given by love within, the profit soon turns strangely thin. Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole. Let inward love guide every deed; by this we worship and are freed.

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Depending upon how you calculate it, America is on the verge of entering its longest-ever fought war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Here are some thoughts on how to win the war, something that because it is fought by asymmetric, insurgent warfare is first of all based on “hearts and minds,” the center of gravity being the populace there. Secondly, it is based upon “hearts and minds” here, the center of gravity being the American people’s willingness to see the war through despite adversity and setbacks. This is easier said than done. Three quotes that are particularly timely:

1.  Intelligence is key–from mud to space.

“Know your enemy. Know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather: your victory will then be total.”  Sun Tzu

2.  Do not be naive about the long-standing impact of victories as we must be on guard for the sake of security.

“Experience is the ability to recognize a mistake when you make it again. Four times in the last century the US has come to the end of a war, concluded that the future of man and the world had changed for the better and turned inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important for our national security giving ourselves a so-called ‘peace dividend.’ Four times we have chosen to ignore history.” Secretary Defense Robert Gates (Nov.2007)

3.  Take the fight the way the fight is fought. Adapt, adapt, adapt.

“I didn’t carry out my tactics in Malaya by raises masses of local troops and putting them all in British uniforms and giving them enormous loads to carry so that they became completely immobile. We did it by equipping them and training them as near as possible to the enemy they had to compete with in a particular terrain. This applied not only to local forces but also to British troops.” Field Marshal Gerald Templer, 1968

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I first saw this painting at the Prosser Chapel in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. It is a moving work of art by Arnold Friberg called, “The Prayer at Valley Forge.”

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Robert Kaplan has recently written a fascinating account of the military as he was embedded with special forces from Mongolia to the Phillipines to Iraq and beyond. Having finished just finished Army Basic Training, I find Kaplan’s description of America’s strengthening unique cultural component–a “relative absence of class envy”–fascinating. While rank matters, a soldier is a soldier. According to Kaplan, an NCO (non-commissioned officer) is often seen as the backbone and may be revered by his commissioned officer as in his example of captains and first sergeants who have mutual admiration rather than a hierarchical view of each other.

Beyond a view of military culture, Kaplan makes the case that America must adjust its strategy in favor of flexible, strategically-placed, special forces who have the freedom and ability to adapt linguistically and culturally. America can continue to be a stabilizing presence as it has become an inevitable empire.   Following are four insights from a thoughtful writer who was never afraid to go “outside the wire” and gear up with the military men around the world:

1. On America as an empire, Kaplan does not suggest this as a nefarious or devious project but rather an inevitability of expansion and interest:

Empires are works in progress, with necessity rather than glory than instigator of each outward push…The embryonic nation that hugged the eastern seaboard of North America found it intolerable that the guns of European powers should be at its rear: the French in the Mississippi Valley, the Spanish in the Southwest, the British in Canada and in the Northwest (6).

Some denied the very fact of American empire, claiming a contradiction  between an imperial strategy and America’s democratic values. They forgot that Rome, Venice, and Britain were the most morally enlightened states of their age. Venice was defined by a separation of church and state. It had a working constitution which severely limited the authority of the doges, who were unable to act without the approval of their councilors. Its humanistic outlook made Venice the only state of Catholic Europe never to burn a heretic. Liberalism at home and a pragmatic, at times ruthless policy abroad have not been uncommon in the history of empires (12).

2.  On the importance of leveraging change in Yemen, Colombia, the Philippines, and other hotbeds for terrorism:

[Retired Maj. Gen. Shacnow] implied that if the U.S. was going to monitor and regulate the world with a minimal number of troops and without large-scale wars, then it would require the ability to replicate soldier personalities like himself [by training the elite of a country’s military]. ‘A Special Forces guy has to be a lethal killer one moment and a humanitarian the next…we need people who are cultural quick studies’ (40).

Don’t try to fix the whole society. Rather, identify a few key pivotal elements in it, and try to fix them. For example, because a national army is essentially unreformable without wholesale social and cultural change, work to improve only its elite units, using men from America’s own military elite as trainers (46).

3.  On how “force caps” because of fears of Vietnam, Big Army bureaucracy, and feckless, corrupt host militaries could be shackling:

As in Vietnam in the early 1960s, the effect of Special Operations Forces was blunted by the unwillingness of policymakers to utilize them more effectively as a policy instrument. It was because of such timidity that the Johnson administration had been left with no other options than to escalate the war in Vietnam with conventional troops, or get out completely (88).

But as Churchill intimates, there are usually neither the troops nor the money nor the will to [dramatically increase military and other resources]. Therefore, he concludes, the ‘inevitable alternative is a system of ‘gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions’ (253).

You never gave up. You stayed engaged, no matter at how low a level, in order to keep enough pressure on the terrorists so that the threat did not escalate to a point requiring a much larger effort, an effort that would need to occur under a global media spotlight. A failed operation on Jolo [due to an inept Filipino army] was still better than no operation at all, since it kept the terrorists on the run. Such was the frustrating essence of imperial maintenance (153).

4.  On what “victory” might be in places which were never meant to be functioning, democratic governments:

…one thing was obvious: America could not change the vast forces of history and culture that had placed a poor Muslim region at the southern edge of a badly governed, Christian-run archipelago nation, just as America could not clap its hands and give governments in the mountains of Colombia and Yemen complete control over their lawless lowlands. All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute. And because such insertions were often in fragile third world democracies, with difficult colonial pasts and prickly senses of national pride, American forces had to operate under very restricted rules of engagement…an approach that merged humanitarianism with intelligence gathering, in order to achieve low-cost partial victories, was what imperialism demanded in the twenty-first century (170-171).

Beyond the razor-sharp insights as to how terrorism can be contained and wedges can be driven between the enemy and the people of the country they operate in, Kaplan lives the military life. Such an advantage gives him a sense of America’s military soul: often Southern, Romantic, violent, rugged, testosterone-driven, and individualistic, with cleanliness, Tabasco, profanity, tattoos, and muscles. However, such generalizations allow for the dynamism that exists in different branches and Kaplan often shares his profound respect for the military men he admires.

Tom Brokaw calls it “one of the most important books of the last several years,” and I would recommend it as highly for anyone who wants a vision for how America can win the War on Terror.

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