Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review, Redeployment by Phil Klay

Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin 2014)

 Redeployment may be the strongest and most literary work of fiction to have emerged from America’s recent wars, deserving comparison with Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds .  It is a collection of short stories, presenting different voices of soldiers, all back from war and all trying to process their various experiences.  Together the voices have the quality of a person directly after an accident, still trying to ascertain the extent of their injuries.
The author, Phil Klay, served from 2007-2008 as a Public Affairs Officer in the US Marine Corps in Iraq.  While he describes his own experience as “a very mild deployment”, it is clear that he was a skilled observer of military experience.  His characters seem highly believable as they go through the many stages of returning home, including emotional numbness, anger, heightened alertness, and disillusion.
Klay is clearly writing for a civilian audience, to whom the minds and experiences of new veterans are largely inaccessible.   In some stories, he shows readers how an experience at home can trigger memories and re-traumatize them.  In the first story, a Marine, a dog lover who had to shoot feral dogs in Iraq, finds that his girlfriend has kept his ancient and sick dog alive for his return. He refuses the services of a veterinary, and decides to put his dog down himself.  “That’s how it should be done, each shot coming quick after the last so you can’t even try to recover, which is when it hurts”.  In other stories, characters struggle to make themselves understood to civilians, sometimes using their “war stories” as weapons to wound and alienate their listeners.
Redeployment is a distinctively American book and the experiences of US Marines in places like Fallujah do not closely match (thankfully) those of CAF personnel in Afghanistan.   However, as a starting point in learning to understand the many ways in which contemporary war both wounds and stays with its survivors, it is a useful book.   Two stories will be of particular interest as they both feature chaplains.  In one, “Prayer in the Furnace”, a Catholic chaplain finds few words of comfort for a Marine who wonders how “somebody can live and fight for months in that shit and not go insane”.   As a Catholic himself, Klay imagines the priest’s pastoral and theological struggle with great sympathy and integrity.
While a work of fiction, Redeployment offers some understanding of the traumatic effects of war and the post-traumatic effects of survival and return from war.   For chaplain readers of this blog, since we who are called to walk with soldiers, and seek to understand their often concealed interior worlds, it is a useful book to have on our shelves.  Using war fiction as a means to explore issues of moral injury, spiritual resilience, and ethics may also be a useful way for chaplains to connect with other CAF members through one-on-one conversations, study groups, or talks.  Other recent fiction which chaplains should know about include Kevin Powers’ Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds and two classics of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Friday Theology: Rabbi Abraham Heschel on Religious Dialogue

I learned about Rabbi Heschel's document, No Religion Is An Island, during a conference I attended yesterday on Nostra Aetate, one of the conciliar documents coming out of Vatican II which set a tone for discussions between Christians, Jews, and Catholics.  This quotation from Heschel is taken from this website.
On what basis do we people of different religious commitments meet one another ?
First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common : a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the personhood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.
To meet a human being is a major challenge to mind and heart. I must recall what I normally forget. A person is not just a specimen of the species called homo sapiens. He is all of humanity in one, and whenever one man is hurt we are all injured. The human is a disclosure of the divine, and all men are one in God's care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is holy of holies.
To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God. According to a rabbinical interpretation, the Lord said to Moses : "Wherever you see the trace of, man there I stand before you..."
When engaged in a conversation with a person of different religious commitment I discover that we disagree in matters sacred to us, does the image of God I face disappear ? Does God cease to stand before me ? Does the difference in commitment destroy the kinship of being human ? Does the fact that we differ in our conceptions of God cancel what we have in common : the image of God ?

For this reason was man created single ( whereas of every other species many were created ) ... that there should be peace among human beings : one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine ( Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a ).
The primary aim of these reflections is to inquire how a Jew out of his commitment and a Christian out of his commitment can find a religious basis for communication and cooperation on matters relevant to their moral and spiritual concern in spite of disagreement.
There are four dimensions of religious existence, four necessary components of man's relationships to God : a ) the teaching, the essentials of which are summarized in the form of a creed, which serve as guiding principles in our thinking about matters temporal or eternal, the dimension of the doctrine; b ) faith, inwardness, the direction of one's heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy; c ) the law, or the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary, in society, or at home, the dimension of the deed; d ) the context in which creed, faith and ritual come to pass, such as the community or the covenant, history, tradition, the dimension of transcendence.
In the dimension of the deed there are obvipusly vast areas for cooperation among men of different commitments in terms of intellectual communication, of sharing concern and knowledge in applied religion, particularly as they relate to social action.

In the dimension of faith, the encounter proceeds in terms of personal witness and example, sharing insights, confessing inadequacy. On the level of doctrine we seek to convey the content of what we believe in, on the level of faith we experience in one another the presence of a person radiant with reflections of a greater presence.
I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.
What divides us ? What unites us ? We disagree in law and creed, in commitments which lie at the very heart of our religious existence. We say "No" to one another in some doctrines essential and sacred to us. What unites us ? Our being accountable to God, our being objects of God's concern, precious in His eyes. Our conceptions of what ails us may be different; but the anxiety is the same. The language, the imagination, the concretization of our hopes are different, but the embarrassment is the same, and so is the sign, the sorrow, and the necessity to obey.
We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.
Above all, while dogmas and forms of worship are divergent, God is the same. What unites us ? A commitment to the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture. Faith in the Creator, the God of Abraham, commitment to many of His commandments, to justice and mercy, a sense of contrition, sensitivity to the sanctity of life and to the involvement of God in history, the conviction that without the holy the good will be defeated, prayer that history may not end before the end of days, and so much more.
There are moments when we all stand together and see our
faces in the mirror : the anguish of humanity and its helplessness; the perplexity of the individual and the need of divine guidance; being called to praise and to do what is required.

Was Kunduz A War Crime?

A week after US warplanes bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan on 3 October,  killing over twenty staff and patients, Afghanistan, there is some debate as to whether the bombing was a war crime.

On 8 October, Dr. Joanne Liu, the President of MSF issued a statement that included these words.

"It is precisely because attacking hospitals in war zones is prohibited that we expected to be protected. And yet, ten patients, including three children and twelve MSF staff, were killed in the aerial raids.
The facts and circumstances of this attack must be investigated independently and impartially, particularly given the inconsistencies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days. We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the US, NATO, and Afghan forces.
Today we announce that we are seeking an investigation into the Kunduz attack by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC). This Commission was established in the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions and is the only permanent body set up specifically to investigate violations of international humanitarian law. We ask signatory States to activate the Commission to establish the truth and to reassert the protected status of hospitals in conflict.  MSF has called the event a war crime and has demanded an international investigation."

Whether these attacks constitute a war crime, a deliberate breach of the Geneva Convention protections on hospitals in war zones, will be up to the IHFFC, which BBC News describe as a "never-used body" to determine.

A week after the event, some facts are apparent.  The hospital, seen here in this photo from an MSF factsheet on the bombing, was clearly marked as such, and its location was known to NATO and Afghan authorities.

The MSF has denied claims from the Afghan government that enemy forces were operating on the hospital grounds. 

This week the New York Times reported that the US forces involved were apparently not in a position to confirm what was happening at the hospital when they ordered the strike.

The Special Operations Forces also apparently did not have “eyes on” — that is, were unable to positively identify — the area to be attacked to confirm it was a legitimate target before calling in the strike, the officials said.
Regardless of what mistake may have been made, General Campbell told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the strike was ultimately the result of “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.” He took responsibility for the sustained bombardment of the medical facility, which he said took place in response to an Afghan call for help.

“Obviously, the investigation is still underway, but Campbell’s thinking now is that the Americans on the ground did not follow the rules of engagement fully,” said one of three American officials, all of whom emphasized that no final conclusions had been reached and that the inquiry could yield different reasons for what transpired.

Under Article 18 of the Geneva Convention, hospitals enjoy protected status in war zones provided that they are being used as hospitals, as this UN commentary on the Article notes.

A civilian hospital must have the staff (including administrative staff) and the equipment required to fulfil its purpose. It must be organized to give hospital care. That is the essential point. It is not necessary for the hospital to function permanently as a hospital. The Diplomatic Conference considered that establishments converted into auxiliary hospitals as an emergency measure consequent upon the events of war, should not be excluded from the protection of the Convention (5), as such hospitals are very often established in the combat area itself, and their need for protection is thus all the greater. The deciding factor is, as has just been mentioned, that it must be effectively possible to give hospital treatment and care, and that necessarily implies a modicum of organization.

Clearly the hospital in Kunduz was organized to provide care, and was entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.

In an interview with NPR, an American law professor noted that to convince a court or tribunal that this a war crime, as something more than an accident, would be difficult.

Still, it is a high bar to call the Kunduz attack a war crime, says Robert Goldman, who teaches international law at American University.
"Are we going to have to make some kinds of reparation and so forth? Well, I think, you bet," he says. But, he cautions, it will be difficult to make a case that this was an intentional attack on a protected place — rather than just a case of poor intelligence or negligence.
"The burden would be on the prosecution to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that this was an attack willfully undertaken in the knowledge that it was an object entitled to protection," Goldman says. "That is a very, very high hurdle."

At the very least, the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz was the result of haste, the "fog of war", chaos, and poor communications.   It should not have happened.   It seems unlikely that those who bear responsibility will face international justice, but the doubtless will face internal investigation, and possibly reprimand and dismissal.  Beyond those consequences, those who called the mission, authorized it, flew it, and fired the weapons will face the moral consequences and injury for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Military Picture of the Week

(Click on image for a larger view)

This week's photo comes from the Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera website and illustrates Canadian Army activities in eastern Europe.  Here's the official caption.  The Canadian is second from left, kneeling and facing right.  Note the differences between Canadian and Latvian camo patterns.

Lieutenant Francis Arseneault, Platoon Commander, Fus du St-Laurent, talks with Latvian military members during Exercise SILVER ARROW at Adazi Military Training Area in Kadaga, Latvia on September 26, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE.

Photo: Corporal Nathan Moulton, Land Task Force Imagery, OP REASSURANCE

Friday, October 2, 2015

Notable Quotable: Tim O'Brien on War

I heard these word's being read yesterday by Garrison Keillor on his radio feature, Writer's Almanac, and GK's distinctive gravelly baritone seemed perfect for this passage. 

The author is Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran whose book  The Things They Carried, is essential reading for trying to understand the experience of war.  I would put it in the same category as Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Raemaker's All Quiet on the Western Front, and a recent book, Phil Klay's Redeployment.

Tim O'Brien in Vietnam

How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference — a powerful, implacable beauty — and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.

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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