May 26, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

This past Friday evening my family and I watched "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg's classic WWII film about a squad of soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), tasked to locate and bring back a young Army private whose three brothers had been killed in separate actions within days of each other. I remember seeing it when originally released (1998) in the company of a bunch of fellow Marine Corps majors. We were all struck by the realism of the combat depicted, the lessons of courage and leadership under extreme conditions, and the themes of sacrifice, morality, compassion, and meaning-found-in-loss. It's an intense movie but a very powerful one in all the right ways. My wife and I discussed whether it would be appropriate as a 'family film' and concluded that it was given our current context: our kids are now older and have been exposed to a range of war-related issues via the news (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, their school-related studies of the 9/11 attacks, the recent bombings in Boston, the two-year war in Syria, and the most recent horrible slaying in London, among others), we were at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, and most obviously they had been routinely exposed to military things given my career as a Marine and continued work in military and national security-related affairs since my retirement from active duty. It was as intense as I'd remembered and I believe it gave the kids something on which to reflect the next time they see a glamorized depiction of war or any violence for that matter. Further, it gave us a great reference point as we discussed this Memorial Day and similar occasions to come on down the line.

Last evening I received by email a link to a Memorial Day speech given by Marine Corps General John Kelly in San Antonio this past Thursday. His speech is among the best I've heard or read and it is all the more poignant given the personal loss he has suffered not only as a leader of Marines over several combat tours but, more importantly, as a father who lost one of his own sons in combat action in Afghanistan just a couple of years ago. Gen Kelly is the highest ranking US officer to have lost a family member in our battles since Sept 11, 2001. Greg Jaffe, of the Washington Post, painted a deeply moving portrait of the man, his son, and the intimate context of those serving our country, in a beautiful story published just five months after the General's heartbreaking loss. If you can carve out any time at all in the next few days, I urge you to take a moment to read both items, probably starting with Jaffe's article and then moving to Kelly's speech

In each account--Gen Kelly's own words and Jaffe's reporting--we gain a glimpse into the nature of service to one's country and the bond that is established among those who share in such service, especially in combat when the stakes and the potential (probable?) cost cannot be higher. Jaffe's perspective is that of an observer and a reporter, attempting to capture the experiences and emotions of those effected by the loss of a loved one on a foreign battlefield. Kelly's is that of someone on the inside, whose experiences derive from the mortal dangers of combat shared with fellow Marines, to the solemn duty of delivering to families the most painful news they can possibly receive, and finally to that of recipient of the same devastating message. In his remarks, the General takes time to highlight how things have changed over the past half-century, from a time when these experiences were shared amongst a much larger portion of our society and even across overlapping generations to our current time when barely one out of a hundred have any connection at all to such service and its related cost. 

The point of his remarks, of course, is to encourage those who are connected in such a way to work to ensure that the importance of such service isn't forgotten and that the rest of society is reminded of the benefits they accrue from the sacrifice of others; that our country is as blessed as it is because of the decision made by some to undertake such noble work and to stick with it when the going gets as rough as one can imagine. 

In additional, and perhaps most importantly, he addressed the inevitable question raised by families seeking meaning in their loss: was it worth the life of their son or daughter? Here is some of what the General had to say: 

     "Aside from everything else their families have endured over the loss of their loved one they can be proud of the decision to serve…of the commitment to defend their nation when they did not have to. Proud of their loved one who stepped forward when the vast majority never even consider it. Proud that by this one very personal decision—to serve a cause higher than themselves regardless of the outcome to them personally—their fallen loved one gave answer to two questions that have over the centuries defined the dedication of free and righteous men and women in the fight against wickedness: “If not me, who? If not now, when”?

     "...They [the young man or woman who has chosen to serve] also learned early as anyone who has truly experienced combat does, however, that fear is always with you... The fear is at times an all-consuming constant but that is what courage is, isn’t it, pushing through the terror and completing the mission assigned regardless of how dangerous. They learn early, these kids we send out to fight the nation’s battles, that fear is an instinct but courage is a decision and one they make day-after-day throughout their tours... 

     "...And their families should know and hopefully take comfort in the fact that when they fell they were not alone. When they went, they were surrounded by the finest men and women on this earth—their buddies—who desperately tried to save their lives. They held their hands, and tried to comfort them, prayed with them, listened to all the little stories about their families and their homes…until they were gone. They were not alone and when the spirit left them and God in his infinite wisdom took them to his bosom, their military family lovingly sent them home. In this their last journey, they were never alone. At every stop along the way they were treated with the greatest reverence and deepest respect due a fallen hero until members of the service they proudly joined brought them to you

     " my dozens of conversations with families of the fallen at Dover, or at gravesides at Arlington, or at gathering’s like this, I have been similarly asked if it was worth the life of someone they brought into the world, raised and nurtured so lovingly, and so much looked forward to seeing grow and find wonderful husbands and wives, and give them grandchildren to spoil... [I] had no right to reply because as hard as I tried to understand what the immensity of their loss might be, and the depth of the sorrow in their heart, I knew it was impossible. My sense then was it is inconceivable for anyone to understand that has not had his own heart pierced with such sadness. I learned I was right."

General Kelly went on to briefly share his own loss, the details of which Jaffe concisely conveys with such sensitivity. Kelly asked himself the same question that others had posed to him. Was it worth it? This is what he concluded...

     "The only thing that matters is what he [Second Lieutenant Robert M. Kelly, USMC] thought. That he had decided it was more important to be where he was that morning in the Sangin River Valley, Afghanistan, to be doing what he was doing with the Marines and Navy Doc he loved so much and led so well in what was at that time the most dangerous place on earth. In his mind—and in his heart—he had decided somewhere between the day he was born at 2130, 5 September 1985 and 0719, 9 November 2010, that it was worth it to him to risk everything—even his life—in the service of his country. So in spite of the terrible emptiness that is in a corner of my heart and I now know will be there until I see him again, and the corners of the hearts of everyone who ever knew him, we are proud…so very proud. Was it worth his life? It’s not for me to say. He answered the question for me." 

As General Kelly conveys, the 'worth' of service to, and sacrifice for, country can only be determined by the person who answers that calling. The best we can do to extend that meaning, to give it enduring value, is to honor such service and the sacrifice it demands by doing our part as family, friends, neighbors, and responsible, involved citizens of this great country. 

At the end of Spielberg's film, Captain Miller pulls Private Ryan close and tells him to 'earn' the sacrifice made by so many who paid the ultimate price to secure his make their effort mean something beyond the battlefield. As the movie comes to a close and the scene shifts to the beautiful American cemetery overlooking the Normandy coastline, a now-aged Ryan, with tear-rimmed eyes, stands before the headstone of Captain Miller, saying to him, "My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how I'd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me." Then turning to his wife he asks of her, "Tell me I have led a good life...Tell me I'm a good man."

In many ways, General Kelly's remarks, and perhaps what Spielberg was trying to convey, remind me of President Lincoln's thoughts on the occasion of his speaking at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg and I think that's where I'd like to conclude this post. President Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes, delivering just ten sentences, but what he said epitomizes the essence of Memorial Day. Here are his final few lines:

"[In] a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

May 20, 2013

Depression, Relationships, and Choices

A week or so ago someone very dear to me passed along this blog post as a way to help explain what they had personally dealt with over a period of four or five years in the not-too-distant past. It's the best description of depression I've ever come across. In some ways, it's the best description of any mental state I've read or had explained to me in that the author makes something indescribable actually understandable to someone who hasn't personally experienced such a thing. Apparently this post struck a chord with others, too, given that within 10 hours of publishing it the blogger had received 5,000 comments. [Of note, her last post prior to this was written eighteen months earlier, in late-Oct 2011, apparently in the early throes of her ordeal.]

Since reading and re-reading the post and dwelling quite a bit on my own experiences with someone caught in such numbness (something I didn't recognize at the time, much less understand), I've been rather reflective about the more general issue of 'relationships' and much that is implied by the word. It’s important to note (for me, at least) that the blogger is telling her own story, that her experience is hers alone, something very personal and unique in its context and that the person who shared it with me had their own experience, too, just as personally definitive for them as the blogger’s was for her. In many ways it reminds me of C. S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, his deeply personal account of dealing with the loss of his wife. His grief was his own and how he dealt with it could only be unique, by definition, as no other person would have shared the exact same experiences, felt the same feelings, had the same relationship as his did with his wife. So it is with anyone’s experiences even when accounting for the same type of event (a love, a loss, an accomplishment, a disappointment).

But even though each person’s experiences are unique, I think we can still draw insights from them when they are shared (as the blogger chose to do), thoughtfully merging their observations with our own to arrive at a fuller understanding of the human condition. Though there are many ways to gain insight into what makes each of us tick--the arts are an especially powerful medium in this regard--nothing has greater impact than our daily interactions with those around us.  

Having reached my 50th year, I've come to appreciate that the vast majority of our interactions with others, the vast majority of the issues with which we must grapple, are of the rather ordinary variety that constitute 'living'. And yet within this ordinariness we have an extraordinary ability to affect the lives of those with whom we come into contact each and every day, whether for protracted periods of time or the briefest of moments. The reality is we likely have no idea at all what another person might be dealing with, what burdens they are shouldering, or what path in life has brought them to that moment where we find ourselves touching them in some way – at an intersection or in the checkout line, over the phone or in the bleachers, during a meeting at work or around a dinner table.

Judging from my own experience I know that the ordinary can lead one to casualness, to take things for granted. Too quickly we can find ourselves ignoring the condition of others, not out of coldness (though this, too, happens), but from the distractions of our own living. It takes a measure of thoughtful consideration, of choosing to be intentional in our discourse with others, that enables us to pause a moment to 'connect.' I think that too often this intentionality or purposefulness is missing, leading us to miss opportunities to brighten someone else's day, to show common courtesies, or just be polite. Our Lord would have us act differently, of course...calling us to relate to each other with patience, understanding, tenderness and love in all things. I've long thought that scripture, ultimately, is the story of relationships: the relationship God desires with His creation and the relationship He desires each of us to have with each other. We get things right when we take the time to get to know others or, at the very least, to pause for a moment when tempted to react to a provocation. Pausing enables us to temper our response or, better, recast it in an edifying way such that we account for things we likely don’t know as when we are unaware when someone might be struggling with the hidden burden of depression.

There  are certainly moments in life when resolute firmness is required, when meanness, injustice, cruelty, even coldness must be addressed for what they are, confronted and righted...when evil must be stopped dead in its tracks by whatever means are necessary. But such occasions seem to come along rather infrequently, don't you think, when compared with the wealth of opportunities to act in simple kindness toward others as our Lord desires?

Life is too short...and much too lose any portion of it at all in casual disregard of others.

Addendum: A terrific 4-minute video that captures the blog post mentioned above.

May 4, 2013


Syria has dominated much of the recent news about events occurring outside our borders. Reports of the civil war in that country have gained greater urgency with revelations about the use of sarin gas, a nerve agent, especially given the Obama Administration's previous mention that use of a chemical agent would be a "red line" event spurring the intervention of the US. Syria has long been known to maintain the world's fourth largest stockpile of chemical weapons and security analysts and policy makers have feared the potential compromise of those stockpiles in the chaos that always accompanies war. In fact, just this past week there was reporting about al-Qadea affiliates battling for control of a chemical munitions factory with the related concern that should such material fall into the hands of a terror-group no one knows where they might pop-up next -- an attack on Israel, Turkey, some European target or perhaps the US itself?

A common question that arises in any discussion about Syria--or similar situations such as Mali, Nigeria, Libya, North Korea, etc.--is "why should the U.S. care?" What are our interests in such conflicts or why should we be concerned about who-kills-whom in such faraway and seemingly always-in-crisis places? What does it matter which odious regime is in control of some desolate patch of sand that produces little if anything that contributes to the global marketplace? After all, we've sacrificed thousands of lives and spent trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provided billions in foreign aid toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others and what does it seem to have gotten us? Corrupt officials that are enriched with US-taxpayer provided funds; Islamist groups that were previously kept in check by the local strongman but which are now freed and strengthened to impose their own brand of tyranny; or supposedly 'moderate' governments that after ascending to power (thanks to the US) let contracts for energy exploration, military equipment purchases, and access to strategic minerals to everyone else except the US. The easy answer is for us to stay home. After all, we certainly have sufficient troubles of our own to demand our attention without seeking places elsewhere to spend our blood and treasure.  

But more than any other country in the world our interests really are global. Our most immediate interest vis-a-vis the Syrian civil war is the impact it is having on a region about which we do (or should) care. Last I've read, the war has generated over a million refugees who are pouring over the borders into Jordan and Turkey--Jordan being one of the very few stabilizing powers in the region (meaning not-yet-radicalized), something important to Israel, and Turkey being a NATO ally that is itself teetering between Western secularism and a radicalized Islamic state. The longer the conflict lasts, the stronger the foothold of the more extreme radical Islamist elements; Hezbollah is one of those elements (supporting Assad) and is extending its reach from the southern half of Lebanon it already controls (thanks to munitions provided by Assad and Iran). Should Assad prevail, he will remain a close ally of Iran, thus extending Iran's influence in an arc stretching from western Afghanistan to the northern border of Israel. Further, the conflict in Syria can be viewed as a proxy war between Sunni (the rebels) and Shia (the Assad government), between Saudi Arabia (as the primary Sunni power) and Iran (the chief Shia power). The course and outcome of the Syrian civil war will have an impact on US interests for many years to come. Sadly, there aren't any good options at all for US involvement -- one can't tip just a toe into this torrent but we can't simply ignore it either. 

Some folks have suggested we impose a no-fly-zone(s) to either impede Assad's forces from effectively attacking the rebels or to create safe zones for refugees. But this isn't easy to do: 1) we would need the support of another country in the region agreeing to allow the US to fly combat air patrols from its bases, a policy decision for that country that would have to account for its own domestic political situations; 2) to keep our aircraft safe we would need to neutralize Syria's air defense system (meaning destroying their radar and/or antiaircraft missile systems) thus making us an active participant in offensive actions against the Assad government; 3) having aircraft in the air over Syria would raise new policy/morality-sensitive decisions given we would have the ability to intervene in situations where either government or rebel forces posed a threat to civilian populations--i.e. not preventing harm when we had the ability to do so might cause additional problems for the US in the court of domestic and world opinion; 4) it presumes a decision on our point regarding Syria's sovereignty, and 5) having introduced ourselves into the conflict we would at some level link ourselves to the final outcome and to the regional competition amongst all the various actors (Iran, Syria, Turkey, Hezbollah, etc., etc.). 

But, if we stay uninvolved, we will have no influence on the shape of a post-civil-war Syria; will have taken no steps to try to preclude the rise of a replacement regime that may be even more problematic for US interests; will have compromised whatever level of influence we currently have in the region (re Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, et al); will have sent a clear message to Israel regarding our willingness to get involved in matters that clearly effect their security interests (remember how they bombed Syria's nuclear facility when no one else would take action); and will have stood by while yet another slaughter of civilians occurs (the Clinton Administration deeply regretted not taking action to preclude the Rwandan genocide and George H. W. Bush was heavily criticized for allowing Saddam Hussein to gas the Kurds at the conclusion of the First Gulf War).

Again, there are no good options. 

In such cases, our policies should be strictly framed in terms of our self-serving national security interests. I suspect we will funnel arms from third-party sources to select rebel groups much as we did to support the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. You might remember that the current USD for Intelligence is the same guy who handled the arming, training, and tactical employment of Mujahideen thirty years ago (also here) -- meaning, we have people currently in key positions who know how to do this sort of thing.

Stratfor is a 'global intelligence' service that provides most of its products by subscription but also publishes a number of its items for public consumption. One of their most recent releases is an exceptionally good overview of the Syrian civil war and the challenges that accompany any thoughts about intervention. If you've any curiosity about what's going on over there, take a few minutes to read "Redlines and the Problems of Intervention in Syria." Here's a sampling of the many good insights provided in the article:
    "What the United States learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is that it is relatively easy for a conventional force to destroy a government. It is much harder -- if not impossible -- to use the same force to impose a new type of government. The government that follows might be in some moral sense better than what preceded it -- it is difficult to imagine a more vile regime than Saddam Hussein's -- but the regime that replaces it will first be called chaos, followed by another regime that survives to the extent that it holds the United States at arm's length."   and...
    "Many things are beyond the military power of the United States. Creating constitutional democracies by invasion is one of those things. There will be those who say intervention is to stop the bloodshed, not to impose Western values. Others will say intervention that does not impose Western values is pointless. Both miss the point. You cannot stop a civil war by adding another faction to the war unless that faction brings overwhelming power to bear. The United States has a great deal of power, but not overwhelming power, and overwhelming power's use means overwhelming casualties. And you cannot transform the political culture of a country from the outside unless you are prepared to devastate it as was done with Germany and Japan."

Lastly, I found this piece rather interesting if only for these two paragraphs: 
    "If a strong and well-armed individual refuses to come to the aid of someone being assaulted, we judge that person harshly — because his obligations are clear: He should defend the victim, even at the risk of injury to himself. If he displays a willingness to sacrifice his own well being in the act of fulfilling his moral duty, we call him selflessly courageous; it he doesn't, we denounce him for cowardice and selfishness. That's how moral judgment works.
    "But it's not how statesmanship works. The primary duty of the nation's commander in chief — the duty that overrides all others — is to uphold the common good of the United States and protect the rights of individual American citizens. If that sounds selfish, that's because it is. And rightly so. The president's duty is to us. He can have no duty to the citizens of another nation. That's why the greatest acts of statesmanship will always be more self-interested than the highest acts of individual virtue."

I don't agree with the absolute nature of the author's conclusion at the end of his article. I think national security policy is an inherently complex thing influenced by myriad factors that are all extraordinarily context-sensitive. That said, I do concur that a President's primary responsibility is to our country and our people. But it is also the case that the values embedded in the founding principles of our country call us to do things that other countries seldom do...such as involve ourselves in the affairs of others when we feel a greater good is being served, especially in cases when that greater good ultimately serves our own interests.

Our way forward with respect to Syria will be a one-day-at-a-time sort of affair. I've no doubt this Administration would just as soon see one side or the other 'win' so that it can deal with whatever the resulting power structure turns out to be but I'm also quite confident such a resolution will not come easily or quickly. It's one ugly mess and only time will tell as to how it all sorts out.