Remembering Pearl Harbor

On this day 82 years ago 2532 people woke up on the last day of their lives. In addition to 2,403 Americans, 129 Japanese also died at Pearl Harbor. With every passing year there are fewer and fewer survivors and it won’t be long until the last survivor dies.

It’s a reminder of many things, including the frailty of life and how life can change in an instant. I’ve been blessed to have met 2 survivors in my career in hospice; I’ve also listened to hours of people telling me where they were and what they were doing when they got the news over the radio or from a neighbor. Most had never heard of Pearl Harbor and had only a vague idea that Hawaii was somewhere in the ocean.

The next four years brought out the best and the worst of us as Americans. We kept President Roosevelt’s promise to defeat the fascist empires of Japan and Germany. After the war we rebuilt both of those nations and paid for the education of nearly 8 million of those who fought. On the other hand we allowed our prejudices to imprison over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry because of how they looked.

To quote Civil War General William T. Sherman, “war is hell.” On Pearl Harbor Day 2023 we see war in so many places (not just Ukraine and Gaza) and it’s a good time to recognize that decisions made today will reverberate for generations to come.

In meantime let us continue to pray for the dead and wounded and may we always strive to be a nation worthy of those who put on their uniform each morning with no guarantee that they will wake up tomorrow.

Thoughts on War, Noncombatants, and Hostages

Hamas’ invasion of Israel last month has called us to look at several ethical issues around war. Let’s look at the involvement of noncombatants and then the taking of hostages.

It may seem odd to think of there even being “rules of war” but there is agreement on some things. When we think of war we divide people into combatants and noncombatants. Combatants are those who are armed, have some method of identification (e.g. a uniform) and participate in battle. But others may be in the vicinity of battle but are not involved in the battle. They may be medics, chaplains, journalists, or bystanders.

Hamas’ invasion of Israel on October 7th has led to a dizzying number of violations. Hamas didn’t target Israeli soldiers or bases. Of the initial 1200 Israelis killed the New York Times reports 70% were civilians. No war is completely clean and civilians always suffer from wars because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this was blatant. And inexcusable.

Now that we’re into the 2nd month of this war we’re also dealing with wounded Palestinians. Problem is they have also used hospital patients as “human shields” hoping that Israel will not attack. In other words they are counting the Israeli’s having a stronger moral compass than they do.

And now about hostages. Every war has prisoners of war (POW’s); problem is that true POW’s are all combatants who were captured in battle. There is also the expectation that they will be able to receive aid from humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross.

However we may feel about the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza there is simply no justification for what Hamas has done. I pray they hear this.

More later.

We Have A House Speaker. Now What?

After three weeks it appears Congress has finally chosen a House Speaker: Mike Johnson of Louisiana. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t despair. Almost nobody has. He’s only 51 years old and first arrived in Congress in the 2016 election.

So why him? Well, a couple of reasons. First, Trump likes him; that’s pretty important. The last few weeks have shown that Trump can’t anoint a speaker (Jim Jordan) but he can shoot one down (Tom Emmer). Also, and equally important, he hasn’t done anything to piss off his fellow Republicans. The last few weeks have shown House Republicans sometimes act like rivals at a 3rd grade lunch table with all the petty grudges and silly hurt feelings.

I have to confess I’m a little troubled by this selection. It’s true that Congress can now get back to work on support for Ukraine, Israel and keeping the government running. But Mike, like Kevin McCarthy before him, sits under a sword of Damocles because any one member of the House can call for a “motion to vacate,” essentially call for a vote of no confidence. Again he can afford to lose only four votes before we do this all again.

Essentially, other than a new person in the speaker’s seat, nothing has changed. Several Republicans have voiced opposition to ongoing support for Ukraine and the Republicans who opposed McCarthy were (among other things) unhappy that he worked with Democrats to vote on September 30th to keep the government running until November 17th.

So what does Mike bring to the table? Good question.

The role of Speaker of the House requires a great deal of knowledge. There are countless rules and customs around how legislation passes, how committee assignments are made, et. There is a steep learning curve and it’s not a job for legislative novices.

Frankly I fear Speaker Johnson will enjoy a short honeymoon and once the far right Republicans who drove out McCarthy start resharpening their claws, well…

Stay tuned.

Gaza: 9/11 Or Prison Break?

Everyone knows this now but on October 7th members of Hamas in the Gaza Strip invaded and bombed Israel. Since then both residents of both Israel and Gaza have suffered tremendously. Most conflicts these days are complex and confusing and this is no different.

I’ve been thinking a great deal these days how best to encapsulate what is going on and I recently heard a good metaphor: is this Israel’s 9/11 or is it Gaza’s prison break?

First a little history: before 1948 the area we now call Israel was Palestine and while it had a Jewish population it was ruled by Palestinians who were Arab Muslims. After World War II Zionists (Jews who believed they needed a homeland) waged war and conquered Palestine. Most Palestinians fled to the area North and West of Jerusalem (called the West Bank and ruled by Jordan) or an area on the Mediterranean Sea (called the Gaza Strip and ruled by Egypt). In 1967 after the Six Day War both areas were taken by Israel. In 2005 and 2006 governance of Gaza was given to Hamas. Problem is, Hamas is founded on the desire to destroy Israel and return Palestine. Please note: this is an incredibly simplistic explanation.

So if you’re Israel this is your 9/11: Foreign terrorists attacked without warning and want your destruction. They need to be crushed without mercy and taught never to do this again.

But if you live on in Gaza you’ve been imprisoned there since 1948, oppressed and trapped without mercy. The attack was simply self defense in the need to end your imprisonment.

But what now? The lines have been drawn in ways that surprise nobody. Arab nations are lining up behind Gaza and while there is no proof of this Iran may be or get involved. The Iranian government has allied with Hamas. The United States, long an ally with Israel, is backing Israel. Of course since the US has no House Speaker there’s not much we can do but that’s the subject for another entry.

Hamas, for all its weaponry, is small and nobody really believes they can conquer Israel. If Iran and some of the Arab nations band together this could turn into a regional war but there’s been no sign of it and President Biden is working hard to make certain this doesn’t turn into a bigger conflict.

Israel has told people in the northern part of Gaza to evacuate and prepare for a ground invasion. It’s a given Israeli troops will invade Gaza but, well, here we go again. I suspect Israel will find that getting into Gaza will be easier than getting out. While they are there they will be an occupying force surrounded by people who don’t want them gone, they want them dead. It will look like the British army’s occupation of Northern Ireland last century.

In the meantime innocent people on both sides will die. Keep the prayers coming.

More Thoughts On The House Speaker

It’s been eight days since my last post and it hasn’t gotten any better. Last week I wrote that House Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy because eight ulta conservative members didn’t like the job he was doing. They didn’t feel his promises could be trusted and they didn’t like the fact that he worked with President Biden and House Democrats to keep the government open.

Since then two things have happened: Hamas (the governing authority in Gaza) opened fire and stormed into Israel. There they killed and kidnapped Israeli citizens; the number keeps changing. The United States has always seen Israel as a longtime ally and ordinarily we’d help them. But without a functioning House of Representatives we can’t send them any aid.

Also the Republicans don’t appear any closer to find a Speaker candidate they can all support. As I said last week they removed Kevin McCarthy without having a clear successor. Within a few days two Representatives announced their candidacy: Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. They both hoped they would garner the support of enough members to win a floor vote of all 433 members; there are normally 435 members but 2 seats are vacant. Since all 212 Democrats will almost certainly vote for the House Minority Leader Hakeen Jeffries of New York, any Republican candidate must get 213 votes out of the 221 members, leaving only a 4 vote margin. When Republicans voted on a secret ballot 113 members voted for Scalise and 99 for Jordan. Scalise hoped that after this he could convince 100 members to then coalesce behind him. When it didn’t happen he pulled his name from contention.

Still with me? Good. When Steve Scalise pulled out, Representative Austin Scott of Georgia announced he would run. Again on a secret ballot 124 members voted for Jordan and 81 for Scott; Jordan asked for another secret ballot and he gained a few votes but not nearly enough. This vote was 152 to 55.

Now let’s make this more complicated. These votes among Republicans were secret ballots but when they actually cast votes for Speaker they vote in public. Former President Trump backs Jim Jordan and has always made it clear that he has zero tolerance for disloyalty. It’s generally assumed that several members will vote for Jordan just to avoid angering Trump. But again, if more than 4 of them don’t vote for a candidate he won’t win.

Democrats are, as you would expect, taking a back seat and are seeing this as a Republican problem. But a “do nothing” Congress has real consequences. As I said earlier the government is set to run out of money on November 17th. With no Speaker the House cannot pass any legislation. That means no laws can be passed and no money can be directed to Ukraine or Israel.

For me the largest problem is this: there does not appear any Republican who can gain enough support. It was McCarthy, then Scalise, now Jordan and Scott. A small group of conservative Republicans don’t appear to be aware of the chaos they are causing and the damage they are doing. They appear to enjoy the limelight and crave job security above all else. They claim to demand that government do fewer things and do them better but their actions belie a different agenda. I pray that good sense begin to take over and they get back to their jobs.

Thoughts On the House Speaker

We all knew this was going to happen but it doesn’t make it better: the House of Representatives has no Speaker. With our two party system the selection of the House Speaker has been little more than a formality: every two years we swear in a new Congress and the leader is chosen by the Representatives. It’s almost always a straight party vote. But this past January we elected 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats (two seats are currently vacant). Representative Kevin McCarthy expected to be elected easily but a small group of ultra conservative members refused to support him at first. After fifteen ballots these Representatives agreed to support him with one condition: any one person can call for a “motion to vacate.” That means any representatives can call for a vote to see if they still want him.

When Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida called for such a motion. As expected no Democrats voted to support him, but 8 Republicans did the same. McCarthy was stripped of his role as Speaker (though not as a Representative) by a vote of 216 to 210.

So what’s next? Clearly the Republicans need to meet and choose someone they can all agree on. But that’s not going to be easy. The eight Republicans who refused to support McCarthy have not (as of yet) coalesced around one person that all the other Republicans can agree to. It may become a difficult fight.

I have two primary concerns about this:

The government is only funded until November 17; both houses of Congress and President Biden will need to agree on funding the government. If they don’t most government employees will not be paid and will not be allowed to work. Some of those deemed essential workers (e.g. TSA and the military) will be required to work but will not be paid. I’ve always felt that public service is a noble vocation but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to work for the government given this level of nonsense. Unlike most members of Congress many government employees don’t have the luxury of missing paychecks. Last week I met an Air Force Reservist who was headed to Poland for several months while his family stays here. We’re asking enough of him without demanding that he do this for free.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022 we pledged monetary support to Ukraine. We’ve never seriously considered sending troops there but we found it important that Ukraine remain free and Russia be defeated. Some of the most conservative Republicans now believe we should end that support which would almost certainly lead to a Russian victory over Ukraine. I worry that these Republicans will not support a speaker without a pledge to abandon Ukraine. Even if you don’t think Ukraine is worthy of our support I believe it’s naive to think that a Russian win would satisfy Putin. Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and we’re not obligated to support them. But if Russia then decides to invade Poland or one of the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) they are NATO members and we are obligated to come to their aid. Article 5 of the treaty states that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. If we abandon Ukraine now it will require a larger support somewhere else.

As for now, fasten your seatbelts. Congress is going to be a bumpy ride.

Preview Of The Election 2024 Chronicles

Sometimes it seems like election seasons are getting longer and longer and the respite between them gets shorter and shorter. Our next Presidential election is set for November 5, 2024. For no clear reason I’ll start the “Election 2024 Chronicles” category on (or near) May 5th, 18 months before.

It’s already getting interesting. President Biden has already announced his intent to run for reelection; that’s a concern because he’s already 80 years old. Many of us have concerns about this, but frankly don’t see an alternative. If he does win in 2024 I hope he’ll spend at least part of his term looking forward to a younger successor.

I had hoped he would seek the nomination without rivals but it appears that isn’t happening. Robert Kennedy, Jr. has announced his intent to run and he’s problematic at best. He’s an attorney and spent much of his career in environmental law. That’s good but in the last several years he’s advocated against vaccines and has promoted the lie that vaccines in children make them more susceptible to autism. There’s no way he can win but he may cause some damage.

On the Republican side we already know that former President Donald Trump is running. He’s lied about so many things it’s hard to keep track but he still argues that he was cheated out of the 2020 election. He is currently under indictment in New York for bribing someone to keep quiet about their affair. There are likely other indictments to come.

Right now he is still the frontrunner despite all this. But there are several others who have also indicted they will seek the nomination, and others who we assume will make that announcement soon. They have a problem because they don’t wish to go head to head with Trump but they also want to give a reason voters should support them. My suspicion is that they are aware of Trump’s age (he’s only 3 1/2 years younger than President Biden) and hope that a health crisis will pull him out of the race.

Keep posted. I’ll have more soon.

The War In Iraq, Twenty Years Later

The date March 20, 2003 doesn’t sound important and most of us don’t remember where we were, but it is an important date. On that day President George Bush announced that American troops began an invasion of Iraq. It’s a good time to ask why we invaded, what happened, and where we are now.

No understanding of the invasion can be understood outside the attacks of September 11, 2001. On that morning we watched in horror as passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania (that was likely headed toward the White House). It didn’t take long before we learned that the mastermind behind these attacks was Osama bin Laden; he was in Afghanistan being protected by their government.

But not long after these events President Bush and his administration began to push the idea that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to the attacks. There wasn’t any evidence of this and the Bush administration stopped pushing it but never completely disavowed it. Instead they pushed the idea that Saddam Hussein had both the ability to and intention of attacking us. He possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, we knew where they were, and we could confiscate them. Further, they claimed that the conquest of Iraq would be a cakewalk. Ordinary Iraqis would see us as liberators. Six weeks later, on May 1st, President Bush announced Mission Accomplished on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

In the years since then we’ve learned that none of this was true. It wasn’t a cakewalk, we weren’t seen as liberators and we didn’t accomplish the mission in six weeks. So what happened?

Today I heard an excellent podcast on this. The podcast is called On The Media and the link to this episode is here. It’s true that members of the administration “cherry picked” information that made their case and they gave too much credibility to sources who made unsubstantiated claims.

But the podcast shows that those behind this campaign felt that the only path to peace for the United States lay in “liberating” nations like Iraq and that the Iraqis suffered so much under Saddam that they would welcome us. President Bush also talked about the “axis of evil,” countries that included Iran and North Korea.

War is horrible and should be used only as a last resort. Saddam Hussein was never a threat and all we did was lose thousands of lives and leave a country that is broken to this day.

We need to remember this next time there is a call to war.

Fifty Years After Vietnam

Fifty years ago this week the United States ended its involvement in the war in Vietnam. For the uninitiated, before World War II the nations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were colonies of France and called “French Indochina.” After the war Vietnam declared itself independent but France attempted to regain control. But in 1954 at the battle of Diem Bien Phu fell to Vietnamese troops under the command of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969). Ho and his Communist allies controlled North Vietnam but not South Vietnam even though they wanted to. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States supported South Vietnam in the hopes to prevent the spread of Communism. By the mid 1960s we were sending combat troops into Vietnam even though there was never a declaration of war. By the late 1960s our government realized that we could not defeat North Vietnam and began negotiating a peace treaty.

On January 27, 1973 we signed a cease fire and pulled out. At the time President Nixon proclaimed victory and made it sound like this would cease hostilities between North and South Vietnam. It didn’t. When our troops pulled out so did our cameras and it came as a surprise to many but the war continued and North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam when their capital, Saigon, fell.

And while the Nixon administration tried hard to claim we didn’t lose the war it was clear that we did. Through a series of lies, missteps and miscalculations our government convinced large parts of our country that our cause was just and the result was honorable. In that time somewhere around 2.5 million troops served in Vietnam and 60,000 died. Countless came back with wounds, both visible and invisible. We learned about napalm, Agent Orange and PTSD.

Did they all suffer and die in vain? I hope not. I hope it brings us to the realization that we should never go to war without a clear understanding of what victory will look like. We had a vague idea that we would “stop the Communist advance” but never recognized that some residents of South Vietnam supported the North. We didn’t recognize that we couldn’t always tell who the enemy was or what a random person would do. We dropped troops in the middle of the jungle and told them to hold our position. We didn’t mark success by territory taken but by the daily death count (remember that from the TV news? Each week we were told how many North Vietnamese were killed, how many South Vietnamese and how many Americans).

Since then we’ve sent troops into different places, oftentimes with the same result. Let us honor our Vietnam vets but promising we will do better by today’s veterans

Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

As 2022 wound to a close we received word that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died after a long illness. Many of us remember him as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he headed the Congregation For The Doctrine Of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. The two of them made things difficult for us liberal Catholics who hoped that after Vatican II the Church would continue to update her teachings. We had a list: birth control, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and female clergy.

They went in a different direction, feeling that the Church went too far after Vatican II. They also believed that the Church was becoming too secularized and was moving away from its core values. When Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II he used the image of opening the windows and letting in fresh air; many of us felt John Paul and Ratzinger spent their time slamming the windows shut.

In 2005 John Paul died and Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope XVI. As we all suspected it was more of the same. He was 78 at the time and it felt like the only saving grace would be his age. Because of declining health he resigned in 2013 and became the first living ex Pope since Gregory XII in 1415.

As much as John Paul and Benedict frustrated me, I have to confess my opinion has softened over the years. I’m aware that while they often saw the Church as a fortress in need of being defended, their background provides some answers. Both grew up at times and places where the Church truly was under attack, when our future was far less than certain.

John Paul was born in Poland in 1920 and when he was 19 his nation was invaded by Nazi Germany. Wanting to be a priest he studied in secret and was ordained in 1946. But when the war ended, persecution of the Church did not. Poland fell behind the Iron Curtain and was dominated by a Soviet Union that barely tolerated the existence of the Church and openly hoped she would die from lack of support. Of course that didn’t happen. The Church was hardly new to government persecution going back to the Roman Empire but the Soviet Union didn’t fall until 1989.

Meanwhile Benedict, seven years younger, felt the more immediate brunt of Nazi Germany. He was drafted into the Hitler Youth as a teenager and later into the German army. After the war he resumed his studies and was ordained in 1951. At the time Germany was partitioned and he had the good fortune of living in West Germany. East Germany, like Poland, was dominated by the Soviet Union.

Both attended Vatican II in the early 1960s and supported its views. But in the years after the conclave they both felt that many Catholics went too far. They felt that Church teaching was being watered down and that we were in danger of losing our moral center. Simply put, they found themselves back in the fortress and feeling under attack.

This was good for conservatives, many who were never sold on the reforms of Vatican II. They agreed that the Church needed to preserve its purity even if that led to fewer Catholics. Now, with Pope Francis, they feel betrayed and angry.

I guess all this means that the Church is not in danger. We’re going to do fine.

In the meantime let’s all pray for Benedict XVI.