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October 31, 2007

To My Overwrought Colleagues

Munch scream 

Sorry to post twice in one day, but I just finished reading this article. 

To my vexed and overwrought colleagues, I say take a deep breath and calm down.  I personally dislike the whole idea of forced assignments, but we do have to do our jobs.  We signed up to be worldwide available.  All of us volunteered for this kind of work and we have enjoyed a pretty sweet lifestyle most of our careers.

I will not repeat what the Marines say when I bring up this subject.  I tell them that most FSOs are not wimps and weenies, but I am ashamed of my crybaby colleagues.  I will not share this article with them and I hope they do not see it. How could I explain this?

Calling Iraq a death sentence is just way over the top.  I volunteered to come here aware of the risks but confident that I will come safely home, as do the vast majority of soldiers and Marines, who have a lot riskier jobs than we FSOs do.

I wrote a post a couple days ago where I said that perhaps everyone’s talents are not best employed in Iraq.  That is still true.  But I find the sentiments expressed by some colleagues in the article deeply offensive.  What are they implying about me and my choice?  If they do not want to come, that is okay.  Personally, I would not want that sort out here with me anyway.  BUT they are not worldwide available and they might consider the type of job that does not require worldwide availability.  

We all know that few FSOs will REALLY be forced to come to Iraq anyway.  Our system really does not work like that.  This sound and fury at Foggy Bottom truly signifies nothing.  Get over it!  I do not think many people feel sorry for us and it is embarrassing for people with our privileges to wrap ourselves in the cloak of victimhood.  

We all know that the FS will step up.  Most of us want to do our duty.  We should not let ourselves be judged by the fools who cry at town hall meetings.

If anyone wants to respond privately, my email address is john.matel@mnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.


dust al Asad 

I have yet to see the kind of dust storm in the picture and the picture is from the webpage of an earlier inhabitant of Al Asad.  I have something to look forward to. 

Even absent spectacular “Mummy-class” sandstorms, if I had to use one word to describe Al Asad it would be dust.  But I would need more than this one word to describe the dust itself.  Naturally, we have the blowing dust.   I expected the blowing-in-the-wind dust.  It is the other kinds that I find more interesting.

I had not anticipated fog-dust.  I thought that dust would have an identifiable source and would either move in the wind or settle to the ground.  Evidently not.   Night before last I thought a fog had rolled in, but it was dust.  It made the waning moon a very attractive shade of red.  The dust just hung there.   It was still there in the morning when it looked more like a haze.  This morning it was windy and it looked clear, but after I ran around a little, I found that my ears, nose and throat were full of sand.  The finer dust particles are almost invisible.

I have seen moon-dust before, but never so much.  Moon dust is the kind of dust that cannot decide whether it should float in the air or lay on the ground so it does both.  I recently was disappointed to find that what looked like a nice smooth running trail was actually moon-dust obscuring some pretty painful rocks.   Moon dust disperses when you put your foot down; it is almost viscous or liquid. Some crawls up your legs and gets in your shorts; some slithers down and gets in your socks.  It is best avoided.   I do not think the moon-dust is really indigenous to Anbar or natural in general.  The constant rolling of our heavy vehicles and machinery probably creates the moon dust.  You often find moon dust around construction sites and I think that is the process here.

Of course there is the dust that our machines kick up more immediately.  Helicopters are excellent dust creators.  This is the most painful type of dust, containing little stones thrown at high velocity, but you can hunker down and ride it out.

Dust gets on everything.   It is a great equalizer, making dark and light a homogeneous grayish-brown.  I had my sunglasses secured in a zippered pocket, but when I took them out they were covered in dust.  Most of the local dust is khaki colored.  I understand the Brits in India’s Northwest Frontier province, a place with similar soils, “invented” that uniform color after everything they owned spontaneously turned khaki anyway.  The funny thing is that the dust inside building seems whitish.  Maybe if enough of it piled up it would look khaki.  I will probably find out, since. I have to admit that daily dusting is not on my agenda.  Computers are the worst because of all the nooks and crannies in the keyboards and their dust attracting fans and electromagnetic fields.  I keep my computer fairly clean with daily effort.  I bought a bunch of Ziploc bags to put some of my other stuff.  That helps some.   

I don’t suppose it is healthy to breathe all this dust.  My throat and nose feel dry a lot, but otherwise I do not feel any worse for the wear.   If I gain weight, I can blame the dust accretion on my insides.  But the concept of dust inspires no great fear.  I lived through worse.  As a young man I worked at Medusa Cement Company loading bags all day, twelve hour shifts.  That is where I became intimate with dust.  We had the cement equivalent of moon-dust and a lot more dust churning around in whatever lethargic breeze managed to get into the warehouse.  The cement dust would stick to sweaty flesh and it was persistent because it was waterproof once it adhered and hard to wash off.  What worked (and I don’t know why) was Irish Spring soap.   I used to particularly hate the dust in my beautiful blondish hair because it would sort of set up when I got it wet.  The Lord, in his wisdom, has taken the burden of hair off my head.  Besides the Al Asad dust, for all its offensiveness, seems to be water soluble.

October 30, 2007

FSNs are Coming!

Mariza grad at UVA 


I cannot understand how any diplomatic establishment can properly function w/o FSNs (Foreign Service National) staff.   They are the ones who know the things and people we need to know.  They have the profound understanding of the place that none of us sojourning diplomat can match, even after taking the area studies course at FSI.  Here in Iraq have very competent bicultural specialists, but they often are drawn from the expat Iraqi community or from other regions.  W/o FSNs, diplomats too often go into situations nearly blind and sometimes we don’t even know it.  I do not have FSNs.  BUT we are getting some.

All I needed do was seek and I have found.  We evidently have the capacity to hire local staff; we just neglected to use it.  Actually, I suppose during the recent hostilities, security did not permit it.  But now the situation has improved and we can.  I can hire five (5) FSNs.  They are calling them locally engaged staff (LES) but what do I do care what they are called if they do the jobs I need done?  I cannot use them in my “home” office, since there is nothing at Al Asad but the base and a lot of dust.  The population centers are scattered around an AO (area of operation) the size of South Carolina.  Given my unique geographical situation, I will need to be a creative.  Fortunately, I have extensive experience in managing telecommuting from my time at IIP.  I do not have to see them every day for them to be productive. 

I figure I can hire one FSN in each of my five regions: Al Qaim, Hit, Haditha Triad, Rawah/Anah and Rutbah.  I modified a public diplomacy job description to correspond to our peculiar needs.  Essentially, this person would keep abreast of local affairs & relationships, do some translation via email and advise us on local developments.  This will help us immensely.  It will address our current problem of keeping up with written translations.  Beyond that, we just don’t know lots of simple things.  For example, I have no idea how much things really cost.  When we plan an event or consider a project, local vendors routinely quote prices that would shock customers at Whole Foods, Brooks Brothers or the Sharper Image.   A casual look around does not indicate the general prosperity that would support such aspirational prices, but I have no practical baseline.  It is like going onto the used car lot and telling the salesman that you really need a car, you have a pile of money and you will rely on his expertise to set the price.  I know we pay more because of our rigid governmental requirements and because we are rich Americans.  I can tolerate that within reason, but in this bargaining culture I doubt if we get much respect by appearing grotesquely stupid.  Local knowledge will help. FSNs will have that knowledge and then I will too.

Anyway, I am very excited about this development.  I owe most of my success at overseas posts to my FSN colleagues and I want to be successful here too.  W/o FSNs, I felt like a guy up the creek w/o a paddle.  I will get them on board quick as I can, so that they are up, trained and fully functioning by … about the time I leave. 

BTW - the picture up top has nothing at all to do with Iraq.  It is Mariza's graduation day at UVA.  Just looking through the pictures on my computer and thinking of home.   Kids are big; UVA is green.

October 29, 2007

The Sheik’s Opinion on Iraq’s Future


When Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, the erstwhile rebels went home.  Officers kept their private side arms and horses and nobody was persecuted for what happened during the war.  These generous terms were part of the reason that the bloodiest war in American history did not result in permanent hatred or discord.  April 1865 was the month that saved America.  Such a result is rare in the history of the world. We should take the lesson. 

We went up to Al Qaim for a “reconciliations event” with local leaders and Sheiks.  Some people in the late insurgency were/are evil terrorists, but others were/are "legitimate" fighters who fought on the wrong side.  There are two options for  them.   You can hunt down and eliminate the enemy by killing them or imprisoning them, or you can eliminate the enemy by reconciling them with society.  There is a time and place for each strategy.  Reconciliation gives hope to all sides and by seeking and accepting reconciliation the former insurgent recognizes the legitimacy of the societal structures he raised his hand against and now wants to reenter as a productive member.   

In W. Al Anbar, the tribes (within the law) decide who can be brought back and who stays in the desert, whether of not the things the person has done are beyond the pale or if they can be forgiven.  The tribal leaders vouch for their prodigal members and get the agreements of leaders from other tribes.  Since tribes are very much like extended families, the reconciliation is also among the members who may have had what amounts to a blood feud based on the transgressions of particular tribal members.   Essentially the Hatfields and McCoys need to accept that further revenge is inappropriate. 

We Americans can watch it happen, but it is not our process.  It clearly is based on traditions that go back thousands of years.  But we can see from our own history (I mentioned above) the usefulness of ending bloodletting by avoiding more of the same. 

The 1865 analogy is good, but it was not mine w/o prompting  The leading Sheik of Al Qaim told me that he had studied American history as a young man.  He was especially interested in our civil war and how it ended.  Beyond that, he spoke passionately for a united Iraq and asked me to be sure that Americans understood the history of the place. He was upset that some in America were calling for a partition of his country, which he said was unnecessary and ultimately unworkable.  I asked about a more federal state, reminding him what he already knew, that the U.S. was a federal country with strong local autonomy.   I was surprised that he had little faith in the efficacy of local institutions in Iraq, even though he and his Anbari colleagues had clearly shown that they could lead the way toward a more peaceful Iraq through their local initiatives and had succeeded BEFORE and the central authorities.  

The Sheik told me that Iraq was not like the U.S. and that it needed a stronger hand and more centralization because the people of Iraq had little experience with anything else.  I disagree with his conclusions (although I certainly did not presume to dispute with him the history of his own country).  My perspective might be the triumph of hope over experience, but his is the dominance of past experience over hope for the future.  Of course, I have to take his opinion very seriously.  Not only does he have the knowledge of the country that I could never attain, he also has power to influence the future of Iraq, and so his opinion is more than an academic construction.

We also talked about Iranian influence and the long history of Persia trying to dominate Mesopotamia, but I will not go into specific detail.  Suffice to say, he was against it and blamed nefarious Iranian influence for many of Iraq’s current tribulations. 

As a practical matter all this changes little in what either of us will be doing in the near term.  We are both seeking to strengthen local institutions, improve the local economy and set Al Anbar on the road to a better future.  The bigger issues will certainly be decided above my pay grade and probably even above his.  Still, I will think hard about what this thoughtful man told me about his  country and when I meet him again I hope to have better questions to ask

October 28, 2007

Complacency Kills

copter landing

That is what it says on the wall near my can.  It is good advice, because it is amazing how quickly things become routine or “normal.”  It struck me today when I was traveling to a reconciliation event (more on that later).   I have included pictures of my rides.  The helicopter is what got me to the base, then we convoyed in.  I rode in that big truck I am standing next to in the picture.  It is called an Mrap.  It gives one the bumpiest rides possible, but supposedly it can withstand most any roadside bomb attack.  The bottom is shaped like the bottom of a boat, so that the force of the explosion is directed outward.


Anyway, at first I was very aware of being around and in these odd machines, but now I do not pay much attention.   I know that there is potential danger, but so far I have neither directly seen nor heard any indications of enemy activity, hence the danger of complacency. 

Al Qaeda threatened to make Ramadan this year very difficult and bloody.   They were unable to carry out this threat, probably because the Marines are rolling them up so effectively and the local population has turned against them.  Now we hear about a post-Ramadan offensive.  Nobody really believes this will happen, hence the danger of complacency. 

Complacency is an interesting concept.  Is it complacent accurately to assess that the threat level is decreased?   Is it complacent to make assessments about the RELATIVE risk of various courses of action?  Not everything can be a top priority. The Marines talk about the tyranny of the single incident.  In this politically charged, CNN image saturated world, one incident can make the policy.  Our convoys, body armor and redundant procedures are designed to avoid that single incident. That very bumpy and expensive Mrap I rode in is another result.

Body armor is very heavy because it includes lots of add-ons, each in anticipation of a particular incident.  (BTW - in the picture I do not have on my usual stuff) We have the front and the back plates, makes sense.  Then we have two side plates and a special groin protection.  There is a throat protector and some people have kind of wings that protect the upper arms.  I even carry a special little hooked knife to cut myself out of tangled straps.  You keep on accreting new responses to specific threats.  Any one of these things might save your life.  I am reminded about what Mark Twain said about stoves, cats and lessons learned. 

And there is a cost.  All this stuff is heavy, bulky and threatening looking to Iraqi civilians.   Beyond that, although Marines are generally excellent marksmen, the armor makes it more difficult for them to hit what they are shooting at since it restricts their movements and vision.  And when we meet a group of friendly Iraqis in their civilian clothes, us wearing our dreadnought armor, what does that say about us and them?

I think it depends on your assessment of risk.  Every one of life’s activities is risky.  Each year nearly 50,000 Americans are killed in automobile accidents.  These are always gruesome and often hit the young and healthy the hardest.   Yet we all continue to drive and we have become very complacent about it.  Forestry in Alaska has an annual death rate of 175 per 10000 workers.  You have a greater chance of death or injury working in the forests of Alaska than serving in Iraq, but when the tree falls on somebody in the woods; it does not make a sound loud enough to for the national media to hear.  I am not saying we should give up the armor or the convoys or the vigilance.   But we should also not be held prisoner to the single occurrence.

I believe the greatest threat to my life is not AQI bombs or insurgent bullets, but simple accidents.  Flying around in helicopters is just a risky business.  I do not think that the armor makes me safer.  On the contrary, it seems to me that if we hit the ground hard, wearing 50lbs of metal would exacerbate the shock and impede a quick escape.   God forbid we land in the river.  I used to be a good swimmer, but I do not think I could handle the drag.  Maybe I am getting complacent, but that is what I think. 

October 26, 2007

A Man Can Dream

I met two of my chief deputies, who had been on leave when I arrived.  This will be the start of some beautiful collaboration.   We have at our priorities aligned.  I also got a new team member who did his PhD work on the soils of Iraq.  How much better can you get?

My two deputies already know the county and the region.   We talked about making a lasting impact.   Among the projects we discussed are internet hot spots and a solar village.   These dreams seem far fetched for the Iraqi desert, but they are no mirage.  My colleagues have been talking to local authorities about projects of mutual interest.   I asked them to talk harder and find the places for these projects. 

Re solar – energy is expensive in Anbar, but this fact is obscured by the ostensibly nearby pools of black gold and Texas tea.  Oil, however, has a world price.  It does not matter if it is locally plentiful.  A barrel of oil here costs around $80 in direct and opportunity costs just as it does everywhere else.  In fact, in Anbar it costs more because of the problems with delivering the fuel.   Some of the communities here are perfect for solar.  They are isolated from the fuel distribution lines and the sun shines here just about all day, every day.  I have been tacking on solar to other projects, but now the team will actively seek a demonstration project where we can solarize an entire small village.  When it works, it will encourage imitation.  I think it will be sustainable because it is fairly easy to maintain AND they have opened a vocational school in Al Qaim which is training electricians.

The Internet hot spot sounds even more hare brained, but also make sense.  There are many Internet cafes and a pent up demand.  Some of the local people have the skills to run such an operation. We do not want to compete with the private sector Internet café providers.  Working with them, we can help provide wide area coverage for a densely populated downtown.  We already have a village in mind for this.  The progressive mayor has identified the problem.  We hope to work with him to provide a solution.

The soils guy was also inspiring.  I talked to him about the legacy of the CCC and WPA and told him that in 80 years I wanted our contributions to still be creating value and beauty.   We may be able to provide solar powered irrigation pumps.  This is also a great place for solar.  The need for pumping is important, but never urgent.  It can be done when the sun is shining.  He also mentioned the efficacy of French drains in countering salinization of the soils.  He told me that such low cost and low tech improvements could probably sustainable double the productivity of some fields.  I was also surprised to learn that, while it took centuries to ruin the soil, proper treatments can restore it to acceptable form in only three years – providing there IS soil.  Some places it has eroded away.

One thing we need to do this week is help get seeds to farmers who will plant them.  Farmers here are not like those in the U.S.  They have to learn to be more self sufficient.  In Saddam’s time they were told what to do, so they still do not have the resources to go it alone.  The wheat season is already started.  They know what to do; they want to do it.  They need seed.  They will not get a harvest unless they get something in the ground soon.  The seasons do not wait for our bureaucracy.  I believe our flattening some obstructions will help at least some people get a harvest in the spring.  I made that our new Ag guy’s most urgent priority.

We also talked about date palms.  Like John the Translator, he knew about dates.  He told me that Iraqi dates are know worldwide for their sweetness.  It results from particular combinations of soil and climate.   One of the things the coalition did that I do not like is that they knocked down many date palm plantations.  They had good reason.  Insurgents hide among their dense vegetation.  But now that most insurgents have either gone to ground or are below it, I think we need to make up for that.  We can help restore not only roads and buildings, but also the living landscape.  We can help make it better than before.

There is no other job I can think of (at least not one I could get) where we can dream such dreams and have a reasonable chance of making them a reality.   We have access to quite a pile of money.  We either use it for sustainable projects, or we do the popular ephemeral things like picking up garbage, OR the money gets wasted someplace far off.  We need to do some of the ephemeral things too in order to support today’s quality of life.  I funded the creation of eight soccer fields for example, but I want to think farther into the future.   I am a forestry lover after all who knows that the last generation planted for us and it is our turn now.

Will all this work?  Probably not all of it, but dreams drive behavior and I think we will make some of them reality.  If not us, who?  If not now, when?  Those who want to laugh at my windmill tilting plans can do so now.  I enjoy the dreaming and I will post pictures after some of the projects are in place and working.

Flying the Osprey

Osprey at Al Asad Iraq

I  was in Ramadi, Camp Blue Diamond.  The CIA called Ramadi the most violent city in the world back in January this year.  Today it is like the rest of Anbar, fairly peaceful. 

BTW - Up top is a picture of the Osprey I describe below. 

Camp Blue Diamond is located on one of Saddam’s old summer camps.  This is the place where the recent war began.  We tried to bomb Saddam in a meeting with some of his leading supporters.  He was not there, but we destroyed a building.  The rest of the complex was left pretty much undamaged.  (Bombs are fairly accurate these days.)  It is green and pleasant.  In fact, everyplace I go is nicer than Al Asad.  It is beginning to dawn on me that my base is perhaps more highly ranked among the dusty sh*t holes of Iraq than I had been led to believe.  But it is my home and I look forward to getting back. 


This is the street in Blue Diamond. Notice green.

We share Blue Diamond with our valiant Iraqis allies, or more correctly they share it with us since it is, after all, their country.  We pass them on the road and say saalam.  They all look sort of alike, with their uniforms and mustaches.  Of course we present a much greater variety with our short hair and uniforms.  The Iraqi soldiers appear neat and organized.  It is a good thing, since they will soon be doing most of the security work.  Coalition strength in Anbar will drop by around half, as our troops come home and Iraqi forces take their places.  We are in the process of giving Blue Diamond back to the Iraqis and it is a little sad. It is easy to get a table at the chow hall, since each day fewer people turn up to chow down.  They may close it down entirely just after Thanksgiving.  I understand that they physically dismantle the whole chow hall and move it away.  There is always need for a good chow hall.  On the plus side, the Iraqis will take care of their own business and we will need to do less.  It was interesting today watching some U.S. soldiers trying to teach Iraqis to throw what we call a football.  A few steps away were some Iraqis trying to teach Americans how to kick what they call a football.   It is hard for both sides to learn these new tricks.

We briefed a couple of generals about the PRTs in Anbar, what we need and what we are doing.  They always try to be helpful.  More interesting to me was Eliot Cohen, who came with them as a special advisor to State.  Cohen wrote a book I read a few years ago called “Supreme Command”.   Fortunately, I did not have a chance to talk to him very long.  I find it disappointing to talk to well-know authors, most of whom seem to know LESS than they have written in their books.  I suppose that when writing the books they have ready access to materials and notes.  When they write, it is a sort of open book test, but when you surprise them with questions it is more like a pop-quiz.  Beyond that, many authors are by nature (unsurprisingly) bookish.  The arts of writing ideas and expressing them orally are related but certainly not completely synonymous.

I flew in on the Osprey.  It is the new Marine fixed wing plane that can do a vertical takeoff.  It is a goofy looking thing when it is on the ground, perhaps a better name would be albatross.  Anyway, it is not very comfortable.  You actually have less room to sit than in one of the bigger Chinooks.  It is faster, however, and flies at a higher altitude, so it is less likely to be hit by small arms fire from the ground, which is a plus.   The propellers turn up on takeoff and landing.  A sign on one of he buildings says that the wind from the downdraft can reach 175 mph.  This is important when opening the door to watch the Osprey land or take off.  Evidently the wind took the door off the hinges on at least one occasion.   A sergeant complained the downdraft knocked the satellite dish off his hooch, turning into a taco shaped piece of tin and rendering it unable to receive the porno stations to which he had become accustomed.

Traveling today was a nightmare.  The Osprey came FROM Al Asad to Blue Diamond already full of Marines in full kit.  It then made the backward circle.  They took some of the Marines someplace else and loaded up some cargo and some new Marines.  We all crushed together in the front.  The next stop they took off the cargo and everybody got off except me.  Then a new group came on board, it was not as cramped, but not good.  The flight took more than two hours and combined two of the three biggest phobias people have.   We packed in like sardines (claustrophobia) and at the same time you could see out the rear how high (and tilted) you were (fear of heights).  All they needed do was throw in a couple of snakes and we would have had the fear factor trifecta.  The height doesn’t bother me, although I enjoy the roller coaster motion less as I get older.  I really do not care for the cramped situation.  I admit that I did feel a tinge of claustrophobia when I could not move more than a few inches.

When the general asked about our biggest challenge, I mentioned travel.   It is just hard to get around  and not much fun.   Makes you want to stay at home.  

October 24, 2007

So …WaddaIdo?

I have been talking a lot about events w/o ever addressing the existential question, such as why am I here?  What am I supposed to do in Iraq?  Let me give my quick explanation.

First I suggest you look at the new publication AID put out re PRTs.  If  you look at the map, my PRT is called West Anbar. 

They tell me that the PRT concept originated in Afghanistan, where we realized that just chasing away the bad guys would not ensure success if we did not leave behind a viable civil structure that would allow for peaceful development.   It seems to me the concept is a lot older than that.  Everything from a Roman aqueduct in Spain to a WPA shelter or the pine trees planted by the CCC in one of our National Forests are monuments by “provincial reconstruction teams.” 

Prosperity cannot come before security.  This is a step you cannot skip no matter how enthusiastically you sing the song of peace.  And security must be established by force and violence.   Coalition forces have established reasonable security in Anbar.  This is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for progress.  Now it is the time for us of the softer hands to do our part.

It just makes sense that if you address a problem but leave in place the conditions that created it, you have not addressed the problem.  I have no delusions of grandeur that my small team can solve the problems of Iraq, Anbar or even one of the provincial cities, but I figure if we all do our small parts, eventually – through mere accretion if nothing else – something big may result.

The heartbreak of Iraq is not that it is poor and disorganized.  The real tragedy is that it does not have to be that way. Everybody knows it has oil, but it is also rich in terms of water, agricultural potential and people.   Saddam mismanaged and misappropriated Iraq’s wealth for more than 25 years and leadership was not all that good before either.  Iraq’s misfortune results from more than mismanagement and it cannot be addressed by replacing bad guys with good ones (if that were even possible).   The problem was/is systemic.  Iraq was run as a centralized state.  Decisions and resources came from Baghdad with virtually no consideration for or from the people affected.  This was exacerbated by the “curse of oil”.   The government floated on oil.  It did not need to get the consent of the governed to raise revenue.  Instead it could make all Iraqis dependent on the oil financed “largess” of the central authority.  That, coupled with the real danger of taking any action that might anger the central power and what they tell me is an ancient Mesopotamian pessimism, made the population very passive. 

So maybe our PRTs are peeing the ocean and waiting for the flood, but it seems to me that the recent events in Iraq have created conditions for radical change.  The coalition military has bought the opportunity.  It is the direction of the change that is in flux.  If left on its own, the tyranny pattern of the past will reassert itself.   At this time of maximum leverage, maybe our little pushes will help make the future different from the past.

My team, and the others like mine, is working with the local people: tribes, municipal government, private sector initiatives and other to overcome the over centralization of the past.   I am personally excited about the new push in agriculture.   I just (yesterday) got a new staff member, a guy from Department of Agriculture who has experience rebuilding soils that have been ruined by the salinization that comes with too much irrigation for too long.  I think we can do some good here.  It certainly is worth the trouble of trying.

Another Beautiful Day in Baghdad

I mean that seriously.  This morning is sunny and pleasantly cool.  This afternoon will be sunny and pleasantly warm.   This evening will be warm with low humidity.  There is a sign over some dust that says “stay off the grass.”  I thought it was a cruel hoax, but now I see that grass is starting to come up.   Birds have returned in great numbers.   At night, bats scoop up insects.   The place is coming alive. 

In Wisconsin, life hunkers down over the winter and burst forth in spring.  You just stay inside and wait it out.  Here it is the opposite.  Fall is spring around here.

I can't complain.  I hope to leave today to go back to Anbar, where it is as nice, but I expect the weather will be similar (a little cooler). 

I got promoted today.   This is a good thing.  I am a little surprised.  I assessed my chances at 15%.  On the plus side, I will get better treatment with transportation and helicopters.  My new rank has a protocol equivalent of a brigadier general.  The Marines take rank very seriously, so unlike Rodney Dangerfield, I will get some respect.

BTW – it was also a beautiful day in Baghdad before I got the news about the promotion.  I wrote the first paragraphs before I opened email, so my assessment of Baghdad’s charms was not influenced by my personal mood.   It is a nice day here.

October 23, 2007

Wasting Away Again in Baghdad


I am stuck in Baghdad.  My flight was “rolled” a day, but now I learn that I will not go back to AA right away.  Instead I have to go to another city to meet a delegation from mother State Dept.  Following good OPSEC (operations security), I will say no more.  The Marines tell me that every time someone violates OPSEC, God kills a kitten.

Baghdad is nicer than AA anyway.  You could forget you are in a war zone if not for the choppers flying overhead and the odd bang heard off in the distance. We have not suffered any attacks on the compound for around three months. Good.  Those who were here in the bad times tell me that it was no fun.  Most of the injuries were from people ducking and covering with too much enthusiasm, but a couple people were killed.  This is an experience I do not need. 

I had supper near the pool.  You can see what it looks like from the picture above.  The picture is a little misleading.  The surface that looks like grass is actually just dust, but in general it is pretty. The cans (below) are located among the palms.  It is sort of like Florida with sandbags.  (The sandbags, BTW, are covered with tarps because they are made of an eco-friendly substance that decomposes in the sun.)  You see, I am doing my part to entice colleagues to come to beautiful Baghdad.  There is a lot of stress and a lot of work, but it is not all terrible all the time.  You can find places & moments of significant beauty and tranquility.  It is important to enjoy them.

Take a look at this from "The Onion" Not So Horrible Thing Happens In Iraq, for some reference.


The problem (besides the war) is that there is no place to go.  I walked around the Green Zone.  The picture below is the nicest, most normal, place I found.  Actually Baghdad is like a Club Med in that you are essentially on an island and you cannot leave w/o flying.



October 20, 2007

We Few, We Happy Few

Today we are in Baghdad hearing from important people that the jobs we are doing are important.  I am just trying to learn how to do it right.  All the PRT team leaders are here.  There are about 20 of us from around Iraq.   Most of the conference has been insider stuff, interesting to me but only because I need to know it.  I will not go into detail.  Suffice to say that we have big jobs to do, big enough to scare me. For probably the first time in my career I am getting (at least promised) most of the resources needed to do the job, so if I mess it up it will be my fault.

Baghdad looks different to me now.   When I got here a couple weeks ago, I though it looked dry and brown.  Now it looks green and lush.   It all depends on your point of view. Coming from green Virginia, it is indeed a desert.  Coming from dusty Anbar, it is a well watered wonderland.   It is cooler now.   The weather has changed and it is actually very pleasant most of the time.

Our complex is on the grounds of one of Saddam’s palaces and the embassy is in the palace itself.  It is a very impressive place, now cut up by us into office space.  Saddam spared no expense on his own living space and the place has interesting marble work, complex ceiling etc.  In our meeting room I feel like the old State Department worker again, thinking the big thoughts and discussing the big events.   When I have to try to do something on the ground, those discussions are sometimes useful (not always).  

We had a talk by the director general of the FS.   He thanked us for our service and listened to our complaints/comments.  He assured the group that those fat-cats currently sitting in comfortable offices will soon be asked to do their part.   (And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap...sorry it just seemed appropriate)   State Department has up till now managed to staff its Iraq positions with volunteers, but it is getting harder.   There are only 6500 Foreign Service generalists and the director says that 20% of us have already been to Iraq or Afghanistan.   Neverthelesss, some of the people who volunteer do not have the needed skills and some of the people with the needed skills do not volunteer and since there are no very many of us in general, staffing is an issue.

We are becoming an expeditionary service.  I am not sure I like the idea of an expeditionary FS.  I came to Iraq for a variety of reasons.   The choice made sense to me.  I would not have made the same choice when my kids were younger.  Others make different choices.  This is where my particular skills are currently best employed and I am proud to serve here, but it is very possible for someone to be doing more for our great country elsewhere.  A diplomat who has become expert in Germany, France or Japan may better employ his skills in those pleasant places than in the deserts of Anbar.  (he which hath no stomach to this fight,  Let him depart) Some pleasant jobs are also very demanding and important. There is no virtue in making him come here out of some fairness principle or promoting him slower even if he shows real accomplishments.   Most of my colleagues in Iraq disagree, but what does “fair” mean?  Is it fair to get promoted just for living in a hardship?  The fact that I can withstand desiccating winds does not by itself indicate competence.  I think it should matter what you do, not where you were.   Having actually withstood those desiccating winds, even for the short time, I can say that w/o fear of being marked as a malingerer or a mollycoddle, but I think it is true.   But how does State staff these positions when we few, we happy few (be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition) are used up?

There may soon be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Foggy Bottom. 

October 19, 2007

Big John the Translator

The Iraqi guy I mentioned in the post below was a translator who worked for us in a nearby city.  In his garbage-bag luggage were gifts for his wife and children.  He was going to visit them.  When we landed at TQ, we had to walk around 400 meters over the dirt.   His bags looked heavy (and they were) so I helped him carry them and we got to talking.

Ironically, he called himself John.  That was not his given name, but evidently Americans found it hard to pronounce his real name, so he took the expedient of using one that was easier for the Anglophone tongue.   I told him that I did the same with my name for a similarly prosaic reason.   My father mispronounced our family name with a hard “a”, but since the toy company Mattel was better known than we were and was pronounced with a soft a,  the current generation has chosen to go with the majority.  (I thought about naming my kids Barbie and Ken, but that was just silly.  Of course, now I have to explain that I am not responsible for the lead paint in Mattel toys imported from China.) I will not include John’s real name or picture for reasons you will shortly understand.

I asked him how things were for him and he told me that they were bad. Terrorists figured out that he worked for us.  They shot his father (who survived the attack) and shot at his house.  Fortunately, his wife and four kids were not at home.  They have since moved to their native village, where the local people protect them from the bad guys as best they can and it is easy to spot outsiders like the terrorists.  It is like the witness protection program.

John’s family had been reasonably well off.  They own a date farm (orchard?).  John told me all about dates and date palms. It was a lot like Bubba telling Forest Gump about shrimp, but I was interested.  I will not repeat it all.  Date palms can live 200 years and they have a special cultural value in Iraq.  According to John, dates are good for almost everything.

He hopes to take his family to the U.S.  Our lawmakers, in their wisdom and compassion, are making it possible for those are threatened because of their work with us to get green cards.  I wondered about the pain he must feel leaving Iraq.   He had spoken with such passion about his home and date palms there. 

Leaving is not really his plan.  John wants to get his family safe in the U.S. and then he wants to come back to Iraq to carry on the fight working, again, as a translator for the U.S.  What you have here is an honorable man who loves trees.   How much better can it be?   I will make it my businesses to make sure my State Department colleagues treat him fairly when the time comes.

I left John at the landing zone in Baghdad.  He will catch a taxi to his home.  He knows the dispatcher, who will give him a reliable driver and he told me that he thinks he will be safe.   Terrorist used to beset the road.   They mostly just robbed people, but sometimes they killed if they were feeling nasty.  The coalition surge had chased them away in any case and now the Iraqi police were doing a better job of patrolling.  We sometimes forget how secure our lives are.

Embrace the Suck

Marine and luggage 

You never know where you will end up or when if you travel helicopter in Iraq.   I had a 745 show time to go to Baghdad.  I was manifest on the impressive sounding “Invincible”.  After waiting around 1.5 hours, they called us forward to write our destinations with marker on our left hands.  You do not have tickets and nobody can hear over the sound of the rotors.  This is a good system.

When they call the flight, everybody goes outside and waits for a bus that drives around 200 meters down the tarmac where you line up and wait another hour or so. In back of me stood an Iraqi with two black garbage bags for luggage (his story later).  Our flight came and we flew to TQ.  It has a rather longer name, but I do not remember.  We flew along the Euphrates, very pretty.  It is a clear aquamarine color.  I expected it to look browner, like the Mississippi. 

We manifested in TQ learning the show time for the connecting flight was 2215.   You see in the picture the waiting room.  On the plus side, TQ has a nice chow hall, which like everything else is run by South Asians employed by Kellog, Brown & Root - KBR (more on that later).  They had prime rib and it was good.

Anyway, you hang out.  It kinda sucks, but it is not really that bad if you take the Marines’ advice and “embrace the suck”.  There is time to think, time to read, time to write and time to nap. 

The key to embracing the suck is to live in the present wherever you are. It is Zen-like – the eternal present.  We live in a communal society over here, so it really matters little where you are.  Everybody has the same stuff and you carry as little as possible because you have to carry it yourself. You do not need much, because everyplace you go you can get something to eat and a place to sleep.   Once you have embraced the situation, things are fine.

BTW – I finally got to Baghdad around 230.  The can they assigned me was very small and the bed uncomfortable, but since I arrived in the proper state of mind…I can embrace it.

October 16, 2007

Get a Life

The great Ronald Reagan said he heard that hard work never killed anybody, but that he wasn’t taking any chances.   Reagan was expressing in his amiable way a truth that anybody who studies work knows.  After working a while, your efficiency drops.  You face diminishing returns.  My guess is that something around nine hours is good.  You can and sometimes must work longer hours needs be, but it is unsustainable.  Workaholics should get a life. 

Around here this wisdom does not apply.  Even if you didn’t want to work, there is just no place to go or anything else to do.   You see my “can” in the picture.   I am lucky enough to have an end unit, but it is not a place to relax.  My view consists of the latrines and a big tank that says “non-potable”. 

I have started to run again and I can go outside the gate, but there is not much to see.  I have found a few lonely eucalyptus trees.  I try to run by them more than once.  I also have a Eucalyptus tree near my office.  Birds have returned to it in the last couple of days and they are active at dawn and dusk.  (During the day, during the summer, Icarus like, they might just catch fire in the hot sun.)  There is just no reason to go home.   So we don’t.  You can find people at work anytime.  You can schedule meetings for Sunday morning or Saturday night secure in the belief that people will show up and probably be grateful for the diversion.  The office is nicer than the can.

The Marines have a ferocious work ethic and an unrelenting positive attitude.  I do not think they need to sleep at all.  The Colonel is working when I get here in the morning at around 8.   Last night I left the office at 11:45 (2345 to them) and most people were still at work just like they were the rest of the day.

Nighttime is just a brief interlude, just a time to sleep.  Not a time to go home.

Adapting, I am.  I have carved out time for running and time for blogging.  I am going to carve out time for reading books.  I am desperately seeking a routine.  When I get one, I figure I will be less inclined to gripe.  Today I went out and sat under one of my eucalyptus trees, across from the portable toilets to enjoy my moment of Zen.  As I let the rest of the world go by - trucks, helicopters and men going into the green plastic outhouses* - onto my I-pod came “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” by Rachmaninoff.  If you saw the movie “Groundhog Day” you know this music.   It is a calm and urbane.   The soundtrack did not go with this particular scene, but my experience here is reminiscent of the “Groundhog Day” theme.

* I have learned that the best time to use the green port-a-potties is around 10 am.   The cleaning crew comes out and washes them down, so you get that daisy fresh atmosphere.  Of course, after dark is also a desirable time, since what you cannot see bothers you less.

October 14, 2007

Drinking Tea with the Sheik in Hit

We went to the compound of the leading Sheik near city of Hit on the Euphrates to meet with the sheik & the town mayor.    You can see me above on the way in.  This landscape may look a little on the bleak side to you, but to me it is a green paradise.  On the ride in, I could see the Euphrates.  It is like a green ribbon laid across an eternity of brown sand.

The Sheik is a young man of around 30.  He unexpectedly inherited the leadership of the Albu Nimr tribe, which has around 200,000 members living along the Euphrates.  It is sort of his first post.  State colleagues will know what I mean.  His uncle was a wise old man.  He needs some medical treatment in the U.S. and my task is to make sure he has no visa troubles.  The Nimr are good guys.  They are fighting Al Qaeda and the criminal gangs of insurgents. 

We were treated to coffee and tea.  The coffee was extremely strong and thick.  They give you a little cut with almost none in it, but that is enough.  If you do not want a refill, you have to shake the cup.  You do not want a refill.  Tea tastes like sweet tea and is not bad.  They have a funny custom.  People sit around the room on built in couches.  When somebody else comes in, he goes around and meets everybody.  It seems unorganized, but evidently personal acknowledgement is very important.  Not everybody comes in at the same time.  At first only a few are there.  Then more come in until there is a big crowd.  Everybody is friendly and polite.

We conducted or tried to conduct some business, talking about contracts & projects and then it was time for lunch. 

The meal is a big deal in local culture.  They bring in all the food on big platters and everybody eats with their hands.   The pita style bread is very good.   We also had chicken, lamb, rice, vegetables and some kind of boney fish from the river.  The food was very good.  The same thing goes for the food as for the general meeting. At first, I was just us and a few local guys.  Then more and more of them wandered in.  They would come by, suggest a piece of food, make some small talk and move along.   When we left, a bunch of people descended on the table.  I guess they have to wait and get the scraps.

We had to eat and run because the helicopters were coming.   I will never learn to love helicopter travel.   As you approach, you are fried by the hot air from the exhaust.  It is noisy and slippery.  That said, these was a not a bad helicopter.  I am not sure what kind it was.  Somebody told me it was a Chinook

We do most of our traveling by helicopter.  Regulations require full kit for the ride.  I do not like it.  Those jackets weigh a lot.  I figure in the event of an actual crash, it would be more dangerous to be crashing with 50lbs of metal strapped to you.  If you crashed in water … I am sitting next to the colonel.  You notice they do not give me a weapon.  The colonel is a great guy and we are getting along very well.  The Marines seem to understand the local tribes.  The tribes are very martial.   One of the complaints the Sheik made  was that there were not enough places in the military for all their young men who wanted to join up.  Desert people are like that.  They are admirable in that respect.   They may be less inclined toward the prosaic arts required for peaceful prosperity.  I can anticipate some frustration in doing business here.  Some of these guys do not appear to own a watch.  I have 360 days to do my job and I keep on thinking Kipling.

“And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear:  "A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East."

October 11, 2007

An Uneventful, but Full Day in Al Asad

Today I did not go anywhere.  Travel is arduous, so I am glad to stick  around.   It was not a nice day, however.  It was a bit humid AND dusty.  I kinda thought those two things would not go together.  We are also getting some bugs and, although I have not yet seen any,  it is snake & scorpion season.  Evidently in summer it gets too hot even for those nasty cold-blooded creatures.  So now with the advent of the cool (the term is relative) weather, they begin to slither or crawl around more energetically.

I had my medical briefing.  The doctor wondered how I could have left the
U.S. w/o all the shots.  He was also surprised at my relative lack of medical history.  I told him that my father had been to the doctor in 1945, the early 1970s and when he died a quarter century later.  I am not sure that last one counts, seeing as he was already dead.  Anyway, that was enough for him. I had already been much more often.  I had to get an anthrax shot today.  It stings for about ten minutes.  I have to get three more.    I also need tetanus, smallpox and yellow fever.   The doctor says those things are not really around here very much, but it is a requirement.  He warned about the scorpions, however.  Three of the local species can be deadly.  They are rarely really a problem, he says.  Just a nuisance.  In our "cans" they are not found.  I guess they eradicate them periodically.  I do not feel sorry for them.

Marine culture is interesting, very different from State Dept but I find much to admire.  They have lots of meetings, but people are very well prepared and nobody wanders off topic.  They are also very aggressive and they DO seem to believe all that stuff they talk about.  When they are attacked, they respond.  I can see how it can cause trouble in some PC circles.  If a Marine gets killed or even shot at, they all want to go out and catch the bad guys.

The Marines treat me with respect.  I think I am doing okay with them, but we are very different in our worldviews. My tolerance of ambiguity is something strange among them.  They like plans and they like to make specific progress against those plans.  But, they seem to recognize my particular skills and the need for some ambiguity in what we are planning.  They are coming around and talking to me one-on-one.  I guess it is the same for me.  I recognize the need for their skills and outlook.  I think we can work together well.  I got some mileage for being physically fit, not as good as they are of course, but they can recognize it. It is really a big deal for them.

One guy told me that the way they see it Marines are carnivores and State Department is made up of vegetarians.  I do not want to eat nothing but red meat, but I want to show I am not a "tofudobeast" either.

I talked to the base commander.  Everybody assumes he will make general after this, and he deserves it.  I told him that my job was to make his job easier in development, public diplomacy and peace building.  He liked that.  We agreed on almost all the priorities.  The thing I like about the Marines is that they are very truthful – maybe blunt.   I used to think I was like that, but now I see I am not.  He showed me all the operations on a big map.  He knows it all in great detail. He was proud of what his Marines had accomplished and it is a grand accomplishment.  The new strategy worked.  They take the ground and then they send some Marines to go live there and hold it.  After that comes the building stage, where I hope to make contributions. Conditions at these forward bases are atrocious.  The Marines consider our situation at Al Asad the height of luxury, and I guess it is.  We have AC and hot food.  At these little forward bases, the snakes and scorpions are not eradicated.

Speaking of luxury, I moved into my predecessor's can.  It is a double wide, literally twice as big. I like to have a little extra space, but that was not a big problem for me before.  What I miss is being able to go out among the trees, even things like sitting on the deck and enjoying the green.  It is also noisy all the time.  Helicopters fly around.   We have the sound and smell of generators.  Trucks roll by.  I am adapting.  The conditions are bad, but the work is good. 

Now comes the time of paperwork and bureaucracy.  I have a bunch of projects to approve, or not.  I can approve up to $25K.  After that, up to $200K we need to have
Baghdad approve.  In some of the projects I am afraid that we are getting ripped off.  I really do not mind if that is a cost of doing local business and influencing people,  but I do not want us to be seen as weak or stupid negotiators.  I am asking to go back and get better deals.  I think that will cause of bit of consternation among our guys, but I think we will get more respect from the locals if we do it AND we will get a better deal for the taxpayer.  Nobody likes a cheapskate, but nobody respects a wimp.  I think we have to play the local negotiation game.  That is why we have local specialist and making sure it gets done is where I add value. 

I am also trying to get alternative energy considered.  When we do local power generation, I always ask about solar.   The sun stares unremittingly on this land anyway and shines the most when people want air conditioning; we may as well make some that hot light into electricity.   I think it will work. Even in this land of hydrocarbon, actually getting fuel to remote places is difficult and expensive.  Solar works here.  I hope to make it work more. 

Although riding in helicopters is more dramatic, I have to admit that I have more of the pencil necked bureaucrat than the warrior in me, a talker, not a fighter.  My sort is needed here too.

October 10, 2007

Iftar in Haditha




 These are some of the Iftar guests waiting to hear the after dinner talk.  Sorry for the blur. I have to work on my camera settings.





 It was a long helicopter ride to Haditha.  We had the show time of 11.  Then we had to wait in the sun for a long time.  Then we had to land and refuel.  Then we flew I do not know where.  The bottom line is that the half hour trip took about 3 hours.

We were going for an Iftar dinner, but since I had a few hours before the event, we went to the CMOC, the place where the Marines interface with the local people.  Since it was Tuesday, they were open for business.  Movement in the city is still controlled and the Marines issue driving permits.  It is a very good way to get to know the people and get a handle on the population.  Unfortunately, it is “good” in the way a visa line is good.  People come, but waiting in line for hours is not their idea of a positive experience.  How popular is the DMV back home?  For now the process provides valuable security protection, but we need to get out of this business quick as we can.  You do not win friends by creating backlogs.

There must have been a couple hundred Iraqi men waiting in line.  Many were dressed in various traditional costumes.   The balance had on something like polo shirts.  They were very patient.  To the apparent surprise of my translator, I decide to work the line.  My translator assured me that no good could come from this, since they would not tell me the truth, but I figured I could learn something from what they said anyway.  Most told me that the security situation had improved.  About that they were happy.  But the restrictions and bureaucratic procedures were starting to pinch.  One guy claimed he delivered cooking gas and had to cross the bridge.  He needed a permit and he complained that he had to renew that permit each week, standing hours in line each time.  He had a point.  Other people just did not like the procedure.  Some figured that they were important people and should not have to put up with such trouble.  I suppose they had a point too.  One guy, who insisted on speaking English but was really hard to understand, told me he was a Turkoman who had fled the city of Kirkuk.  He was not fond of the Kurds and evidently they felt the same way about him, hence his unexpected sojourn in Syria, where he was treated poorly too, and ultimate settlement in Anbar.  He offered the unsolicited advice that I should never eat any food in the south of Iraq because it would give me diarrhea.   Let’s hope he doesn’t end up there should he fall out with the Anbari.

Dressed as I was in my wrinkle free blue Brooks Brothers shirt and civilian clothes (I made a special point of being “civilian”), I am not sure the people in the line knew what to make of me.   Of course I doubt anybody told me the whole truth, but their words had the feel of “truthyness”, as Stephen Colbert says.   I do not know if the smiles were sincere, but the grumbling was real – and justified.   I am sure they also felt a lot of anger, which they did not express to me.  In their place, I sure would have felt that way. 

After a while I realized that they thought I could solve some of their problems.  I felt bad for creating the false hope so I retreated inside.  I am a great believer in eliminating the petty annoyances that plague ordinary people’s lives and  I am trying to think of suggestions to ameliorate the situation, but it really cannot be fixed.  The Marines were working hard & treating the people with respect.  The Iraqi police, who were doing the initial screening, seemed polite.  When it is not Ramadan one of the Iraqi employees told me that they provide water, but there is only so much you can do with something like this.  We need to eliminate the whole thing.  The Catch 22 is that we cannot do that until the situation is more “normal” but such daily annoyances are among the things that make it abnormal.

Iftars start at sundown, so we started up to the police HQ around 5:30.  This are used to be a youth center and sports complex.  There was a soccer field with bleachers.  It looked like an ordinary soccer field, except there was no grass.  One of the guys explained to me that it would not be worth the water to grow grass and that Iraqis were accustomed to these kinds of surfaces anyway.  I suppose it is like playing tennis on a clay court – a dusty clay court.

We went through Iraqi security and then Marine security and got to a big lecture hall where the Iftar meal was to be held.  The local civil authorities and sheiks started to arrive.   The most important was a very old and frail looking guy who chain smoked.  He was very old, but despite the nasty habit was in good health.  He still has a strong handshake and I could see and feel the politician in him even in the twilight years.  He had decided that it was in the best interests of his people to go with America.  He was right and we were grateful.  I then met some of the younger guys.  When they shake hands, they do a type of shoulder bump.  I had seen it before and even practiced it, but they noticed my inexperience.  One of them told me that I would get better as I spent more time in Iraq.

The mayor of Haditha was the official host.  When I talked to him, it was clear he was interested in the good of his people.  He said that schools were most urgent.  They had school buildings, but were lacking desks, supplies and often windows.  There is also a shortage of trained teachers.  Iraqis had once been among the most educated people in the Arab world, but Saddam was not much interested in it, especially in the later years.  The government would sometimes make a PR point of opening a new school, but they did maintain the ones they had.  Education was a kind of Potemkin village in Iraq.   

The mayor of neighboring Barwana said very similar things.   He was a friendly younger guy.  He said he could understand English, but not speak it.   I am inclined to believe he was telling the truth.  He seemed to know what I said before the translation came in. 

Power for both cities comes from the Haditha Dam, which impounds the water of the Euphrates. The dam is running at capacity, but that capacity is low.  This country has lots of potential.  It has come a long way and there is a lot of work to do, but I think it can make it this time, God willing.

I spoke to the colonel of the Marines who is scheduled to take over command in Haditha.   He had been in Falujah during the intense fighting there a couple years ago.  He told me that the change in Al Anbar is unbelievable.   When he was here last time, he thought that we had essentially lost and that all that was left was the recognition.  Today things are going in our direction and peace is possible.

This was a good visit.  People were friendly and seemed ready to cooperate. My only fear is that we ( and I) will not be able to live up to expectations.  There is a lot to do here and it is hard to get things done.   The flight back was uneventful.  I still do not like helicopter rides at night, however.

October 09, 2007

River City Charlie

That is the term when private communications on the base – phone & Internet – are shut down.  When I saw the message on my office computer, I knew that it usually lasts 12-48 hours and usually it means that someone has been killed.  That is what it means this time.  I do not know other details, but I know someone died in Al Qaim.  Communications will be restored when the military has notified the next of kin.  If are reading this communications are open again because the loved ones know that they have lost a son, daughter, husband or wife.   

Although I was in Al Qaim the day before yesterday, I doubt if I met the guy who died.  Still I feel a profound sadness.  I remember the young faces and the energy of all the Marines I met and talked with.   They are the ages of my kids.  It is more personal now.  The Marines take it hard when any of their own is killed.  I cannot feel their sense of family but even in my very short time here I begin to feel closer now that I have slept next to their cots, heard their stories, and rode with them in helicopters & humvees.  

The Marines never forget.  They set a place in the chow halls for the missing and I have observed how they treat these places with reverence.  Next to my office stands a helmet on a rifle hung with dog-tags of the fallen.  The Marines have a strong culture that can be very hard for a career civilian like me to understand.  They never forget, but they go on.  They never forget, but they do not dwell on the loss.  They take it personally, however. 

River City Charlie is becoming less common here in western Al Anbar.  I am grateful for that.  I am starting to take it personally too.  Like the Marines I live with, I want to get this job done and I want all of us to come home safely.

October 07, 2007

Helicopter Rides are More Fun in the Daylight

Tail gunner 


 This is the last one for today.  There are two more new entries below. 

We flew from Asad to Al Qaim, which is up river near the Syrian border.  I am much happier today because I see some real progress and places where we can do some good.

I met with the colonel of the Marines in Al Qaim.   In one hour I learned more about a successful counter insurgency than I learned in years.  I will not go into details but he explained you have to clear, hold and build.  A couple years ago, we were hunkered down on big bases.   The insurgents were intimidating the local population.  Things were bad.  The insurgents and Al Qaida, however, managed to annoy the the local people.  One of the big tribes, the Abu Mahal, decided they had enough and started to fight back.   Unfortunately others sat on the fence.  The insurgents were better armed and they were winning. 

Then the tribal leaders asked the Marines for help.  Together they pushed the bad guys out.  Success lead to confidence; more tribes joined in.  Young men started to join the police and Iraqi army.  Pretty soon the bad guys were in the desert eating dirt, with snakes & scorpions their only friends.  Although they can still cause damage, make life unpleasant & dangerous sometimes and fire the odd angry shot, they have not had the initiative since.  The colonel showed me a map of how it had played out. The colors changed.  It is the ink blot idea of spreading security, each month, more territory in the hands of friends.  The Marines are working with local Iraqi army units and police and soon they can give some of the places entirely back to them.  They can defend those places and some of our Marines can come home.

We are in the building stage now.  The Marines, Army Corp of Engineers and Seabees are helping put things in order.  So are members of my PRT.  I am proud of the work they have done and what I will (I hope) do.



We met the mayor of the region.  He was very smart and friendly.  You can see him and his guys, along with the colonel and my predecessor.  I was impressed by their level of professional competence as well as their obvious affection for the colonel.  The mayor hopes to visit him in California and their daughters are pen pals.

We flew back that afternoon.  The ride was uneventful except when they shot off some flares.  I heard pop-pop-pop and thought it was shooting – at us.  Just flairs shot off by the flight crew.  As for the ride, take a look at the picture up top, which is worth 1000 of my words.  There I am below.  Sorry for the blur.


me on h


October 06, 2007

Forward Operating Base in Haditha

I am piling on a couple of days, so please look below and above.

It was lucky that I made this travel error.  I got to see an FOB before I was a VIP.  When the captain at the FOB came to understand that I would be PRT leader and not just a member he was a little circumspect.  My predecessor is an OC, which translates to a two star general.  I assured the captain that I was a significantly lower rank and that he need not worry, but I can see that when I travel as PRT leader people will make special preparations.  Good to see the real world first.

This FOB is firmly ensconced with the Iraqi police in the district.  Cooperation looks good.  When I arrived, they were running some sort of readiness exercise and evidently doing very well.   The Marine captain from Florida respected the Iraqis and seemed to get it back from them.  He explained that the local Sheiks had allowed/instructed their young men to join the police and the military.   Many at the station were kin.  The captain compared that to an extended Boston family where many of the relations are cops and some branch off into municipal affairs.

The police I saw running the exercise using radios and plotting things on maps and charts looked professional and competent.  They were neat and their building was as neat as possible.  It does need renovation.  Many of the buildings were casualties of war.  There was a lot of fighting here in Haditha, first between U.S. and insurgents, later insurgents and Iraqis, then the Marines and the insurgents.  This place was essentially lost, but now it is returned thanks to good Iraqis, the Marines, the terribleness of the insurgents and good luck.  

I spent the night with the Marines on a hard cot.  I did not want to make too much noise.  These guys work hard and deserve their sleep.   I figured the Marines could defend themselves, and me too.  I did not want to interfere with their fighting prowess in any way.   

We were up early the next day.   I talked to a Marine sergeant  from NC who told me the way things were in Haditha. It had been a real war zone just months ago.  The Marines kicked out the bad guys and then stayed to get to know the good Iraqis.  As the Marines got close to the people, they got to know who the bad guys were.  They also learned to tell threatening from normal local behavior.  The local Iraqis learned the same things about the Marines.  Trust, or at least predictability, was the result.  Attacks have dropped to almost none.  The latest was a roadside bomb that managed only to kill a 70 year old man.  This just made the local Iraqis angrier at the imarine HVnsurgents.  No Americas or Iraqi forces where even nearby.  It was probably a terrorist mistake.

With security comes peace and then projects.  The Marines, Iraqis and various others, including our PRT, are rebuilding infrastructure.  Fresh water and power are priorities.  Life is assuming a normality.  After a war, people appreciate normality.   

The young sergeant was truly impressive in his understanding of human affairs.  That is him in the picture.  You can see the real warrior and the State Department version.   It might be hard to tell the difference, but try.


We set off in a Humvee column to Haditha Dam.  There is a bigger base there.  The Marines guard the dam.  This was my first convoy, so I was afraid of everything as I looked out the window.  We passed some boys, who smiled and waved.  I was scared.  We passed some rocks.  I was scared.  We passed some … you get the idea.  But the trip was completely uneventful. 

me and hv


Haditha is not attractive these days, but probably will be all right when it is fixed up.   The area near the Euphrates is green, with fields and palm trees.  The green stops abruptly and turns to desert, where nothing at all grows.  There is no transition.  It is either green or yellow-brown dirt and rocks.  I prefer green.





My First Chopper Ride

Sorry to dump several in one day, but I have not had access to Internet for awhile.  

Riding in a helicopter is something that is more fun in theory than in fact.  It might have been a lot of fun to fly during the day, but we do the night.  I could see the lights of Baghdad, but not much after that.

 I understand that it was a CH 46.  That means nothing much to me.  It looked like a bus with two rotors and the old Greyhound Bus feeling was there.   I got the windy seat and it was like sitting in a tornado because the wind kind of swirled at high speeds with my head as the vortex.  For a minute it was exhilarating – a minute.

We flew through the night and landed in what would be a grassy field back home.  Here it seemed to be mostly sand and gravel.  I really am not sure, since I could not see in the darkness.  The crew chief pointing to six of us and said, “You guys get off.”  We did.  He took pity on our confusion and told us with what sounded like just a hint of condescension, go toward those lights.  A couple of guys were coming toward us with those glow stick.  At least we assumed that, since we saw only floating glow sticks.

They were escorts. We followed them, me dragging my luggage, the wheels working imperfectly on the gravel/sand, with body amour and my backpack.  My advise to self and others is lighter travel.

We got to a plywood and steel building and checked in.  Then we were sent to a canvas Quonset hut where we waited.  We were a mixed lot: a blogger doing embedded reporting, a female Air Force Captain, a Marine going to a forward operating base (FOB) and some strange guy who seemed interested in hearing what I was doing, but would say only that he was “passing through the territory” when I returned questions.  Looked like a journalist.

The glow stick guys returned.  We lined up and waited in a parking lot. Then we went back in the field, where we lined up the middle of nowhere again.  The glow stick guy dropped a glow stick and told us to wait.   As my eyes got adjusted to the darkness, I noticed other groups of sojourners, standing silently like apparitions in the dark.  I also noticed stars, so I laid down on my body amour to appreciate them.  A short time later a helicopter came and picked up one of the groups of apparitions.   It made a cloud of dust, which drizzled out on me and got in my eyes.  I did not lay back down, as I came to fear that something might be crawling across the sand and it probably had a poisonous sting or bite.  Probably not, but such things scare me.  I saw some of those giant scorpions on Discovery Channel.  I hope never to meet them in person.

Finally our ride came.  It was a different kind of machine.  I ask the guy in back of me what kind it was.  I think he told me, but I could not hear over the din of the engines.  We took off.  The back is open.  I could see the darker silhouette of the tail gunner against the dark sky and not much else.  We traveled for a while and then landed.  People got off, so I did too.  The helicopter left, blasting us all with sand and dust.  Then I found out that I was in the wrong place.  The helicopter made a stop at Haditha FOB.   The Marines promised to take care of me, and they did.  I had a chance to see the conditions of a FOB.  They are harsh.

October 03, 2007

Show Time

When they say “show time” it literally means the time you show up.  It is not an attempt to sound cool nor is it an reliable indication about the time you will actually travel.   For several sound logistical and security reasons, flights in war zones cannot be scheduled like commercial carriers. Besides, most of the time our personal travel considerations are not the highest priority.  You usually cannot even find out the precise show time until a few hours before.  That means you wait, then you rush to some uncomfortable location, hang around for an indeterminate time and then rush to the next  one, which may well be just another waiting area. 

Before someone starts thinking “Oh that is just like flying back home” – it ain’t.  The funny thing about it, however, is that it is somewhat less annoying than the comparative comfort and predictability of travel back home.  Expectations are lower.  You expect to have to move your own luggage and help others move theirs, so you learn not to bring much.  You expect uncertainty.  You do not make appointments tightly.  There is no first class travel, so you do not feel the sting of relative deprivation.  You expect to spend a couple hours waiting, so you figure out something to do.  Some people have developed the ability to fall asleep in seconds and sleep in almost any position.   I can do that.  I noticed people keeping journals.  I do that too, so generally adaptations are simple, if not easy.

October 02, 2007

100 Years in Four Days

It has been only four days.  I left the U.S. late on Friday.  It is now Tuesday afternoon here, still morning where I came from.  It sure is hard to believe it was only four days ago that I was typing at a computer at IIP and cleaning off my desk for the last (maybe also first) time.  So much is different. 

My day was full of meetings.  I am learning more about how a PRT works and knowing less.  There is no plan that can tell me how to do my new job.  Many have been in such situations & places before, but they remain always undiscovered, where past experience is crucial, but cannot be directly applied.  We have to learn by doing, plan by doing and do by … doing.  I have reasonable confidence that I can do this job, but I could not tell you now with any specificity what I can do.

I met a really good source in the PRT leader from Diyala.  His name is John Jones.  I am making him my model.  He has experienced the FS and life.  He has been shot at and bombed near, but he maintains composure - a friendly equanimity - I admire.  What is more, his family used to own forest land on the James River in Buckingham County.   We talked a bit re that.  He is thinking about getting some forest land in Southside, VA.  Maybe I can return his favor by helping him out with that.  

Diyala is now what Anbar was a couple months ago.  It is still dangerous but moving in the right direction.  John Jones has seen a lot.  He told me that we just have to invent, innovate and experiment.  He talked a little about the cultural difference, not only Iraqis and Americans, but also State and DOD.  I took some lessons I think will be useful.

I had an appointment at the PRT Baghdad, which is outside the Embassy compound. Met some good people.  I walked back to the Embassy.  It takes only about ten minutes.  It takes just about that long to drive because of the route and checkpoints. The streets are quiet, since few cars are allowed to drive in the IZ.   It was really hot in the sun, but pleasant in the shade of the tree where you have them.  It was a very warm summer day - but this is October.  I do not look forward to July.  I felt safe, but the presence of "duck & cover" bunkers placed regularly along the road and lots of armed men reminded me that the peacefulness might be deceptive.  Most people think the security situation here is much improved, but they also fear the progress could be fragile. 

On the Embassy compound, we live in a village that looks a lot like a Florida trailer park with sandbags.  It is not bad.  There are lots of palm trees.  I like to think of my place like a cabana. Some of the military guys tell me that this is like heaven, mentioning more Spartan conditions they experienced in the past and warning of less comfort in the future in parts of Anbar.  Life is tough all over.

I was surprise to see beer in the refrigerator at the DFAC.  You recall my paean to beer two posts past and my belief that I would not see it again soon, so I was happy.  But then I noticed those terrible words – “non alcoholic”.  I do like the taste, so I drank some, but it is not the same.

Well, I am off to get something to eat and then I hope to get some sleep.  A combination of jet lag, stress of the trip and busy schedules is wearing me down at bit.  I want to stay energetic.   I know that my experience so far has been prosaic.  I kinda hope it doesn't get too much more exciting in some ways.  I welcome comments.

October 01, 2007

Landing in Beautiful Baghdad

It is hot (even in October) and dry.  A fine dust covers most things.  It is slippery with fine dust.  I am sure that the airport is not the best impression Iraq has to offer and it is much the worse for the wear of vehicles.  I expect everything now will be an improvement.   No matter what, it is exciting to be here in ancient Mesopotamia.  I read about this place, the cradle of civilization, since I was ten years old.

We came over from
Amman on a C130, packed like sardines.  There was no meal service or in flight movie.  You see in rows along the side, like in those old movies. The seats are just canvas with netting.  They do not recline. When the plane moves, you are pushed side to side.   This is a cargo, not a passenger plane.  We are cargo. Besides that, however, it is surprisingly comfortable.  The engines are loud, but not as bad as I thought.  The flight is fairly smooth until they take the standard evasive action on before landing. I expected a bumpier ride.

Once we arrive we processed through a series of tents and trailers. I got processed in, got my flack jacket and helmet and I am good to go.  People are businesslike, but friendly.  Their mood is good.  Their upbeat attitude is surprising and does not match the barren landscape.  After processing, I went over to the chow hall.  It is nice.  The food is good, certainly the quality you would get at a good restaurant buffet. There is lots of it and it is all free.  My challenge will be no eating too much.  I had roast turkey with rice.  It was very good. Then I had some friend chicken with potatoes.  Good too.  Then I had a salad.  Ditto. Finally I had some cake.  Of course, all this was okay for the diet because I drank diet coke.  In my defense, I didn't get to eat all day and finally got to the chow hall after a fairly busy day around 5.  

Tonight we will go to the Green Zone on an armored bus - a RINO.  I think the Green Zone will be more pleasant.  I do not know when I will get a decent night's sleep.  So far travel has precluded that.  

After waiting for around 9 hours at the Sully Compound, we moved to a place called the stables and waited there for 3+ hours until the RINO came.  You never know when the RINO will come.  That is the design.  So you wait and when it comes, you get on.  The chief of the bus goes through something akin to that safety demo you get on airplanes.  I will not go into details, but he tells you what to do if we are hit in various ways.  Luckily, the trip was uneventful and the trip was reasonably comfortable. I could see little in the dark through the tinted windows.  I could tell that the topography is pancake-flat, but I could not tell much else. 

I have already been meeting people who know things I want to know.   I met an experienced PRT leader who explained the work.  It is varied.  We are inventing the jobs as we go them.  As I try to put it into terms I can understand, it seems like a BPAO on steroids with the military, danger & development permutation.  PRTs must dispense lots of money and look for worthy projects.  Millions of dollars.  In fact, money is not the problem.   The Iraqis also have piles of money  from their oil revenues, but the central government does not have the capacity to allocate and spend it productively.  We forget all the thousands of middle managers, accountants and budget specialists that lubricate our own spending. A big PRT job, and the others here,  is helping build capacity.  

The PRT people get out more than I thought.  The PRT leader told me that he gets out to meet contacts most days of the week.  It is not as easy as it would be most other places, but it is doable.  

I also learned that Iraqis are very fond of sweets.  I was advised to get some of those Wurther style chocolates to give as little token gifts.   Chocolate is popular, but ordinary chocolate does not travel well in Iraqi temperatures.  I have been told re drinking the tea.  The tea, I am told, is very hot and very sweet.  Three cups is the norm.  You can usually say no after that.  Iraqis are hospitable and expect to eat more than you think you should (see above re chow halls).  Some people drink alcohol, but it is not a good idea to join them.

Anyway, it will be an interesting experience.  I hope and believe that I will find most of Iraq nicer than this here and now place.  I remain optimistic.

 Later ...

I got to the Embassy compound at night and was assigned a temporary trailer.  It was hard to find it among the trailer park, but I finally did and around 330 am finally got some rest.

The compound is an old Saddam palace.  I have mixed feelings about these palaces.  They are indeed impressive, but mostly in the profligately big Soviet style, along the same lines as the Palace of Cultures that clutter Moscow and other capitals of the former Warsaw Pact. 

The green zone is literally green, with lots of trees and plants.  Still dust & heat, but it is very pleasant in general.  The soil here is fertile if given water and not salinated by over irrigation.  This is the fertile crescent, after all. 
Once again, I was surprised by the high morale.  I think that might be because everyone is important; everyone has a job to do and cooperation is needed in most things.  For example, we unload our own luggage from the trucks.  A luggage line forms spontaneously.  You pass the bags back into someone's willing hands and they all get unloaded quickly.  People have been very welcoming.  At the chow halls, for example, you can just start talking and people respond well telling you things you need to know.   There are lots of people who know things I want to know and they are eager to share. 

Anyway, I need to run.  I apologize in advance for any editing errors I made in my haste.  I have some pictures that I hope to post later.

Please send in comments.


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