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January 28, 2008

Maybe Best to Avoid Promotion

You should always be careful what you wish for.  I am happy that I got promoted, but it is expensive.  Because of the peculiarities of the Iraq package, my promotion is costing me almost $300 a pay period.  

Yes, I get paid that much less AFTER being promoted.  It is worse because I am figuring based on the pay w/o the raise that (almost) all Federal workers got in January.  So the bottom line is that I take get almost $300 less than I did BEFORE the promotion took effect and probably around $400 less than I would have if I got the usual raise w/o a promotion.  

Luckily the Senate was unusually dilatory about confirmng our promotions, so I didn’t get the big kick until three months after my promotion was announced.

I get paid the big bucks anyway and I know complaining will do no good, but I have to grumble. Over the course of a year, that is a significant pay cut. 

All in all, I prefer the promotion for the honor of making it to Senior FS and the promise of better things to come, but nobody can ever accuse DoS of enhancing morale of its guys in the field. We got a cable just a couple of days ago saying that we would no longer get Business Class on flights more than 14 hours, as we did when I came over.  It is hard for a medium tall oldish guy to sit in an economy class seat for more than 14 hours, but ...

Maybe that retirement plan was not such a bad idea after all.   Anybody got a job for an ex-PRT leader and part time forester?

Just kidding.

January 27, 2008



I am stuck in Fallujah and hope to get out later today.  In the meantime, I have been reading a book called “Wikinomics” about the changes that online collaboration and web 2.0. will create in society.   (Wiki, BTW, is from the Hawaiian word for quick and a wiki is a form of organization and technology that allows users to create, edit and link information in non-hierarchical collaboration.) This knowledge will be useful in my next job but it is of less here – for now.  Internet connectivity in Anbar is poor, but it is growing rapidly.  We have made some grants to help with Internet hot spots and online newsletters (also available in paper).  I think this will come much faster than we expect and I think Internet will be an important medium in W. Al Anbar before I pack up and go home.

Already many of our good contacts have email, although most do not check it often enough to make it reliable. During the Saddam time there was essentially no Internet out here and the insurgency slowed its early growth, but these kinds of things grow exponentially. 

Internet makes great sense in a large and sparsely populated place like Anbar. It can be a way to communicate and a means for governments to better serve constituents.  But it will remain an elite form of communication for some years to come.  Our biggest challenge is not the technology, but the levels of literacy.   Iraq used to be one of the most literate Arab counties, but Iraqis fell behind during the Saddam times.  The literacy rate in Iraq is only around 74% and it is lower in a rural place like Anbar.  We have some adult literacy programs, but this is a problem long in the making that will require solutions that may take a long time to be effective.

The most modern technology can hit the wall of an ancient problem.  Literacy is one of the first technologies.  It allows the transmission of information over time and distance.  It is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.  Literature is a type of slow motion wiki (if that is not too much of an oxymoron). The Sumerians invented writing nearby about 5000 years ago.  Pity it didn’t catch on bettet locally.  

January 26, 2008

An UnIraq Day

Duck pond in Fallujah 

It was a very unIraq day at Fallujah with kind of a misty rain and slate grey skies more characteristic of Eastern Europe (of course there it might be called summer weather).  The animal life seemed out of character too.   The camp (Camp Fallujah) is evidently on an old holiday camp built by one of Saddam’s psycho sons.  I do not know which one. 

I come to camp Fallujah with some regularly because this is where the generals are and because they also have a good big rotunda for meetings and conferences.  I usually don’t stay overnight, but the accommodations are good.  The rooms are pleasant, with real beds and furniture made of wood.  Most importantly, they have computer connections on the desk.

The chow hall seemed very good.  We had carved prime rib and some decent baked bread.  But then the true ghastliness of it all was revealed.  They had no Diet Coke.   No amount of baked bread and prime rib can make up for the lack of Diet Coke.  Lucky I don’t have to stay much longer.  I can embrace the suck, but some things are almost beyond forbearance.

January 25, 2008

The Meaning of Our Victory in Iraq

This post draws on and fleshes out some my earlier more random thoughts.   It represents only my personal opinion.  Call it my blog editorial.  

RCT2 Marine TOA

Above is the TOA (Transfer of Authority) ceremony, where Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT2) transfered responsibility to RCT5.   

We are on the verge of achieving the impossible: defeating an Islamic terrorist movement in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of their choosing.  Tens of thousands of Takfiri streamed into Iraq for the opportunity to become martyrs and coalition and Iraqi forces obliged them.  Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been essentially annihilated in Al Anbar, the center of what they boldly declared as their new caliphate eighteen months ago.  Tribal leaders who once fought us are now on our side and former insurgents are giving up and reconciling.

It may take a while for the magnitude of this to sink in.  I can walk around in the same places where heavily armed American & Iraqi forces could not safely walk only months ago.  Here the debate has shifted to providing everyday services such as sewer, water and electricity.  Marketplaces where insurgents dumped headless bodies last year are now crowded with shoppers.  Children are returning to school instead of being abused by terrorists and coerced into deadly activities.  What a difference a year makes!

Sometimes you just have to win. Some conflicts just need to run their courses and some bad guys just need killing.  Nazi ideology was not discredited UNTIL it was defeated on the battlefield.  No amount of peaceful persuasion or appeasement worked.  People thought communism was a viable alternative to the free market UNTIL it ignominiously collapsed.  Massive economic evidence and even the presence of a very large and deadly wall running down the middle of Berlin did not convince the believers to abandon their failed ideology.  Earlier forms of terrorism from the Barbary Pirates to the Bader-Meinhof didn’t go away until they were defeated.  We tried appeasement in the 1930s and we tried ignorance in the 1990s.   These things did not work.  

Ideology is weakened AFTER its defeat.  That is often the direction of causality.  In our recent case, more people are drawn to be takfiri when being takfiri is easier and more beneficial.  People are attracted to success and avoid losers.

The war against terrorism is not won since a final victory is not possible.  This is one of those "eternal vigilance" propositions.   Our nation's first foray into foreign policy involved fighting the Barbary Pirates; whose behavior - adjusted for the technologies of the times - closely resembled those of today's territorially based terrorists.  That was in 1804 and obviously the job is never done.  But terrorism can be contained.  As with the Nazis and communists, their ideology is compromised by setbacks and real world defeats.

Media coverage of events in Iraq has moved inversely to our success here and so many American's perception of Iraq is based on events of 2006.   Journalists like to cover carnage and many of them absent mindedly wander away when the mundane work of reconstruction takes over.  Nevertheless, my brave colleagues' efforts will be supplying a victory in Iraq and even the media and the chattering classes will soon come to recognize it.  Let’s nor squander it.

January 24, 2008

Hunchback of Haditha


If you look at the picture, you will notice that I am sitting on air.  I had not planned to be in the picture or even to have a picture at all.  The guy with the scarf asked us to take his picture and then they said that I should be in it too.  I was significantly taller than the guys standing and thought that me standing next to them and the other guys sitting would look odd.   So I tried that expedient you see there to fit the space.  My solution was not optimal.   You could probably call the picture, “Hunchback of Haditha.”  All I need is some bells to ring and the Charles Loughton accent to say, “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

A visit by the governor is spectacle to behold.  He holds court for local leaders, who ask for help with their various projects and often get positive answers.  The Governor seems generous, but generous politicians are threats to liberty & prosperity, not to mention property.   They can give away only other people’s money and when they do that they create dependency among both recipients and the ones who are footing the bill, creating a layer of bureaucracy and probably corruption in the bargain. Politicians love to give away money and people love to get it, but the analogy is like someone borrowing your watch so that he can tell you what time it is.   We suffer from an outdated paradigm of the “good” ruler, who is generous with his people.   In a democratic age, their largess earns both praise and votes.

The situation is even more dangerous & pernicious in a place that is cursed with the largely unearned wealth bestowed by hydrocarbons deposited underground during the age of dinosaurs.  Governments can easily commandeer this wealth and make themselves arbiters of distribution, buying loyalty and creating dependency almost with impunity.   I think we need to be careful in supporting the politics of personality.   A brighter future will involve the rule of law and even the rule of bureaucrats.  It will mean that politicians do not have need – or have - the personal power to grant such favors.

In a Haditha market piled high with fresh produce, consumer goods and groceries, shoppers and shopkeepers alike waved and smiled.  I talked with a few guys (pictured above.)  They told me that security in the macro sense had improved remarkably in the past year.  Their current complains were petty crimes and burglaries.    I asked a local IP major about what the merchants said.   He told us that he was aware of this situation and that it was being remedied.   The break ins, he said, were isolated events.   Patrols of both the IP and the Marines make it harder for criminals to commit crimes and local merchants have formed a neighborhood watch, which is scaring away the petty criminals.

The major went on that such neighborhood watches had been common before the war, but had fallen into disuse until recently.   He thought that the IP could handle security in the region w/o the Marines, if not now in the very near future.  But he allowed that he wanted the U.S. forces around to continue to help with rebuilding and reconstruction.

We also toured a hospital.   It was much like the ones I saw in Eastern Europe, but not as nice.  It was almost comical to go through the office area where it seemed everyone was smoking.  Someone quipped that this was the smoke-therapy ward.  A pharmacist gave us a list of drugs and materials he said he was lacking.  One of my colleagues with a medical background noticed that they did not have even very simple physical therapy equipment.  The general problem, however, is not lack of equipment but lack of trained personnel to use the equipment that exists or could be provided  Several people told the same story about Iraqis who go to other countries to get medical treatment only to find that many of the doctors are from Iraq.

January 23, 2008

Journalists in Iraq

Ever since we started to have some success in Al Anbar, most journalists have been as hard to find around here as a cold beer.  I have a conspiracy theory about this, the details of which I will not burden you.  Suffice to say, I think that many of them have already decided that we lost in Iraq and they do not want to confuse themselves with the contrary facts. As a result, the American public perception of Iraq is frozen in 2006, when walking around as I did today in Haditha (see above) would have been deadly for all involved.  Most of the media doesn’t know sh*t about Iraq today, but that doesn’t stop their pontification. 


But we do have one journalist here with us who wants to see for himself.  His name is Tony Perry and he writes for the LA Times.  That is him pictured above (perhaps not looking his best), seems a good guy.  You can read his article here.   I know all those guys in the picture.   I wrote a whole blog note re my talk with Sheik Kurdi.  I think Mr. Perry has it mostly right.  Let’s hope he keeps it up and/or other members of the chattering classes pay better attention.

January 22, 2008

Just Like the Spiderman Ride at Islands of Adventure

Back of Osprey at Al Asad 

I fly in Ospreys and helicopters around here about as much as I drove in my car back home, so the experience no longer provides many surprises or much excitement.  This time, however, I got to sit in the very last seat of the Osprey.   I was only around four feet from the edge of the open door and a very long drop.  Ospreys take off vertically, but they bank way up and you are pulled out of your seat as it makes sharp maneuvers.  The back of the plane tends to get a more thrilling ride.  I recalled those simulation rides at Universal Studios, but this was real - with real gravity that would have landed me on really hard rocks real far below if I really fell out.   My spidey sense was tingling.

I usually do not pay too much attention to my seatbelt.  This time I checked it twice.

Back door Osprey at Haditha

Taking pictures out the back of these things is not easy.  My camera automatically focuses on the objects or people in the foreground and makes the outside an indistinct bright blank, but  I got a couple of decent pictures by using the landscape mode.

working dog at haditha

This is an unrelated picture, but for animal lovers I thought I would show a working dog.   He smells for bombs.  The dog is the shorter one.  Notice his USMC scarf.


Walking Through the (former) Valley of the Shadow of Death

Market in Haditha 

Above is a fruit stand in Haditha

Marines who were here a couple of years ago told that this was a truly unique experience.   We walked through the marketplace in Haditha.  The same place that had been a no go zone was now a thriving place, where we could just walk around and talk to shop keepers.  Some of the shop keepers complained about petty crimes and burglaries.  A local police commander claimed that the situation was under control.  In any case, nobody wanted to go back to the bad old days – not so long ago.

bystanders in Haditha

These guys are watching my colleagues.   We are a curiosity

As I walked through the city, I noticed a lot of people with red hair.  I do not know what explains this anomaly or even if it is an anomaly at all.

Red headed kids in Haditha

BTW – “hadith” in Arabic describes oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Prophet.  The town of Haditha has a lot of traditions associated with it and most of what Americans associate with the place is probably bad.   It is not like that anymore.


 Mujahideen in truck Haditha Iraq

What if you saw these guys driving down the street in your general direction? These are our allies.   They help protect both us and our Iraqi friends.   We should not judge only by appearances.

We should also be careful with words.   Mujahideen, for example, is a term that to most Muslims means a hero.  The guys in the picture are probably Mujahideen, fighting as they are against the terrorists, who sometimes call themselves Mujahideen.   The more apt word for the terrorists like Al Qaeda, however, is takfiri, which is the bigoted kind of guy who kills Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

All this is more than a semantic difference.   We should not falsely honor bad guys by calling them Mujahideen or Jihadis, nor should we dishonor these terms by associating them with terrorists.  That is what the bad guys want.  If a group of low life Americans took to calling themselves “true patriots” would we feel constrained to use that term ourselves when describing them?

January 21, 2008

Left Behind

Joe getting on truck 

The Marines from RCT2 do not have mixed feelings about leaving Iraq.   They are going home after a job well done and they are happy to be done with Iraq, at least for the time being.  Marine units are self contained.  They take what they need with them and when they get back to North Carolina they will have most of the same duties, friendships & relationships.  It is not like the FS, where we move as individuals, but as an individual left behind by the group I am in a melancholy mood despite the joyful noise all around me.  My friends are leaving and I probably will never see them again.

We have been living close together.  We sleep in the same can cities, eat at the same chow hall & fly on the same helicopters.  You do not have any friends at home that you do not have at work and there is nobody you know that everybody else doesn’t also know.  Work merges with personal life and there is no genuine privacy.  While this has its costs, this situation creates a strong feeling of shared purpose and community, but as a civilian I am adjunct – someone in the community, not of it.  I usually do not feel this very acutley; today I do.

I hear stories about retired military guys hanging around bases.  They use to commissaries and PX not so much to save money as to maintain their affiliations.   The military is a very encompassing culture.  It is hard for anybody to just give it up.

The new guys from RCT5 seem great.  I met some of them at PRT training courses in Washington in September.  Everyone has been supportive and friendly.  I am sure I will have equally productive relationships with the new team.  The Marines design their system so that individual personalities will not affect the integrity of the unit and the mission, but people still matter.  I know I will make new friends among the new Marines.   I have already started, but I still can be sad that my old friends are leaving.

Marines on 7 ton trucks



The Mameluke sword is patterned after one given to Marine 1st Lt. Presley O'Bannon during the First Barbary War in 1804.  Maj General John Allen told the story.  We went to Fallujah to present Mameluke swords to the sheiks of leading western Anbar tribes. The Sheiks were delighted with the honor and genuinely appreciated the tradition and the story of how Arab tribes had fought alongside the U.S Marines on the shores of Tripoli in that distant time and hoped the relations would continue offering (in jest?) to help liberate Afghanistan with their new swords.

After recounting the great success the alliance of the Marines and the tribes has achieved in Al Anbar during the last year, one sheik commented that 2008 must be the year of the rule of law.  Rule of law must supersede tribal law, he said, and rule of law must keep Iraqi together as one nation.  I have heard these sorts of comments on many occasions.  The Sheiks of Anbar, with their martial outlook and tradition of defending Iraq, evidently consider themselves the custodians of Iraqi nationality.

A recounting of the heroism of the Al Anbar tribes followed.  They recalled the dark & bloody days of late 2005 when it was not unusual to find headless bodies laying by the road.   They talked about how the push against AQI had started in Al Qaim and then spread east.   That is one reason why Al Qaim is relatively farther along in peaceful development than places in the east of the province.  All the sheiks promised that they would never allow AQI to reestablish itself in Al Anbar.

The sheiks reflected the widespread belief among Anbari that their province has significant unexploited oil reserves.     They wondered when/if American firms would be in Anbar to tap this oil.  They said that they prefer American to European or others, since the U.S. is a reliable partner.

Above is Major General Gaskin, commander of CF in Al Anbar, with sheiks.

All the sheiks appreciate of their relationships with the U.S. and specifically with the Marines.  Local leaders observably feel personal affection for current group of Marines.  However the sheiks understand the transient nature of our assignments and are receptive to new friends.  Social meetings such as this one are one of the keys to success in winning friends and influencing people in western Al Anbar.  

The swords were a nice touch that united the warrior traditions of Al Anbar with those of the USMC.  

January 20, 2008


snow in Iraq 

Even the oldest people around here cannot remember a winter so cold.  It snowed in Baghdad for the first time in 83 years, according to the records.  One of my contacts told me that it got down to -13 c in Al Qaim.  The picture above is from Rawah, near the Euphrates.   It never snows in Rawah … but it did, and some even stuck to the ground for a short while.

I am happy with this weather.  It gets fairly warm in the afternoon.  It could be a bit warmer, but not too much.   As running weather, it is nearly perfect and our cans have heaters.  I pity some of the poor Iraqis, who are unaccustomed to this kind of cold and whose houses are designed to withstand only heat.    I remember my freezing time in Mudaysis.

Maybe this cold winter will mean a cooler than normal summer.  I am not particularly excited about experiencing a colder winter, even if the icy blasts impress and chagrin the locals.  For me, this doesn’t seem very cold.  Our lows have been around 29 f degrees and it gets around 53 during the sunny times in the afternoons.  If you wear dark clothes, the sunlight feels like liquid warmth on your back & the sensation of radiant heat is very pleasant in the cold, dry air.   I would be content if this summer was the coldest in memory.  I am not counting on such luck, but I would appreciate even a modest reduction.  Of course, during the summer the highs and lows will be about the same as those I mentioned, only this time they will be in Celsius.   

January 18, 2008

The Citadel, Mamluks & Mohammed Ali

This entry is one of the late ones I mentioned.  This is the last of my Egypt entries.

Citadel wall 

Saladin built the Citadel and it became the home of Egypt’s rulers for the next 800 years.  You can see why it was built here.  The high ground commands Cairo.  All medieval fortresses have a similar feel and this one reminded me of those I have seen around Europe.  Europeans learned the art of making stone fortifications from the Muslims during the Crusades, but Muslim inherited much of the knowledge from the Romans and stone walls are stone walls.  Anyway, the feeling was familiar, except for the minarets. 

road to citadel

Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt not the fighter, added a lot to the complex, including the big Mohammed Ali Mosque.  He was an Albanian born in what is now Greece who evidently never spoke any language well other than Albanian.  It gets even more complicated.  He took power from the Mamluks, slave soldiers seized from the Balkans and Caucuses, among other places.   The Turks ran one strange empire.  Mohammed Ali invited the leaders of the Mamluks to a feast at the Citadel and then murdered them on the way out.  That is a dish best served cold.

Mohammed Ali

The Citadel features an interesting military museum with lots of weapons and uniforms.  The big drawback is that it was restored with the help of the North Koreans, so many of the exhibits are comically propagandistic.  Although the list of recent Egyptian war victories is short, they managed to imply some or at least a few heroic stands.  The N. Koreans made a panorama of the Yom Kippur War that looks like the D-Day landings.  They probably copied the D-Day pictures.  They have a painting of the British in Egypt in the 19th Century showing a couple of guys who look like they came out of a 1990s GQ.  I bet that is what the N. Koreans used as models.  How dumb is it to ask the N. Koreans to help with something like this, but despite the propaganda veneer and the mislabeling of some exhibits, it is worth seeing.  Alex especially liked it.  

Mohamed Ali Mosque 

The Mohammed Ali Mosque is an interesting place.  It is Turkish, not Egyptian style, and looks like those you might find in Istanbul.  Mohammed Ali is an interesting and important historical figure.  He rescued Egypt from chaos, helped modernize the place  in the 19th Century and ruled for many years, yet we hear very little about him in our history classes.  I think he suffers from being a non-European leader when most history was written in and about Europe.  He also doesn’t get much support from nationalists or the new PC crowd, which venerates non-western leaders, because of his peculiar origins.  He was essentially an imperialist and sort of an adventurer, who could capture the imaginations of Victorians but leaves modern readers cold.



State Department Blog

I published another entry on State Department's blog.  If you want to read it, follow this link.

January 15, 2008

And Know the Place for the First Time

my path 

Above is part of my once and future path to work.  I get off at Smithsonian and walk around 15 minutes.  Not bad.  The gravel part is like Al Asad.  Otherwise, there are few similarities.

What you do is a truer reflection of your values than what you say or even what you truly think you believe.  My pattern of choices always brings me back to the same core skills and keeps me in the FS, where my idiosyncrasies are not merely tolerated but occasionally rewarded.

When I volunteered to go to Iraq, I figured this would be my last FS assignment.  After that I could retire honorably and do it happily.  The FS has an up or out system and I thought I would be out next year.  They screwed up my plans by promoting me and leading me into more career temptation than I could resist.  My pattern of choices once again reveals my true preferences and I will be back where I began, chaining my bike to the same parking meter, running on the same Mall path and lifting weights at the same Gold’s Gym, but doing different work.  I accepted the position of director of the policy group at International Information Programs.  I will move to a new office in the same building - from director of IIP/S (speakers) to director of IIP/P (policy).  I will just make the move via a sojourn in Iraq and I am content with both the journey and the destination.  I have lots of friends there.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

TS Elliott stopped too soon.  We only know the place until we set off again.  Someday I will be finished, but not today.



I was interested in seeing Heliopolis because I am interested in planned communities from the “garden city” era in the early 20th Century an era and concept that produced some of the most livable cities.  Many of the places where people want to live today, but usually cannot afford – Beverly Hills, Grosse Point, Chestnut Hill & Coral Gables – started out as garden cities.  Unfortunately, the idea fell out of favor with planners and architects by mid-century and we were building some of the ugliest and most dysfunctional communities in human history.  The hideousness was worldwide.  It is hard to believe that someone created places like Nowa Huta, Cabrini Green or Brasilia on purpose.  I think we can learn from successes and failures.


Heliopolis is still relatively more livable than the rest of Cairo, but the population and squalor of the larger city have overwhelmed it.  In theory you can walk around, but the Cairo driving habits make that dangerous.  The inhabitants and authorities are making efforts to clean up some of the squalor, but a prerequisite for a livable city is control of traffic & overcrowding.  Unless you do that, it is like cleaning the birdcage w/o feeding the bird.

heliopolis street

The most interesting book I read on this sort of topic was “A Pattern Language”.  The authors went around the world to compile the factors that people want in their cities.  Galleries or porches are one of the important factors they found.  Heliopolis has them. Another factor was access to shops.  These are also present.  I think if they got the traffic problem under control, this place would be just fine.   From the guidebook I thought this would be a more pleasant place.  I guess in a city with nearly 20 million people packed so tightly together, that is something you just do not get.

Some of the shopkeepers & taxi drivers we met alluded to this.  They complained that their upscale customers were disappearing, drawn out of Cairo to the controlled and agreeable resorts.  At first, people went to the resorts when they visited Egypt.  More and more, however, they are just going to resorts that happen to be in Egypt w/o regard to the rest of the country.  The Red Sea resorts are where they are because the sun shines every day not because they are in Egypt.  They could be anywhere in the world.

The take away lesson from this is that if you do not provide people with the pleasant amenities they want, they will find them someplace else, and the most influential people will leave first.

Little Boy Gone

Check-in was “passenger only” so I couldn’t go in with Alex.  Instead, I watched through the glass for an agonizing forty-five minutes while he waded through a disorganized gaggle that passes for a line around here.  He has grown into a man, stronger than I am, and it is silly of me to fret about him.  Still, I see the little boy even as I look at the man.  I am profoundly sad to see him off.  Separation from family is easy to contemplate but harder to live.

I had a good time with him in Egypt and it is hard to go back to Iraq.  I traveled again through Kuwait.  Ali Al Salem is not a nice place.  The chow hall in not as good as Al Asad and tent living is intrinsically difficult.  This time was worse.  I got in late so they put me in a big barracks tent with bunk beds.  All the beds were full except one top bunk.  I took it.  It was drafty and uncomfortable.   I was worried that I would fall out, not that I usually fall out of bed, but it is like standing near a cliff w/o a guard rail.  You can walk close to the edge of sidewalk w/o a thought, but when there is a drop off, you just feel less secure.

From Kuwait, I flew on a C17.  It is a flying warehouse.  We were packed in like sardines, but the flight to Al Asad lasted only an hour.   I had my gear on my lap and pressed against the seat in front of me, so I could not take a deep breath, but as long as I did not try to move around, it wasn’t so bad.  I slept most of the way.   The funny thing was that when I got back to my can at Al Asad, it felt like home.  You can get used to anything.

Note on Chronology

You may have noticed that my blog entries are sometimes out of sequence.  There are two reasons for this.  The first one is a good one.  Revealing some of my travel plans in real time would violate operational security and even though I write innocuously and in general terms, I might accidentally reveal something important.  So if you are an ordinary reader, I apologize for any confusion.  If you are a bad guy looking for information, I expect the Marines are coming for you and you should probably just give up.

The other reason is more practical.  Sometimes I do not have access to computers or internet.  The time I write the most is when I am stuck someplace waiting for a flight.  I take notes in my little green books and I do not get around to transcribing them for awhile.  In any case, I have a notebook full of notes and not so much time to transcribe, so the order may suffer.

Speaking of out of order, here is a good picture from the pyramids

pyramid and people



January 09, 2008

A Long Way From Graceland


Memphis was the capital of Egypt for hundreds of years.  Today there is nothing but palms trees and a big monument area in the nearby desert.   This is Saqqara.  In some ways it is more interesting than the pyramids at Giza.   The first pyramids are here.  At first they are just a pile of rubble, but then you get a step pyramid (pyramid of Djoser) that is the precursor of the pyramids we all know.


We got to Saqqara early enough to avoid the crowds.  In fact, we were just about a half hour ahead of a bus caravan of Germans.  They were hot on our heels throughout the area.  Going in tour groups has some advantages.  You get some lecture by the guide and the numbers help dilute the effect of the ubiquitous pseudo guides who show you how to get into a monument or point you to the clearly marked path and then want money.


I do not believe that the average guide furnishes accurate information.  Just listening to those around me I heard all sorts of conflicting stories.  The guides’ main goal is to make the listeners happy so that he will get a bigger tip, so he tailors history to suite what he thinks the audiences wants to hear or a narrative that is easier to tell.  I am not sure it really matters very much anyway.  I cannot believe I just wrote that.  Those who know me know that I am very particular about historical accuracy, but in this case the person is going to remember only that he saw something very old.  The details will be buried in the sands of time, shrouded in the mist of antiquity or lost like a drunk’s car keys on a dark night, depending on the metaphor you like best.   This is tourism, not scholarship.

After Saqqara we went to the probable site of Memphis. Layers of mud had covered the place, but they still sometimes dig out interesting things.   There was a giant stature of Ramesses laying on the ground and they built a viewing area around it  Ramesses was evidently the vainest man in world history.  He wrote his name on everything, including the statues of previous pharaohs, but this was supposedly really him.   We got to Memphis a few minutes ahead of the Germans, but that is about all the time it took to see the place. 

big ramses

Our driver took us to a carpet “museum”, i.e. a place where they show you an exhibit of carpet making for a minute and then try to sell you carpets for the next hour.  Drivers get a kickback and I don’t begrudge them this.  We went to a papyrus museum yesterday, same thing.  And they tried to draw us into a perfume factory.  We were immune to these enticements, however, having already been already fleeced at papyrus and perfume museums near the Egyptian museum.

For me the most interesting part of the day was a visit to the Coptic area.  Copts still make up about 10% of the population.  The churches are reminiscent of the Romans & Byzantines.  I like that history.  According to the narrative at the museums, Egypt has more relics of early Christianity than anyplace else because the climate preserves them. Besides, Egypt was a center of early Christianity.  It is interesting to see how Islam so obliterated Christianity in all but a few pockets in what really was its homeland in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor and of course the Holy Land itself.   

coptic church

We wanted to go to a nearby restaurant, but the driver told us that we would get food poisoning if we even walked in.  He took us to an authentic tourist buffet restaurant.  Those Germans who, had been just behind us all day, were now in front and already sitting at the restaurant.  We had the Egyptian meal auf deutsch. 


It was a busy day.  Back at the Marriott we went to the restaurant that called itself Egyptians and called ourselves content.  Then a strange thing happened.  It rained.  People are accustomed to water flowing in the river and are a little surprised to see it falling from the sky.  The waiters were all exercised & talking about it.   After living in Al Anbar for a couple of months, I understand.

I will post pictures of all the things above when I get back to Al Asad.

Great Pyramids

alex and me at pyramid 

We saw the pyramids.  They are magical and more impressive than you would think from pictures.  The sphinx is smaller, however.  We rode up on camels to see these wonders.  It cost more, but it was a good experience and now that I have done it I will never have to do it again.  The camel is a horse designed by a committee.  They are truly odd looking and unpleasant animals.   They burp, spit and stink. 


We had a good guide who had relationships (i.e. gave money) with the guards to let us “park” near some of the pyramids and we had the pleasure of being almost alone in the quiet near some of the smaller pyramids.  It makes a big difference.  We could see the thousands of people in the distance touring the macro sites.  When we went down to see the sphinx we had the crowd crush experience.  There is always somebody around who wants money.  It detracts. 

alex riding

below I am sitting with our guide.  He spoke good English and claimed to have spent his whole life near the pyramids, at first as a child selling little tokens.

me and guide

January 07, 2008

First Day in Cairo

 cairo balcony

Above is Alex at the Hotel with Cairo behind

Egyptians have been very friendly.  Some are just the trying to sell something, but others seemed genuine.  We are staying at the Marriott, where I stay whenever I can all around the world.  The Cairo Marriot is more opulent than most.  It sits in a beautiful garden area on an island in the Nile in a palace built by the Egyptian Khedive to host Euro-Royalty during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  Among the guests were Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Eugene, wife of Napoleon III.  I suppose they had really nice rooms.  Today the rooms are typical Marriott.  I like that.  I feel at home. 

Egyptian Museum

Outside the Egyptian Museum

Alex & I walked to the Egyptian Museum, which is just across the river not far from the hotel.  It is full of artifacts, perhaps over full.  The place has a little bit the feel of a warehouse, with artifacts stacked in rows.  After you have seen one mummy, you have pretty much seen them all, kinda dry and depressing.  But I enjoyed seeing all those things I have seen pictured in history books.  We saw the King Tut stuff, for example.

The desert preserves things that would have long ago turned into dust or compost in any other environment.  I especially like the little wooden figures showing ordinary life and people working in brewing, baking and textiles.  I prefer these kinds of things to the death obsessed culture of the tombs.  How they lived in more interesting than how they died.   The gold and art from the tombs is spectacular, but it was a waste of for the people of the time to literally slave away their lives to fill monuments to the dead.  I don’t much like the jackal-headed gods either.  

nile boat

Old & new

We tend to think of Egypt only in relation to those who built the pyramids but there is a lot more. Roman and Greek history was always my specialty and I am more interested in Egypt under the Greek Ptolemy and the Romans.  This period lasted more than 1000 years, but we often telescope history and move from the pharaohs to the caliphs, with only a brief glace at Anthony & Cleopatra, usually even forgetting that Cleo was a nice Greek girl descendents from one of Alexander the Great’s generals.   Cairo was built on a Roman city called Babylon.  It is a little ironic that I had to travel FROM the country of the original Babylon to see one.  The Christian Copts, descended from the original inhabitants, still live on the site.


This is one of the narrowest buildings I have seen.

Parts of Cairo are pleasant, but it is never peaceful and walking around is not much fun.  Drivers pay no attention to crosswalks or signals.  You have to run for you life to cross busy streets and there are lots of busy streets.  As Alex and I waited to run across one busy street, some guys on the other side actually mocked us for being timid.  The funniest thing I saw was a bus turn a corner too sharply and three guys literally fell out.  They landed on their feet and just chased the bus to get back on.  Cacophony is the word to describe roads.  Everybody feels it necessary to beep his horn just like a bored dog has to bark at everybody who passes.  We did a lot of walking nevertheless.  It seems like everybody wants to talk and invite you back to their shop for free tea. Of course, it is not really free.  If you stop more than a few seconds, taxis pull up and ask if you need a ride   I have to admire their energy, but I would prefer to have a little more peace.

A Gift of Time

Stoen wall Fred

Above is the stone wall in Fredericksburg. In time even the most terrible place becomes banal and sometimes pleasant.  (I am mining my old pictures).

AAS base is around 45 minutes from the civilian airport in Kuwait.  You go by bus and the bus terminal at the base is remarkably like bus terminals everywhere, with the exception that it lacks the little distractions like coffee shops, restaurants and newsstands.  In return, however, you get the gift of time, time for introspection, time for reading, time for just being.  Time like this is an anachronism in our scheduled and connected world.

I have the gift of time, with no deeds to do, no promises to keep.  Some might complain of boredom, but I am just “feeling groovy” and remembering a little Coleridge.

Time, Real & Imaginary

ON the wide level of a mountain's head  
(I knew not where, but 'twas some faery place),  
Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails outspread,  
Two lovely children run an endless race,  
      A sister and a brother!         
      This far outstripp'd the other;  
  Yet ever runs she with reverted face,  
  And looks and listens for the boy behind:  
      For he, alas! is blind!  
O'er rough and smooth with even step he pass'd,  

And knows not whether he be first or last.


me and alex 

I cannot load a new picture of Alex & me, but I have a very old one.  He has changed a bit (me too). 

Three time a year they open the gate and parole us inmates for regional rest breaks.  The State Department is very generous.   They drop you in Kuwait of Amman and you can go anywhere you want with the caveats that you pay for your own trip and come back a week later.

For my first break, I am going to Egypt to meet Alex and together visit the treasures of the Nile. Alex likes history and it is fun to travel with him to these sorts of places.  I still recall with great fondness the trip we made to Rome together when he was thirteen.  But the road to Egypt runs through Kuwait.

They have an enormous tent city at Ali Al Salem base and I got a nice bed, with a real mattress and blankets in a tent barracks.  I arrived aboard my C-130 just in time to miss evening chow and too early to wait for mid-rats, so I went to McDonald’s.  This is the first time I have paid for food in more than three months.  The Big Mac Meal was filling, but I did not feel that I had missed much by not having it these past months. 

A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations

end of the day 

This is the end of the day on one of our patrols.  You cannot see much, but I think the picture is iconic.  The big truck is an MRAP - horrible thing.  You cannot really drive it offroad because it bounces so much.  They are not very durable either.  There was a lot of politics behind getting them here so quick. I expect most of them will become part of that ever growing junk heap in Iraq.

I asked my team to dress like civilians around camp.  We are issued military uniforms, but some of us just cannot wear them right.  Our slovenly uniform appearance offends the Marines, so it is best to avoid the situation entirely by wearing civilian garb except when we are forward deployed.

I also took away the guns.  A couple guys liked to strut strapped like the Cisco Kid.  We are a civilian team.  Wherever we go, Marines are there with lots of guns to protect us.  If the bad guys get past them, past the 50 calibers and through the armor, my guess is that an old guy with a pistol is not going to turn the tide.  The Marines have the added advantage of knowing how to use their weapons.  An untrained civilians (or one whose training dates from the Johnson Administration) is more likely to shoot himself, his friends or some nearby kids than the enemy.

The real warriors don’t need some drugstore cowboys playing war. We should, all of us, do the jobs we do best.  Our team is diplomatic and it is our time.  “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Or as Clint Eastwood put it more succinctly, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

January 06, 2008

Note on Pictures

I am traveling in Egypt.  I have my camera and I plan to take lots of pictures, but I forgot to bring the cable to load them onto the computer, so I will not immediately be able to post them.  I will still post texts and will amend them with pictures when I get back to Al Asad.

I also have some old pictures I can use AND the Internet is so fast here compared with Al Asad that I might take advantage to post some old odd things.

January 05, 2008

Unexpected Things

This morning I heard something weird.  The sound on the roof was rain.  Maybe it is not too late for some of those sheep ranchers.  We didn’t get much … so far, but it doesn’t take too much out here.  It already had the good effect of washing some of the dust off some the date palms and eucalyptus trees.  They are now a more actually green instead of that dusty greenish color.   I would like to see the greening of the wadis.  


Another unexpected thing you find in the deserts are proto-watermelons.   You can see them in the picture above.  Those little green balls are the ancestors of the big ones we know and love every summer.  They are yellow, not red, inside but otherwise look like mini-watermelons, which is more or less what they are.  

They grow wild in the middle of the desert.  I would have thought something like a mini-watermelon would grow near water, and it seems profligate to produce a water filled globe in this desiccated landscape, but the roots evidently go down deeply enough to tap what water is available.

Speaking of the unexpected, I just wanted to post this picture from the traffic circle in Nukhayb.   That’s right.  It is a bunch of teapots around and eagle.  I don’t know what it means either, but somebody went through a lot of trouble to make it.

Traffic cirble

Lawrence of Arabia

I was surprised at the calm in the isolated Nukhayb region.  Maybe there just are not enough people to form hostile groups.  Sunni and Shiite live together in harmony.  They intermarry and even share the same Mosques.  Another explanation is good management.  The area is guided by Sheik Lawrence, named for the famous T.E. Lawrence of Arabia.  (Local pronunciation eliminates the initial “L” sound and his name is usually transliterated as Lorans).  

We spoke to Sheik Lawrence at length during a gathering of local leaders at the Nukhayb “Government Center”.  The 17 city council members present were all Arab Bedouin men in traditional Arab garb, several of the men are Sheiks of some level.  

Lawrence is a man obviously in control, to whom the others clearly deferred.  He stands out from his fellows who were dressed in the traditional flowing robes, since he wore a western style blazer and slacks.  He also clearly understands English and showed that he understood before the translator spoke.  He is well connected in Iraq and internationally.  He is kin to the Saudi royal family and has connections all over the Gulf, a member of the provincial council of Anbar and can get appointments with anyone he wants in Baghdad.  As a result of all this, Nukhayb gets its share of money from the central authorities.


In our foot patrol through the town, we saw a reasonably well maintained and prosperous place, with smiles and waves from most everyone we encountered.  Area children were well clothed, healthy and happy. For a small community in the middle of nowhere, this town doing very well.  What were the problems?


In one word: rain, or lack thereof.  No rivers run through the region.  The six wells in the region supply only drinking water. Agriculture depends almost entirely on rainfall.  By this time of the year, the wadis are usually green with new shoots and the shepherds can take their flocks there for food.  This year has been bone dry.  When the vegetation doesn’t get water to grow, the goats and sheep, which make up the bulk of the local economy, suffer.  


Never much rain; this year none at all.

I could not get an estimate of the numbers of sheep and goats that I thought was really reliable, but the number of 150,000 came up as consensus figure herded by around 200 nomadic shepherds in a fifty kilometer radius around Nukhayb.  Raising sheep and goats is always a precarious business.  In the roughly one in five “good” years, there is sufficient grass for the animals.  2003-4 was like that.  Other years present varying degrees of hardship.  One of the old men in the meeting told us that currently it costs around $150 to raise a sheep until it is ready for sale, but sheep fetch only around $100 on the market.  Without access to free range, sheepherding is distinctly unprofitable.

During the bad years, the Iraqi government used to subsidize or provide grain.  According to the old men at the meeting, during the time of Saddam Hussein, the government supplied two kilos of grain per head per month.  With this guarantee against failure, my guess is that shepherds expanded their herds, which made them ever more dependent on government subsidies and had the additional pernicious effect of overtaxing the carrying capacity of the land.  We have a classic tragedy of the commons situation, since the land is not held privately, exacerbated by the moral hazard of government ensuring against failure.  Sustainable sheepherding would probably require a significant reduction in the numbers of sheep.  This is not the solution the local people embraced, however.  They requested that our ePRT either provide the subsided grain or pressure Iraqi authorities to do so.

sheep check

I am afraid that we have neither the resources nor the inclination to go into the subsidizing of environmental degradation business.  We told them that we check into offering some emergency help, which will consist of advice and medical and vitamins, which will help ensure that the sheep that do survive are healthier.  The viscous circle of drought, weakness and disease is in play.  As the animals get weaker, they are prey to more and varied types of worms and parasites.  We can help reduce these maladies.

In the longer run, Sheik Lawrence thought digging wells for irrigation would help mitigate this recurring cycle of crisis.   He mentioned that he had seen developed well-based systems in Jordan and Saudi.  Ground water in the Nukhayb region is ONLY 220 meters below the surface he claimed.  Farther to the west, it is deeper under the surface.  He mentioned that they had plans for central pivot irrigation systems, but lacked the experience and expertise to make them work. 

Fortunately, our ePRT agricultural expert, has both.  Dennis also thinks that some of the local soils could be extremely productive if the proper irrigation techniques were used.  We offered to let Dennis help, should it be appropriate.   Preliminary steps would be identifying soils that will make irrigation worthwhile and actually digging the wells.  Lawrence said that during the time of Saddam Hussein, there was lots of talk about digging wells, but not much action.  How have things changed?

January 04, 2008

Keep Frozen

VIP tent 

My home... this is.  Above is the VIP tent at Mudaysis. 

Sleeping on a cot in a tent is never comfortable.  A modern cot is made out of synthetic fabric that has the peculiar capacity to draw away and dissipate body heat.  This would make cots great hot weather equipment, but the fabric evidently can accomplish its mission only on cold days. You wouldn’t believe how cold it gets in Iraq.   I was equipped with my thin sleeping bag.  Even wearing everything I had with me, I was freezing.  The first night was the worst.  We experienced one of those rare days when it was overcast all day.  Usually, you can count on the warmth of the sun to clear the cold from your bones, but for the record on New Years day 2008, the sun shined weakly or not at all in Mudaysis.  Temperatures hovered in the 40s at midday.   At night the clouds cleared permitting a drop into the 20s.  

I have never been so cold for so long.  Coming from a Wisconsin native, who went to school in Minnesota and served tours in Poland and Norway, this might sound strange.   I certainly have been more intensely cold, but not for two days solid.  In the cold climates, really cold places, we heat our dwellings, wear warm clothes and hunker down inside warm buildings when it gets really cold outside.


Necessity is the mother of invention. On the way to chow the next morning, I noticed lots of discarded cardboard boxes.  I took a couple back to the tent and made the thermo-mat you see in the pictures.   The boxes were ironically labeled – KEEP FROZEN.  Cardboard, as every bum & drifter knows, is a good insulator.  It really made my second day in the cold tent a lot less unpleasant. 

We traveled to this God forsaken high desert in the SW corner of Iraq along the border with Saudi Arabia to meet with the local sheik to talk about problems the drought is creating for local agriculture.  There is usually not a Marine camp here.  The Marines are stationed temporarily at Mudaysis to protect pilgrims going on the Hajj.  They arrived just before the Hajj began a few weeks ago.  We take it for granted because we see it so often, but it remains truly remarkable how the U.S. can project power anywhere on the globe.  Even here in the middle of what could pass as a science for a movie about Mars, we can set up and supply a camp, complete with hot meals, its own fire department and fully functioning command operation out in the desert.  Heated tents for visitors, however, is evidently beyond our powers.

Below are my friends Reid & Dennis at the chow hall.

chow hall mudaysis

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