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May 31, 2008

The Cities of Civilization Are NOT Forever

Chrissy among the ruins of Jarash 

"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces.  Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.”  This is the opening line of Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.”  Visiting the ruins of the once great city of Jerash gave us something to think about.

Below is Hadrian's Arch.  The Emperor Hadrian traveled a lot and evidently erected arches wherever he went.  This is the entrance to Jerash.

Hadrian's Arch in Jarash, Iraq

The second century was indeed a great time.  Pax Romana has created the world’s first globalization.  Like today, diverse peoples mixed in a world market and a type of world system.  Greek was the language of educated commerce and Latin was the language of the law.  The world would not really see the recreation of this sort of trading system until 19th century.  English now plays the world language role of ancient Greek & Latin.   Our situation is like that of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century and like them, we think it will never really end.

Colonade in Jarash

Jarash shows the breadth of Roman civilization.  It was nowhere near the center of the empire.  It was not a key Roman city, but Roman civilization reached here as it did in Petra.  Look at the pictures of this ordinary Roman town and imagine how it must have been. 

I suppose it was a lot like today.  People hangin around selling trinkets, calling out "Mr. Where you from?  Rome.  Rome number one." 

Below - Yay Rome

John Matel cheering Rome in Jarash

The wonder of Rome, however, was not in only the buildings you see here.  A great part was in the “software” – laws and administration and much of physical base of Rome’s greatness was literally on or under that ground.  Roman roads tied the Empire together.  You can still walk on Roman roads and bridges from here on the edges of the Arabian Desert all the way to Hadrian’s Wall on the edge of Scotland.  It was the Internet of the times. 

circile market in Jarash

Under the ground was something as astonishing – water works.  Many Roman cities sat in semi arid places.  The Romans brought in water from distant mountains and provide sewage systems to take out the waste.  When the Empire collapsed, so did this infrastructure and Roman towns shrunk and sometimes disappeared.

Hippodrome in Jarash

Above is the Hippodrome, home to chariot races. 

Imagine the Barbarians, scratching their keisters in the forums of Roman cites wondering where that water in the fountain is coming from and knowing they would be unable to keep the system running.     When the Germanic tribes in the west or the Arabs in the east conquered Roman territory, they did not usually intend to destroy everything   Even the Vandals, despite their fierce reputation, tried to keep things going.   But as the Roman engineers and administrators died out, w/o suitable replacement, the light of civilization dimmed, not all at once.  It was more like breaking up a campfire and letting the isolated embers of a fire gradually die.   The empire was a network and the parts nourished each other.  Without the network you get Jerash - beautiful ruins but dead as the rocks around them. 

Hippodrome in Jarash Jordan  

The other thing you learn when visiting abandoned cities is that cities are not forever.  I think about that in relation to a great American city like New Orleans.  Much of that city will need to be abandoned soon and returned to the cypress and tupelo.   The engineering required to keep a below seawater district dry is just not worth the ecological harm.  But – as usual – I digress.

Jarash panorama

We had a really good visit to Jerash.  This link has a few more details.

Jordan Travel Tips & Observations

Pillar in sun in Jarash, Jordan 

Friendly People

Jordanians are very welcoming and English is common, at least around the places tourists go.  I have written and include pictures re some of the great places in Jordan.  It is not as cheap as you might thinks, largely because a foreigner had to spend a bit more for the reasons below and because of the lack of a western style middle class.  Let me explain that one. 

In developed countries like Germany, France or the U.S., things cost more in general.  But you can take advantage of the amenities the ordinary folks enjoy in terms of moderately priced hotels, restaurants and transit.  In developing countries, you tend to have two classes of accommodation – first class and not really good enough, so you have to either move up or down scale.  Old guys like me are less enthusiastic about repeating our youthful hostel experience, so we move up and tend to spend a bit more than we would for a week’s U.S. vacation.    The class or Marriott resort we enjoyed here is better than we would get for the same price in the U.S., but in the U.S. we would have gone to a cheaper – but still acceptable – hotel.  In Washington or Paris, I happily take ordinary public transportation; in places like Jordan or Egypt, maybe not.

Taxi Driver

We had a good taxi driver that we used all week.  His name is Sami and I recommend him.  He knows his way around, doesn’t get lost and doesn’t take you a lot of shops owned by his friends who give you a “special deal.”  He has seven brothers and they all own cabs, so you can be sure to get a good ride.  His number is 079/5921225. 

Affirmative Action in Cola Pricing

Foreigners pay more for most things.  A can of coke costs a Jordanian dinar, maybe two.  Locals are not paying that much.  Sometimes there is even a sign saying so.  The entry fee at the Jordan River was $2 for Jordanians; $3 for other Arabs and $7 for everybody else.  At least that is transparency.   

If you ask people about this, they don’t think charging foreigners more for everything is dishonest.  They view it as sort of an affirmative action programs.  They say that they are NOT charging foreigners more; they are just giving a break to the locals.   The practical effect is identical, but it sounds much nicer when you are giving one guy a break instead of ripping off someone else. 

You get a fair break at places with posted menus and at shops that have those electronic scanners.  The scanners don’t cheat or recognize ethnicity.   The real cost of a can of coke is around $0.25 – 0.40. 

Another problem for a foreigner in an Arab country is that the numbers are different.  I though that math was almost universal, but its not.  Arab numbers are completely different from those used in other places.  I was surprised by this, since I know that they call the numbers we use the Hindu-Arabic number system.  Arab numbers are actually like this ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨ .  The Jordanian currency has the international numbers on one side and the Arabic on the other, so that is helpful, but the initial glance makes it easy to give the wrong amount of money. 

Of course, we really cannot complain too much.  English is common here and signs are mostly in English and Arabic.


And beyond that, the trouble we have had with the American company Travelocity.  Chrissy’s flight back to the U.S. was moved from 1030 to 1330.  She got an email telling her that.  It would have made her connection to Dulles impossible.  She tried to get in touch with Travelocity.  They don’t have an international number.  It cost us around $50 in telephone charges, being put on hold etc. to find out nothing.   Finally they just seemed to have cancelled her flight.  Finally, we got it figured out – we hope.  But we still have no confirmation, although two operators promised email confirmations.  She had no confirmation on their site.  My advice is that if you travel overseas, don’t use Travelocity.


We stayed at Marriott in Petra, Dead Sea and Amman.  Marriott is great.   They understand the international traveler.  I recommend Marriott whenever you can.  Marriott in Jordan gives really good discounts if you have a CAC card.  Book early, however.  The CAC rates get used up fast.

May 29, 2008

Petra - Chrissy's Comments

 Ad-Deir monastario at Petra

Petra is amazing; I am glad I got to see it.  Photos cannot do it justice.  We got a map/tourist guide from the visitor’s center; they were out of English ones, so I picked Spanish.  I thought we would be able figure out what it said.  Luckily, there were signboards in English along the path giving details on the main sites. 

We decided to go to the end of the trail, to Ad-Deir (the Monasterio), which is the second most famous attraction after Al-Khazneh (el Tesoro, or the Treasury) in Petra.  The brochure said there were over 800 “peldanos tallados” on the way to Ad-Deir; we didn’t know what that meant, I figured it was some sort of carved rosettes or decorations on the Monastery facade.  Eight-hundred seemed like a lot, but they probably had a lot of free time.

I was pretty wrong; "peldanos tallados" actually means “carved steps”--and there are waaay more than 800 of them.  It took us about 45 minutes to get to the top—uphill all the way--and because we are good planners, we went up during the hottest part of the afternoon.  I was pretty happy to finally get there—but it was worth the hike.  John with new hat at Petra

Bedouins set up tables along the walking paths and even on the switchbacks on the way up to Ad-Deir.  They were selling drinks, jewelry and trinkets-mostly junk; lots of beaded necklaces (from India).  Even the kids were selling; a pair of what appeared to be three year olds had a stand selling rocks, and seemed to be making money at it.  John took a photo of a little girl holding a baby goat; she charged him a dinar.  That's a dollar and half, pretty good money for just sitting there looking adorable for 10 seconds. 


This is John’s new hat, it speaks for itself.  At least he got the guy to knock 5 dinars off the price.



monastary at Petra 

Most of you are familiar with Petra, even if you do not know.  It is often featured in pictures and it was the backdrop for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” 

gorge that leads to PetraYou get to Petra down a long narrow gorge long ago carved by the action of water.   Petra was an important & prosperous trading center until trade routes shifted.  An earthquake that damaged the water distribution system ensured its continued decline.  Eventually, most of the people wandered off and leaving the site to Bedouins.  The Bedouins are still there, offering donkey & camel rides and selling various trinkets.  Their goats wander the neighboring ridges, picturesquely destroying the local vegetation.

Seeing the Petra ruins is an all day trip.  Of course, you could spend years exploring the whole complex and visiting all the side structures.  We climbed a couple.  There were mostly large, cavernous spaces.  Tomb raiders have long since cleaned out anything of value.  Some of the climbs are difficult and probably dangerous.  Take a look at this steep climb and rickety bridge.

On the plus side, the rocks in the region are some kind of sandstone, which stays rough and provides a good gripping surface for walking.  The rocks in Athens were some kind of marble or alabaster.  It got very smooth and slippery. 

Indiana Jones bridge Petra

The hardest part of the trip is from the main area up to the monastery.  It is a steep climb that takes around 45 minutes.  The Bedouins offer donkey rides up.  I would not want to ride the stinky animals nor would I trust them not to hurl me into the abyss.  They seem ornery and nasty.  I know they are supposedly sure-footed, but I prefer to be on my own feet. 

Donkeys at Petra

It is a hike with many beautiful views and well worth the effort.   You have to get out of the way  as the donkeys come down.

Roman ruins at Petra

The Romans controlled the place for around 500 years.  Say what you will about them, the Romans built to last.  Even at this edge of their world, there are roads that are still useful after all this time and there is evidence of their good government.  BTW, Chrissy asked me when the Byzantines took over from the Romans, as we visited a Byzantine church.  Of course, the Byzantines WERE the Romans, the Eastern Roman Empire just transitioned.  There was no clear break for them.  The Byzantines called themselves Romans until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  The term "Byantine" is a 19th Century creation. Petra temple

The picture on the left shows the treasury at Petra. This is the part of the city that is generally shown on all the pictures.  It is literally carved out of the rock. 

The Nabataeans, who made these structures, were tolerant and eclectic.  They mixed and matched their cultural influences and probably were themselves a diverse people, typical of one sitting on trade routes and so actively engaged in commerce,  with a Semitic/Arab base.  They left no significant literature and not even inscriptions on their buildings, which makes it hard for historians to categorize them.  This makes then a sort of stealth people and the mystery appeals to some. 

In structure on left, as in most others, you can see influences of the Greeks, Romans, Persians & Egyptians.  Of course, the shapes and types of rock face dictated some of the forms.  

On the way back out through the gorge we saw why you might not want to ride the horse carts.  As we came in the passage, we saw a driver having trouble with his horse.  We noticed, but didn’t think too much about it.  When we were about half way up, we heard the sound of hoofs coming behind.  It was the same cart – cart # 3 – careening until semi-control, with too terrified Japanese tourists hanging on for dear life, not having a wonderful day.  I bet they never rent another horse and buggy.  

Below shows what these horse carts look like.

Horse carts at Petra

I will let this link explain re history of the place.  There are a few inaccuracies in the link. For example, Pompey was not a Roman emperor, but the site does a good job with other background.

May 28, 2008

Up From the Jordan Valley & Meeting Friendly Natives

 Christine looking over Petra hills

Above Chrissy at the Petra overlook. 

We climbed from the Jordan Valley up the ancient city of Petra.   It is hot in the valley, but it gets cool quickly as you gain altitude.  The landscape is very rough and the road winds around and up and down.  When donkeys and feet were the only means of transportation, this must have been a nearly impossible trek.  But people obviously made it.

Sami overlooking Jordan Valley

Above is our driver Sami.  We met him in Amman.  He came down to the Dead Sea to drive up to Petra. 

Petra is one of the wonders of the world.  It is a whole city built into the rock face.  We will visit the actual site tomorrow and I will write more when I learn more.

Jordan panorama on way to Petra

The panorama in this part of Jordan reminds us of north-central Arizona. 

We are staying at the Marriott in Petra.  Marriotts are familar and I like to have some stability when traveling. Chrissy and I walked into down from the hotel to the modern Petra city center, about three kilometers.  The people were phenomenally friendly.  A couple of kids on the street gave Chrissy a part of a plant and me a piece of candy.  They wanted nothing in return.  Everybody was asking where we were from and shouting welcome.  Frankly, I don't know why people are so outgoing.

We went to a bakery and got five pieces of that great Arabic flat bread  and half dozen cookies for one JD.  We had some good kabobs at a local restaurant.  It is a pleasant city, but very hilly and hard to walk around.

Wadi on the way to Petra

Above is the wadi that leads to the old Petra sites.

I have traveled all around Europe and recently in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt & Greece.  I don’t notice that anti-Americanism we always hear about.  I am fairly obviously American and I am always very clear whenever anybody asks me.  I have always felt welcomed.  People approach me, ask questions, tell me about their trips to the U.S. or their friends and relatives there.

Below is me at the Petra overlook.  Same spot as Chrissy's picture above.

John Matel overlook at Petra

I understand the sources of measurement bias.  Very likely those who take the time to talk to me are already more pro-American.  Maybe they just want my business/money or they like my smile.  But the way I figure it, if all it takes is a couple of dollars and a smile to counter anti-Americanism, the price is not very high.

I don’t trust those polls showing the world dislikes us and I don’t need to ask that question “why do they hate us?”.  The general question is bogus.  I know it is as sweeping generalization to sweep all that off the table, but I have seen the polling data and I don’t think it is getting at the deeper realities. Most people in the world are probably indifferent to the U.S. most of the time.  When asked by an opinion researcher whether or not they like the U.S., the recall whatever recent negative news they have seen in the media and answer based on that.  It is a true opinion, but it is ephemeral and not deeply held in most cases.   An actual encounter with a friendly American tends to tap into an entirely different area of response. 

Put the shoe on the other foot.  Remember all the gnashing of teeth about France and the whole freedom fries crap?  Did you really dislike the French?  If a friendly French traveler asked you directions, would you mislead him or be angry with him?  In other words, did Americans’ stated preference really amount to a hill of beans?  The same often goes for others. 

We need to be less concerned with this supposed general opinion and concentrate on the specifics that often DO create troubles.

May 27, 2008

Jesus, Moses and Mosaics

"And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho.  And the LORD showed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan..."

John Matel at Mt Nebo in Jordan

We went from the Dead Sea, 415 meters below sea level, to the top of Mt. Nebo, which is 656 m higher.   This was the place were Moses saw the promised land, as you can see form Deuteronomy 34 above.   Moses must have had better eyes than I do because I could not see beyond the escarpment over the Dead Sea.  Mt. Nebo was a pleasant place, however, with some trees and significantly cooler temperatures. 

mosaic with bull from Madaba Jordan

From Mt Nebo, we went down to a town called Madaba.  It still has lots of Christian churches and used to have even more, so the town is full of mosaics from the late Roman and Byzantine times.  Even after the Muslim conquests, the native Christian communities continued to thrive. 

Jordanians seem interested in the Christian and other pre-Islamic heritage of their country and very tolerant of religious diversity.   At least they recognize the tourist value of emphasizing Christian heritage in the birthplace of Christianity.

Church pictures from Madaba Jordan

It is interesting to speculate how different world history would have been if Islamic armies had not conquered this area.  There certainly would have been no Crusades and very likely the center of Western civilization would have remained in the Mediterranean, and even the eastern part, rather than shifting toward the Atlantic and Northern Europe.

It has been more than a quarter century since I studied Greek and forgot almost everything, but I can still put a few things together from a combination of looking at the pictures and tortuously making out a few words.  I was telling Chrissy re some of the pictures when a local guy overheard and in English told me how surprised he was that an American could read that Greek.  I didn’t tell him that I only made out something like three words and guessed the rest from the illustrations.

River Jordan

We went back down the hill into the Jordan Valley.  The river Jordan is a lot smaller than I thought.  In fact, it is really not much bigger than Genito Creek, which runs through our forest land.  It doesn’t look very clean either.  I think that Baptism in the Jordan would risk infection or dysentery.

Jesus baptism place

A lot of the water has been drawn off for irrigation upstream and presumably it as bigger and cleaner back in the Jesus Baptism mosaicold days.  We went to the Jesus baptism site - the place they have identified where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.  The river has changed course, so the place is no longer actually on the flowing part of the stream, but the flood sometimes comes through and a spring keeps the basin full of water.   In ancient times, there were churches at this spot.  Now they are just ruins, although you can still see some of the mosaics.  Below is a more modern mosaic re the site.  Notice the webpage.

I enjoyed going to these sites, maybe because they were so unpretentious.  Not many people make the trip, since it is out of the way.  Notice the transportation.  It was hot out and it was sweaty, but that sort of added to the charm. 

Below is our bus to the baptism site.

Bus to Jesus baptism site

May 26, 2008

Writing Things Down

I am reading a good book called “Partners in Command” about the relationship between George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Biography is my favorite form of literature.  I am always surprised how much these guys wrote down.  They evidently all kept detailed diaries where they wrote their thoughts and plans.  Besides this blog, I have never had the discipline to do that.  I write a lot, but when I write, I tend to speculate and riff, much like you see on this blog.  Even if I assembled all “my papers” I don’t think I could write a decently documented autobiography and nobody else could make sense of it at all.

These guys started keeping journals long before they became famous enough to justify one.  I wonder if the journal keeping helped make them successful.

I HAVE developed one reasonably good journal habit.  It is not biographical, but more pragmatic.   Before something big happens, I write down my prediction and then I don’t look at what I wrote again until well after the event has been decided. Before I look again, I write a brief note of what I thought was going to happen, not what did happen but what I thought I had predicted.  Then I compare them.  I learned this method from a good book on decision making called (appropriately) “Decision Traps”.  

According to the authors, we overestimate our judgment because our memories are not like tape recorders.  Rather they are constantly rewriting and editing memories in light of subsequent events.  We try to make sense of chaotic events and with the benefit of hindsight we emphasize our understanding of trends and facts that turned out to be significant, even if we didn’t recognize them at the time, and forget about those that came to nothing.  That is why all of us are rich and successful in theory but fewer are in practice & that is why we are always sure we could do better than those who were responsible for decisions.  I found that is true for me.  When faced with the evidence written in my own hand, I am often surprised not only by the mistakes I made in the past but also by the fact that my honest memory has been edited to elide or even expunge my most serious  errors. 

The exercise of specifically analyzing my decisions using a concrete written method has improved my decision making, however.  Experience is not a good teacher if you don’t pay attention to the lessons.  I have learned be a lot more disciplined in seeking a wider variety of information, looking at data that disconfirms my assumptions and understanding significant role that chance plays in outcomes.  Of course it is still important to be “certain” once the decision is made.  The hard part is holding the contradictory facts in mind at the same time.  I still make some of the same mistakes I made twenty years ago, but now I see some of the patterns and can anticipate and mitigate.

Anyway, I think the journaling probably provided this kind of look back to great men like Marshall or Eisenhower, just as it does to ordinary guys like me.  They made some serious misjudgements.  Eisenhower was sure he was a failure as a militiary officer and thought he would be selected out.  Douglas MacArthur didn't think the Japanese would ever invade the Phillipines.  What that shows is that even the best make big mistakes.  Their greatness involves adapting and taking advantage of changes, not in making great predictions.  Eisenhower also said something like no plan every works, but planning does because it makes you think through the permutations.

Our modern Internet age is a little too harsh on people.   Some nerd will fish up any statement you make and use it against you later.  Let me quote Emerson for any future nerd thinking of giving me a hard time.  "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."  You have to change your mind when facts or conditions change, but at the same time you need to be firm when finishing a job.  Both things are true.  People not involved in real decisions cannot seem to understand the nuance, but as usual I am drifting.

My Iraq blog has helped me and I thank those of you who (I think) are reading regularly.  It is easy to backslide when you are in it alone.  Having others watching tends to make us all more consequent.  I apologize that I sometimes have to generalize or take out details.  Security does not allow me to share some details; others I just prefer to keep to myself.  I hope the story is interesting to you.  It is interesting to me when I go back and remember things I certainly would have forgotten, flushed down the memory hole.

May 25, 2008

Everything is Looking Up

We are at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth that is not under water.  The sign claims it is 415 meters below sea level.  Let me point out first of all that the idea that you don’t get sunburned here because the UV rays are filtered through so much extra atmosphere is a myth.  Maybe you get sunburned less, but you still get sunburned.

John Matel floating in Dea Sea

It is not a myth, however, that you cannot sink in the Dead Sea because of the high salt content.  As long as you arch your back, you can comfortably float like a little boat.  I tried to stand up, but you float up and tip.  I tipped face first into the water.  It is horrible tasting, much worse than seawater, and it kind of burns your lips.   The water has some bitumen in it besides the salts, so it smells.  People claim the mud is good for your skin and people smear it all over themselves.  I didn’t. 

Christine at Dead Sea

Above - Chrissy came to meet me in Amman. 

The northern shore of the Dead Sea is now home to lots of really nice Hotels.  We are in the Marriott.  It is like a paradise and not very expensive.  We get the government/military discount because I am on official travel orders. 

Before development, it must have been like hell around here.  Imagine a person coming through the desert and seeing this “lake” for the first time.  He goes down to take a drink and gets that poisonous salt water.  If you drink a cup of it w/o rinsing it out with fresh water right away, it will literally kill you.   After swimming, you have to wash off. 

John at Dead Sea

Saddam & Gomorrah were nearby.  Lot’s wife supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt nearby and lots of pillars of salt rise out of the Dead Sea.  Irrigation and people making salt by evaporating water are lowering the level of the Sea and making it even more salty.    There are proposals to bring in sea water to replace the water drained out of the Jordan for irrigation.  At various times in geologic history, this area was completely dry or an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Jordan Valley is part of the same rift that reaches into East Africa.  The continents of Africa and SW Asia literally are being pulled apart by the action of plate tectonics.  In a couple million years, this whole valley will be part of the Red Sea.  But until then it might be a major engineering feat to bring in that sea water.

Tomorrow we are going to visit some of the local archeological sites.   We had planned a side trip to Jerusalem, but we learned that the border crossings are difficult and time consuming.  That, coupled with the distance, makes it unlikely we can make a successful day trip, so we will have to hold off the trip to Jerusalem for another time. 

Veranda view Mariott Hotel Dead Sea

Above is the view of other hotels from the Veranda.  It is sort of like S. Arizona.

The Jordan Valley should provide enough to do for now.  After this, we will go down to Petra.   

May 23, 2008

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi


Above is Amman from the Citadel 

Empire is politically incorrect these days but the Roman Empire was a great thing.  It brought together disparate people under the rule of law.   The Romans controlled almost all the world they knew about and certainly all the territory they thought worth having. 

temple of Hercules Amman

In our modern world, we are used to progress running in one direction.  We might suppose the past was more pleasant, but we never believe that people of the past could do more than we could.  This was not always the case.  For around 1000 years, people looked back on the ancient Roman Empire with a sense of envy.  The Romans had a better general organization than the states that followed them.  Cities fell into ruins after the fall of Rome and they sometimes staying in ruins, with people poking around among them like some characters in a scifi book.  Amman did not regain its Roman size until well into the 20th century.   People could look at the ruins and wonder how those building came to be.

On left is the Temple of Hercules.

Jordan was at the edge of the Roman world.  Beyond here was that desert I know only too well.  The Romans were wise enough not to go very far away from the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum – our sea, they called it) very often.  When they did, they tended to come to bad ends.   Crassus, the associate of Julius Caesar's,  was captured by the Parthians who poured molten gold down his throat in recognition of his status as one of the richest men in the world.   

The Mediterranean really is a paradise.  It is like California, northern or southern depending on where you are.  Jordan is like southern California.   It has been hot during the day, but not uncomfortable in the shade.  In the evening it is comfortably cool.  There is a fair amount of green.  There would be more if it were not for the goats and the general bad management of soil resources over the past millennia. 

goat on citadel Amman

Amman is quiet today because it is Friday.  I went up to the citadel.  Every ancient and medieval city of any size has a citadel or an acropolis.   Life back then was nasty, brutish and short.  You had to have a place to repair to during the inevitable periods of bloody disorder.   After a while, these places became the sites of public buildings so they usually feature interesting archeology.  Beyond that, there is almost always a good view from the high ground.

ruins Amman

As I sit here writing this, I can hear church bells ringing.  I have been hearing the Muslim call to prayer all day, so this is a change.  I understand that the Christian population was once significant.  It has dwindled in modern times, but is still here.  This is the holy land after all.   Tomorrow or the next day I plan to visit the place where tradition says John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

May 22, 2008

You Get Used to It

inside the wire 

I really have a sweet deal.  I get several R&R breaks and get to both go home and go to places I have never been.  In return I have to spend some time in Iraq, which is not as bad as people think.  You get used to it.  I am not saying I will volunteer to stay on beyond my time, but I am generally comfortable, the work is interesting and my colleagues are great.

On the other hand, I miss my family; I miss my home surroundings and I miss … nature   I know nature is everywhere, but there really is not much of what I recognize where I live in Al Anbar.  I just need to walk in the trees.  They are too few and far between.  I also don’t like the dry.

This is a pretty shallow posting, but I cannot seem to get any deeper today.  I am at the Baghdad airport, the same place I arrived in Iraq in September.  I have not been here since then.  It is plenty ugly.  Maybe if you were greeted with something a little more inviting, you would have a better first impression of Iraq. 

I saw some new guys coming in.  You can tell new guys.  They are not covered in dust and even if they have become dusty, they don’t have the covered in dust look of the veteran.   They also still have expectations.  They really think they will make sense of things.  I understand that this is not possible.  I accept and even embrace the ambiguity.   I have found that you can understand something enough to make it work w/o making sense of the whole.  There are some things I know to do to get certain results, but I really don’t know why.  I would like to know why and I often speculate, but this is just an exercise.  I have found it is better to know what to do w/o understanding why than knowing why but not knowing what to do.  If you have a good chow hall and a secure place to sleep, you got just about all you really need.  It is illogical, but THAT makes sense.

I met an interesting guy here who made me think about my next job.  He is working in the Consular section,  but before that got a JD/MBA and worked in emerging technologies.  My new job will be dealing with such things, so we had a good talk.  We exchanged book titles to read.  He recommended a book called “In Athena’s Camp”  I ordered that on Amazon, but when checking it out, I also found a book called “the Spider an the Starfish” re network organizations.   I downloaded the audio book and am listening to it now.  Seems very interesting.

He has a webpage too and if you want to get a different first hand account of Iraq, check out his link. 

I will relate one story from one of my colleagues. It happened a while ago.  I didn’t mention it until now for Opsec reasons, better not give the bad guys real time information.

He is a brave man.  He was walking down the street when he heard the sirens go off.  He ran toward some duck and cover barriers.  An Iraqi guy walking next to him ran in the other direction.  Neither made it to shelter.  A rocket came down just where they had been.  The angle of the impact shot fragments into the Iraqi guy and killed him.  My friend got a shower of debris, but suffered no significant injuries.  You just cannot predict these things.  Evidently they caught his escape on a surveillance camera.  Some of the security people call him the lucky rabbit.  He is back at work. As I said, he is a brave man.

That was a while about and in Baghdad, BTW.   Al Asad is safer.  Mostly just dust falls from our skies.

May 20, 2008

A Time to Gather Stones Together

Stones in Haditha 

Above is preliminary to stone construction along the road in Haditha

When John McCain came recently to Haditha, he went to IRD/CSP.  It was a good choice, since this is a clear example of the success of the “diplomatic surge”.  CSP means community stabilization program.  USIAD fund the program, so it is vaguely falls under our ePRT through our USAID rep, but it operates autonomously and presents Iraqi faces to the Iraqi public.

CSP employs seventy-four Iraqis and has deployed more than two million dollars in well targeted programs to help develop free-market democracy in the Haditha region.  The Iraqis bring with them local contacts and expertise.  They know where to deploy resources and how to get the best deal that will produce the most results. The highest profile programs involve cleaning up and enhancing the Haditha market street, so to some degree CSP contributed to the vibrant business atmosphere I witnessed yesterday and wrote about below.

Below is a classroom being fixed up in the vocational school. Almost good to go.

classroom haditha Iraq

The centerpiece of the CSP effort is a vocational school they are refurbishing on a hilltop just outside the downtown.  The school will train young Iraqis in practical arts such as masonry, electrical design & repair, carpentry and construction.  There will be full three year courses and shorter two month workshops.  The three year program will have 2100 students, with an intake of just over 700 each year.  The short workshops are more flexible and can be expanded to meet demand.   The plan is for the three-year students to be real professionals, help train others and form the nucleus of a skilled trades community.  The curriculum has been developed in cooperation with the Iraqi labor ministry, which we believe will take up the funding for the program after the U.S. money runs out.

Below is the new vocational school

Vocational school Haditha Iraq

Although Haditha suffers from high unemployment, the building and rebuilding boom is creating a demand for skilled workers that is straining supply.  A similar CSP program in Al Qaim has graduated hundreds of short-course students in the last few months who have been quickly hired by local firms.  We anticipate nearly zero unemployment among graduates in Haditha.  To some extent, skilled workers create their own demand and their higher productivity helps create wealth that creates demand for more workers.  It is a very positive cycle.   The CSP vocational school certainly won’t solve all Haditha’s employment problems, but it is an excellent start.

The Iraqi leader of CSP is a visionary.  He is looking toward the future not only in CSP programs but also sees a brighter future for the area immediately around CSP and the technical school.   It is very dusty in the neighborhood.  This is Iraq and there will be dust, but the local effects can be mitigated by trees and other plants.  CSP is already bringing in soil literally to provide the basis of the future plantation.  Dennis, our agricultural advisor, gave some advice on the types and disposition of trees and plants.  I would like to see what this place looks like in a couple of years. 

Below is the future front garden.  There is a similar area out back.  The dirt piles are the soil that will sustain the greenery.  They are also digging a well.  Water is found at 37 meters.

dirt piles in Iraq 

I like the fact that this an operation run for Iraqis by Iraqis.  It has been very helpful in producing tangible and appropriate results.  My only concern is that the U.S. does not get enough credit.  This is not like an individual charitable giving, where you might want to do good anonymously.  Sometimes it is important to know who is funding the good work.  The U.S. is a very generous country.   The U.S. gives more foreign aid than any other country in the world.   When you include both public and private giving, the proportion is even higher.  Yet much of the world thinks we do not do enough.  One reason is that much of our investment is made in these effective but largely hidden programs. 

Ronald Reagan once said that you can accomplish almost anything if you do not worry about who gets the credit.  He was right.  Often trying to take credit, even when justified, makes result less effective.  It is a difficult balance to strike and I am not sure how to balance the needs to accomplish goals with the legitimate desire to improve the U.S. reputation.  For now, the CSP staff and all the recipients know what we have done for them and are grateful to the U.S.  But we have done good in many other places many times before.  People remember, but unfortunately when something resides only in living memory it only lives a short time.

May 19, 2008

Vibrant Prosperity Returns to Iraq

Marc and kids 

Above is one of my teammates with a couple of friends. 

Today was very encouraging.  We came into Haditha from the south and walked up the market street that we call Boardwalk past workshops and retail outlets.  People were very friendly and open, more so than I have felt ever before but they were not telling us only what we wanted to hear.

Road to Haditha

Just as we got out of the MRAP and started to walk up the street, I guy ran up to ask re rental arrears on a building he owned.  He said that the Marines had occupied his building and but had yet to pay all the rent owed or fix the place up when they left.    One of the Marines with us knew who to talk to and said he could help with the problem.  The guy was happy that we listened to his problem and were working to fix it.  These are the kinds of interactions that are surprising locals and winning respect.

We stopped at a storefront where a bunch of strong looking guys were standing.  They were partners in a construction firm.  They told us that business was good, but they could use some loans to grow their business and enable them to bid on bigger jobs.  Unfortunately, the small loan program was too small.  They said they needed around $50,000.00 to really get to be big players.  They complained that many contractors do not do good jobs but continue to get contracts anyway.  This concerned us because we depend on local contractors.  The men assured us that things were better when Americans were doing the contracting, but we still do need to be careful. 

Rugs in Haditha Iraq

Down the street was a rug and furniture shop.  Sam Said bought a small rug showing the tower of Babel.   You can see it on the picture.  The owner told us that business was basically good, but that he still did not have total confidence in the Iraqi police.  Shop owners still needed to keep the wherewithal to defend themselves, he said.   I asked where the rugs came from.  He said from Turkey or Iran.  There are local rug factories, but they are not in operation.  Our PRT hopes to get a couple up and running.   There is obviously a market.

Up the street, the shops started to get better and more stocked with goods.  I have wanted to go to an ordinary Iraqi restaurant for some time.  Finally I had an opportunity.  Marc Humphries, who is our liaison officer in Haditha, told me that he heard that a particular kabob restaurant was good so we stopped in.  There were a few guys waiting for their food.  They told us that they were workers at Haditha dam.  If you look at my picture with them below, you see that my hairstyle and general appearance fits with the natives.

We got ten sets of kabobs and bread.  That Iraqi flat bread is great. 

Farther up the street we stopped in a grocery store.  I had been there a few months ago and the owners remembered my visit.  The shop had greatly improved in terms of goods on the shelves and general appearance.  The owners insisted on giving us some Mountain Dew and told us about business.  Business was generally good, but they had a big problem with the nearest bridge over the Euphrates.  In order to regulate the weight of vehicles, city authorities had set up a bar.  The grocery store owners said that their suppliers have small trucks that they pile high with goods.  The height of the vehicle is not necessarily related to the weight, but their tall loads cannot get through on the bridge.  I have seen how they load these trucks and I understand his position.  I am sure they would not pass American road standards, but it is the standard in this part of the world.  We are on the same side on this issue, BTW, since our MRAPs with their machine gun turrets, are also too tall to get through.

Our final stop on the market street was a dress shop.   It looked like a nice quality shop anywhere in the world.  The owner told me that most of his products come from Syria or Turkey.  They had some nice things on display.  I wanted to buy something for Chrissy & Mariza and I found some things I thought were nice.  When we got to the price, he wanted to give it to me free because we were guests in his country and he was grateful for what we had done.  Of course, I couldn’t let him do that and I paid the full price.  Now that I think about it, maybe that was his clever negotiating ploy.  He got me to pay full price and thank him for it.

Dressshop in Haditha

May 18, 2008

Various Things

Hit Veg stand 

Pesky Flies

One advantage of having a lot of dust hanging in the air is that it reflects the hot sun.  Al Asad has been unseasonably cool, but daytime temperatures still reach into the upper 90s and we now are bedeviled by little flies.  You can tell when a guy hits a cloud of them.  He starts to move his hands like windshield wipers.   Marines often take off their caps to swat at the little pests, really to not much avail.   They look like American flies, but they are smaller and they seem to be attracted to your mouth, nose and eyes.  Maybe it the moisture they seek.  I don’t think they bite; they just try to land on you.

Most of the endemic Iraqi bugs crawl on the ground.  They can be nasty and poisonous but they cannot easily get around  and we don’t generally have a flying bug problem, except these flies.   I am hoping that they are seasonal and that their season is short.  I recall that there were some around when I arrived last year, but not in the kind of numbers we are seeing now.   Let’s hope it doesn’t last.

Iraqi Money Finally Flows

 In the picture along side are USMC T-shirts for sale in the Hit marketplace. 

On a more optimistic – and unexpected - note, Iraqi government money has started to flow into Western Al Anbar.   We hope that this phenomenon does persist.  Exactly what is happening is beyond my pay grade, but we have seen more than $100 million of Iraqi money funding a variety of projects, the kinds we (Coalition Forces) used to have to finance.   It is about time and I hope this is a turning point.  I am increasingly frustrated that the American taxpayer is getting stuck for things that the Iraqis have the money to do themselves.   We are all about helping, but I don’t want to be left holding the bag.  This Iraqi money flow is a good sign.   Our job is not done, but I think we might be seeing the beginning of the solution.

Memories:  Monty Python & Eddy Arnold

Yesterday’s cigar and movie night featured “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  I don’t do cigars, but I did go to see the movie.  Most of the guys watching the film were not even born when it was made.  It makes me feel kind of old.   Monty Python has developed into a cultural feature.   Many people quote Monty Python lines w/o knowing really knowing their source.   The pace seems slow when I actually watch Monty Python today.  I am just waiting for the signature lines.   “She turned me into a newt … I got better.”   Monty Python has successfully jumped into the next generation. Whodathunkit?

Not so well remembered these days is Eddy Arnold who I-Tunes inform me recently died.   He was my father’s favorite singer, with his renditions of “Cattle Call,” “Sixteen Tons,” & “The Green Leaves of Summer.”   During the 1970s, he briefly parlayed his limited fame into a gig as spokesman for Log Cabin pancake syrup.

That Eddy Arnold’s passing would have gone unnoticed by me except for I-Tunes, which  after analyzing my esoteric & eclectic music tastes reached into Iraq to tell me about it and made me aware of a very interesting marketing strategy.  My guess is that the number of Eddy Arnold fans has dwindled to a vanishingly small number.  I doubt if there would be living fans enough to justify the re-release of an album and in the pre-internet world nobody but family and friends would have marked the man’s shuffling off this mortal coil.  But internet can identify and cheaply reach even a small number of fans and the cost of search out and reproducing his hits is almost zero, so suddenly there is a market for everything.

Even a huge record store could hold only a few thousand of the most popular recordings.  I-Tunes features millions and it doesn’t matter if they sell only rarely since there is essentially no inventory carrying cost.  Nothing is ever lost or becomes so obscure it cannot be found.   Who knows, maybe Eddy Arnold will touch as whole new generation with “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.”  Maybe not.   I have to admit that even I am not going to plunk down the $0.99 for one for the old country boy’s hits and even I-Tunes doesn’t feature my favorite Eddy Arnold album “Our Man Down South.”

17 Mai

Today is Norwegian constitution day.   Congratulations.  I neglected to congratulate the Poles on May 3 for theirs.  Let me add that now.   Speaking of memories, I like to remember "my" countries.

May 15, 2008

Our Work in Iraq: Going Forward

Spock, Kirk, McCoy and that expendible guy 

We are having a conference about our work in Iraq.  Many of our partners will be coming, including NGOs and contractors.  Below is the keynote speech I plan to give to open the conference.   BTW – when I ask why we are in Iraq, I am very literally talking about the people at the conference, not about the more general question.

The conference will be in a few days, still time if anybody has suggestions re how to improve the speech please send in a comment.

Why Are We Here In Iraq?

More precisely, why do the taxpayers of Indiana, Wisconsin or Texas or Oregon give us the big bucks and the budgets to keep our boots planted precariously on the yellow dirt of Western Iraq?

Our job is to make Western Al Anbar unpleasant for the insurgency and help make the society here unreceptive to a renewal of the violence.  To do that, the people of Western Al Anbar must be reasonably self sufficient and plausibly content.  This is our job, our overriding goal.  Other goals we might have are paths to this ultimate objective or tools for its establishment, but let’s not mistake them for the final destination.

I am pleased that in working toward our ultimate goal that we can often do good.  You might call the good we do here a “collateral benefit”.  I take great personal satisfaction when one of our water projects can restore the productivity to Iraqi soils or when our grant to a rug factory provides job opportunities to local women, but by themselves those good things are not the reasons we are here. 

All our efforts must be aimed at building Iraqi self-sufficiency and producing solutions that can be sustained with the goal of making this place untenable for the insurgents.   In order to do that, we have to be careful not to be distracted by our personal desires to do good or just to help.  Those things are beyond our mandate and – frankly – often beyond our ability to understand or really influence.  And besides all that, we cannot be generous with other people’s, in this case the taxpayers’, money.

Why do I say all this and risk starting this great conference on a sour note?  Because I am tempted just like you are to try to do good and it is only too easy lose sight of the mission.  I have to remind myself – and I want to remind all of you - that what is important in our activities is to help the Iraqis to do things for themselves, not to do things for them.  All the good we do, all of our achievements, will be as meaningless as that yellow dust that blows around in the wind of Anbar if we don’t make ensure that our accomplishments are sustainable by the Anbaris themselves. 

We want to help.  We might see that  it will take only a couple thousand dollars to outfit that school.  We all might get frustrated that the Iraqi government just cannot seem to get its act together and do what needs to be done.   We are tempted just to do it – to do “good”.   When you feel that impulse, just say NO.   Activity is not the same as accomplishment and we should never measure our success by how much we managed to spend or what we have caused to be built but rather by how much we encouraged our local partners to do, spend and build themselves.  Sometimes doing nothing to alleviate  a particular problem is our correct response.

Sometimes things are going wrong not in spite of, but because of our best efforts.

With that caveat out of the way, I want to say that I think we are accomplishing our mission.  We are achieving sustainable progress and I am gratified that we are also helping the people of Western Anbar.  Local governments are increasingly taking the initiative and responsibility for their own affairs.  The Iraqi authorities are poised to spend part of the mountain of cash they have acquired because of higher oil prices right here in Anbar.  At least we hope that is in the works.   The help we are giving vocational training is supplying the types of workers Anbari firms will need to secure a more free-market future and micro-finance loans are helping build those firms.  Courthouses are open and judges are hearing cases.  During this conference, we will hear about all those things and more. 

When you compare the situation in Iraq today to what it was couple of years ago, even a few months ago, the progress is truly astonishing.  Back then, some really smart people declared that we had been defeated in Al Anbar, that Iraq was a lost cause. Some even thought that we should just give up and go home.  Well, some other people just don’t give up so easily.  Today we are talking here about securing the success Coalition Forces and our Iraqi allies have achieved.  They did and are doing their part.  We – all of us – now have our roles to play going forward.  We can help achieve something exceedingly rare in history.   We can tell our grandchildren how we had the chance to help a country at the brink of disaster turn away from chaos and make the future better than the past.  

In the telling and retelling, we will exaggerate our own roles in this enterprise.  If we have succeeded in achieving our goals of a reasonably democratic market oriented & stable Iraq, posterity will be indulgent.

Thank you all for coming.  I look forward to learning from all of you.

May 14, 2008

A Liberal Blogger

Jane Stillwater in Iraq

Above is Jane Stillwater, a self described hippie grandmother from Berkeley.   She dislikes President Bush with a passion, but she loves the Marines.   She is one of the few journalists we have seen out here in Western Anbar, so I have to give her credit for seeking the truth about Iraq. That is her above in Hit.  You can see her blog at this link.

Below is a town council meeting in Hit.

City council meeting Hit

I have closed comments on this posting because of spam.  If you have a comment, please go to the lead post link here.  Thanks.


May 12, 2008

Sorry Groucho

Euphrates river scene 

Above is a Euphrates scene 

A Combat Camera Presentation made me think of this topic.  You can download that presentation by clicking that link.

I am surprised how open and friendly Iraqis are to the Marines.  You might think that after a war people might be a little more sullen or at least indifferent, but they are usually very happy to see the patrols.   I like to go on “foot patrol” and walk through the streets of the towns in Western Anbar and see for myself what is going on.   The transformation is amazing.  Markets are full of goods, including highly perishable items such as eggs, fresh milk, fruits and vegetables.  Although I cannot see it at the marketplace, I know also that town councils are set up.  Courts are in session.   Things are better.

In some of these places, fighting raged less than a year ago.  Al Anbar was supposed to be the center of the new Al Qaeda caliphate.  Instead it is the place where our Iraqi allies and we have most completely defeated the retrograde forces looking to drag us back into the 8th century.  This is astonishing.

Whether or not all Americans are ready to accept it, our new strategy is delivering a victory in Iraq. Our forces faced down the bad guys at a time when conventional wisdom told us our best bet was just to get out and leave Anbar and its people to them.  I know some would say that it is too soon to claim success, and they are probably right.  I would keep my mouth shut if I had to talk about the big picture or carefully weigh the political considerations, but those kinds of things are above my pay grade. 

I am talking only about the things I know from my own experience.  From my position - standing with my boots on the khaki dirt of Western Anbar - it is very hard to overlook the objective reality of how much things have improved.  I think we are approaching the point of self sustaining progress.  The Iraqis are increasingly taking the initiative and moving forward.  They are smart, adaptive and sick of war.  After literally generations of oppression and conflict, they want to get on with the pursuits of peace, a peace made possible by the security umbrella the Marines provided. 

We did the right thing in Anbar and we generally did it right.  I am proud that my team and I have played a small part in the new strategy that is making this possible.  

When I read the media about Iraq, it seems very different from what I see being here.  It reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line (with the media playing Groucho), "What are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"  Sorry if I choose to believe what I see myself.

Joe Cool

Sunrise at the can city in Al Asad 

Above is sunrise at our can city at Camp Ripper.  I am getting used to living in the cans. It is not so bad.

They don’t give metals for what Colonel Malay did, but his decision will save American lives and improve RCT’s performance.  The Colonel decreed that every Marine everywhere in Western Al Anbar have access to icy water and instructed that we buy and deploy enough coolers and freezers to make it so.  (They already have plenty of water, BTW.  The difference is the temperature.) 

He calls the program “Joe Cool”.  The name is clever and has given the program a boost.  He had to face some skepticism.  Marines are tough and proud of it.  The idea that they need this sort of “luxury” grates just a little.  Having ice in the desert seems a bit of a luxury, but they also understand that having cold water to drink means that Marines at isolated posts will be more refreshed and ready to take on anything.

The relentless harsh dryness of this vast desert has desiccated whole armies.  Bringing ice here is really an astonishing achievement.  We all know the stories about the Roman legions carrying chests full of ice into the desert or Saladin bringing ice and snow down from the mountains, but these were novelties that only the few enjoyed.  In this case every Marine has access everywhere. 

Even far away from camp.  Colonel Malay wants to put freezers and generators on seven-tons to bring the ice and cold water to the most isolated Marine units.  The Colonel emphasizes heat related problems will cost a lot more than the price of the cooling units and that a life lost to the scorching heat is beyond price.

Napoleon famously said that an army travels on it stomach.   Even more urgent than food is water, especially in a place like this.  Cool water can make the difference between life and death and certainly between comfort and misery.  Yes, Colonel Malay deserves a metal for doing what he did.  He has saved some lives and made many others a lot better.

From my own point of view, I am happy to have the coolers on every MRAP & Humvee because I can put my cans of Coca-Cola in them and keep them cool.  I am not a big fan of water.   I drink it if I am really thirsty or if there is nothing else available, but ice cold Cola-Light is the way to go if you have a choice.

May 10, 2008


I am not sure why I felt this so personally.  I didn’t know him. I knew the places he knew and I knew his comrades faces - all those faces full of grief.  The service and the eulogy were short.  He was only a few days past his 19th birthday and had not been in Iraq very long, too young to be gone.  They said that he liked to play football, wrestle and ride dirt bikes.  The pictures showed a young man who liked to lift weights.

He could have been my son.  In fact, his age falls almost exactly between Alex & Espen.  I thought about the decision he had made.  He joined the Army during a time of war, virtually certain to be sent where war was being waged.  It was a brave and honorable decision.  His parents were proud of him but their pride was tempered  by anxiety about the dangers.  I am sure that he told them that his chances of coming safely home were very good, and he was right, but no matter the odds, sometimes things go wrong.

And sometimes it just hits you.  As I sat there I felt a deep sadness for the young man I never met and the heartbroken family I will never see.  It was one of those everyman moments.   Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  

His best friend gave a tribute with all the eloquence of a 19-year-old speaking from the heart.  His friend was looking after him and he was looking after his friend, but sometimes things go wrong.    I watched his colleagues, Americans and Iraqis he worked with, pay their respects.   They felt the loss.  I offered condolences to his friend, but I don’t think he heard me.  His thoughts were far away.

Back at the cans, a dust storm blew in stinging the eyes and throats. 

May 08, 2008

Walking Through Hit

 Hit on the Euphrates

Above is the city of Hit looking over the Euphrates.

The town is pronounced HEAT with a little more emphasis on the ee.   I don’t really have much to say about this trip that I can share on the blog, but I wanted to include some pictures from our foot patrol.

Euphrates scene

Above is the river scene.  Very nice.  The water is not 100% clean, so you are a little better off looking at the picture than experiencing the entire scene.

Hit was one of the last places in our AO where the insurgency was defeated, so the people are still adjusting to relative peace.  People here just want to hold onto what they have and it looks like they will get to do that.  We got a good reception as we walked through town.  People were friendly.  Little kids came to ask for candy.  Bigger kids tried to speak to us in English.  They could often say things like “What’s happening?” in a good English accent, but they usually could not actually understand responses.

kids and marines in Hit

I learned a little about local media.  There really isn’t much of any except a few newsletters.  Many people have satellite dishes.  They are a status symbol and I was told that a lot of those satellite dishes do not have working televisions attached.  People buy the dish first in hopes of getting a TV later and as a status symbol now.   I don’t know if that is true.  It sounds more like a joke. People like to tell us stories like that.

shop seen in Hit Iraq

There were late model cars on the road and a fair amount of traffic even thorough we were well past the usual rush hours.  Iraqis do most of their business in the morning and most of their recreation after dark.  This makes a lot of sense given the hot climate.  Mornings and evenings are pleasant.

Below - still not a nice place, but getting better.

street scene in Hit Iraq

Anyway, yesterday was a long day, but the walk through town made it worthwhile.     

Below - Hit is an irregated agricultural area and the town is full of shops fixing pumps and engines. It looks like a junk heap, but a lot of guys were hard at work.  They proudly showed us their tools and they seemed to be real craftsmen.

motor shop Hit Iraq

I got good impression from the visit to Hit.  It was good to see so many people actually at work.  We often pass lots of young men just standing around, smoking.  Today, it seemed every adult was doing something useful.   Maybe I just hit Hit at the right time.

May 06, 2008

Cigar Circle & Tandoori Tuesday

Cigar Circle

cigar smoking in Iraq

This is a tradition US Grant would have recognized.   Cigars have long been a part of military life.  I don’t know if George Washington smoked cigars, probably a hazard to a man with wooden teeth, but he did grow tobacco and make cigars on his estates.

The weather this time of the year in Iraq is good.  Mornings are cool; afternoons are hot and evenings are pleasant, so the Marines take the opportunity to talk in the warmth of the evening and smoke cigars.  

Some of them have a cigar club.  They get the cigars and all the accessories from a place call Thompson Cigars of Florida.  Sometimes I understand that firms and individuals sent cigars free.  That is a gift many Marines really appreciate.

I do not smoke cigars, or anything else for that matter, but I can well understand the attraction of the shared interest.  I never disliked cigars as I dislike cigarettes and there is something very comforting, secure and primal about sitting in circle in the evening, exchanging stories and just being the company of other men.  It probably goes back to our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting around the fire, telling stories about the mammoth that got away.  The fire kept dangerous animals out of the circle and the smoke from a campfire kept the bugs at bay.  I don’t know how well the cigars work for these things.

Tandoori Tuesday

Most of the people who work for KBR at the chow hall come from South Asia.  I think it started as a way to make them feel more at home.   Every Tuesday they serve Indian style food.   This is spiced to the taste of those who appreciate it.  I had some today.  It was a bit to hot for me and now I am paying the delayed price.  When I was in college and had a roommate from Pakistan, I used to eat a lot of kima mutter and with time I tolerated more and more curry.  I have lost that immunity.

Fortunately I have some “Pink Bismuth” (the PX usually carries generic brands). 

May 05, 2008

Buried in Dust, with no Coca-Cola, Losing Hair

Dusty books matel in iraq

Dust Everywhere 

We had some big dust storms while I was gone, but my can was tightly closed so I thought I might avoid some.  I was wrong.  I write the word on the book to show the dust.  This deposited since I was gone.  Note the color.  It is not the kind of dust you find around the house.  All my clothes were dusty. My toothbrush was dusty.  My bed was dusty.   It just didn’t show up well in the pictures, so the best way I can show is with the dusty books above.  They were relatively clean when I left.

Usually, I sweep up or dust a little every day.  It is always dusty, but usually not this bad as a result.  You really don’t appreciate how much dust there is until you go away for a while. 

When I first took over my office & this can where I live, I was a little annoyed with my predecessor.  I though he left the place a bit gritty.  Now I understand that he just moved out a couple days before I moved in and that is all it takes to make the place as dusty as the Addams Family mansion.

It makes me much better appreciate places like the chow hall.  They always keep that place really clean and continually are winning the dust wars. 

staff in tent

Office transition

My staff members are still in tents.  I am in an office can.  It is not unpleasant and my colleagues were very good to me.  They dusted it, so I can home to a relatively clean environment there.  Good to have a little help from your friends.   They are suffering mightily, however, with the heat and the dust in the tents.

Office space geography is a challenge.  I like to do MBWA – management by walking around.  Lots of little problem can be solved before they become big problems and lots of opportunities can be generated before the sparks are lost if the boss is just there to nudge.  Good management is not really rocket science and just being there is much of the secret to success.  That is how I can add value to my already great team.  This office/tent arrangement makes it much harder.  I have to make a special point to walk out to the tent.  I see that I could easily get stuck and isolated in my office can.   There are certainly many things to do in the office, but usually when you are sitting at the desk you appear busier with important things than you actually are.  As I said above, I believe in peripatetic management.  It helps build the team and empowers every good worker. 

Fortunately, this construction period won’t last too long.   I talked to the guys actually doing the work and even the pessimistic scenario says end of May.  They are putting the wiring behind the walls (instead of hanging in front), repainting, giving us a real ceiling and generally improving the area.  My team members will also get two Plexiglas windows, like I have.  I think natural light is important and this will take away from the cave atmosphere.  It looks like we might get something that looks like a real office. 

The guy doing the construction told me that it will still be dusty, however.  Even if they seal the windows and make the doors tight, we cannot avoid the dust.

A Cola Free Environment

The chow hall has a serious problem – no diet cola of any kind.  We have no diet Coke AND no diet Pepsi.  This is a serious problem with the hot weather setting in.  I don’t know how long the crisis situation will persist.  The guys I talked to did not seem to know.  They are waiting for a shipment.

I have a supply in my refrigerator.  A dozen cans, which is good for a couple of days.  I fear I may be forced to drink diet Sprite (which they still have) or even … water.

UPDATE:  Since I wrote this, diet Coke has returned, hallelujah.

Hair Today; Gone Tomorrow

John MatelSpeaking of water, on the way up I met a woman who was going to Baghdad.  She asked me if I thought the water here made your hair thin or fall out.   I don’t know what made her think I would know anything about hair matters.  Of course, maybe she just thought that I understood bald.   

My speculation is that it is not the water, but the dust.  This dust is alkaline and it always covers everything, including people.   I no longer really have a hair problem, but I do notice that my skin gets dry and flaky.  When I was in the U.S. I noticed it was not so much a problem, but it starting in again now.  Living in this desert is like daily exfoliation using 20-Mule-Team Borax.

Maybe hair is related.  Or maybe the hair thing is just perception.  I didn’t have much hair when I arrived.  I don’thave less now.  Long, pretty hair is not much of a concern to me or to most of the guys I work with.

Working in Iraq

Maybe I complain too much.  I really like my colleagues here & the job we are doing together.  When I am done with Iraq, I don’t think I will miss anything about the place, but I will miss the people I work with, both Americans and Iraqis.   Why can’t I get a job like this in a nicer place?

Below - I had limited success with sunflowers.  My colleagues kept them alive while I was gone, but only three came up.  Maybe that is emblematic of all our work in Iraq. The construction workers have been very good and careful in avoiding them.


May 04, 2008

You Just Wait in Q8

bunk beds in kuwait 

The big base at Ali Al Salem has a reasonably good chow hall, a nice MWR and a decent, if not great place to sleep.  But the whole installation is like a giant waiting room in a giant bus terminal in the Twilight Zone.

First you have to get all your papers stamped.  This is a fairly efficient, if confusing process.  Suffice to say, go to one tent to mill around until you figure out what to do, but do not leave until there is some kind of stamp on your travel orders.  That stamp is what lets you fly or take the bus.  W/o that stamp you will become a resident of the place.

Below C17 loading.  People get on first and wati for the gear to be loaded.

c17 loading

Another tent is where you catch the flights to Iraq.  You have to sign up for the place you want to go.  It might take a long time or not to get out.  In my case this time, I was very luck and got out the same night I came in.  This is uncommon. 

After sign up, you have to attend a general roll call twice a day.   If you fail to show up, you lose your place.   You also have to attend a specific role call for the flights going where you want to be.  You are not guaranteed a space.  They read off the names of people for whom they have space.  If they read your name and you say “here”, you get manifested for a specific flight.  That does not guarantee you will go or that the flight will fly, but it is a necessary step.

Each flight has a show time.   You show up will all your gear and get ready to wait.   In my recent case, we had a 2315 roll call where they told us we had a midnight show time.  We got on buses at 0145; the plane took off at around 0315 and we were in Al Asad a little more than an hour later.

After show time, you go on “lockdown”, which means you cannot leave the terminal expect to go to the bathroom.  Even that is risky, since they may call your flight at any time … or not.   You want to be around when announcements are made.  That is why you need a buddy system.  Make sure that you ask someone to listen for you if you need to make a head call.   In my above example, we were locked down for an hour and 45 minutes and this was three hours and fifteen minutes before the flight.   Makes you appreciate air travel in the U.S., bad as that can be.   For me, this was a great trip. Sometimes people get stuck for days or weeks.


 modules in c17 

above - you can see the moving plates.

Our flight was a C17, which is an enormous, cavernous aircraft, like a flying warehouse.  The floor has rollers and modules that make it easy to switch out cargo or seats.  They just lock them into place and that is it.

I like the C17 because it is faster and marginally more comfortable than a C130.  Beyond that, there are lots of seats on the C17, so you usually don’t have to worry so much about getting bumped off it.  Despite my exalted civilian protocol rank, I get no priority, so I am liable to get bumped if someone or something important comes along.

An experienced traveler more than 5' tall tries to get a seat on the side or in the very front.  It is a tight fit.

red liight flight 

Above - reading lights are not so good in flight.

Back to Al Asad

We arrived in the early morning and it was comfortably cool.  I was happy to feel that weather.  As soon as the sun came up, however, it started to get hot.  Within about a half hour you could feel the difference.  It still is nothing like it will be, but we have the harbingers of heat all over the place.

ripper road

Above - the road to Camp Ripper.  It reminds me of the closing scene of the old "Hulk" TV show, when David Banner has to hit the lonely road.

I decided to walk down.  It is only a 25 minute walk and it was pleasant in the early morning calm.  I am really glad I did that.  It gave me a better impression of Al Asad as I returned and took a little of the edge off the dread I was feeling on coming back.   This is an unpleasant place, but it is not that terrible.  I also looked forward to getting back to the job and back to my friends and colleagues working here.

Below - a new dawn in Al Asad.

Dawn in Iraq May 3, 2008

May 01, 2008

Protecting People not Places

Boynton tavern 

Above is Boyton, Va, about 30 miles west of my tree farm.  It is a very charming place, but not growing very much.  It once sat on the main lines of communication.  Not anymore.  

I am hoping to buy another piece of forest land down in Brunswick County.  This would be 114 acres, about 90 acres in 12-year-old loblolly pine, the balance in stream management zones with natural regeneration hardwood stands from 1940.   This part of the state is Virginia’s “wood basket”.   The population has dropped over the years and collapse of the tobacco industry has pushed lots of worn out or marginal lands into trees.   That is why land is relatively cheap.  The soils are good for growing pine trees but not so good for other things.   In addition, the soils can absorb significant amounts of biosolids w/o creating a pollution problem.   This region should produce wood.  It is what it is good at doing. 

Forestry is not labor intensive as it once was.  It also does not need much in the way of infrastructure.   A particular stand of trees will only need the road about once every fifteen years.   This allows for lower maintenance and road construction costs.  It also means that a forestry area will support a lower population density.   The population will not grow and in some cases will actually decline.

Johnny Reb in Boyton

Left - most southern towns have their reb statue.  This one is in Boyton in front of the courthouse.

Politicians hate this.  For one thing, it means fewer constituents and population decline(or lack of robust growth) somehow seems like a failure or at least a problem.   They often get the state to make local investments.  Everyplace, no matter how unlikely or isolated, tries to sell itself as a future tech hub.    Most of the time, these sorts of development projects fail, but they are successful just long enough to keep people trying.  It is sort of like slot machine pay off.

A smarter policy is to let regions do what they do best.    People in forest country can engage in forestry.   Given the capital intensive nature of today’s forestry, there is scope for some people to have good and high paying jobs – put not many of them.   A policy that tries to fix population on the land is silly, expensive and counterproductive.     Leave the high tech to Silicon Valley, or even the Research Triangle, which is not very far away in North Carolina.

The compassionate ask, “what about the people?”  We should ask that question right back at them.    How is it compassionate to hold people near the places they were born, where most of them cannot find good jobs and where all sorts of infrastructure is stretched to help them?   If people count, it might be better to help them move to Richmond or Raleigh, which are a little over 100 miles in opposite directions, or maybe someplace else entirely. 

Sometimes people would not have to move very far.   I already mentioned the Reseach Trinangle. Southside Virginia also has some thriving regions.  South Hill is growing because of its place astride of big highways.   In addition the manmade lakes, like Lake Gaston, on the Roanoke River are magnets for people seeking leisure activity.   But there is no sense in freezing the population patterns of any particular point in history.   The land that is now my tree farm once supported a couple of large farming families.    The last ones left more than seventy years ago.  One of the places we made a wildlife feed plot and planted clover was the site of one of the homes.    Today my forestry contributes to the support of dozens of people spread around the area, but it doesn’t specifically support anybody, not even me, and certainly does not require anybody to actually live on the land and be there every day.

Nothing is forever.     Some places decline; others thrive.   The land remains, but people can move.   People should move to enjoy better opportunities.   

On the news the other day I saw a story about rebuilding New Orleans.   There was much gnashing of teeth because a couple years after Hurricane Katrina many areas remains unreconstructed.  As I understand it, the areas that are above sea level, such as the French Quarter, are already mostly rebuilt.    The low lying regions are the ones still depopulated and not rebuilt.   Good.   Some of these lowlands are best covered in wetland forests.  They should never have been developed in the first place and they certainly should not be redeveloped now that nature has reclaimed them.   Some places will gain population and some will lose.   There is plenty of land on higher ground.    Why be so stupid as to rebuild over and over in places that just don’t make sense?  This is especially true if you take into account probably effects of global warming.  It will be very expensive to rebuild these areas and it will be a colossal waste of money, as higher sea levels will inevitably cause they to be unlivable and soon.

baldcypress on tre farm

Above is a stream management zone the often floods.  Notice how well the vegetation grows.  In the middle, if you look hard, you can see the baldcypress.  It is just leafing out.

On well managed forest land, we have stream management zones.   These are wetlands where we don’t cut because they protect water quality and soils.    They are also good for wildlife.  On my land, these areas account for around 20% of the total, so at least that much land is taken out of production.   These places flood, but it doesn’t much matter.    And when they do experience high water, they help slow the flood further downstream and let water soak in gradually.  

Building booms near seashores or along rivers have made us hostages to weather.   That is the major reason the costs of storm related losses keep on going up.  A flood along a stream management zone causes no trouble.  It may even be helpful in getting water to the roots of trees.     That same water in a developed region will cause millions of dollars of damage.   The news media will shortly be around to blame global warming or the current administration.  The actual culprit is the building on the flood prone land.   Losses will continue to grow to the extent we do that.   The government actually encourages stupid building practices by making low cost flood insurance available.   We should just say no. 

We should not treat every place equally.    Some places we should use intensely; others we should use extensively and some we should just leave alone.    This goes for natural and human communities.  However, these well might be different places at different times.   Government’s role should be to ease and facilitate transitions, not stand in the way of change or enable dumb behavior, but maybe that is too much to ask.  

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