February 2008

« January 2008 | Main | March 2008 »

February 28, 2008

Dogs of War 2: Man’s Best Friend

Dogs of war Iraq

Man did not tame dogs; dogs tamed men.  I saw the ancient drama played out again just the other day.  Marine foot patrols come in with a couple of dogs at their sides.  The dogs look very official, very proud.  With their heads held high, they are guard dogs or at least guard dog wannabees.  They take the point; they secure the flanks; they bark at anybody or anything that seems to be a threat to “their” Marines.

When I asked the Marines about the dogs, they told me that these were not their dogs.  The dogs just showed up and attached themselves to particular patrols.  There is some kind of pack order among the dogs.  The Marines said that certain dogs follow certain patrols.  The dogs spread out or pack in close depending on the situation.  When they cross the territories of other, hostile, dog packs, they come in closer to Marines.  In open country the range out further.  When the Marines come home, the dogs sit outside the gates and bark at any intruders.   They recognize the uniforms, the smells, sounds or something else.  I don’t know, but they have assigned the security and accompanying job to themselves and in some situations they provide a useful service.  They make it much harder for the bad guys to sneak up, if any bad guys would be stupid enough to try. 

So what do the dogs get out of this?

The Marines didn’t seem to know the answer.  Maybe the dogs just like to be around people.  Maybe it is a mutual protection racket. All these things are probably true, but one of the Marines inadvertently hit on one of the big reasons.  He said, “I don’t know what they want.  We didn’t even feed them AT FIRST.”  Even Colonel Malay, who told me the story of the Ahab dogs in my earlier dogs of war post, admitted that he gave them a few scraps from the chow hall.  I did too.  Everybody does and thinks he is the only one, or it is only this one time.  The dogs know better.  They have learned a body language that gets us to give them what they want.  We humans cannot resist the cute dog.  We are conditioned to support and reward the dogs, just as the dogs are conditioned to guard us.  It is primeval.  Something in our Pleistocene genes compels the partnership. 

foot patrol in Waleed

No dogs in the above picture, BTW, just an ordinary foot patrol picture.

I felt more secure with these unknown dogs trotting along at my sides.  Of course my furry new buddies would have been absolutely no use against the dangers likely to beset me on an Iraqi street.  My civilized intellect understands this, but my Cro-Magnon core still ain’t got the news.  

Rolling Down Perdition Highway

Road to waleed

No real  road connects the border forts along the berm that separates Iraq from Syria and Jordan.  There is a sort of track, which in its better sections resembles a bad dirt road, but sometimes you cannot tell where the “road” starts and the flat desert floor ends.  Fortunately, the desert is naturally hard and more or less paved with gravel.  The bad news is that it is full of axle-busting ruts and tire piecing rocks. 

flat tire

As we rolled down the perdition highway between the border crossings at Trabil & Waleed, one of our Humvees got a flat tire.  I was impressed at how fast the Marines deployed into defensive positions and got to the job of fixing the tire and moving along.  Colonel Malay pitched in and helped with some of the heavy work. I took advantage of the unscheduled stop to make a head call.  I took a canine-like pride in marking this section of featureless desert.  

We stopped at a border fort commanded by an enlisted man.  He took justifiable pride in how well his men cared for their weapons and generally maintained operations, but he was in a tight spot.  He had not been receiving sufficient supplies of fuel, so he could not patrol as much as he might have wished.   His diesel generator was turned off to save power, so there was no electricity.  They were taking advantage of the weak sunlight and you could still see within the fort, but as shadows of evening spread over the place, it was getting harder. 

broken cars

His vehicles are in terrible shape.  I remember as a kid watching the Baja Challenge, where off the road driver raced across the that rugged desert in a vehicle survival contest. The winner was not the fastest, but the one that made it to the finish line.   This is what our Iraqi allies face every day and you can see from their vehicles that they are not always making it to the finish.  The best thing anybody could do to make life better for these guys guarding the border would be to pave a road along the berm.  This is their lifeline.  (The Syrians have a asphalt track on their side of the berm.)  It would probably pay for itself on saved vehicles and fuel within a short time.

Below is the berm taken from the window of the Humvee.   It is certainly not Hadrian’s Wall or even Offa’s Dike, but it does deter anybody who wants to drive over the border and inspections can reveal breaches where people have crossed.

Berm syria/iraq

Morale at the fort we visited was surprisingly high.  I just don’t think I would take such conditions so kindly, especially because many of the troops are evidently from Baghdad where it doesn’t get so cold.  The sharp breeze blowing across the desert reminded anybody who needed the hint that we were not in Baghdad anymore.  They seem to have decent food.  We saw a goat carcass (at least the lower half) being readied for supper and rice was boiling in a big pot.  I suppose good chow is helpful. 

One of the Marines was telling me that when they go out on a joint operation with the Iraqis, our guys report that they have whatever day’s worth of MREs, water etc.  The Iraqis report that they have enough of that flat bread they eat and Pepsi-Cola, the drink of choice among the Iraqi forces – after tea, of course.  I suppose you can always count on finding a goat if you really need one.

John Matel on roof in Iraq

The picture is me on the roof of the fort.  Off to the distance on my left is Syria; off to the right is Jordan.  You have to wonder why anybody would even bother to set up a border on a place like this, but I suppose you have to have some demarcation.

February 24, 2008

Let Slip the Dogs of War

As the Colonel and I discussed the ubiquitous packs of wild dogs that roam Al Anbar, he explained  why he doesn’t see dogs the way he used to or at least that these dogs are different from those back home that we know and love.  

During the 2nd Battle of Fallujah he said he saw one of these dogs carrying a leg, severed below the knee, still wearing the Adidas running shoe the late owner had worn that morning.  The dog kind of growled and ran off with its prize.   I have heard similar stories from others and they are as old as war.  I have read about in the epics, but looking at the faces of the men telling the stories of what they have seen themselves makes it a lot more real. “Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feast for the dogs and birds…”

(That is the beginning of the Iliad, BTW.  When I studied Greek in college we had to recite it.  I forgot all my Greek, but I recall the story…and the cadence.  It can actually make your heart beat faster.  The Iliad is meant to be spoken and heard, and read silently.)

War has always been a part of human society and always will be.  We make a mistake to think that peace is natural.  Soon after a lot of people start thinking that way, we get a war.  Peace can be maintained only with effort, wisdom and proper institutions.  A lot of it involves heading off troubles before they become threatening because once the situation starts rolling down hill and develops a momentum of its own, it is hard to stop.  It is much easier to identify threats and propose solutions AFTER the fact and that is one of the tragedies.  If you effectively avoid a threat, nobody believes it was serious.   If you are successful enough for a long enough time, everybody becomes complacent.

The Romans used to say, “se vis pacem para bellum” which is a peace through strength saying.  For all their faults and bloody-minded aggressiveness (I heard someone characterize the Roman success as the extraordinary ability to insert sharp metal objects into the bodies of their enemies), the Romans managed to establish a general peace over Europe, n. Africa & w. Asia that lasted 200 years, something never achieved before or since.  Maybe they were on to something.  The Romans not only pursued war with remarkable determination, but also built the infrastructure of peace maintenance wherever they went.  Even here in Iraq, there are vestiges of Roman aqueducts and roads and it has been a while since the legions departed.

Some years ago I read “On the Origins of War & the Preservation of Peace”.  It is a good book and I recommend it. At Fletcher I attended a similarly themed course by Professor Richard Schultz.  I took good notes and I still have them. I have thought about the ideas presented a lot and I think about them even more now. 

War is a very complex and a very human activity.  Attempts to explain outbreaks of war by political, economic or technological means are always incomplete because war in not fully rational.  It is emotional and human.  We cannot prevent all wars and we cannot completely predict the outcomes of any of them because of the human factor.  Adversaries learn and adapt to each other in a dynamic way.  Neither our side, nor the enemy is ever the same.  The whole idea is to gain advantage by developing something new and unexpected, so being unpredictable is in the nature of war.  Nevertheless, although not all conflicts can be avoided, some can and others can be mitigated by continually working at the problem and paying attention to what is going on. 

When William T Sherman said “War is all Hell”, this was a admonition, not the words of a war monger.  Sherman introduced the concept of total war to the South in the hopes of ending the war sooner and preventing its recurrence.  When the war was over, he was generous to his defeated enemies, the idea being break your enemy’s ability to fight and then remove their incentive to resort to arms again.  I think that simple formulation is a good one.  Of course, it is simple, but not easy to carry out.  It is always tempting to take the easier course and not finish the job.  I hope we don’t do that here in Iraq – and I have reasonable confidence that we won’t – because I don’t want us to have to be back later. 

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

February 21, 2008

Sanded Down by Red Sky.

Red sky Al As “Red sky” just means you are not supposed to fly.  There is red, yellow and green like stoplights. In this case, the sky was a little pink.  The picture above is from my window.  It was taken around noon.  By 2 pm, I had to turn on my lights.  Beautiful backyard I have, don’t you think?

Yesterday was a down day.   Sandstorms grounded our helicopters aborting our visit to Al Qaim.  I was looking forward to the trip.   We were planning some battlefield circulation as well as appointments at the vocational school and microfinance office.  I have heard a lot about these things, but never actually seen them.  I almost got to the microfinance center, once, but some clowns starting shooting in the air (celebratory fire) and we had to flee, as I wrote in an earlier post.

So I went back to my office to find my computer had crashed.  (It is fixed and mostly restored today, BTW.)  There is not much I can do w/o a computer, no email, no files no nothing – go home.  Most days I could have taken advantage of this breakdown to either run or work from my home computer.  But I hit the breakdown trifecta.   My home computer didn’t work because we lost electrical power to the cans.  I can run the computer on the battery, but not for very long and the electrical breakdown stops the Internet connection.  What about running?  I would like to take a long run, but not today.   The same red sky sandstorm that grounded by helicopters made me unenthusiastic about running.  Actually it may not have been possible.  It was hard to breath and the dust stung my eyes.  I think that if I tried to run I might well have filled my lungs with concrete and more of less turned to stone.   Not willing to risk the Medusa syndrome, I searched for  non-electrical, non-physical alternatives. 

I ended up cleaning up my desk and reading a book.  The desk cleaning was an exercise in futility.  I cleaned it really well & good last night.  This morning it was dusty enough again to qualify as Addams family office furniture.   

The reading was good.  I have a book called “1453” about the fall of Constantinople.  Alex gave me the book for Christmas.  It is a good complement to another book I just finished reading called “Sea of Faith” re Muslim & Christian interactions in the Mediterranean. 

The lost world of the Byzantines interests me. I have been to Istanbul twice and I would gladly spend a month there.  I think it is one of the most interesting cities in the world.   Edward Gibbon short changed the Byzantines and largely thanks to the two-century success of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the English speaking world thinks of the Byzantine Empire as merely a thousand-year decadent & effeminate postscript to the virility of the Romans.   (Of course the caveats that Gibbon never used the specific word Byzantine to refer to the Eastern Empire and to the extent that anybody thinks about it at all.  Kids these days don’t know nothin’ about the Byzantines.) 

Gibbon is beautiful as literature; less attractive as history.  I think it is fascinating how his formulations and prejudices shaped historical views even among people who never heard his name or know that Constantinople was the capital of the Roman world for a thousand years.  Gibbon’s assessment of the effect of Christianity and his obvious admiration for pagan philosophers like Julian the Apostate has crept into our comparisons of our own society to that of the late Roman Empire.  It demonstrates the power and persistence of “spin”. You don’t have to know the source to be in its power.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you are sanded down, your computer is crashed & your can is electricity free.

February 17, 2008


Iraq palm trees

In oak trees the wind rustles.  It whispers in the pines and it murmurs in the cottonwoods and aspens.  It murmurs in tulip poplars too, but more emphatically.  After all, those are big trees.  The wind whistles around corners; through rocks it howls and down canyons it roars.  In palms it sort of rattles … at least that is my observation from the date palms.  As I recall, in palmettos it kind of swooshes.   

It is windy in Al Asad, but the wind doesn’t speak in any of the tones I mentioned above.  I only really noticed that when I heard the wind in the palms a little outside the main camp and realized that I had not heard much from the wind recently.  I think the reason is the nature of both our geography and our structures.   Most of the terrain is flat, providing the wind with nothing to strike to make sound.  What hills we do have are made of soft and blowing dirt.  Their yielding surfaces muffle and confuse the wind.  The edges become rounded and pliable.  There is not much sound.  Trees are so few and far between that the rustle, rattle or murmur is lost in the vast emptiness.  Even our man-made materials tend to be soft and curved Hesco barriers or dull and rounded Jersey barriers.  These things acquiesce to the wind and don’t create the resistance or movements that generate sound.

The final factor is competition.  It is hard to listen to the sounds of the wind, or any natural sound, when generators, heavy trucks and helicopters demand to be heard.  I miss the silent sounds and the rattling of the palms reminded that I also miss the sounds of the wind in my home woods.

One of my favorite places is Old Rag in the Shenandoah.  I have been up there dozens of times in various seasons and weather.  My first visit was 24 years ago.  There have been changes.  The hemlocks have been largely wiped out by the hemlock woolly adelgid.  It makes me sad every time I pass the places they used to be.  They are almost completely gone & I don’t think they will ever return, but they still have a place in my landscape of memory.  Hemlocks make a sweet, soft sound, a little dark and melancholy, but beautiful, or maybe that is just the way I remember the doomed forest because I know what happened to it.  The rest of the forest is sturdy and healthy.   

You have to go during the week, since weekends and holidays bring crowds.  Weekdays are good because you can have some time to yourself, especially if you get there early enough, but there are still enough people around that in the unlikely event you get snake-bit or fall off a cliff there will be someone around to help. 

The folds of the mountains isolate the sound & virtually eliminate man-made noise in some spots. It can seem preternaturally quiet up there to someone used to the sounds of civilization.   You can hear the sound of the wind in the rocks, in the pines, in the oaks.   And if you sit and listen long enough, you can hear the sounds of individual animals & birds, even the sound of particular leaves as they drift down. I have “my” ledge where I like to sit and listen.  It faces sound and east, so if I get there around 10, I can sit in the warm sun if the day is clear and look out over the valley.   I will go back to Virginia this spring for R&R and I will be up on the hill again with renewed appreciation for those sounds and those feelings … and for things that are green instead of dusty brown.  

February 15, 2008

Iraqis in Charge

Iraq parade 

A few short months ago, Hit on the Euphrates was one of the “most dangerous” places.  But the Marines and the Iraqis fought the insurgents and AQI and killed some, reconciled others and drove most of the rest out of town.  Yesterday Hit returned to the care of Iraqi police, army and security forces.

US flag raise HitIraq flag in Hit

I could tell the Iraqis were proud.  The Marines told me that they had been practicing all week to make sure everything went as planned.  I attended the ceremonies and watched members of Iraqi IP, Army and special units march by and then raise the Iraqi flag.  People have to respect themselves before they can give respect to others.  The Iraqis in Hit had won back their self respect.  I think they lost it for a while, first when coalition forces so rapidly defeated the Iraqi army and then when insurgents and AQI were able to push around local people and leaders.  But now that they have pushed back, now that they have won their victory fighting side by side with our Marines, they have earned the right to feel good about themselves again.

The governor of Al Anbar came and gave the usual speeches as did Mayor Hikmat.   He is the cousin of Hatem, the Albu Nimr sheik at whose home I have had many good meals.  I am getting to like these guys and as I learn more about what they went through, my respect for them grows.

Iraqi dancing in Hit
Events like this indicate confidence in the Iraqi forces to take increasing responsibility for their security.  Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry wrote this article describing the transfer.  Some of the Marines told me that it was significant that we could attend such a large and public event w/o body armor.   They know about such things. 

usmc in Hit
As is increasingly becoming common, we drove to the event.  When I flew over the place, I thought that, except for the areas right near the Euphrates, the land below was just featureless desert.  Now that I have driven over it, I understand that I was … right.  This is the most barren place I have ever seen.  When I drove through Nevada and Arizona I though I saw barren, but I was mistaken.  At least those places have tumble weeds, cactus and cool rock formations.  In the Iraqi desert, even the wind doesn’t make much noise because it blows across soft dirt and surfaces with rounded edges.  There are occasional breaks, oases with date palms and citrus, but they are few & far between.  The incongruous thing is that I see sheep & goats.  I know that the sheep must be eating something, but I really cannot figure out what that could be.

Iraq Perceptions Out of Date

This is a post I wrote for the State Department blog (blogs.state.gov).  It is a little more policy/pr than many of my posts, but I include it FYI.

Public perceptions of Iraq are not wrong; they are just out of date. Media coverage of Iraq has dropped in almost perfect correlation with progress made toward peace and stability. As a result, the picture persists from pre-surge 2006 but it is not 2006 anymore. It is post-surge in Anbar Province where a significantly more secure Iraq exists rebuilding, learning, governing, producing and starting to make huge strides along the road to prosperity.

Members of my ePRT recently made a visit to Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and this provides a good example of what I am talking about. Back in 2006, Al Qaim was a bloody battleground, with AQI cutting off heads and hands while insurgents moved around the province with near impunity. This is the picture we all saw in 2006 of Marines fighting building to building and making gains street by street is the one unfortunately far too many of us still recall. The picture in 2008 shows an area of growing prosperity, with markets full of people and things to buy, homes and businesses being rebuilt and people looking to and planning for their future.

During the visit, ePRT affiliated trainers were just finishing up a course for city managers and local officials on project development and anti-corruption efforts. About forty officials attended the four-day program and even on the last day of the training they were involved, excited and animated. A four-day course will not solve Iraq’s governance problems, but at least these officials had the ability to imagine and work toward a future better than the past.

Not far away is a vocational training center, run by a USAID contractor. It is graduating its second class of students since it was founded just over a year ago and a third class is already oversubscribed. Young Iraqis are learning all sorts of useful basic skills, such as electrical work, heating and air conditioning, appliance repair, auto mechanics and many construction trades. Students are enthusiastic and are already giving back to the community. For example, in the wood working classes they are assembling desks and bookcases for local elementary school rooms. Graduates are hired by local firms eager for employees with proven basic skills. They are offered good wages, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Demand for graduates far exceeded supply in the first two classes and there are plans to expand the program and make it self- sustaining by getting the businesses that benefit from the program to help fund it.

Iraq’s various wars and the late insurgency took a heavy toll on the men of Al Anbar leaving many widows and orphans. One of the ways we are helping address their situation was by opening women’s sewing centers, where they are offered training in sewing and tailoring. This is not a temporary fix. These skills can provide basic income and the chance to start a small home business. Graduates get a sewing machine and some basic materials upon graduation to get them started. Empowering women even in a small way that enable them to prosper in specially heartening given the plight of so many widows and orphans across Western Anbar.

A proven way to jump start small businesses is with small loans (microfinance). The microfinance program in Al Anbar made its first loans last November. The number now has reached 211, totaling almost $500,000 and 100% of the payments have so far been made in full and on time. Our team met the owner of a small tire repair shop who benefited from the loan program. He bought a computerized tire balancing system, which increased his customer numbers several fold while saving him time and allowing him to do a better job faster. We talked to another small merchant/manufacturer who creates custom steel rebar and angle iron for construction. When we asked him how his business would have been w/o the small loan program, he told us that he would clearly and simply not have a business at all without the program.

Iraq is certainly no paradise and but what is important here is that it shows what has been done, what can be done and what continues to need to be done here in Iraq. Behind the thriving shops and busy markets are wrecked buildings and damaged lives. Terrorists continue to lurk in the shadows looking for weak spots and openings. But Iraq today shows an unquestionably brighter picture than in 2006 or even back when I arrived just a few months ago in September 2007. The Iraqi people are proving resilient in the face of enormous challenges and demonstrating every day and many ways that if given a chance to improve their lives, they will take it and they will grasp at this new life with a vigor that we often do not see in even more developed situations. The people of western Anbar risked their lives to break free of the grip of AQI and the insurgency. Now they are building the lives they fought for. In our small way, we are helping.

February 14, 2008

Lizards, Serpents, Sand & Scorpions

Convoy in Iraq

We convoyed out to the desert… well since we are always in the desert, I just mean a different and less occupied part of it.   Humvees are not comfortable and there really isn’t much to see along the roads of western Anbar.  This is tough duty for the Marines, but they seem to enjoy it more than I would.  It is sort of like a road trip with some camping, but camping is not so much fun if you can’t drink beer and make campfires.

Tnets in Iraq

This terrain is almost completely flat and seems to consist of a base of marble with a thin layer of yellow, dusty soil on top.  When I say marble, I mean marble.  The rock layer right below is shinny and smooth.  It looks almost like a floor covered with dirt.  The parent rock of marble is limestone, so I guess there must be a lot of limestone or at least there was.

Lizard in Iraq

The only incident occurred when our helicopter landed a little too close to the portable latrine and pushed them over.  Nobody was inside.  Consider what would have happened, however – some poor guy covered in blue crappy water and then dusted with the grit thrown up by the helicopter, sort of like a sugar donut but less pleasant.

helo landing

One of the Marines told me that he had been on this same terrain a couple years ago, only that time they didn’t even have the modest tents you see in the pictures.  These poor guys were out here for around five months sleeping in their trucks.  The Marines explained to me how easy life was on a forward operating base (FOB) like Al Asad.  He said that it was comfortable being a “fobbit.”   I didn’t have to stay out there with them for five months or even a day.  I did get to eat my MRE (see below) and I can imagine what it would be like to be here longer.  He was right.  Fobbits rule.


We didn’t have to stay in the desert overnight because we went to the big K3 refinery and spent the night there.  That helicopter that blew down the latrines picked us up. The governor of Al Anbar, other dignitaries and generals came down K3 to check on progress.   It is coming along okay, as I mentioned in an earlier posting.  Not much will come out for the time being, but it is working and that is big progress.

Governor Anbar

You can see the discussions in the picture.  The British general pictured is the one in charge of infrastructure.   The big guy is the governor.

February 12, 2008

Leaving the Asad Archipelago

We fly everyplace we go, at least we did.  My mental model of Al Anbar was that of islands, such as Haditha, Hit, Rutbah or Al Qaim,  isolated in a sea of sand.   Recently, we have begun to go overland in convoys.  It seems strange that you can actually drive to Haditha.  I realized that I had never actually passed through the gates and beyond the wire of Al Asad until just about a week ago.  I always flew.  I feel like a guy who has come to the end of the world … and then stepped off and found the world did not end.

Al Asad has reasonably good chow.  This is not the case everyplace I go.  Below is my lunch from a couple of days ago.  Notice the basic food groups.  I have the fried cheese group, the fried chicken group, the cake group and the potato chips group.  I think the cookie falls into the cake group.

Food at Haditha

It REALLY is the best I could do.

February 10, 2008

A Variety of Things

 Birds on bridge


I noticed the bird sitting on that structure in the evening.  In the morning, they were still there.  Then I saw why.  They fish and evidently fishing is good.  If you look down in the water, so see loons (or whatever the local equivalent is).   They are fun to watch.  They dive deep and come up fifty meters away.

loons in Haditha Dam


A company of soldiers from Azerbaijan guards Haditha Dam.   It is good duty for them.  They get good chow and the Marines give them goretex coats.  They take their job very seriously. 

azeri troops

Although they are fellow Muslims from a country very near Iraq, they have a lot more of the Eastern European look.  The Soviet Union was not good at doing very much, but they did manage to impose a certain uniformity that survives after it.    Garbage file in Haditha

Perpetual Garbage Fires

Western Iraq has its own versions of the eternal flame.  I noticed this garbage fire when I arrived in Iraq four months ago.  It never is allowed to go out and continues to burn in perpetuity and new garbage replaces the old.  Sunrise over the garbage pile is almost pretty.   Doesn’t smell good, however.

my iraq farm

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Until June

I want to grow some marigolds and sunflowers outside my door.  I figure I can keep them growing at least until June.   Then my guess is the extreme heat will wilt them no matter how much water I provide.

Marines walking by were amused by my efforts.  Some of them thought it was not a completely masculine pursuit.  They actually used somewhat different words, ones that in earlier versions of the English language meant “happy” & “unusual”.   But everyone was interested and I expect they will come to appreciate the brief flowering of color in this bleak place.

My office

My New Rug

I just got a new rug for my office.  Nice.  See, work conditions are not so bad.  That thing with the helmet, BTW, is the armor holder.

February 09, 2008

A Million Here … A Million There

John Matel at K# When I was a kid, I used to play in the abandoned industrial area near the RR tracks.  It kind of looked like this, except in Milwuakee we had tall grass, bushes and trees.

The K3 refinery and pump station can produce 16,000 barrels a day when it is working, but it is not working and it does not immediately impress the visitor with its orderliness or its up to date technologies.  The British built the installation in 1948 and did not use even the cutting edge technologies available in 1948.  After that, it was not always managed to high standards; the refinery was run flat out during the last years of Saddam Hussein with minimal maintenance and it has not been in operation at all since September 2005, when a shortage of crude oil shut it down. 

Still and all, this place has potential because K3 sits in a favored spot, sort of the Gettysburg of this part of Iraq, at the intersection of rail, road and pipelines as well as in the catchment point among geographical features such as the Euphrates River and Lakes Qadisiya and Tharthar.  Oil can come down from Bayji by pipeline, road or rail or up from the south.  Oil and oil products can transshipped east to international markets via Syria and Jordan or used to satisfy local demand.  

Byproducts of oil refining also have immediate local uses.  Crude from Bayji yields a great deal of pitch.  Disposing of the pitch is a potential problem, or would be except that local asphalt factories can absorb as much pitch as the refinery can reasonably produce.  This asphalt is essential to rebuild and expand the road network in Anbar and in Iraq more generally.  Another byproduct is heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is … heavy and hard to move, but would be used as fuel source for a nearby projected thermal electric station at Tahadi, immediately across the Euphrates from K3.  Iraq needs the electricity generated at Tahadi, so reopening the refinery and pump station at K3 would go a long way to addressing pressing fuel needs and crude oil either refined or transshipped could provide significant income, especially when energy prices are high. 

If this all seems too good to be true, it is.  That is why we talk about potential instead of achieved.  Oil thieves damage the pipeline in literally hundreds of locations by tapping oil and war damage rounded out the trouble.  That is why the plant ran out of crude in 2005.  Alternative methods of supplying the refinery with crude, either by truck or rail are more expensive, but viable alternatives if/when the roads and rail lines are secure. 

The logical course of action is to create enough redundancy in the system that failure in any one part will not break the whole.  According to the plant managers, the refinery has enough storage capacity to keep the operation going for 7-10 days.  K3 does not produce gasoline since it lacks the machinery to blend in the octane increasing element.  I don’t know much about these things so I trust their word, and the Marines have engineers that verify it (trust but verify.)They also say that for a small investment in repairing and replacing equipment, the refinery can begin to produce naphtha and kerosene almost immediately.  Coalition Forces have been working to get the refinery up and running again.  Our ePRT has agreed to make small funds available to jump start the process and eliminate little stumbling blocks, with the hope that once the wheels start moving and people see that it works, momentum will build to get other parts of the refinery on line and begin to expand and update operations.

Some people say that for an investment of only around $80 million everything would be working just fine, but a couple million here, a couple million there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.  Decisions about these things are made above my pay grade.  Besides, this is now an investment for the Iraqis to make.  It is their oil after all.  The jobs and income from the refining itself and all the related activities could be significant and go a long way toward stabilizing the region, so we all hope the right decisions are made. 

Getting this thing going again has been the subject of much discussion since I arrived in Iraq and people tell me before that too.  I do believe that something will finally be happening at the plant by next week.  It is a small step forward, a down payment on future success, and I hope the start of something big.

Enough Experience for Several Lifetimes

 goat grab at Sheik's

Above – we have enjoyed the sheik’s hospitality on many occassions, but I never really knew the host.

The old sheik spent twelve years as a prisoner in Iran.  He lost most of his teeth and much of his hearing.   Before it was home to Iraqi prisoners, the place where he was held had been used to house enemies of the Islamic Republic, but not for very long.  The Sheik said that they would literally find pieces of people, at least the parts that didn’t rot quickly such as bones and hair.  Sometimes, he said, they would find whole hands.  The horrors he described were unimaginable.  He remained a prisoner long after the war between Iraq and Iran was ostensibly over and finally got out in a prisoner exchange.  His family thought he was dead after not hearing from him in twelve years and when he returned home nobody recognized him at first because he was so gaunt and worn down.

Back in Iraq, he assumed the duties of tribal sheik, since it was sort of the family business. During the insurgency, he worked with neighboring sheiks to root out the insurgents and bring peace and security back to this part of Iraq.  He is still fighting a blood feud with AQI and says he still cannot sleep safely more than a couple of hours.  He carries his AK with him when he goes to the bathroom, he says. 

I did not know any of this about the man, although I had met him on several occasions at goat grabs at his home and in a variety of other venues.  He seemed like a pleasant enough old man.  That was the extent of my assessment.  Of course, the broad outline of his story is not unique around here, but the time spent in Iranian captivity is unusual, i.e. unusual that he both spent the time in Iran and is still alive to tell about it.   But most people around here have war stories or insurgent tales to tell and most local leaders still have a well-founded fear of retribution at the hands of the bad guys should the situation ever go bad again.

The old sheik loves the Marines, who he credits with saving his own life and those of his family.  He fears a U.S. pullout and who can blame him.  If we pull out too soon, we get to go home; he dies along with his family and a lot of other people he knows.

I talked to Chrissy today and she asked me if I had seen anybody killed.  I have not.  I was lucky to come just as the “most dangerous place in the world” was calming down to an almost tedious, if heavily armed, normality.   This is good.  I have no need nor do I want the kind of experience so many here have had.  I have learned as much as necessary from their stories.  I do not yearn for any of my own.

Americans wonder why Iraqis seem afraid to take initiative; Iraqis wonder why we fearlessly embrace risk.   It comes from our respective experiences.

We Americans are a blessed people.  We live in a land of opportunities where hardships don’t long prevail.  Few of us have ever experienced any real deprivation and most of us have never personally experienced war.  In Iraq, war has dragged on for almost thirty years and even during the brief interwar moments they were ruled by a capricious dictator who might decide to kill or displace thousands.  Most Iraqis are under that age of thirty so few Iraqis are old enough to remember anything except war, hardship danger and deprivation.   I can well understand why the people we meet are so resolute in their hope that this time the peace will hold; this time the stability will be enduring; this time prosperity will return.  In spite my sojourn in a recognized war zone, I still count myself in that happy group that has not personally experienced war and it is my fervent hope to keep it that way.

When we asked the Sheik how he felt about Iran today, he approached the subject obliquely, explaining that it is the duty of good Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.  Then he told us that if Mecca was in Iran, he would not go.  He would prefer to go to hell rather than back to Iran.  I guess as far as he is concerned it is hard to tell the difference between the two locations.

February 07, 2008

Riverworld Riveron Redux

 Iraq boat from side

Western Iraq is riverworld.  Very little of any significance exists very far from the river.  The distance we are talking about is often not much farther than a strong man can pitch a baseball and certainly within visual and shooting range.   So patrolling the rivers and reservoirs of Iraq makes a lot of sense and that is what the U.S. Navy is doing in Iraq.  They interdict the bad guys and stop them from crossing the river, using it as a highway or hiding in the weeds and reeds on the shores.  The insurgents thought they were safe on the little islands and in the marshes.   They were mistaken.

According to the commander, Riveron duty in Iraq is a much sought after posting.  I can understand why.  There is the proper mix of action, adventure and call of duty.  This is not the first time The U.S. Navy patrolled rivers in far away places.  We had swiftboats in Vietnam and we used to run gunboats along the Yangtze in China.  Remember that Steve McQueen movie, “Sand Pebbles?”  In 1937, the Japanese attacked the USS Panay on the Yangtze. Four years before Pearl Harbor, it was the first U.S. ship sunk by the Japanese in what became World War II.  We reacted weakly, making the Japanese bolder.

Below is me on the boat.  Funny thing, I worried about falling out of the helicopter and making a Wile E. Coyote thud on the desert floor, while I worried not at all about the higher probability danger of falling in the cold water and maybe sinking to the bottom with that flack vest.  I guess I figured the water was survivable.  The life vest will deploy … in theory.

John Matel Lake Qadissiya

This is my second cruise on Riveron boats on Lake Qadisiya.  The seasonal difference in the water is evident both in level and composition.  Last fall, water levels were dropping after the hot & dry summer and the water was a clear aquamarine because it has a chance to settle out.  Now it is raining and snowing in the mountains in Turkey and Syria.  The runoff is increasing the river flow and filling the reservoir with water of a greenish hue, with organic matter and sediment.  

This is prime fishing season. The lake features various types of carp, eel and (to my astonishment) lake trout.  I could not find out if the trout were native or introduced.  I know that trout are cold water fish.   Although the water temperature today was a cool 47 degrees, in the summer it gets warmer than you would tolerate for a hot bath.  I cannot believe trout can take that.  I suppose there are cooler pools.  

fishermen on lake Qadissya

One of the Riveron duties is to check boats crossing the lake and river.  We did that with a few of the fishing boats.   Fortunately, all the papers were in order and these guys had the rough hands and net throwing skills of legitimate fishermen. We also took the opportunity to do a little “information fishing” to find out some things it might be useful to know.  Most of the time people are happy to tell us (complain) about fuel shortages or the high prices of the things they buy. These guys complained little, evidently because fishing was so good.  They were a little unhappy that fishing near the dam was off limits.  The steady churning of air into the water creates the best fishing spots.  Fishing season lasts until April, when the lake is closed down for a month to let the fish spawn.  We wondered what the fishermen do for that month.  They get by.

Our fishermen were from the Jujhayfi tribe.  The sheik of their tribe was hosting us for a feast that evening, and these guys were visibly pleased when we told them.  Their reaction, I suppose could have been translated as Jujhayfi rule.  We gave them a couple of bottles of water and a bag of candy and went on our way.  My observation is that Iraqis are very fond of sweets.  Later that day, the Colonel passed around a big jar of chocolate covered raisins to some of the fishermen’s Jujhayfi cousins at the feast. They didn’t last long.

Below is our partner boat jumping the wake.  Why do they do it?  Because they can.  

Swiftboat Iraq


Ghosts of Vietnam


The Hueys we flew in today were the same ones they used in Vietnam.  They are small and very maneuverable.  I was a little afraid I would fall out.  My brain knew that the chances were small.  I knew and felt that when the helicopter banks, you are pushed down into the seats, not out of the helicopter.  My body didn’t believe it, however.  When my brain instructed my hand to let go of the seat to take a picture, my hand didn’t always get the word, so I missed some cool bank shots.  In defense of my fortitude, take a look at my seat.  You may be able to understand my dilemma.

my seat

We were doing reconnaissance of the battle space with the Marines and an Iraqi colonel.  They understood the terrain much better than I did.  I was glad that I got to go along.  When they pointed out the important features, I could understand the logic, but I admit that I was mostly thrilled by the views and the adventure.   

 lake tharthar

Above is Lake Tharthar.  The little ripples are birds flying off the water.  It was like watching a nature show.  Below is an isolated farm.

AL Anbar farm

Flying in the Huey gave me greater appreciation for the courage of the men who served in Vietnam.  I could hardly imagine flying this platform into a battle where committed guys on the ground were shooting at you.  The Vietnam Vets deserved a better welcome home than we gave them.

Huey window

February 05, 2008

Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson war

It is a good movie and I suggest you all go to see it.  I was particularly interested in it for a couple of particular reasons.  First of all, I started my career at the end of the Cold War; I joined the FS to help fight world communism and one of the first causes I publicized as a public affairs officer was the fight against the communists in Afghanistan. 

The end of the movie features a cautionary tale that is more relevant to me in this here and now spot. After helping the brave Afghans defeat the evil empire, we more or less walked away and largely ignored the place throughout the 1990s.   This abandoned the field to people like Osama bin Laden – the so-called Arab Afghans & their extremist local allies –  allowing them to claim that it was THEY who had won the victory, when their actual role in the fight against the Soviets was marginal at best.  Connecting my two historical strains, it was analogous to what the Bolsheviks did, showing up after others had done the heavy & dangerous work of overthrowing the Czar, convincing the world that they had done the deed and imposing their own obscene system on a devastated country.  

It is a tribute to the success of their nefarious propaganda that ninety years later most people still believe the Soviet version. The truth doesn’t always win out over the lies unless it has some powerful friends.  In any case, Afghanistan slipped back into chaos; the bad guys took over and made the country into a safe home base to terrorists with delusions of worldwide struggle, while we were lulled into a false sense of security and thought that the fall of the evil empire meant and end to history. History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes and that is what makes it worthwhile to study the patterns.  In Iraq we are not making the same mistakes. After winning the military conflict, we are staying long enough to secure the peace; at least I hope we do.  And I am proud of the contributing small role my PRT is playing in that unfolding process.

Sorry for the second in a row preachy posting.  Maybe I am just drinking the Kool-Aid, but surrounded as I am be people committed to finishing the job in Iraq, all of them volunteers, I think it would be hard not to want to be part of the team. 


Tomorrow and the next day I have some interesting things planned.  I promise to write something on the lighter side next time.  So please forgive my pomposity and don’t desert my blog.  Consider this as sort of the commercials in the regularly scheduled programming.
And do go to see “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

February 04, 2008

With Malice Toward None & Charity Toward All

Haq kids

Deserts Bloom, Not

It rained in western Anbar, creating a unique sort of mud that is sticky, slippery and viscous all at the same time, but I have been waiting for more than a week and still I see no sign that the desert around here is going to bloom, as deserts do in some other parts of the world.   I figure all the seeds were dry roasted over the summer.  But some seeds we planted are growing and I am happy to report some success, which I would like to include in some of my posts.  We are involved in hundreds of projects.  I can include only a few examples.

Books Instead of Bombs

Our ePRT expertise and funds expedited the opening of a library in Haqlaniyah, near Haditha.  The local community provided the building and much of labor to get this up and running.  It is a project they wanted and a project they worked on themselves, so I believe it will be a sustainable success.  It has internet access and we are helping them buy 6000 books as a start.  Currently, it is a general purpose library, but we expect that it will evolve into a library serving mainly local school kids. 

The picture at the top is from the library opening.

Real Estate Booms

An unexpected (to me) success has been mapping and planning software one of our team members got free from the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency.  We have a slightly dumbed down version, not detailed enough to be a security threat, but good enough for the purposes intended.  The software and training on how to use it is getting an enthusiastic reception from local cities.  The software features GPS grid coordinates and graphic overlays of details such as district boundaries.  The ePRT further facilitated the process with QRF grants for two desktop PCs each to Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwanah to run the software, as well as Theodolite laser survey equipment. 

Urban planning and surveying is particularly important to these cities at this time, because population is rapidly growing as refugees return to these recently war torn towns and people from other areas move in seeking relatively lower land and cost of living in a more secure area.

Rising property values is a sign of success. People feel secure enough about the future to build a house and raise a family.  Iraq is probably one of the few countries not to be caught in the real estate crunch and I bet most of the loans are subprime.  

War Widows

Linda and war widows

My ePRT colleague LtCol Linda Holloway has been doing good in her own special way with war widows.  Linda is doing more good than she knows.  You can read about her at this link.

I have more stories like those above to tell, and I will be doing it in coming weeks.  They are part of a much bigger picture.

With Malice Toward None …I think we should take inspiration from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, when our country was on the verge of ending our greatest conflict and looking to end a time of great hatred. 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

This is not the existential conflict Lincoln faced, and I prefer not to be melodramatic, but I will because I think the point needs making.  When you hear somebody who wants to pull us out before we have finished our jobs, think about that picture above.  We provide the security that makes this possible.  The Iraqis will be able to take care of it themselves soon, but not today.  They need us and they want us.  Think of those smiling kids involved in an insurgency or a civil war, strapping bombs to their chests instead of book bags to their backs.  And some of them would not stay only in Iraq to carry out their nefarious deeds.  We are here for their freedom … and ours.

February 03, 2008

Trouble, Trials, Tribulations, & Travail of Travel

John Matel Marine boots

Above are the boots the Marines gave me, nicest pair I have ever owned.

I wrote a post comparing my life to Groundhog Day.  Well, today it IS Groundhog Day and this is deja vu all over again. I was caught in Baghdad – weathered in.  First day it was dust; then it was rain and fog.  Yesterday I made it as far as TQ and at 0300 had to billet. Helicopter crashes are usually fatal and I prefer to avoid any chance of being involved in one, so I appreciate that they are careful with helicopter assets, but it is still frustrating to be grounded when you have places to go and people to meet … or just want to get home.

The biggest hindrance in job is travel and the uncertainty and delay associated with it.  A simple trip to attend a three hour meeting can easily cost three days of travel and delay.  I can embrace the suck; I can accept with resignation that this is just the way it is.  But it is hard to do my job when I can have so many unexpected days away from the office. 

My Area of Operations (AO)  is the biggest in Iraq, the size of S. Carolina.  A trip to Baghdad for consultations requires at least three and usually four days of travel time.  That consists of a couple of hours of flying and a couple days of hanging around.  Nothing I can do will change these realities created by distance, the technical capacity of machines and the reality of operating in an active war zone.  I may, however, have a partial solution to my travels at least around Anbar thanks to my new friends in RCT5.  They have a couple of Hueys (those Vietnam era helicopters we have all seen in movies) that they use for particular missions.  But the RCT has agreed that my team can use them if we schedule well enough in advance to work around their other requirements.  This may mean that maybe twice a week we will be able to make day trips to cities around our AO, i.e. go and return to Al Asad the same day.  If this works out, it will be a great development and save us literally a couple days of downtime each week. 

Few things short of a celestial choir can match the impression of arriving for a meeting descending from the sky amid the dust, sound and fury of a couple of helicopters.  I see what it does for the RCT colonel and the generals.  In Anbar “wasta” – an Arabic concept that encompasses both the appearance and reality of power – is very important.  Having wasta greatly enhances our work, facilitating meetings and ensuring that proposals are taken seriously.  Seeming to have my “own bird” is a great wasta builder.  Those who know me understand that this kind of status thing is not important to me, but I recognize that it is important to my interlocutors & so important to my effectiveness as PRT leader.  I have to be “Da man”.  That is what they expect of me and I have to get used to that kind of role, which does not come naturally.  My preference is diffidence – to act indirectly and downplay power.  Nevertheless, I do have to admit that I like the luxury of not having to overnight on an uncomfortable cot in order to make a short meeting, and – yes – I also think it is cool to have helicopters.  

I hope I am not counting my chickens before they hatch, but I am looking forward to this with great anticipation.

February 01, 2008

Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Bretton Wood

This completely unrelated picture is Bretton Woods, NH, the place where they came up with the Bretton Woods monetary agreements after WWII.  We went up there when we lived in NH, walked part way up Mt Washington.  It is a hard climb. The picture is still on my old blog site, so I do not need to upload anything. The blog entry, BTW, is http://johnsonmatel.com/Mountwashington.htm


I am currently stuck in Baghdad using the computer at the Internet café. It is not bad here, but I would like to get back to Al Asad.

I have walked over to the landing zone several times, carrying all my gear and body armor.  All that stuff weighs maybe 70 lbs.  It is hard to walk up stairs etc.  You get tired just walking around. I don’t know how fat people do it.   More heroically, I do not know how our soldiers can run and fight with all that weight on their backs.  

Anyway, maybe tomorrow I can get out.  I have some work I need to do back at Al Asad. I can do some things here, but I need my files for the rest.  Besides, I am not supposed to use these machines for official business.  Even for the less official stuff, the computers at the Internet café do not have easily accessed ports for the thumb drives, so I cannot even use what I have along with me.  I would feel funny crawling under the tables to find the ports. If I stay here much longer, I may consider that, however.

I should get to bed.  It is 0300.  I had to wait at the LZ until they positively cancelled by flight. They guy told me that there was a small chance I could fly and I should wait until it went to zero.  I was not alone there.  The room was crowded with the other unfortunates.  I am better off than many, since I can come back and easily get my can back and I do not have to sleep on the floor. 

This entry was posted in Conservation & Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.