Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Screw It!!! My First Week in Baghdad (Part I)

I haven't received official clearance to post from here yet, although nobody seems to be clear on who would provide said clearance anyways. So for now, operating under the old Army adage "It's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission," some observations from my first week in Baghdad:

- On my first day in country, MNSTC-I gave me the day off to
reset my sleep schedule. So when not passed out, I decide to walk around the Palace grounds a bit to orient myself. I took in the sunshine, the breeze blowing through the palm trees, the birds chirping . . . the crack of small arms fire in the distance. It was likely coming from a range on one of the American posts just outside the International Zone, but it is still a little disconcerting to hear it for the first time in this environment.

- On Thursday morning I inprocess with an E-5 who used to work with the Special Forces teams up north, so we end up having lunch with some of her buddies. One thing I like about the Palace is that it has a distinctly "Wild West" feel to it, especially the internet cafe/coffee lounge. As percussion heavy World music plays in background, U.S. military personnel wearing body armor sip lattes and meet with Iraqi officials in Italian suits; khaki-clad Foreign Service Officers sit beside officers from any of the dozen foreign militaries I've seen in the Palace; brawny security personnel wearing ear pieces chat casually with former Special Ops guys now making a fortune as private security contractors; and sunglass wearing "OGAs" (Other Government Agency) sit quietly reading the newspaper. Oh, and the best part is that we're all visibly armed and caryring extra clips of ammunition!

- One piece of good news: when I meet him face-to-face, Ambassador Khalilzad appears to remember me from our one meeting last summer in DC. I guess it pays to be short yet loud and obnoxious!

-- Friday afternoon at the office, I hear a low rumbling sound, as if furniture were being moved in an office above us. One of my co-workers asks me if I'd heard that, and said it was an explosion. One of the military guards outside the office says that particular rumble was just construction work in another wing of the Palace, but like the small arms fire, this gives me something to think about.

-- On Saturday I make my first trip outside the International Zone, as the Ambassador travels to the Al Huriyah Youth Center to view the rehabilitated facilities and deliver a set of remarks I've drafted. Before departing, I scramble to ensure I have certain necessities in the event of a worse-case scenario: extra magazines, field dressings, quick clot, etc. We are met at the cetner by Nic Robertson of CNN, who has the exclusive video rights to the event, although there are numerous Iraqi press there, and one strikingly beautiful blonde reporter from the AP.

Ambassador Khalilzad begins touring the youth center, visiting with a group of young boxers, then some weightlifters, and finally we proceed into the wrestling room, where fourteen teenage boys are practicing takedowns. The wrestling coach sees my interest in the wrestlers, and puts his hand over his heart, an Arab gesture of friendship. I speak with one of the directors of the youth center, and decide right away to try to obtain American sponsorship for the wrestling team. (If interested, email either me or my brother for details). A soccer team is brought into the room, and the Ambassador delivers his remarks from a stage at one end of the room. Although the speech turns out to be a bit more formal than the occasion required (my fault, not the Ambassador's), the audience of sixty Iraqis applauds enthusiastically.

-- Sunday morning, I have breakfast with Senator John McCain. (Real story and picture to follow at a later date).

-- Sunday afternoon, Ambassador Khalilzad gives a speech at a ceremony celebrating the inauguration of the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team. Whereas yesterday he was mobbed by the media after finishing his remarks, today it is a throng of local politicians who surround him, desperate for the opportunity to shake his hand and be photographed with him.

-- At 0600 Monday my roommate and I are awoken by an explosion that later turns out to be the detonation of a weapons cache discovered in a raid on a kidnapping ring in NE Baghdad. Later in the day, there is a controlled detonation of a rocket that failed to detonate within the IZ. (I can't give precise locations for the obvious security reasons). Perhaps the only thing worse than having the shell detonate in your trailer, I imagine, is to have it not detonate, and then watch helplessly as the Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team blows the round -- and all of your possessions -- anyways. Sure, you're safe and sound, but is a life without your Sony PlayStation (or other gadgets) really worth living?

David Interlude (IV)

In honor of David's three-month birthday, some pictures of him raising his head and chest for the first time.

He is clearly either trying to do proper Army push-ups like his old man, or practicing a good base for freestyle wrestling. My guess is the latter, as I often chewed on my hand during wrestling matches.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

On the "Unilateral" War

From Fareed Zakaria's column in the Washington Post this morning:

"Three years ago this week, I watched the invasion of Iraq apprehensively. I had supported military intervention to rid the country of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, but I had also been appalled by the crude and unilateral manner in which the Bush administration handled the issue."


In the tent city I stayed at in Kuwait, I ate with Iraqi translators and Australian soldiers.

At the air field, awaiting transport into Iraq beside me, were Danish and South Korean soldiers.

And in my first 12 hours here in the Green Zone, I've exchanged salutes with British and Polish soldiers (as well as one from some other former Soviet republic -- Ukraine maybe? -- that I could not identify). And yes, I've even seen soldiers wearing UN patches standing in line for expresso here.

Less than 72 hours in theater, and that's already nine nations by my count. The Poles, Aussies, British (as well as Free Iraqi Forces) were with us during the initial invasion, and the others signed on almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad.

Perhaps "unilateral" meant something different when Zakaria got his PhD from Harvard than during my time there?

Was Ousting Saddam Worth It?

From an Iraqi perspective, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. According to a January 2006 conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (an institute at the University of Maryland):

Iraqis overall have a positive view of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Asked, “Thinking about any hardships you might have suffered since the US-Britain invasion, do you personally think that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it or not?” 77% say it was worth it, while 22% say it was not.

Gallup asked the same question in April 2004. At that time, 61% said that it was worth it and 28% said that it was not.

Something to consider amidst the continuing violence and the media's anticipation of a civil war.

Safe in the Green Zone

Well, here I am.

After some 36 hours of "hurry up and wait" travel from Kuwait, I have arrived safely in the International Zone (a.k.a. the Green Zone) in Baghdad. In fact, I'm currently typing from a computer in an internet cafe in Saddam's palace. I have no idea what Saddam used this room for before, but it is big, and ornately decorated. Once I am settled in I will begin taking pictures and posting them online for everybody.

Given the obvious security concerns, I can't go into detail regarding the specifics of my travel from Kuwait. But whether I was waiting at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) or Camp Striker, the three best words to describe Iraq thus far are: 1)dust, 2)gravel, and 3)concrete. If I had to use six words, I'd just repeat the first three.

I finally arrived at MNSTC-I (Multinational Support and Training Command, Iraq) at about 0430 this morning. I was met by Major Chris Hickey, who is kind enough to let me crash in his trailer until I am assigned one myself. (There is also a LTC Christopher Hickey in Iraq who gets quoted in news articles from time to time -- not the same guy).

Major Hickey and I have a long history, and can't seem to avoid one another no matter how hard we try. Chris was a year ahead of me at Johns Hopkins ROTC, and thus in charge of me. But I was a year ahead of him in Pershing Rifles, and thus able to haze him mercilessly for a semester. Five years later, in 1998, we were at Ft. Bragg in the same brigade of the 82nd Airborne together. Chris was a newly promoted Captain then, whereas I was merely a 1LT (promotable), so again, he was in charge. But in 2000 our paths crossed again, when he was a student in a course I TA'd for Ambassador Robert Blackwill at the Kennedy School of Government. Thanks to my superior pedagogy, Chris managed to squeak by with a gentlemen's A in the course. So now its Chris' turn to be in charge again here at MNSTC-I. But no worries. It is inevitable that he will come to work for me someday at the Defense Department or National Security Council.

Although I have been up for 36 hours straight (again), we decided to wait for the chow hall to open up before going to sleep. But given that the dining facility was not open yet, we ended up getting coffee from the 24-hour Green Beans Coffee stand inside the palace, and sat drinking them by Saddam's pool as the sun came up. In the distance, you could hear the morning summons to prayer emanating from a nearby mosque.

I think this was the first of what are likely to be many surreal moments during my tour of duty here in Iraq.

Okay, I have to try and get some sleep. My future posting may be limited while I apply for permission to continue the blog, but hopefully the gap between entries will not be too long.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Safe in Kuwait

I have safely arrived in Kuwait, where I am writing from an undisclosed location (well, okay, its an AAFES internet cafe), waiting for the first available transport into Iraq. I almost made it into country last night on a late flight into Baghdad, but my group was bumped from the manifest when we arrived at the plane.

Some travel notes to tide you over until I am able to provide specifics on my location and activities:

- Our travel started at Ft. Bliss with a 0020 formation Thursday night/Friday morning, after which we loaded our gear (four duffle bags and a carry on, although I was allowed to bring my Stanley "Tough Box," a 36"x24"x18" tool shed), cleaned the barracks and area around the replacement center, drew weapons and atropine kits, and mustered to the air field at 0600. In between all this, I was unable to sleep, and watched "The Dirty Dozen" in the day room. Like watching "Black Hawk Down" on the bus between Ft. Jackson and Ft. Bragg, I couldn't help notice the irony of viewing a war movie before shipping out to a combat zone.

- At the air field, we were served a hot breakfast, and weighed in with our carry-ons to determine the seating chart for the flight. (This made me afraid that I would be seated between two fat contractors to balance things out, but fortunately had plenty of space). The chaplain led a non-denominational Christian service in one corner of the large hangar, and you could hear the echo of about 20 soldiers quietly singing "Onward Christian Soldiers." When we moved out to the airplane, the cadre who had been in charge of us for the week lined our path, shaking our hands and wishing us luck. Little things like that mean a lot to soldiers, and it was a far cry from the indifference/condescension certain officers at Ft. Bragg displayed.

- Not to sound weird, but it is strangely liberating to walk onto an airplane carrying a Baretta 9mm. Talk about things I'll never get to do again once I return to the civilian world . ..

- Our first refeuling stop is at Bangor, Maine. As we move from the plane to the terminal, we are met by the "Maine Troop Greeters," approximately 20 veterans and spouses who formed a line, shaked our hands, and thanked us for our service. About half of them wore red and yellow marine sweatshirts, which made me think fondly of my father-in-law (a two-tour Vietnam vet) and Marya's family in Maine. The Troop Greeters provided us with free peanut butter fudge and cookies, and the USO office was decorated with banners expressing the appreciation of units that have passed through Bangor. After 90 minutes and the obligatory lobster roll, it was time to leave the country. Again, the Maine Troop Greeters lined the passageway to the gate to see us off. They wished us a safe trip, thanked us for answering the call to duty, and one lady, Kay Lebowitz, hugged as many of the 160 soldiers as possible. It took all of my reserves not to choke up at this expression of support.

- About ten hours later, we arrive at an airport in Germany for another refueling stop. We were taken by bus to a special terminal used to house the U.S. military between flights. Whereas in the US the television montiors featured news channels or NCAA tournament gaems, the two televisions in the German terminal featured pornography. The 18-year old privates, exposed to European sophistication for the first time, quickly gravitated to the tables that offered the best views of the women gyrating naked on the screen.

- Personally, I was more interested in the section of the terminal with the two snack bars. Each had long lines of soldiers waiting to buy brats for $2, or $2.50 desserts such as Black Forest Cake or Apple Streudel. I had one of each, as well as a strong cup of German coffee. I had only managed to get an hours sleep by lying in the aisle, hoping nobody would step on my head. But given that it was now 0900 in theater, I didn't want to sleep any more so that hopefully my body would be adjusted to Middle East time.

- The worst part of the layover in Germany was the booze, or rather, the lack thereof. Whereas a small cup of Coke cost three dollars, a bottle of Rheisdorf (I think) beer cost only two dollars. When we arrived at the terminal, there was a table occupied by a group of airmen on a separate layover. On the table next to them stood roughly fifty empty beer bottles! Also, in the duty free shop, there were rows and rows of high-end liquors, including Danish and Finnish Vodkas unavailable in the US, and a 15-year old Glenfiddich for only 39 Euros. But General Order #1 for CENTCOM is that troops can neither consume alcohol while in theater nor lawfully bring it into Iraq or Kuwait. Was it Coleridge who wrote "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?" It is going to be a long year.

- After only getting another hour of sleep between Germany and Kuwait, we finally arrived in theater. I will be a bit more sketchy on the details so as not to give away any classified information here. At the Kuwaiti airport, buses took us to a water point were we waited for an hour and stretched our legs. Our busdrivers (who looked Pakistani -- Kuwaitis rarely do any manual labor themselves) unfolded a cardboard box, removed their shoes, and began praying towards Mecca. Inside the port-a-john, graffitti indicated the units that have passed through here on their way to Iraq.

- Along the way to our present location, we passed goat herds, sheep, and even some camels grazing in sparsely vegetated fields. Children played soccer on sandy pitches, and we were passed by a Sheikh in a shiny new Mercedes, smoking a cigarette. As the sun set into the Western desert, it framed an old mosque (possibly abandoned) against a salmon backdrop. The perfect end to the first day spent in the theater. (Okay, the steak, shrimp, and crab legs they served at the camp mess hall were pretty good too).

Either way, my hour is about up. Hopefully I will be able to make it into Iraq in the next 24 hours. I will try to post again as soon as I am somewhat settled in the Green Zone.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Off to Kuwait

Unless the first thing you do on a Saturday morning is wake up and read this web log (in which case I love you, but you need help), by the time you read this I will be in the air, on my way to Kuwait.

This is therefore likely to be my last post for awhile, as I do not know what access I will have to computers for my first week in theater, and once I actually do arrive at the Embassy, I will need to get clearance from my commanding officer to continue blogging.

Beyond the immediate dred of a 30+ hour process of turning in my linen, loading my gear, cleaning the barracks, drawing my weapon, packing a bus, waiting in an air terminal, stopping over for fuel at undisclosed locations, and sitting on a plane in full uniform for over 22 hours, I'm feeling pretty well.

I'm nervous, to be sure. Every now and then the reality of what I am embarking upon sinks in, and I have to remember to odds of anything happening are remote. But if anything does happen, I am fighting to help make others free, which is what I've always wanted the opportunity to do.

This is why I'm also excited. Very few people get the chance to make this kind of a difference in this world. It is fashionable in some circles to confuse cynicism with intelligence, and to wear the perpetual hat of the cynic when it comes to the morality of U.S. foreign policy. But there are still real monsters out there in the world, those who would seek to either reimpose the tyranny of Ba'athist fascism on Iraq, or to impose Islamofascism. The Iraqi people have overwhelmingly indicated that they would rather live in some form of democracy than to be subject to those horrors once again. Just as the American soldier fought for liberty in the Revolution, to end slavery in the Civil War, to defeat Nazism in WWII, and to stop communism in Korea and Vietnam, I'm honored to be at this time and place and history, to be able to serve my country in this noble pursuit.

Above all, I hope that I will be able to explain this to David some day. I hope he will understand how much it hurt to leave him and his mother behind, but that there are some things in this world bigger than us, and worth fighting for. Not a day will go by when he and Marya are not in my thoughts, and I will miss the two of them more than words can express.

Anyhow, until next week (hopefully), take care, and God Bless all of you.


Friday, March 17, 2006

Quotes of the Day (V)

Some thoughts regarding the importance of information operations, past and present:

"The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander."
T.E. Lawrence

"I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."
Ayman al-Zawahiri, from his letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

"It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its share may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for battles."
Osama Bin Laden

Al Qaida Attack on Green Zone Foiled

I guess I can get over any guilt I am feeling over serving in the Green Zone rather than somewhere in the Sunni Triangle or closer to the Syrian border. . .

Authorities foil an al-Qaida attack on heavily guarded Green Zone


BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) The interior minister said Tuesday authorities had foiled an al-Qaida plot that would have put hundreds of its men at critical guard posts around Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. and other foreign embassies as well as the Iraqi government.

A senior Defense Ministry official said the 421 al-Qaida fighters were actually recruited to storm the U.S. and British embassies and take hostages. Several ranking Defense Ministry officials have been jailed in the plot, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, in an interview with The Associated Press, said the 421 al-Qaida recruits were one bureaucrat's signature away from acceptance into an Iraqi army battalion whose job is to control the gates and main squares in the Green Zone. The plot was discovered three weeks ago.

``You can imagine what could happen to a minister or an ambassador while passing through these gates when those terrorists are there,'' Jabr said in the interview conducted at his office inside the Green Zone a 2-square-mile hunk of prime real estate on the west bank of the Tigris River. The area is a maze of concrete blast walls, concertina wire and checkpoints.

The Defense Ministry official said the plot was uncovered by the military intelligence and the General Intelligence department that works under the government.

The Green Zone has been attacked in the past with mortar rounds and rockets. A number of car bombs driven by suicide attackers have been detonated in the past two years at the entrances, killing scores of people.

On Oct. 14, 2004, two al-Qaida members carried out a suicide attack inside the zone, hitting a market and a cafe. Six people were killed, including four Americans, and 20 people were wounded.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Or at the least the Army has determined that I am deadlier with a word processor than with an M-4 or 9mm.

Today, after months of bureaucratic wrangling, it became official that my first duty position in Iraq will be as speechwriter for Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. I was involved in Amb. Khalilzad's "murder board" for his confirmation hearings last year as DoD's representative, and came away extremely impressed by both his intelligence and his demeanor. He has earned justly deserved praise from all quarters -- Republican, Democrat, and Iraqi -- for his efforts to broker critical agreements between the various communities within Iraq's nascent democracy. So I am both grateful and excited to have the opportunity to work with him at such an important juncture of our mission in Iraq.

This also explains why I am at Ft. Bliss now rather than Ft. Bragg. When the Army recalled me to active duty, they did so with the intent that I would be a Civil Affairs (CA) officer, and they refused to deviate from this plan even as three separate commands in theater made by name requests for my services. Consequently, I was sent to Ft. Bragg to be a CA operations officer with a CA battalion deploying at the end of April.

Although various officers in Baghdad and I tried to figure out how to get me transferred out of CA, various Army officers either belittled me (a Major at Human Resources Command asked "What do you think you are, special?"), refused to help because it didn't benefit them personally, or pled ignorance about how to work the system even though it was their chain of command. Finally, in mid-February, a Major at Ft. Bragg suggested I write a letter to the Commander of USACAPOC requesting an exemption to the policy that IRR officers activated for CA could not be released to other commands.

To make a long story short, the request was approved, as USACAPOC realized that I did not have any special qualifications for the CA job compared to the other commands that were requesting me. (The S-1, to whom I am deeply indebted for his help, said, "Young man, you are trying to buck 225 years of Army tradition by asking to be put in the position you are best qualified for. But I'll tell you what, you are one helluva persuasive writer, so I'm gonna' make this happen for you.") So last week I was finally sent to the Replacement Center I should have been sent to after Ft. Jackson in January. But unfortunately, becuase of either the selfishness or ignorance of certain officers, I lost six weeks that could have been spent with my wife and baby that I can never get back.

Perhaps the worst part of those six weeks was what it did to my spirits. I embarked on this deployment with a great deal of patriot fervor. Additionally, during my years in academia and at the Pentagon, I came to idealize the professionalism and efficiency of the military and the officers who comprise it. But the sheer incompetence of the "Warrior Brigade" at Ft. Bragg, and the dreadful living conditions endured during those six weeks, managed to crush any idealism I had. (I will not go into detail on this point, but it suffices to say there have been over 40 Congressional inquiries about the conditions and training at Ft. Bragg, the result of more than just your run-of-the-mill disgruntled soldiers).

Fortunately, my spirits are starting to improve as my actual departure finally appears to be imminent. It is likely that by this time next week I will be in theater. (The command here at Ft. Bliss, which is exponentially more squared away than the Warrior Brigade, has not given us the precise details of our flight yet, which would be Confidential anyways). The news that I will be working at the hub of our political/diplomatic effort in Iraq, and hopefully will be able to make some small contribution to this crucial endeavor, only increases my enthusiasm.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

David (and Daddy) Interlude (III)

As I mentioned earlier, after the Special Operations Command Civil Affairs course ended, I was able to spend a four day weekend at home in Virginia. When I came home for a few days after completing the refresher course at Ft. Jackson, I had a horrible cold, and could not spend as much time with David as I would have liked. However, this time I was able to be around him as much as I wanted, which given my imminent departure, was quite a lot.

Two moments stand out in my mind:
1)On the last day of my visit, we took David to Ft. Belvoir for his two-month check up and immunizations. After the doctor examined him, we decided not to get him dressed again while we waited in line for him to receive his shots, but rather jsut wrapped him in a blanket. I rearranged the blanket to look like a toga, and raised his little arm and in a baby's voice said, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!" Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty darn cute.

2) While Marya drove her visiting sister to the airport, the David and I got to spend some quality time together. While he was awake, I laid David down lengthwise on a pillow, and lay down next to him. My weight on the bed caused him to roll over at a 45 degree angle, so that he was facing me. We spent about fifteen minutes nose-to-nose, with David smiling widely the whole time. I think that when I am lonely in Iraq, this will be the memory of David that comes to mind to lift my spirits.

Anyhow, here are two pictures from that too-short visit.


For those who do not know yet, by this time next week I will finally have arrived in theater. I'll try to explain in fuller detail why it took so long for me to get sent to Iraq (and why I'm inprocessing at my third Army post in less than two months) later in the week. But for now, I need to comment on a matter of the utmost gravity.

The previews of the new season of the Sopranos suggest that it will be one of the series greatest seasons. And the first half of "24" has already hooked me in from the few episodes I was able to catch in the barracks at Ft. Bragg. These are arguably the two greatest television dramas ever to be airing at the same time. (Steve, I assume you'll do the research on comparable pairs for a future bar room debate).

People have asked me what they can do to make my time in Iraq easier. Seeing as I will not have access to live television for at least the next six months, please, PLEASE, do not reveal any details of the new season of "The Sopranos" or the second half of this season's "24" in any emails! (Yes, there is that whole "check up on Marya and David" thing, but if someone emails to ask me what I think of Jack Bauer turning out to be a Chinese agent all along, or about how amazing it was that Tony had Junior knocked off to keep him testifying against Johnny Sack, I'll REALLY be demoralized).

Thank you for your support on this one, now I just have to avoid reading the entertainment section of the newspaper for a year and I'll be just fine.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Excellent Reporting from Kurdistan

Independent journalist Michael Totten has been travelling through Kurdistan for the past several weeks. His on-the-scene reporting outside of Baghdad, the kind that the major media outlets seem to be avoiding in Iraq, is well worth reading. Below (assuming I've finally figured out how to add links here) is an excellent piece on life in a village formerly controlled by Ansar al-Islam.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Fort Bliss (?)

I have been here almost two days now, and can honestly say I have never been to a place with a more deceptive name.

Okay, okay, so the post isn't named for the emotional state of bliss, but rather for General Tasker Howard Bliss, Army Chief of Staff and General of the Army after WWI. But I can say without much hesitation that Ft. Bliss is the ugliest Army post I have ever visited.

Although it occupies a seemingly ideal setting at the base of the Franklin Mountains, the post itself is almost completely barren. There are a few palm trees scattered here and there, but the landscape is mostly comprised of fields of gravel and dust, interspersed with motor pools or warehouses surrounded by barbed wire fences. The base is comprised mainly of Air Defense units, and for some reason they decided to paint each of the one-or-two story buildings either tan or brown, so that from a distance the installation is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding desert.

(To be honest, the building I'm quartered in isn't that bad. It is one of a small conclave of buildings with red Spanish tile roofs, and a green courtyard in the center. But unlike Ft. Sill, OK -- another former frontier post out in the middle of nowhere -- which designed all of its buildings in this aesthetically pleasing style, these buildings are the exception at Ft. Bliss).

The city of El Paso, just outside the gates, is not much better. To the south of post, where it nestles against the Mexican border, is an ugly industrial district that looks like a continuous truck stop. To the north of post, as the town climbs the foothills, the residential neighborhood is comprised of small, one-story homes in various states of disrepair. I'm willing to be proven wrong about El Paso. If anybody knows any scenic drives or beautiful suburbs, feel free to pass along a recommendation. (I did have an excellent dinner the other day at a local Mexican restaurant, Carlo's and Mickey's). But otherwise, I have to think that El Paso/Ft. Bliss is one of the more depressing places in the USA.

I'm tempted to sneak across the border to visit Juarez, which is visible from the elevated portions of Highway 10. But having seen the movie Traffic, I'm afraid that with my haircut I'd be mistaken for a DEA agent, and thus immediately kidnapped and given the cattle prod treatment.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Ultimate "It's A Small Army" Story?

When I worked at the Pentagon, once every few months I would run into an officer with whom I'd served in the 82nd Airborne or Korea. I once even ran into my Fire Support instructor from my Field Artillery Officer Basic Course, whom I'd last seen in 1994. I would then proceed to send out mass emails to all my military friends to relay the encounter, and thereby once again confirm the truism that it is a small army.

Yesterday may have topped all previous stories.

Tomorrow, due to circumstances which I'll explain later, I'm flying to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for my final pre-deployment processing. I went to the Mobilization Command's transportation office to arrange a flight and a ride to the airport. I'm waiting for about ten minutes in an outer office for a Mr. Harris, when I hear a gravelly voice from inside say "Runkle? Runkle!"

Out walks a dark-skinned African American man, about 50 years old, standing 5'3", and with a luminous white grin from ear to ear. "You're not Mr. Harris," I said. "You're Mr. Booker."

It was Command Sergeant Major Booker, who was my Sergeant Major at Johns Hopkins ROTC in 1993/94. While I was admittedly something of a ne'er-do-well as a cadet (too many fraternity parties, I guess, although I had the highest GPA in the "Blue Jay Battalion") Sergeant Booker loved me because, like him, I was a wrestler, and because I was the only soldier/cadet he'd met that was shorter than him. Booker and I ran into each other again in 1997 when we ended up in the same Brigade here in the 82nd Airborne.

CSM Booker went on to be a Command Sergeant Major for two battalions here at Bragg, taking one to a deployment in Kosovo, and a tour as a Brigade CSM. He finally retired last year after 28 years and 9 months of service on active duty. (He was also kind enough to let me borrow his car for a few hours today to help expedite my outprocessing from Ft. Bragg).

Since I can't go any further back in my military career than Johns Hopkins ROTC, this may be the ultimate "It's A Small Army" story for me.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Quotes of the Day (IV)

First, an apology for being out of touch lately. After the conclusion of the MCAC (Mobilization Civil Affairs Course), I went home for a four day pass, and have spent the last week trying to outprocess from Ft. Bragg. (More on both these topics later).

For now, here are some quotes from Gertrude Bell (the female Lawrence of Arabia) on Iraq, circa the early 1920s. The official British condescension to and marginalization of the Iraqi Shi'a was a significant contributing factor to the social problems that we are encountering in Iraq today.

- "The truth is I'm becoming a Sunni myself; you know where you are with them, they are staunch and they are guided, according to their lights, by reason; whereas with the Shi'ahs, however well-intentioned they may be, at any moment, some ignorant fanatic of an alim may tell them that by the order of God and himself they are to think differently."

- "The object of every government here has always been to keep the Shi'ah divines from taking charge of public affairs."

- "The vilain [sic] of the piece is Saiyid Muhammad Sadr, the son of old Sayid Hasan Sadr [and grandfather of Muqtada al-Sadr]. . . . Saiyid Muhammed was the man who first received us, a tall black bearded alim with a sinister expression. At the time you and I paid our call, Saiyid Muhammed was little more than the son of Saiyid Hasan, but a month later he leapt into an evil prominence as the chief agitator in the disturbances. He has still a certain amount of influence and it's a hand to hand conflict between us and him. He is in a black rage and I feel as if we were struggling agaqinst the powers of evil in the dark."