Saturday, September 30, 2006

Some Poolside Thoughts

Most nights I after work here I go out to the Palace pool to read, write, or otherwise unwind (Tuesday's are MWR's poker night) and avoid my roommate. He is not a bad guy, but he has two extremely annoying habits: first, he apparently requires more sleep than any other human alive, going to sleep at 2130, and waking at 0700 the next morning. Also, when he watches a comedy on television, he for some reason needs to repeat every joke after laughing at it. (i.e. "He fell out of the tree!!!") Again, he's not a bad guy, and most importantly, he doesn't snore, so I don't have to suffer the same hell as my friend Malia, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and has to sleep in the hallway some nights because of her roommate's snoring.

The other night I was sitting and reading and saw a group of some twenty Iraqi officials being escorted through the area, likely on their way back from an Iftar dinner at the Palace. (Iftar is the nightly feast that breaks each day's fast during Ramadan). I wondered what their reaction could possibly be to the groups of tattooed enlistedmen splashing in the pool, to other groups of military and State personnel scattered on lawn chairs around the pool, or to the nurses from the health clinic playing volleyball in their bikini tops yards away from what used to be Saddam's office? Do they appreciate the irony of a singer strumming an anti-war anthem on his guitar during "Open Mike" night, while at the same time a MEDEVAC helicopter flies overhead, rushing wounded to the Combat Support Hospital?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

David Interlude (IX)

Happy Nine-Month Birthday to the Little Guy! Here is what David's mother wrote in the blog entry that accompanied this picture:
As David figures out how to manage his body he is exploring more and more parts of his world. The latest pasttime is to pull all the books off of the book shelf just because he can. So, here is about fifteen minutes after he woke up on Monday morning. He wastes no time getting to "work". I guess there is no denying he is Ben's little boy!

Less than a month until I'm home on my mid-tour leave and we can pull all the books off the shelves together!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Best Wishes . . .

To my Mother, who undergoes her first dose of chemotherapy today. The doctors say the prognosis is good that she will be completely cured of the cancer, but she will have to endure some rough days between now and then. She remains in good spirits and in my prayers.

To Everybody Else, L'shana Tova, Happy New Year!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

In The News . . .

A couple of news stories from the last couple of days that caught my eye.

First, remember all those stories before the 2004 election about how the war in Iraq was killing morale and recruitment for the U.S. military? Well, apparently the Army just had it best recruiting year since 1997. Funny how this story didn't garner the same frontpage treatment, isn't it?

Second, for the first time since October 2003, a majority of Americans support the war in Iraq. Although I think the Frank Warner overstates the significance of this poll, he is absolutely correct that the media repeatedly frames this issue in the worst possible way.

And finally, a piece on R. Lee Ermey and Unmet Needs, a charity dedicated to assisting military families facing financial hardship. For those who don't recognize the name, Ermey is the Vietnam veteran and former drill sergeant whose funny and frightening role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman made Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" a modern masterpiece. He is putting his celebrity to good use, and this is certainly a cause that deserves more publicity.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Not Your Grandfather's War

The material wealth of the United States and the logistical capabilities of the modern military combine to create living conditions for soldiers here that would be unrecognizable to Vietnam veterans such as my father-in-law, much less World War II or Korean War vets. In the International Zone, we have a weekly Prime Rib and Lobster dinner on Sundays. Our hooches are equipped for internet connectivity, air conditioning, and cable TV. (Conditions are much sparser away from Baghdad, to be sure, but still vastly improved from the conditions endured by previous generations of American soldiers).

However, I have had to endure one hardship of late. Due to some logistical foul up, the Post Exchange (PX) has been out of shampoo, razor blades, and toothpaste for over a month now!

I know, war is hell! I've been able to survive on shampoo bottles stolen from trips abroad with the Ambassador, and I have a friend in the Embassy's Political section who was a dentist before being activated for duty in Iraq who hooked me up with free sample packets from Crest. (Tip: don't sleep on the Citrus-Flavored Whitening paste -- it is the first toothpaste I've ever tried that tasted good).

Again, in previous wars the mere presence of a PX would be an unimaginable luxury, so this is a small complaint at best. Also, we have recourse to an option that not even the soldiers from Desert Storm or the peacekeeping missions of the 1990s could avail themselves to:

As I said, this is definitely nothing like what my grandfathers' experienced in World War II.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Change in the Weather

One topic I didn't write much about this summer was the intense heat here in Baghdad. The average daily highs were around 120, so that even the short walk from the Palace to the Dining Facility makes you break out in a sweat. When the breeze blew, it didn't bring relief, but rather felt like you were walking into an industrial sized hairdryer. The worst was when I wore my glasses, which served as a convection device, and trapped the hot air in front of my eyeballs. It was so hot that even on days off I wouldn't go to the Palace Pool, since all you did was literally bake under the oppressive sun (like the episode of "Seinfeld" were Kramer applies butter before sunbathing, falls asleep, and literally cooks himself).

At least I had the option of retreating to the air conditioning in my office or my trailer. I can't begin to imagine how bad it must have been for guys in the field, forced to be outside for hours at a stretch, wearing full body armor and battle gear.

But in the last week or two, the heat has broken. The high yesterday was 102 degrees, and it actually felt pleasant outside. The mornings and evenings are cool now, and consequently one sees a lot more joggers dashing through the Palace complex. I know there is nothing profound about the change in seasons, but it is strange to be so relieved that the temperature is suddenly "only" 100 degrees again.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Danger Close

"Danger Close" is an artillery term for when you have to call fire on a position within 600 meters of friendly forces.

This morning, a 40mm mortar round landed just 60 meters from my trailer.

Because Ambassador Khalilzad is in the States for the UN General Assembly Meeting, I have my mornings off for this week. So a little after 1000 I was in my trailer, getting ready to go to the gym, when I heard what sounded like somebody hitting a sheet of corrugated tin with a baseball bat outside. This kind of low thud happens all the time, and one is never sure whether it is a round impacting, construction work on the Palace, or a truck going over one of the hundreds of speed bumps inside the Palace Complex.

About a minute later, there was a much louder THUD that echoed through my trailer, and was unmistakeably a round exploding. After waiting to make sure there was no more incoming fire, I went out to see where the impact had been. On the other side of the 15-foot concrete wall and a small dirt berm (right next to the Emergency Ordinance Disposal headquarters -- talk about irony) was the 2'x2'x2' crater left from the round's detonation.

I sometimes complain that my war experiences are generally pretty boring. Today's incoming fire was enough to remind me that it only takes one moment of excitement to chagne things dramatically, and that boring isn't necessarily such a bad thing in Iraq.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 Anniversary

Each of us has our own personal memories of where we were five years ago today when we heard the news of the attacks, even as the pain and horror of that day are seared into our collective conscience. I remember looking at my computer in my office at the Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies around 0900 and seeing a line about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I thought it must have been an accident, like the small plane that flew into the Empire State Building in the 50s. I went downstairs to the library where I was completely isolated from the world do due some reading for one of my dissertation's case studies, ironically enough, the 1934-1941 U.S.-Japanese naval race that culminated in Pearl Harbor. It wasn't until I went back upstairs several hours later and saw an email from Marya saying something like "I know you still have friends at the Pentagon, I hope they are okay, and if you need to talk give me a call." At first I had no clue what she was talking about, until I went to, and then everything changed . . .

Anyhow, today I attended two memorial services to commemorate the 9/11 attacks, one at the Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory, and one here in the Embassy. Below are the statements that Ambassador Khalilzad delivered at each event. I think they say the things that need to be said more eloquently than I could scribble here at the end of a long day.

(Oh, and you may want to check out either CBS's coverage of the 9/11 Commemoration at Embassy Baghdad tonight, or CNN's throughout the day. Someone had a television camera on me for a minute during the ceremony when the air in the room got a little dry, or I was having problems with my contacts, or someone was peeling an onion nearby, I'm not sure.)

September 11, 2006

Five years ago today, al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, and children in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. We mourn the lives lost. We will not forget.

9/11 was an act of war, perfidious because it was undeclared and because the targets were ordinary civilians, going about their business on an ordinary day. The cowardly attack crystallized the threat posed to free societies by terrorists. This war has impacted our nation profoundly -- it has transformed how our government is organized and changed our approach to international affairs.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we have increased our effort to protect our homeland. We have been going after al-Qaida leaders and operatives to bring them to justice. Many have felt the sting of our justice - including, prominently, Khaled Sheik Muhammed and Al-Zarqawi. Others remain at large.

Our answer to the terrorists is ambitious. Working with other nations and the moderate governments and the people of this region, we are seeking to resolve regional disputes and to promote the political, economic and security transformation of the broader Middle East -- a troubled and dysfunctional region whose problems have engendered al-Qaida and the despair and extremism that feed it. This is a long struggle. To move towards the goal of stabilizing this critical region, we understand that:

o First, we need to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. Any other outcome will embolden al-Qaida and extremists and produce new tragedies like 9/11.

o Second, we have unfinished business with some of those terrorists responsible for the September 11th attacks. Osama bin-Laden, Zawahiri and others who remain at large must and will be brought to justice.

o Third, we must deny al-Qaeda and similar violent extremists sanctuary from which they can plan and launch new attacks against the United States and our allies.

o Finally, in addition to strengthening our defenses at home, we must continue our long-term efforts to promote cooperation amongst the nations of the world that are threatened by terrorism.

Our nation's efforts in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack have imposed a huge burden on our military. On this day, in addition to mourning and remembering the victims, I would like to salute our men and women in uniform -- and those who love and miss them: their parents, spouses, children, siblings and friends. The soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen serving in Iraq and Afghanistan -- going after terrorists, protecting our country, befriending likeminded counterparts in distant places -- have demonstrated the spirit of sacrifice and heroism.

Our coalition partners from around the world and our Iraqi and Afghan allies have shown similar courage and have sacrificed greatly. It is good to know that we are not alone in the fight against terrorism and extremism, that the candlelight vigils and friendly words have been matched by real and true action.

The war against terror will end one day. And as with all American wars, monuments will be erected to commemorate the bravery and dedication of our forces during this conflict. One need only stroll around Washington, D.C. to find memorials to World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. I have no doubt that one day a memorial to the men and women who served so gallantly - and humanely - in Iraq and Afghanistan will stand near the memorials to their forebears in our nation’s capital.

But beyond this, I am confident that because of the sacrifices each of you is making, we will erect our own marker to our efforts in this conflict. The true monuments to the heroes - and victims - of 9/11 will not be made of stone, but will be living monuments: the fifty million people liberated from tyranny since that day. A free and prosperous Iraq will stand as the ultimate testimony to the sacrifices you are making to ensure that America remains secure against the threat posed by terrorists, those who would seek to make 9/11 only the first of many days of pain and fear for the American people and other free peoples. You are helping the people of this region to chart a bold new course away from autocracy and extremism, which formerly seemed to be the only choices they could make.

And you are making America and the world a safer place by your efforts.

Thank you, and may God bless all of you.

September 11, 2006

Today marks the anniversary of a dark day. Five years ago today, al Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, and children. The victims included citizens of more than 90 different countries, and adherents of many faiths. We mourn the lives lost and offer heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of those murdered. We honor the bravery of the fire fighters and policemen, the passengers aboard United Flight 93, and many others who provided examples of courage and determination on that terrible day. We will not forget.

The 9/11 attack was an act of war - cowardly because it was undeclared, and because it targeted ordinary people, civilians going about their lives. It crystallized the threat posed by terrorism and the extremism that feeds it. The attack had a profound impact on the United States and on the world.

In the aftermath of that assault, it became clear that the source and the nexus of the terrorist threat lay in the broader Middle East, or rather, in the political and ideological turmoil the region was embroiled in. Shaping the future of this region is now one of the defining challenges of our time.

Recent history has demonstrated that pursuing stability by tolerating – let alone supporting – autocracy not only fails to generate safety, but contributes to the growth of extremism. Working together with nations around the world and moderate governments and democratic forces, we are working to promote democracy, prosperity and security in this region as we did in Europe and Asia in earlier eras.

Iraq stands at the center of this effort. Establishing a strong, stable, non-sectarian and successful democracy in Iraq is vital for the future of this region. It has not been easy, to be sure, but nothing important ever is. There is no alternative to a successful Iraq. Any other outcome will embolden al-Qaida and extremists and produce new tragedies and the repetition of old ones like 9/11.

The Iraqi people want to succeed. Democracy and modernity resonate with the Iraqi people. They understand the opportunities it holds for the betterment of their own lives and that of their families, communities, and nations. This is why more than twelve million Iraqis defied the threats of the terrorists and cast votes in the election for the Council of Representatives last December.

The terrorists are afraid of the success of democracy here. In the book The Future of Iraq and The Arabian Peninsula After The Fall of Baghdad, Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of Osama Bin Laden’s closest associates, admitted that it was democracy which posed the greatest threat to his ambitions. Meanwhile, statements by Bin Laden himself illustrate his understanding that what we are doing here today in Iraq is a critical battle in the conflict that began five years ago.

The terrorist fear of democracy is not surprising. They cannot win the hearts and minds of the people of the region as they cannot solve the problems of this region. Their message offers only a civil war within Islam, a war between civilizations, and keeping the Muslim countries backwards and in the dark ages. Look at what they did, when together with the Taliban, al-Qaida ruled Afghanistan: they killed thousands of Afghans, women were imprisoned in their homes, girls were denied the right to an education, and children were forbidden simple pleasures such as flying kites. And look at what they are doing in Iraq: setting neighbors and believers against each other, creating rifts that devastate communities, sowing dissension, distrust and hatred, murdering innocent people.

We will stand with the Iraqis against the terrorists and in building a democratic Iraq until Iraq can stand on its own feet. Our nation’s effort in the aftermath of 9/11 has imposed burdens on many people – especially those serving here in Iraq. On this day, I want to thank our men and women in uniform who are here, our diplomats, civil servants, and others – and also those who love and miss you.

America is contributing its most precious resource - our energetic, determined, and idealistic young men and women. You have demonstrated the spirit of sacrifice and heroism worthy of the heroes of 9/11. Our coalition partners and Iraqi allies have shown similar courage and resolve.

The war against terror will end one day. Historically, wars are remembered in monuments of stone, and this one likely will be no exception. But the real and valuable monuments are the living ones: the fifty million people liberated from tyranny since that day, and the efforts we expend to ensure that this outcome holds. A democratic and prosperous Iraq will stand as the ultimate testimony to the sacrifices made by the Americans and our Iraqi and other allies here.

Thank you, and May God bless the people of the United States and Iraq.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Quotes of the Day (X)

- "If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be an act of faith in the European family and an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past."

Winston Churchill, 19 September 1946, proposing a "United States of Europe" to bring peace to the continent after two World Wars.

- "We have to throw out the past with all its difficulties and bitterness behind our backs, and take serious steps toward the national reconciliation project."

Tayseer al-Mashhadani, Sunni Arab parliamentarian, and sister of the Speaker of the Council of Representatives, who was recently released from two months of being held hostage by Shi'a militants.

Sixty years ago, people assumed history condemned Europe (especially France and Germany) to recurrent warfare, much as they do the sectarian communities of Iraq today. Certainly, there is a still a great deal of work to be done towards the necessary reconciliation, but history suggests that we shouldn't give up hope just yet.