Thursday, November 30, 2006

Godspeed Chris Hickey

As I write this, Major Chris Hickey is likely boarding an airplane from Kuwait, returning back to West Point, New York, to his wife Kate and his two boys.

As I noted back in March, Chris and I have a long history together at Johns Hopkins ROTC, Pershing Rifles, the 82nd Airborne, Harvard, and now Iraq. He was there to pick me up when I arrived in the International Zone way back on 21 March, and it kills me that I couldn't be there to see him off on the long journey home. But I was happy to be able to share Thanksgiving with him, happy to be there when they awarded him the Bronze Star, and happy to enjoy the Prime Rib and Baskin Robbins with him every Sunday night.

Chris was the one of the three people I went to for advice on whether or not to deploy when I received orders last October and the Army offered me the chance to resign my commission and stay at home. (Some 80% of involuntarily activated-IRR soldiers past their eight-year committment have taken this option, or just not bothered to report for duty at all).

Chris wrote back to me, "Ben, you are at heart a warrior, and this is your war," confirming what I already felt in my heart.

This was Major Hickey's second (and hopefully final) voluntary tour of duty in Iraq. I wouldn't say that this is "his" war given the dangerous world in which we live. But this war, from both my personal perspective and for everything he did during the liberation and to help train the Iraqi General Staff, is better because of his tireless efforts.

Thank you Kate, for the sacrifices you and the boys made so that Chris could serve our nation here.

Chris, thank you for everything, and hopefully I'll be able to visit you and the family (and enjoy a beer or four) in Stuttgart in the near future.

Godspeed Chris, AIRBORNE ALL THE WAY!!!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Comment on Charles Rangel

I was going to let this one pass, but couldn't resist:

"No young, bright individual wants to fight just because of a bonus and just because of educational benefits. And most all of them come from communities of very high unemployment. If a young fellow has an option of having a decent career or joining the Army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life he would not be in Iraq."

Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY)
Fox News Sunday, 11/26/06

Oh, so many ways to take down this condescending idiocy, so little time. I won't even refer to myself here, as I'm sure The Distinguished Gentlemen wouldn't consider a job in the Bush NSC "a decent career." (I'll grant him that the alternative, an academic career, wouldn't offer much in the way of economic benefits).

First, Mr. Rangel, how do you explain that the Army actually had its best recruiting year since 1997 this year?

Or, Sir, how do you square your claim that only the poor join the military with scholarly empirical studies disproving those canards?

Finally, maybe, just maybe, the fact that units deployed to Iraq
actually enjoy higher than average retention rates suggests that the men and women might be doing this out of a sense of patriotism? Does Mr. Rangel recognize that such a concept exists?

It is telling that no Democrat has leapt to defend Rangel's ill-informed and offensive comments. Yet I am disappointed that despite professing a deep concern for our troops during the campaign, not a single elected Democratic official has had the courage or the integrity to condemn them.

I can accept that John Kerry's comment last month was a botched joke, albeit one that uncomfortably touched upon his previous slanders of his fellow veterans. But Rep. Rangel's comments are pure elitist condesencion towards American servicemen that sadly appears to be becoming fashionable on the Left once again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

David Interlude (X)

Happy 11-month birthday to the little guy!

(Yes, this picture was taken last month while I was home on leave. When I left on the 11th, he was able to take about ten steps on his own before crashing in a heap. But apparently the day after I left he began walking in earnest, stepping around and over objects, and able to pivot 180 degrees).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Don't Believe Everything You Read . . .

. . . especially if it appears in the Associated Press.

By now, everybody has surely heard the horrifying story of how in retaliation for the six car bombs detonated in Sadr City last Thursday, Shi'a militia stormed a Sunni mosque in Baghdad, dragged six Sunni men out into the street, doused them with kerosene and then burned them alive, all while Iraqi police stood by watching helplessly. The AP was the first to run with this story, which was subsequently picked up and repeated by most other major media outlets.

There is just one problem with this story -- it doesn't appear to be true. The following is an email sent by the Public Affairs Officer from the Multi-National Corps Iraq (I've excluded his name just in case) attempting to set the record straight with the AP. I wouldn't hold my breath for a correction on this one.

Dear Associated Press:
On Nov. 24, 2006, your organization published an article by Qais Al-Bashir about six Sunnis being burned alive in the presence of Iraqi Police officers. This news item, which is below, received an enormous amount of coverage internationally.
We at Multi-National Corps - Iraq made it known through MNC-I Press Release Number 20061125-09 and our conversations with your reporters that neither we nor Baghdad Police had any reports of such an incident after investigating it and could find no one to corroborate the story. A couple of hours ago, we learned something else very important.
We can tell you definitively that the primary source of this story, police Capt. Jamil Hussein, is not a Baghdad police officer or an MOI employee. We verified this fact with the MOI through the Coalition Police Assistance Training Team.
Also, we definitely know, as we told you several weeks ago through the MNC-I Media Relations cell, that another AP-popular IP spokesman, Lt. Maithem Abdul Razzaq, supposedly of the city's Yarmouk police station, does not work at that police station and is also not authorized to speak on behalf of the IP. The MOI has supposedly issued a warrant for his questioning.
I know we have informed you that there exists an MOI edict that no one below the level of chief is authorized to be an Iraqi Police spokesperson. An unauthorized IP spokesperson will get fired for talking to the media. While I understand the importance of a news agency to use anonymous and unauthorized sources, it is still incumbent upon them to make sure their facts are straight. Was this information verified by anyone else? If the source providing the information is lying about his name, then he ought not to be represented as an official IP spokesperson and should be listed as an anonymous source.
Unless you have a credible source to corroborate the story of the people being burned alive, we respectfully request that AP issue a retraction, or a correction at a minimum, acknowledging that the source named in the story is not who he claimed he was. MNC-I and MNF-I are always available and willing to verify events and provide as much information as possible when asked.

Very respectfully,
LT xxxx

xxxxxxx xxxx
Lieutenant, U.S. Navy
MNC-I Joint Operations Center
Public Affairs Officer

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving in Baghdad

Note: I meant to post these pictures yesterday, but had to take a no-notice trip up north to Bayji. I will post the details of that trip sometime in the next day or two as well.

This was my second Thanksgiving for which I was deployed overseas, the previous being in 1995, when I was a Second Lieutenant stationed just 30 miles from the DMX in South Korea. For those who have never served in the military, Thanksgiving is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for military dining facilities for which they pull out all the stops. As the menu below indicates, the soldiers here (and various State Department officials and contractors) had the option of turkey, lobster tails, carved ham, or freshly carved prime rib. There were mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, green beans, corn, salads, and about ten different kinds of pie.

[Note: Apparently you have to click on the blank space above to actually view the menu. Why? I don't know. 'Dem computers are tricky!]

Before the feast, however, I visited an Iraqi crafts bazaar held in the Green Beans Cafe (the former Palace ballroom converted into a coffee bar). I purchased about $200 worth of trinkets and paintings to be distributed as gifts to my family back home. (Sorry, Seth, they didn't have any hookahs available, and the daggers on sale started at $100). They also had a wide variety of hand-knit Iraqi rugs, but these started at $300 for anything more than a small sample.

For lunch, I went to the MNSTC-I (Multinational Support and Training Command-Iraq, the guys who are in charge of training Iraqi Security Forces) dining facility at Pheonix Base in a far corner of the International Zone. There, I dined with my old friend Major Chris Hickey (see my first post from Baghdad in March), who is redeploying next week. Although Pheonix Base's DFAC is not as elaborate as the Palace DFAC, it was a good meal, and my turkey breast was personally carved by Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey. (Again, for those not in the military, it is a tradition that the Commanders serve the lower ranks on Thanksgiving day). The meal was fine, although I restricted myself to traditional Thanksgiving fare . . . well, and an Iraqi-style shrimp kebab that was REALLY good.

After gorging to the point of immobility, I actually went back to the office for a few hours. Starting at 1600, I began carefully sipping tea, hoping to expand my stomach (an old wrestler's trick) so that I would have room for a big dinner. I then went with my co-workers to the Palace DFAC for a second turkey dinner. As the pictures below demonstrate, they put a lot of effort into decorating the mess hall with paper mache and ice sculptures, although the "pilgrims" and "Indians" quite frankly seriously creeped me out.

General Casey and his staff were still travelling across Iraq from one Forward Operating Base to another, so in order to give KBR's staff a break it was essentially self-service. This enabled me to give myself huge servings of dark meat, cornbread stuffing, and garlic mashed potatoes, topped by a small lake of turkey gravy. (The stuffing and potatoes were better at the Palace, while the turkey at Phoenix wasn’t as salty). Candles adorned each table, and a band played jazz next to a horrifically gaudy Thanksgiving diorama at the chow hall’s entrance. After cleaning my plate, I forced myself to have another slice of pecan pie (they’d run out of pumpkin), after having devoured two small slices of pie (pumpkin and pecan) with lunch.

In the end, it was a good meal, and I likely gained back about five of the ten pounds I've lost since coming to Iraq. But something felt as if it were missing. Corny as it sounds, I realized that as central as the feast and the football are to the holiday, what was lacking was my family. I really wish I'd been home with my family, to watch David enjoying his first Thanksgiving (with sufficiently processed turkey, of course). Hopefully, everybody here in Iraq will make it home safely to enjoy next year's Thanksgiving with their families.

A Star of the War

The other day I noted Orwell's comment about "rough men ready to do violence" so that good people can sleep peacefully at night. But many soldiers are trying to help Iraq and its people through by other means as well, as the following email making its way through the chain demonstrates. . .

Bet this never makes the news.

Got a tough, but heartwarming story and a picture of a CMSgt John Gebhardt in Iraq.

This little girl's entire family was executed. They intended to execute her also and shot her in the head, but they failed to kill her. She was cared for by John's hospital and healing up, but has been crying and moaning. The nurses said John is the only one she seems to calm down with, so John has spent the last four nights holding her while they both sleep in that chair. The girl is coming along with her healing!

Here is a real "star" of the war, and he is representative of what America is trying to do.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

What I'm Thankful For

1- Marya and David, who are my light at the end of the tunnel.

2- That my Mother is fighting the cancer, and will be around to be David's "Bubbe" for many years to come.

3- The rest of my extended family for all the support they've provided during my deployment.

4- That by the grace of God I was born an American. Until you see firsthand what it is like to live in a society torn asunder by its divisions, it is difficult to appreciate how petty most of our problems back in the US are (the rantings of various demagogic politicians aside . . . but that's another post).

5- Finally, that I have the honor to serve in this military at this time in history. It is a tragedy that because of the media's assorted biases and agendas, the American public has seen and heard far more about the degradations of a few soldiers at Abu Ghraib than the heroism of soldiers like Marine Corporal Jason Dunham and Sergeant Paul Ray Smith. (If you don't know who they are, look them up). George Orwell famously wrote:
"People sleep peacfully in their beds at night knowing that there are rough men ready to do violence on their behalf."

In Iraq, young Americans are enduring more than their share of violence in order to help protect a newly liberated people from the reimposition of tyranny. Although we all want to come home safely, seeing what we have seen here, we also want very much to win this war. I pray that next year I'll be able to say I am thankful that we have done both.

Quote of the Day (XII)

In the spirit of the day, from the greatest Thanksgiving-themed sitcom episode ever:

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"

- Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), WKPR in Cincinnati

For those not cool enough (or old enough, I guess) to remember, this was the episode where the bumbling-but-loveable station manager decides to have a promotional turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving, and they start throwing live birds out of a helicopter over a shopping mall.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Representative Chris Carney

As I noted last week, my friend Chris Carney was elected to Congress as a Democrat last week. There is a Los Angeles Times' story today on the central irony of his election. My former colleagues at the Pentagon took him out for a celebratory dinner last week, even though the Democrats' ascension to power likely means that we will all be receiving subpeonas in the near future because of Chris' findings on Al Qaeda and Iraq. It was always highly ironic that so many of the same Left-wing blogs (i.e. Daily Kos) that rail about Bush Administration conspiracies to fake intelligence and drag the country into wholeheartedly supported Chris' candidacy despite the fact that his discovery helped lead to the decision for war.

But as they say, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Although I disagree with Chris on many domestic political issues (as well as his slavish devotion to the Green Bay Packers), he is honest and intelligent, and will serve the people of PA-10 well.

(By the way, the LA Times, like most papers, errs badly by citing the Senate Intelligence report as a clear dismissal of the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq before the war. The documentary evidence clearly shows that they had contacts for the decade leading up to the war, how extensive we'll likely never know. But for some reason the Senate Intelligence Committee staff chose to disregard all this evidence. Why? Becasuee Saddam and his cronies disputed documents assessed by the intelligence community to be real. Thus, the Intelligence Committee took at face value Saddam's claim that he never considered America to be his enemy despite countless speeches he made to this effect. It is sort of like finding OJ Simpson innocent despite a clear motive, a history of violent behavior, DNA evidence at the scene of the crime, gloves with the victims blood in his apartment, footprints from shoes he's been photographed wearing in the pools of blood just because he said he didn't kill them . . . oh, never mind.)

That Ain't Good . . .

As far as I know, these are the first car bombs to make it into the International Zone in the eight months that I've been here. I was actually on that stretch of road the day before. Now I know why they make us wear body armor when outside the Palace grounds.

U.S. Troops Blow Up Cars in Baghdad
21 November 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - U.S. troops blew up two cars Tuesday inside the heavily fortified Green Zone after dogs indicated explosives were inside the vehicles that were used in the motorcade of the parliament speaker, an adviser to parliament said. In what could signal a major security breach, the explosives were found and detonated near the Convention Center, where parliament meets and government officials hold news conferences, Wissam al-Zubeidi said.

The armored cars were used as part of the convoy for Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani, al-Zubeidi said. One of the vehicles was regularly used by al-Mashhadani's son. The speaker is a Sunni Muslim.

In the past, several car bombs have exploded at the Green Zone gates, but very few such attacks have occurred inside the fortress-like region on the west bank of the Tigris River. It is home to the Iraqi president, government, parliament, as well as the U.S. and British embassies.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Very Sad News

I was sitting in on a radio interview today with my new boss, Major General Bill Caldwell (Spokesman for MNF-I), when to illustrate the heroism and sacrifice of our young soldiers here in Iraq, he cited the example of 1LT Michael Cerrone, who was killed by an IED outside Samarra last week. I froze upon hearing the news, as I realized that 1LT Cerrone's father, Brigadier General James Cerrone, was my first battalion commander when I arrived at the 82nd Airborne back in 1996.

I met Michael at several battalion "Hail and Farewell"s, and although I can't say I knew him well, I remember he seemed strangely well-possessed for a 15-year old. This is likely because his parents, BG (then LTC) Cerrone and his wife Betty were such wonderful people and impressive parents. I knew officers in the Redleg (artillery, for non-military types) community, both before and after serving under Jim Cerrone, who praised them to no end. My heart absolutely breaks for them with the news of this tragedy and their loss.

I don't have any doubts about the justness of our cause here in Iraq. But there is no denying that sometimes this war really sucks.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What a Way to Go

Two good articles today.

First, a touching story in today's Stars and Stripes/LA Times about a Special Forces Captain killed in Iraq last year who in his will bequeathed $100,000 for a party in Las Vegas for his friends and families. If worse comes to worse, I have already made similar arrangements. However, given what David's college costs will likely be in the year 2024, my friends and family will have to settle for the Denny's on Route 1 in Alexandria. In all seriousness, Captain Toczylowski sounds like he was a true hero and one hell of a guy. The Army is poorer for his passing, and our nation owes a great debt for his sacrifice.

Second, Jeff Jacoby's column from today's Boston Globe on the anti-military bigotry in San Fransisco. I can understand (although I disagree with) people who oppose the Iraq war for strategic reasons. What I have little tolerance for are those groups who harass wounded soldiers at the hospital to protest the war (i.e. Code Pink), who picket military funerals in order to promote their hateful religious beliefs (i.e. Fred Phelps and company), and those who treat the American military itself as the enemy rather than the Islamofascists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Simply put, this blind hatred of the military and associated harassment of recruiters by the Left (and their enablers) is at best pathetically juvenille and at worst undermines our national security so that these "activists" can satisfy their own moral vanity. The military as an institution is as close as we have to a pure meritocracy in this country, and often provides the best way out of poverty for thousands of the very minorities and immigrants these activists claim to support. The U.S. military also is what stands in the way of the fascism that these people like to rail about to denounce any political position with which they disagree. These people are either hypocrites for denouncing those who defend the freedom they enjoy to launch their idiotic protests (i.e. throwing blood at recruiters in New York), or are just plain ignorant of the world beyond their doors.

I hope somebody launches a boycott of San Fransisco in retaliation for this myopic decision by the San Fransisco schoolboard. (And for supporting Barry Bonds for so many years . . . but that's another story). I didn't have any plans to go there in the near future anyways, but I'd like to stick it to them somehow.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Krauthammer on Iraq

Sometimes, in moments of extreme candor, I summarize the current situation in Iraq by noting two things:
1) The good news is that we've finally reached the point we've been striving for since April 2003, which is to have Iraqis in position to determine the future of Iraq.
2) The bad news is that we've reached the point where it is up to the Iraqis to determine the future of Iraq!

What does this mean? As usual, Charles Krauthammer does a better job explaining this than I could ever hope to do in his column in this morning's Washington Post.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Back in Baghdad (and Depressed as Hell)

After 15 days of leave I arrived back in the International Zone a few hours before sunrise yesterday morning. Two weeks have never gone by so quickly in my life, and unfortunately, my request that my comrades win the war while I was gone wasn't carried out.

Seriously, though, the three days of travel back to Iraq were some of the most depressing days I've ever experienced. There were basically three broad sources for my dark mood:

1- It was much harder to say goodbye to Marya, and especially to David, than when I originally deployed in March. The pictures and DVDs simply do not do justice to how amazing David is. He has an incredibly warm personality, and warmed to me much more quickly than I had expected he would. To see his face light up with a smile in recognition of seeing his Mom, or sometimes even me, is as close to the divine that I have ever experienced. Although I will see him again in four months, and will get to spend every day of the forseeable future with him thereafter, the sense of loss I feel at missing the changes he will undergo between now and then is tangible and hurts like hell.

2- I'm depressed about the mid-term election results. To be honest, the Republicans deserved to lose. They abandoned fiscal responsibility and conservative principles that brought them into power in 1994. There were of course several corruption scandals that hurt them at the polls, but for every Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham on the Republican side, there is a William Jefferson ($90,000 in cash in the freezer), Alan Mollahan, and Harry Reid/John Murtha on the Democratic side who are equally corrupt. In other words, the Republicans deserved to lose, but the Democrats did not deserve to win. But such is politics, and you have to accept that your party will lose some elections rather than resorting to the conspiracy theories and condescension that the Left wallowed in after the 2000 and 2004 elections. (Also, most of the new Democratic Representatives and Senators elected to form a new majority are actually relatively conservative -- i.e. my friend Chris Carney, elected from PA-10, Heath Shuler, etc. Voters rejected racial preferences in a Michigan ballot initiative, and even Connecticut had the sense to return Joe Lieberman to the Senate despite the Nutty Left's capture of the Democratic Party there. So from a policy perspective, all hope is not lost).

What depresses me about these results are its consequences for our efforts here in Iraq. The Democrats have wasted no time in expressing that their policy is one of pursuing an exit strategy than a victory strategy in Iraq. Senator Levin is already touting his plan for a "phased withdrawal," which is nothing more than code for retreat. Whether we were correct to initiate this war or not, ceding Iraq to the terrorists and extremist death squads responsible for the sectarian violence would be disastrous to our national security for years to come. As the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate stated,
"Perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere . . . Should jihadists perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge few fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.

But despite attaining power, the Democrats do not appear to be any closer to attaining a sense of responsibility when it comes to national security."

3- More depressing, however, is what the election says about the American people's willingness to conduct the War on Terror. Supposedly, the election was an expression of Americans' fatigue with the war. We have suffered a little more than 2,800 Killed In Action in Iraq, and although each one of these casualties is a tragic on a personal level, the low estimates for anticipated casualties before the war was 5,000. This is also a far cry from the 55,000 servicemen America lost in Vietnam. The unfortunate reality of the world today is that there is an enemy out there committed to killing as many Americans as possible in order to achieve their objective of establishing a global Islamic empire. Short of victory, there is nothing we can do to make this enemy go away -- no negotiations, no deterrence will dissuade Al Qaeda and similar extremists from pursuing their objective. However, if we abandon Iraq because we can not absorb 3,000 casualties (and again, I don't want to minimize the pain suffered by these heroes families at the death of their loved one), we have no hope of winning the larger War on Terror. And failure in this broader conflict will assuredly mean more than we will inevitably suffer more than 3,000 fatalities here in the United States sooner or later.

I don't know. Maybe the fatigue from the travel has skewed my perspective a little bit. I'll try to end this on a more positive note. Soldiers coming off of leave in the eastern United States have to report in to the USO at the Atlanta airport. After signing in, we were asked to wait in line outside so that we could be escorted to the desk where our orders were collected and our baggage checked for the flight to Kuwait. After about 15 minutes of waiting, we filed in behind an elderly volunteer carrying a USO sign and an American flag. As we marched through the atrium of Atlanta's airport, we were greeted by standing applause from the families and commuters waiting in the airport. During the subsequent five hour wait for our aircraft to arrive, I had roughly a half-dozen people approach me to thank me for my service.

It was good to know that there for every San Fransisco school board decision banning JROTC, for every protestor (and their disgusting supporters) who throw blood on military recruiting stations, and for every John Kerry insult, there are still some people who appreciate what we are doing here in Iraq.

Monday, November 06, 2006

While I've Been Away . . .

Okay, over the past two weeks I've missed commenting on:

- CNN admitting to airing the Iraqi insurgents' propaganda videos intact;
- House Speaker-to-Be Nancy Pelosi announcing she will appoing a Congressman who was impeached as a judge to head the House Intelligence Committee;
- The New York Times' Public Editor admitting the newspaper was wrong to publish the details of the SWIFT anti-terror-financing program, a program the Times' editors had called for in an editorial five years earlier;
- The New York Times' verifying the authenticity of a trove of Iraqi Intelligence Service documents discovered since Iraq's liberation that confirm most elements of the Administration's claims about Iraq-Al Qaeda ties;
- John Kerry essentially calling soldiers serving in Iraq stupid (if only I'd applied myself and pursued two doctorates at Harvard . . .);
- And finally, the American media for the most part ignoring the significance of Saddam Hussein being convicted of crimes against humanity and being sentenced to hang, choosing to focus on the effect this will have on violence this weekend rather than FINALLY focusing on the million Iraqis he murdered.

The reason I've ignored these issues, as you can see below, was more pressing. Unfortunately, I'll return to my normally scheduled ranting sometime next week.