Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Nobody Beats the Wiz!

Much to my surprise, with the exception of following the exploits of the Iraqi national soccer team (largely because of the celebratory fire that followed each match) and watching the U.S. play Italy in the World Cup with a group of burly carabinieri, I haven't posted nearly as much about sports as anyone who knows me would have expected.

There are three reasons for this. First, blogging about something like sports has always seemed horribly self-indulgent. (And I know, this is from somebody who at least once a month posts pictures of his son).

Second, the difference in time zones means that all games during prime time Eastern Standard Time are televised at 0300/0400 here. I get up early, but there are few sporting events worth getting up that early for. In fact, I'm trying to come up with excuses for why I want to watch two teams I couldn't care less about in the Super Bowl this Sunday when the game doesn't start until 0230 here, and I still have to work the next day. (In Korea in the 1990s, the Monday after the Super Bowl was a work holiday for U.S. forces).

Third, to be honest for the most part my teams stunk up the joint in 2006. The Nationals came back to Earth after their inaugural season, Maryland basketball missed the tournament for the second year in a row, Johns Hopkins lacrosse was unspectacular in defense of its national championship, and don't even get me started on the nightmare that was the Redskins season. If I had to pick a year of sports to miss completely, this was the one.

However, there is one exception to the malaise DC sports teams appear to be suffering through: the Washington Bullets . . . er, I mean Wizards.

Last night the Wizards beat the Detroit Pistons 104-99 to improve to 27-17, the best record in the Eastern Conference. Granted, their 1.5 game lead on three other teams isn't likely to last until the end of the season. Granted, that with their porous defense they are not exactly built for grind of the NBA playoffs. And granted, the best team in the East likely isn't as good as the fourth best team in the other conference.

But after waking up every Monday morning to another Redskins loss, or seeing that Maryland dropped another game to Duke, it is nice to get some good news from an area sports team for a change. It is especially satisfying given the number of years the Bullets . . . er, Wizards, were the absolute dregs of the league.

Going to see the Wizards play in person (even if those new home uniforms are the single-ugliest sports uniform since the Chicago White Sox wore shorts in the 1970s) is just another thing I have to look forward to when I get home (in 40+ days now), especially if I get to hear Gilbert Arenas yell "Hibachi" when he drains a three-pointer.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

David Interlude (XI)

Okay, breathing deeply now, thinking happier thoughts . . .

I wasn't originally going to post these pictures. My recent TDY to support my Boss involved traveling back to DC for a few days of meetings. This let me spend some time with my family.

While extremely happy to see them, I also felt more than a little guilty. The only time most other soldiers have a chance to get stateside is if they are on R&R, wounded, or taking emergency leave because of the death of a loved one. I was deeply aware that I was enjoying a luxury that other soldiers -- most of whom live in much rougher conditions in Iraq than I do and are more deserving of a break -- could only dream.

But I think that what has hit me the hardest about my friends' deaths here in Iraq is the thought of their children never knowing how special their fathers were. I think this will haunt me more than anything else once my tour is done. This has definitely reinforced my understanding that every moment I spend with David is precious and to be savored. And therefore, anybody who would give me a hard time about going home can . . .

Deep breaths . . . happy thoughts . . .

Below are some pictures from our trip to the playground two weeks ago. (For some reason, I like the earnest look on his face in the second picture better, as if he expects the plastic horse to take off on him any second).

Reasons to be Angry

Sorry for not posting much lately. I've been busy on a potentially major project, and have been a foul mood about a couple of things lately.

Okay, two things really.

First, I received my first ass-chewing from a senior officer a few days ago. (And yes, I realize that anybody who served with me in the 82nd Airborne back in the 90's is asking "What took him so long?") I was locked up, had a finger pointed in my face, and essentially told that I had no business exercising independent judgment on the issue at hand, and that I should "get on board with the team and accomplish the mission." As soon as the senior officer left, one of my officemates immediately played the soundbite from Full Metal Jacket in which the Marine General tells Pvt. Joker to "Get on board for the big win!"

The other four people in the room immediately approached me to tell me the senior officer was out of line, and that if I wanted them to submit statements supporting me they'd be more than happy to. (Since then, I've also been vindicated on the factual points that were in contention). In the end, I'm not going to get in any trouble for this confrontation. But this incident reminded me of why I originally got out of the Army back in 1998, and I have to dig deep to find the discipline to let the dispute die its natural death.

Second, on Saturday the LA Times published a story about the details of my friend Brian's death. I'm not pissed at the LA Times, but rather at the Army for not getting these details straight much sooner. It is bad enough that Brian's family has to suffer the pain of losing someone as special as Brian, but they now have reason to question every statement the military makes regarding the attack.

Everybody assumes that the uncertainty and ensuing controversy surround Pat Tillman's death a few years ago was to serve some militaristic propaganda agenda. No, the Army just screwed up, just like people in every other organization in the world are prone to do. And somebody in the chain here in Iraq screwed up royally by not releasing the correct details as soon as they were known. These errors are inexcusable, and undermine the credibility of the public affairs effort in the War on Terror, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

More importantly, the families of heroes like Brian Freeman deserve better.

Friday, January 26, 2007

For My Boston Readers . . .

. . . both of them, I will be appearing on the Moe Lauzier Show on WRKO from 0700-0720 on Saturday morning, the 27th.

Don't worry, this has nothing to do with the past controversies surrounding my blog. (Although hopefully it will prove that I actually exist).

By way of a sneak preview, I will be sure to include product placements for Dali's, Bartley's Burger Cottage, The Wrap, John Harvard's, and the Thirsty Scholar in the desperate hope of getting comped a free meal or a pint the next time I'm in Cambridge. (Is the Chinese Food truck still operating in that parking lot past the Natural History Museum? If so, I'll throw in a plug for them to while I'm at it).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Brian Freeman

The good news is I’m back safely in Baghdad. The bad news is that I’m in Baghdad.

But when I finally emerged from a jet-lag induced coma and stopped by my office to check email, I received some truly tragic news. On Saturday, my friend Captain Brian Freeman was killed in Karbala. (I don't know if his family has been briefed on the details, so for now it suffices to say that Brian and four other members of his Civil Affairs team were killed by militia members, likely Jaish al Mahdi trained in Iran).

Brian was recalled to active duty at the same time as I was in January 2006, and was a fellow member of “The Dirty Dozen,” the twelve Individual Ready Reserve Captains who went through 2-3 months of inprocessing and Civil Affairs training while living in the same barracks together at Ft. Jackson and Ft. Bragg. Unlike most of the other officers in our group, Brian was opposed to the war, and had the courage to say so. But even though he questioned the wisdom of our being in Iraq, he said that he had made a commitment when he entered West Point in 1995, and that he was honor bound to fulfill that pledge regardless of his political beliefs.

I actually ran into Brian two weeks ago before I went on TDY, and unbeknownst to me at the time, just nine days before he was killed. He was in the IZ to interview for a commission in the U.S. Coast Guard, so that he could continue to serve his country without being deployed to Iraq again and missing another year of his children’s life. We talked about his kids (Gunner is 3, and his daughter Ingrid was born just a few weeks before David), about his business school applications, and about what we wanted to do once we were back from Iraq.

Even though we obviously disagreed on the politics of the war, I respected Brian a great deal for standing by his principles. I apologized to him for the less-than-diplomatic behavior I sometimes displayed in our political arguments back at Bragg. Of course, Brian said no apology was necessary -- he was never one to hold grudges or take stuff too personally -- and admitted that half the time he was just screwing with me anyways. (He was easily the funniest guy in the barracks and the class clown in our Civil Affairs course).

I still believe strongly in the strategic importance of this war, even if it has turned out to be much more difficult than anybody anticipated. But sometimes it is excruciatingly difficult to reconcile the necessity of winning in Iraq with the human cost it entails.

When I saw the email in my inbox with only his name as the subject line, I knew what it likely meant, and felt as if I'd been punched in the face. My heart breaks for his wife and his kids. I now know four small children who will never see their fathers again because of this war, because their dads were honorable men who deserved far better fates.

This absolutely kills me.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Brief History Lesson

Today I'll begin the long journey back to Baghdad from my TDY. While travelling, I finally finished A.M. Hamilton's Road Through Kurdistan. Hamilton was an engineer from New Zealand who during the British Mandate in Iraq built a road through the seemingly impassable mountains of Kurdistan. (While I was in the Kurdish region back in May, we drove what is still known as the "Hamilton Road.") Road Through Kurdistan is Hamilton's memoir (first published in 1938, I think) of his adventures in Kurdistan dealing with tribal sheiks, rebellions, and bandits from 1928-1932.

Towards the end of the book, the rumor is beginning to spread that the British will end their mandate in Iraq earlier than planned. Hamilton talks to British officer he knows, who is pessimistic about Iraq's future as an independent nation. "Captain Baker" predicted:
Whether it is fortunate or unfortunate for Iraq that we have armed the country -- both the Assyrians and the Arabs -- with British rifles, it is not for me to say. But it seems strange considering that only a few years ago we were confiscating every rifle we could lay our hands on in order to keep the peace. You know as well as I do that despite all our efforts we have not eradicated racial and religious hatreds in this land. Sooner or later someone is going to get excited, those guns will go off bang, and a whole lot of people will be killed.

Unfortunately, as the Assyrians, Kurds, and Shi'a can attest, Iraq's history since then is full of people getting "excited."

Monday, January 15, 2007


Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I'm on a Temporary Duty Assignment (TDY) away from Baghdad, and won't have a lot of opportunity to write.

I should be blogging at a normal rate in a week or so.

Monday, January 08, 2007

One Year Anniversary of My Activation

One year ago today I officially activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I tried to think of something profound to say to mark the occasion, but its difficult to avoid cliche. I have neither had a completely uneventful tour, nor an especially exciting one thus far. But I've learned that it only takes a few seconds of excitement here to ruin everything.

The opportunity to be a hero that motivates every soldier at some level has never materialized. But as I've said before, that's not a bad thing. There are thousands of heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan who unfortunately will never get the recognition they deserve. There are thousands more who will never see home or their loved ones again.

I would like to think that just having served is enough, especially during a time when so many didn't bother to report for duty, and others went to legal extremes to avoid being called up.

(This is perhaps what bothered me the most about the whole Kerry-photo-flap. I don't care about the he-said/he said argument that erupted . . . everybody who is actually in Iraq knows what happened. Rather, the whole incident sadly confirmed my fear that are some people predisposed to assume I'm a liar solely because we disagree on politics. They sit comfortably in their homes and deride military service while we endure regular mortar attacks and other dangers defending their freedom . . . and I have it very good in Baghdad relative to soldiers/airmen/Marines in other parts of the country).

This year has also been frustrating on a professional level, as Iraq has not progressed much from a strategic standpoint since January 8, 2006. We have sewn the seeds for a stable, free and prosperous country here, but it is now up to the Iraqis to step forward and reap these fruits. In 2006 they seemed unable to seize this historic opportunity, and instead succumbed to the demons of their past.

There is still cause for hope. I have met too many Iraqis who genuinely want a better future for their country to believe that this effort is fruitless. And numerous opinion polls and anecdotal evidence confirm that those perpetrating the violence in Iraq are the outliers here.

But I am less confident than I was a year ago that America has what it takes to see this struggle through to a successful conclusion. I do not doubt my fellow servicemen's commitment or dedication. The world may never know how much they have given of themselves to help an oppressed and impoverished people. But none of their sacrifices or accomplishments seems to break through the constant siren screaming quagmire! or fiasco! that follows each suicide VBIED. The Western media relentlesly scrutinizes every statement or gesture by American officers and officials, but then unquestioningly echoes the latest piece of insurgent propaganda.

(This is not to say that the media shouldn't question anything the military or Administration says, that there is only good news to report from Iraq, or that the military and Administration has been perfect in explaining the war to the American people. The ability to question our leaders and hold them accountable is obviously a key strength of our democratic society. But in a time of war, the statements by the enemy -- especially an enemy that is this barbaric and inherently anti-democratic, to put it mildly -- must be held to equal or greater scrutiny).

Some people want us to leave Iraq for strategic reasons. Others just want a loved one to come home safely as quickly as possible. I respect both viewpoints, although I disagree with the former. But I feel like there is also a significant portion of the country that does not know anybody in the military yet wants us to lose so that President Bush will be embarrassed, or so in order to vanquish "American imperialism," as if that were what threatens Iraqis, rather than the murderous tyranny of religious extremists.

Given this state of American public opinion, I do not know if we can consolidate a tactical/operational victory into a strategic victory in a protracted conflict ever again.

(And yes, I recognize I may be a little overdramatic in this regards, but this is honestly how a lot of soldiers over here interpret much of the debate back home).

Finally, on top of the professional frustation accompanying the war is the visceral pain I fell for missing David's first year. As I noted after coming back from leave, no pictures or DVDs can ever do justice to what a miracle he is. I can only imagine how much this sense of awe will be magnified by seeing him walking around the house with my own eyes. I do not understand how anybody who has children can doubt the presence of the divine in this world.

But again, I consider myself lucky. I will get to see him again soon enough. There are other fathers and mothers that served here who were not as fortunate.

And then there is my wife, who I've only recently come to realize was activated a year ago as well. She doesn't wear a uniform, carry a weapon, or serve in a war zone. But she is making enormous sacrifices on behalf of her country just the same by making my deployment possible. I will never be able to fully understand what she has gone through raising David by herself this year. She has been an angel, pure and simple. I sometimes fear that I will never be able to fully make it up to her. But sometime in the next eighty days I hope to begin to try.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Quote of the Year . . . Thus Far

This morning I overheard a senior Naval officer (yes, there are a few thousand Navy personnel serving in Iraq) tell someone the following via cellphone:
"I've got one nostril above water and people are still making waves!"

This goes right up there with "[Soldier X] is like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest!" as my favorite military expressions of all time.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I Was Wrong About the AP

Sort of.

Apparently, the Ministry of the Interior has announced there is a police officer named Jamil Hussein after all.

Previous U.S. military claims that the AP's alleged source didn't exist were based on the lack of corroboration by the MoI, which six weeks later, has finally emerged.

So I was wrong to pile on AP for this.

(However, military officers did go and visit the four mosques Capt. Hussein claimed had been destroyed in retaliation for the Thanksgiving Day Sadr City bombings, and found that only one even had slight fire damage. So AP may still have been guilty of "accuate but fake" reporting.)

To my continued surprise, Eason Jordan once again has the best analysis on how nobody comes out of this episode with reputation unblemished.

A Busy Night So Far

It is only 2030, and we have already received our third "Duck and Cover" alarm of the evening. One was for an indirect fire attack (I didn't hear the impact, although others in my section who were coming in from outdoors said they heard the boom), and two were for small arms attacks in the Embassy compound.

Although rocket/mortar attacks are fairly common, this is the first alert we've received due to small arms fire (not including celebratory fire) in the nearly ten months I've been here. Unfortunately, the security officers here aren't always prompt in explaining what caused the alerts, so it may be some time before I can figure out what is actually going on outside.

However, some perspective is required. Coming back from a shelter after the "All Clear" was given for the indirect fire attack, I ran into a buddy of mine who is stationed in Babil Province, south of Baghdad. He laughed at how seriously the Embassy personnel appeared to be taking the alerts, and noted that they get attacked almost every night in his compound.

So most likely (and hopefully) this is much ado about nothing.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Jamil Hussein Saga, cont.

I missed this item from a few days ago.

Eason Jordan writes:

If an Iraqi police captain by the name of Jamil Hussein exists, there is no convincing evidence of it. . . .In the absence of clear and compelling evidence to corroborate the AP's exclusive story and Captain Hussein's existence, we must conclude for now that the AP's reporting in this case was flawed.

To make matters worse, Captain Jamil Hussein was a key named source in more than 60 AP stories on at least 25 supposed violent incidents over eight months.

Until this controversy is resolved, every one of those AP reports is tainted.

If even Eason Jordan is piling on a mainstream media giant like AP, you know they've really gone over the line!

No wonder a majority of Americans believe media coverage of Iraq is inaccurate. (Hat tip: Don Surber)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Graduation Day

Okay, so what I've wanted to post about before getting sidetracked over the past few days was Thursday's graduation ceremony at the Iraqi Military Academy at Rustimiyah.

This one year course is modeled after the legendary Sandhurst Academy in the UK, and the graduates become Lieutenants in the Iraqi Army. The photos below show the 207 graduates from the Iraqi Army Corps of Cadets singing the Iraqi National Anthem during Thursday's ceremony.

What you can't see in the picture is that across the auditorium floor, the bleachers are filled with the families of the graduating cadets. This is a first. In previous graduations, only a handful of parents were present. Now they are turning out in large numbers and bring their extended families. At the conclusion of the ceremony, they threw sweets at the graduates and then rushed the floor to embrace them and pin their lieutenant epaulets on them.

Much of our effort in this war, as in all counterinsurgencies, depends on the development of an effective indigenous security force that enjoys the confidence of the local population. The 207 new Iraqi Army Lieutenants who graduated on Thursday clearly will not turn the tide of this conflict by themselves. But the fact that their families are neither afraid for their sons, nor afraid to be at such a ceremony is a small cause for optimism for Iraq's future.

Iraqi Military Academy cadets singing the national anthem at their graduation ceremony.

Iraqi families congratulate their new Lieutenants.