Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I spent my final days in Iraq at the enormous FOB Striker.  I linked back up with my Regiment.  I saw soldiers from the Military Police unit that I lived with in Yusufiya.  I saw the Iraqi interpreter who taught me most of my Arabic and how to say "tishrub" when passing the hookah.  I saw Lieutenant Atkinson who was formerly in charge of the Brigade's reconstruction effort.  I saw British mercenaries that lifted weights at my gym in the Green Zone; they were hired guns for Division contracting.  Many people I worked with in Iraq were preparing to leave--to return to the States or go elsewhere in country.

The Battalion had left Dragon long ago, now we were neatly arranged in cavernous green tents with cots and air conditioners.  We stripped the plates from our armor and turned in our ammo.  The men watched movies on their laptops or slept...

Then, at the airfield, we palletized our green duffle bags and lines up for flight.  In the terminal a Hooters Girl competition was playing on a widescreen TV above our heads.  The First Sergeant tried to call out names for manifest.  But everyone's attention was on the girls.  We made the flight anyway, which came 2 hours early, and the last company of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, boarded the Air Force C-17 for flight to Kuwait.

That night in a chow hall at our temporary staging area in Kuwait, CNN broadcast a show on Obama's challenges in Iraq.  Pundits came and went.  Bulletitzed comments read: "corruption in Iraq is widespread" and "militias remain armed."  I couldn't hear their opinions because the chow hall was churning with soldiers enroute to the United States.  The men laughed, predicted first drinks, swore off responsibility, speculated on Afghanistan.  What we owned in Yusufiya, fields and villages of the Euphrates River Valley, belonged again to Iraq.  We had defeated the insurgency there.  We were going home.

and it was as it had been before we left: a war of speculation.  of our own uncertain terms.  of patience as much as violence.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Get Out The Vote

Members of the PRT estimate there are 152 political parties competing for election in Baghdad province. And in yet another delay, the general election in Iraq is now rumored to be pushed back until February of 2009. According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the Iraqi voting database was flooded by recent rainfall. "...we are working rapidly to replace this critical infrastructure," assured one of their representatives. I'm guessing this means they're buying new computers?

Coalition Forces currently monitor the political wonderland in Iraq through an ad hoc meeting between international military, State Departments, and NGOs. Discussions are held around a massive wood table in a high ceilinged room--adorned by eggshell paneling and gold trim. Heavy green drapes were drawn from one window, revealing a neat stack of sandbags so high that the view was limited to only the fingertips of a dead tree.

Meetings like the Embassy Election Working Group confirm the permanence of Baghdad's seachange. The agenda consisted of Q and As about the political situation, timeline of elections, public outreach, and security. Hearing security discussed last and considering the topic of the meeting was a complete fiction only years ago it's clear that Iraq is maturing into something new. A representative of an active NGO involved in training political parties mentioned that now "we spend a lot of our time just trying to get them [Iraqi candidates] to go out and talk to voters... they couldn't really do this in 2005, then in 2006 they were against it..."

In the room I counted 15 military and 14 civilians. So the teams felt evenly matched. The co-chair of the meeting (USAFA, c/o '81) mentioned his staff was waiting on information concerning UN guidelines on soldiers staying away from polling centers--which conflicted with local Iraqi requests for American soldiers to "'show the flag' so to speak." At this point USAID and IFES exchanged a furtive glance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I was sitting down next to the Palace pool to eat lunch when I heard a, "sir!"  It was a medic from battalion--we had seen much of Yusufiya and Oweisat together.
"doc, what you doing here?"
"I'm with Daniels," he motioned to a soldier who hung back, off the deck. "he's seeing the dermatologist at the Cash today." The Cash is the Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone.
"He alright?"  I took a bite from my chow hall burger.
"well sir, he has these legions all over his body." I looked at the soldier, who was wearing the full Army Combat Uniform, regular long-sleeved blouse, trousers, and boots.  "It's like a mosquito bite when you pick at it, you know?  Like all over his legs and chest and stuff."
"what is it?"
"at first we thought it was scabies, that's what Colonel Foster said, you remember him, sir?"
"Yeah, the guy they called the 'Witch Doctor'?"
"he saw Daniels like 5 times and kept changing his diagnosis, first he said scabies, then the next time we took him in, Foster said it was impossible it was scabies, and I told him that's what he said before and he denied it so I showed him the form he filled out.  It said, 'scabies.'"
"How long's he had it?"
"Hey Daniels, how long you had it?"
"What, portambulitis?"
"At least 9 months."  Daniels came over to the table.  He was small, with tanned skin, and bright black eyes.  His complexion seemed fine to me.  In fact, he looked quite clean and boyish.
I stood up and shook his hand.
"They didn't send you to a dermatologist sooner?"
"I asked Colonel Foster, sir, and he got mad because I guess he was a dermatologist on the civilian side, before the army or something, or he's a specialist, i don't know.  So he thought he knew what it was."
"tell him about the poison medicine."
Daniels laughed, "Foster gave me this cream to use and I read the label and it said 'poisonous if applied to broken skin' and I'm like 'poison,' what the..."

I took them inside the Palace, which houses the U.S. Embassy, and we drank coffee and laughed about the Army--which manages to survive and adapt unlike any other organization: because of soldiers who bear burdens both plain and hidden.  Because it fulfills it's own ends.  Because men endure.

The Capital

I visited the Iraqi Monument to the Unknown Soldier: a ziggurat-style flag pole and a massive cantilevered disc (online I read this is meant to represent a falling martyr's shield).  For some reason the monument does not contain remains.  But it was still solemn.  And it combines eras and textures in an arabic way.

I was with Diane (c/o 2001), a contractor who manages the arabis
ts who worked with my battalion in Yusufiya.   We parked next to an army checkpoint and started to walk towards the monument when a jundee (an Iraqi Army private) stopped us.  He called another soldier on his radio.  Several other jundees came over--one donned body armor, picked up an AK-47, and motioned us to follow.  He was our escort.
To reach the monument we had to walk up a wide, curving, ramp.  Its arc caused the awning of the tilted shield to slowly present itself to us.  First starting as a black arc--it grew into full shape, the pyramidal cones underneath bearing themselves like layered rows of shark teeth.  Under the shade of the shield is a cube of red fiberglass covered in metal shapes.  The jundee pointed to an Arabic word inscribed at the base of the cube: Khalid.  "The engineer," said the jundee.  

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Today members of a new Iraq Study group visited the PRT. Dr. Megan O'Sullivan chaired the entourage which included several thinkers, such as Colin Kahl, and Jeff Beals. O'Sullivan cast herself as a uniformed executive, wearing a black suit, black heeled boots, and toting a Furla purse (that I judged at around 600 bucks).

"It's a good thing we didn't 'liberate' the Iraqis," Kahl said before the meeting. "Otherwise it'd be Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL)." We sat in a high-ceilinged room surrounded by posters of Iraqi cities: Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra, and others.  No one touched the fresh fruit on the table. But the coffee was popular.

The discussion lasted about an hour and a half before the group went for a 'tour' through a Baghdad neighborhood. Almost the entire time was spent restating the question: 'what level of Iraqi functionality is acceptable for Americans to leave?' After about 30 minutes, O'Sullivan interrupted to explain, "...we're here at the invitation of Ambassador Crocker and General Odierno to give a fresh perspective." Then we went back to playing with the question.

Major issues facing Iraqi reconstruction were glossed over or hardly discussed. The downsizing of critical Arabic Subject matter experts employed by the Department of Defense, known as Bilingual Bicultural Advisors (BBAs), was brought up by General Swan (4th ID) but the group remained hung up by a rubric the Department of State uses to grade Iraqi government capability. Another daunting challenge for the coalition is the incredible amount of Department of State positions filled by 'direct hires' (which I prefer to call contractors). These 'contractors' flit in and out of employment, are forced to navigate an overly-complex hiring process, and--although significant contributors to success--only prove the ad hoc nature of the Department of State's organization here.

Another profitable topic: what are the staff positions required for a Provincial Reconstruction Team, and what are their respective duties and responsibilities? These roles are in constant flux because of employee turnover and the State Department reliance on personality instead of doctrine.

PRT Baghdad is an amazingly effective organization--they have mentored the local government into a functioning organization. But often they succeed despite themselves. And greater challenges, such as the Surge's natural death, have yet to be overcome.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Post Exchange

Here is picture of the Post Exchange at FOB Striker.  Some soldiers spend their entire deployment 5 minutes away from this store.  On large FOBs anything imaginable is for sale.  "Iraq is the best place to buy a harley," said one Senior NCO.  That's because Harley Davidson has offices here and at bases in Kuwait--both offer discounts deeper than anything you'll find in the States.
For one grand a soldier can buy a menacing broadsword.  One set, known as the "Freedom Fighter," comes with two axes, a shield, and a sword.  They even engrave the names of villages you've inhabited on the blade.

"I was going to buy one, but they didn't have my crest," said one soldier.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


As we prepare to re-deploy, my team was moved from the patrol base in the city to the battalion headquarters at Combat Outpost Dragon. Dragon is housed in the skeleton of a half-built Thermal Power Plant. When the American Army fought their way into Yusufiya, Al Qaeda was using the plant as a base of operations. Legend has it that the first American army unit found open graves with the bodies of Russian workers with dog heads sewn on their necks.  In the rafters, faint graffiti reads 'allah is great.'

The army installed plywood offices in the concrete high-rises meant to hold condensers and conduits of steam.  The towering concrete smoke-stack became our polestar.  During our air assault across the Euphrates,  a glance at the horizon explained our position.

When I told the Iraqis we were moving to the power plant, they were confused.  "The Russian power plant," I explained.  "But that's never produced any power," they laughed, finding it ironic that the American Reconstruction Team was to live in a non-functional power plant.
Surrounding Dragon are fields of potatoes and houses of mud or brick.  The farmers have watched activity at the power plant for at least 10 years now.  Like other aspects of Iraq, Dragon is a modern complexity amidst an ancient culture.  And it has yet to produce.