Friday, December 22, 2006

Home for Christmas

Three years ago today I left Qatar on a flight home from Iraq for 2 weeks leave. I had not seen my wife and three children since Feb 3 of that year, the longest that I had been separated from any of them. The time spent at home was great but I found that a part of my mind was still back in Iraq.

Three years later I find that a piece of me still remains behind in that tortured country. Maybe, as the years continue to go by, that piece left behind will become smaller. There is a special feeling, unspoken, that comes form living in and sharing danger. A part of what I left behind comes from that special feeling that I had when I was there.

Overseas, right now, there are service men and women living their lives in harm's way. Safe at home and surrounded by the warmth of my family, I cannot help but think of them. During this holiday season keep these men and women in your thoughts and prayers. I can't help but believe that this special feeling that I felt and that they are feeling now comes from the thoughts and prayers of all of us back here in the United States of America.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Whither now in Iraq?

"[Taliban tribal leaders in Pakistatan] issued a video claiming that the Iraqi and Afghan insurgents were responsible for the Republican defeat in US mid-term elections and that US withdrawl from Afghanistan and Iraq would begin soon."

Regardless of the intent of the American people, and regardless of whether the Republicans deserved to be removed from power in the House and the Senate (they did), the transfer of control of the U.S Congress to the Democrats is viewed by our terrorists enemies worldwide as a sign of weakness on our part and a victory for their strategy of incrementally chipping away at the will of the American people. As much as I dislike Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the weight of the blame for our current state of affairs in Iraq lies elsewhere, primarily with the soon-to-be-departed Secretary of Defense, tossed overboard to lighten the President's load.

Now that they are in power, and not sniping from the sidelines, I sincerely hope that Nancy and Harry (please, God!) are rational and patriotic Americans who realize that a sudden and precipitious withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would be catastrophic to our national interests. I understand that many of their followers feel towards President Bush as I did toward President Clinton in 2000. I understand that they and their followers believe that the Iraq war should never have been inititated, that the war has been poorly managed.

None of those beliefs has anything to do with what we should do in Iraq right now. Bush is still the President and we are heavily engaged in a war that, for better or worse, the success or failure of which will have regional or even global repercussions. This is not an argument about Social Security or health insurance, but national security. A note of caution to the critics of the war: "Be careful what you wish for."

I believe that Nancy and Harry will adopt the motto of the Nixon administration: "Watch we do, not what we say." They will continue to say the right things to placate their extremist supporters, but they won't force the President to withdraw. And President Bush will make a speech to the American people after the New Year announcing a new Iraq policy that is remarkably similar to the current one. He really doesn't have a lot of choice or many options. The choices are Leave or some version of Stay. And this President isn't leaving.

On this point I agree with him. I still believe that the failure of Al Qaeda to attack the United States since 2001 is NOT because of the Department of Homeland Security. I believe it is because of the activities of the Department of Defense in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa and a lot of other places that I don't know about and aren't supposed to know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Withdraw or stay?

The sudden or phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at this time would be extremely detrimental to the national security of our country and our allies. There. I can't make it any clearer than that.

Forget about what Bush said or didn't say. What Rumsfeld did or didn't do. What the Iraqi people believe or don't believe. What the American people think that they want or don't want. Whether the Democrats or Republicans won the election. Forget about the past (there is too much talk about what happened before). What are we going to do right now?

The facts are clear: most Americans haven't a clue about what is going on in the Iraq, much less the Middle East. All they know is that the situation is very unpleasant and that they would rather that it end sooner rather than later. Look at all the casualties, I hear them say, and the money this is costing and shouldn't we be using our resources to hunt down Osama?

Right now, Iraq is the central battle in the global war on terrorism. Osama said it so it must be true. Osama noticed that when some marines were killed in Beirut that President Reagan soon after pulled them all out. Osama noticed that when some rangers were killed in Mogadishu that President Clinton pulled them all out. Soon afterwards when a shipload of marines approached Port au Prince a crowd of Haitians formed to protest and the ship turned around. Osama noticed that, too.

Regardless of why we got into Iraq, or the mistakes that we made after we got there, the Osama's of this world are watching to see what we are going to do now. Based on past experience, they think that we aren't tough enough. They think that we are soft, and that we don't have the political will to defeat their fanaticism. They think that, ultimately, we will wilt before the intensity of their belief.

There is ample precedent in history for our current situation. On December 16, 1944 Adolph Hitler launched a surprise attack against a weak portion of the Allied line in the Ardenne forest of Belgium. Hitler thought that the advancing democracies to his West were fundamentally weak and that his surprise attack would convince them to sue for peace. The resulting Battle of the Bulge caused over 60,000 U.S. casualties alone, but the soft and coddled American Army defeated the fascist attackers.

When I hear people wonder how we can fight such an unpopular war with the country divided I remember reading the Memoirs of U.S. Grant. As Grant struggled to find a way to envelop Vicksburg he was very aware of the newspaper editors in the north who were continually denouncing his incompetency and calling for his head. When Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac and locked horns with Bobby Lee he had to suffer an order from the War Department asking for troops to suppress New Yorkers rioting against the draft.

Somehow we managed to win both those wars. And we will manage to win this one. We can't afford not to.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Arabs and language

"A simple assertion from an Arab can be, for him, nothing more than a polite form of evasion, while the same word for his English interlocutor a definite, positive commitment. Americans should keep in mind that statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions."

- Raphael Patai

I recently spoke to an Army Reservist friend of mine who returned this summer from his second tour in Iraq. He spent his tour working with one of the Iraqi Ministries in the Green Zone and told me that he almost never traveled anywhere. He worked with Iraqis but was not able to visit their homes or really see what Iraq was like outside the confines of the barbed wire and concrete barriers that defined his existence.

I was fortunate in that during the last five months of my tour that I was able to travel and see a lot of Iraq and the Iraqis. I believe that the circumstances on the ground now in Iraq are substantively different than it was when I was there but the Iraqis are still the same. We spent a lot of time when we were there trying to figure out what the Iraqis were thinking and doing. I am sure the Iraqis spent a lot of time wondering what we were up to.

In the buildup to the war we pretty much knew that we were on the list to go and we knew where we were going and why. Very few of us knew anything about the Middle East and even less had even traveled there. I was an expert in Latin America and I spoke Spanish and at least this gave me some insight into some of the cultural and language problems that we could expect to encounter. I was smart enough to know how much I really didn't know.

Undaunted, I decided to learn as much as I could in the time that I had available. I purchased and read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence. I found a book on the history of Iraq. I purchased Arabic language tapes and began learning Arabic.

One book that was highly recommended to us and which I consulted on many occasions is "The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai. The book was originally published in 1976 and revised in 1983. The book speaks in generalities about a large and diverse population, but there are some great truths in what he had to say. One point that I remember well is the Arab penchant for substituting words for action.

"In fact," Mr Patai wrote, "the Arab custom of trying to intimidate an adversary by verbal threats is such a prevalent feature of the Arab personality that it could not escape the notice of either native or foreign observers. The adult Arab makes statements which express threats, demands, or intentions, which he does not intend to carry out but which once uttered, relax emotional tension, give psychological relief and at the same time reduce the pressure to engage in any act aimed at realizing the verbalized goal."

When seen from this point of view, a lot of the words and crowd images that are beamed to us from the Middle East don't seem quite so crazy.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A holiday in a combat zone

Thanksgiving, or any holiday spent overseas,especially if in a combat zone, is an especially poignant one. On these occasions the bonds between military men and women become especially strong because the absence of our families reinforces the sacrifice that we are all making. During these times the people around you become family because they are all you have, an inadequate but necessary substitute to making the daily journey to the end of your tour. I did not necessarily like all these people but they were my substitute family.

Now that I am home with my family during the holidays I feel a new and special poignancy for the service men and women overseas, many of whom are in harm's way. Somehow, though I don't even know them, I have a bond with them, too. When I give thanks for the many blessings that I have, I say a prayer that they all may return home safe.

Holidays were an unusual hardship when I was in Iraq. Like leftover grains of sand in my pocket, I carry little pieces of that hardship with me with during holidays at home. I remember. Or maybe I just can't forget.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Don Rumsfeld and the war

Based on my personal experiences and first hand knowledge of events during the buildup and first year of the war in Iraq I sincerely believe that Donald Rumsfeld was responsible for the problems that developed during that first year: problems that are affecting us to this day.

Persons other than Don Rumsfeld made critical mistakes but he took control of the planning for and execution of the invasion and deliberately excluded the Department of State and other agencies from any significant participation in the planning for or execution of the occupation. I can't say that greater DOS participation in the occupation would have improved the results but they could hardly have made them worse. The occupation was begun with minimal planning or preparation. As a result the military forces in Iraq were left to occupy the country with little guidance from the political authorities that had ordered the invasion.

As an Army colonel working to assist the Marine forces in the occupation of the southern half of Iraq, I had direct access to the planning documents and had personal knowledge of their inadequacy. I watched as the Marine commanders tried to govern a large, populous Arab country through trial and error and improvisation. They did the best they could under the circumstances. We all did.

When I left Iraq I was convinced that Rumsfeld was to blame for the fundamental problems that we faced and have continued to face. From all acounts, Rumsfeld is a brillant, extremely hard working, experienced and capable administrator. He believed (and still believes, for all I know) that he did the right thing. I believe that he should have been removed years ago, and for that I hold the President responsible.

Now that Mr. Rumsfeld has been removed from the post of the Secretary of Defense I hope that he will write a book that explains to us all why he took the actions and decisions that he did. In particular, I want to know why he didn't apply that brillant and capable mind to ensuring that there was an adequate plan for the occupation. My great fear is that his book, if it even comes, won't adequately address that question.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Veteran's Day

On Friday I marched in my first Veteran's Day parade.

Because the 11th fell on a Saturday, Leon County and the city of Tallahassee held the parade on a Friday when everyone was off for the holiday. The assumption among large numbers of people in Tallahassee was that the parade was moved to accomodate the Florida State football game. I don't believe this to be true, but it is hard to change public perception.

I found the whole experience to be very emotional. The WW II and Korean veterans rode on a float while the Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans walked. I helped a 97 year old WW II veteran out of his wheelchair on on to the float. He had recently decided to join my American Legion Post. We gave him a discount.

By the way, I was recently appointed Finance Officer of American Legion Post 13 in Tallahassee. I think no one else wanted the job.

The parade was short but memorable. As the float moved forward, and I walked alongside handing out little flags to children, the citizens of the county who came out to see the parade arose as if in a wave on both sides of the street and gave us a standing ovation. Several times I had to pause and wipe the tears from my eyes.

There were some Viet Nam veterans there who really appreciated the love. They had waited a long time for this kind of response.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Demons in the water

People I know or meet who understand that I have been to Iraq almost never ask me about the war. A river of understanding divides us, but I keep trying to throw pebbles of knowledge to the other side. I believe that they think there are demons hidden in the water, and their questions might rouse them. I have tried to bridge this river with a novel, and 85,000 words have carried me half way across. I hope to have the bridge finished by next year.

In the meantime, I thought about writing an essay on how I feel about the war. Words, sentences and paragraphs came to me in solitary moments. I finally decided to write some of them down, but I didn't like what I read. I always seemed to be taking a fire hose to a candle. Or the negative demons would rise from the water. But I didn't want to go that way. I knew that the essay had to be positive. Nobody wants to hear the complaints, real or imagined, of a fifty three year old man.

From the moment that I left Iraq on February 28, 2004 and unloaded my weapons at the Kuwaiti border, I have struggled to communicate what I learned there and how the experience of being there has changed my life. For this reason I have hesitated to speak my mind, but I made a promise when I was in Iraq, and I want to come forward now and speak what I believe.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I did not believe in them when I arrived in Iraq but I believed in them when I left. I had few occasions to meet the sullen and suspicious Sunnis of Ramadi. I spent most of my time among the majority Shia in towns like Hilla, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut. The more that I came into contact with these people the more I was impressed with their industriousness, piety, courtesy, and sense of family. The most enduring memory for me is not of an Iraqi with his fist held high in anger, but of an Iraqi family, the mother in full length abaya carrying a baby and the father, walking ahead in a white dishdasha, and holding a small child.

I cannot forget the Iraqi woman who came forward, despite great personal danger, to lead the women’s rights center that we created in Karbala. I shared with her a picture of my family that I carried in my helmet. She gave me a postal card of Karbala to give to my daughter. I think of this woman often, and I do not even know her name. When I think of the sacrifices that I made, and the sacrifices that my family made, I believe that they were made for this woman.

I believe in the Iraqi people. I believe in the message of the Iraqi woman that I saw in the streets of Hillah. She looked at me, an American soldier wearing a helmet and body armor, and carrying a loaded weapon, and wasn’t afraid. If she had been, she would not have lifted her baby’s arm to wave at me.

Many times when I was in Iraq I was thanked, often by grown men in tears, for helping to remove the terror and the horror that had beset these men’s lives for over thirty years. And I promised them, each one, that this time we would see the job through, that after awakening them from their nightmare we would lead them to the democracy that they deserve. When I made that promise, I believed what I said. And I continue to believe it today.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Specialist X

"The reconstruction failures in Iraq, which has been plagued by poor management, corruption, attacks on contractors and lack of oversight, have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. There have been reports of irregularities such as millions of reconstruction dollars stuffed into footlockers and filing cabinets, an American solider in the Philippines who gambled away cash belonging to Iraq, and three Iraqis who plunged to their deaths in a rebuilt hospital elevator that had been improperly certified as safe."

- The New York Times, Sunday, October 29, 2006.

Someone, I think an old soldier, taught me a saying when I was a mere lad that I have used the rest of my life: There are two kinds of stories - "This is no shit" stories and "Once upon a time" stories. Well, this is no shit.

I knew the American soldier mentioned in the New York Times quote above (I don't want to mention his name because he was a a young kid and I'm not really sure if he acted out of malice or stupidity). This American soldier, according to the NYT, "gambled away" Iraqi money in the Philippines. In fact, this soldier was in my unit and worked for me at the time of the incident. Was I then responsible for or did I contribute to this outrage? No, I didn't, and this is a good example of how the New York Times and others misinterpret the news from Iraq.

The quote, from something called the World View Podcast in the Week in Review, was written by Calvin Sims, who is a clear detriment to the quality image of the NYT, and kept making comments like "Wow", "Unbelievable", and "Right," to what ever the guy he was interviewing had to say. The editor of the Week in Review must have had a bad weekend, because he/she also allowed an article on the end of the hurricane season which stated that the season ended on October 31 instead of, correctly, on November 30.

If the Times can't get a simple, uncontroversial thing like the dates of the hurricane season correct, how can they possibly figure out what is going on in Iraq?

But, I digress. How in the world did one of my soldiers end up in the Philippines with thousands of dollars of Iraqi money? The answer is Termite Watkins.

Who? That's what I said when someone in the Al Hilla Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters told me who he was. Then the guy told me to Google his name and I did. Termite had been a professional fighter, in a light weight category, and had done really well in the fight world during the eighties. When I got the chance to talk to him, he explained that he had sought and received a job from KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) at a time when the company was offering astronomical salaries to go and work in Iraq. His first job was when they were in Um Qasr and he was assigned to be the insect exterminator for the compound. When the CPA team moved from Um Qasr to the Babylon Hotel in Al Hill, Termite went with them.

MIke Gfeller, the Regional Coordinator for the CPA South Central office in Al Hilla, found out about Termite's background as a fighter and hired him to work for CPA. Termite's new job: assemble and train an Iraqi boxing team for the 2004 Olympics. Termite received his new job assignment about the time that I arrived with my civil affairs team at the Babylon Hotel on October 1, 2003.

With Mike Gfeller providing the funds from the pot of Iraqi dollars supplied to him by Paul Bremer, Termite was able to establish a training center in Al Hilla and assemble a group of Iraqi fighters to begin the process of preparing them to be Olympic athletes. Termite had less than nine months to not only get them ready but to somehow get them qualified to even participate in the Games.

Termite was quite a character. He was Mr. Can Do. Mr. Positive. The fact that he had been given Mission Impossible didn't intimidate him but rather motivated him. The man was constantly full of energy and ideas, and was real popular with everyone in the compound. To put Termite somewhere in the organizational chart the Chief of Staff assigned him to me and he moved into the large office where my team worked. Termite and my soldier (let's call him Soldier X) got along well (everyone got along with Termite) and soon Termite came to me with a proposal.

When I heard the proposal I agreed to it because it made a lot of sense. Termite wanted Soldier X to work as a combination body guard and administrative assistant. Termite was clueless on a computer and Soldier X knew what buttons to push on the computer to spit out the paper necessary to keep their little beehive operation humming. Additionally, Termite had to go from the hotel each morning to the training facility to supervise his fighters and he couldn't go by himself. He needed Soldier X and his rifle to go with him.

This part of the deal gave me pause. I didn't like the prospect of sending my soldier out in this situation. But then again, this was Hilla and not Fallujah: the threat was a lot lower than further north in the Sunni Triangle. And there was risk every time we left the compound. The only way to be risk free was to stay in our room with the covers over our heads and there was risk even in doing that.

I wasn't entirely comfortable with the entire situation but I said yes. Soldier X was a young, enlisted man who didn't have a lot to offer to the greater scheme of things in the south-central area of CPA. Here was a useful job for him to do, a way that he could contribute to the war effort, and a chance to do a job where he was wanted. So Termite and Soldier X became a Team and moved forward in their quest for Iraqi Olympic glory.

And for the next two months everything went along blissfully. In my periodic discussions with Termite about the progress of his project, I discerned that Termite wasn't very concerned with the details of any task that he accomplished. It seemed that details were impediments to whatever Big Idea he had in his head at the moment. Soldier X was a big help to Termite because he was able to absorb some of the details of the operation that were a distraction to Termite.

One of these annoying details was money. The only way to pay for items in Iraq at that time (and maybe now, for all I know) was by cash or barter. There was no banking system, and thus no credit cards, debit cards, personal checks or cashiers checks. Most transactions were in cash, frequently American dollars. The American military spent a lot of time and effort hauling truckload's and C-130 airplane loads full of stacked pallets of cash. The money was all in Baghdad and had to be moved out to the provinces to pay the Iraqi employees and the contractors that we were busy hiring to fix the growing list of things that were broken.

It was common to overhear people mention that they were carrying tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in their rucksacks. Consequently, in this environment, I didn't think anything of it when I heard that Soldier X was helping Termite by carrying around hundreds or maybe a thousand dollars from the hotel to where ever the money had to be paid.

Most of this money was to pay for the living expenses and equipment of the fighters that he had assembled at his training facility in Hilla. Once he got this part of the task completed, he started emailing and calling people around the world to find out how he could get his fighters qualified for the Olympics. The answer: they had to compete and place well in regional games. Iraq was in the Asian region, and Termite discovered that the next regional games in Asia were in January 2004 and hosted by the Philippines.

You can see where all this is going. In December Termite came to me, announced that he was taking his fighters to Manila in January and requested that I permit Soldier X to accompany him.

"Manila, as in the Philippines?" I asked. Termite nodded affirmatively, looking at me earnestly, with his ever present smile and bubbly attitude.

Isn't this story beginning to sound a little bit ludicrous? I admit a lot of crazy things happened to me in Iraq and this was one of the crazier ones. So much of what went on in Iraq had an air of unreality to me that this whole episode fit right in perfectly with the environment. The place was unreal. There were always people everywhere carrying guns. I don't even own a gun (I never have) and here I was carrying a rifle and a pistol (loaded!) everywhere I went. The whole thing was like some kind of Epcot exhibit: the desert, Arabic, camels. So why shouldn't someone come up to me and ask me if he could take one of my soldiers from Iraq to the Philippines for a fight competition?

I wasn't immediately warm to the idea, but I didn't reject his request outright. Rather, I knew that there were some administrative obstacles, some I hadn't even thought of, that would prevent Soldier X from accompanying Termite to the Philippines. The biggest obstacle, and the one that I was sure could not be overcome in the four or so weeks left until they had to depart, was that Soldier X did not have a passport. This news took Termite aback, and I could see the wheels turning behind his furrowed brow as he walked away.

The second obstacle was that we needed to run this whole enterprise past our commander, who was in Kuwait. I sent the commander a email outlining the situation, and explaining the passport problem. I was not very definitive in my email, and my commander's response was also noncommittal.

And that was how we left it when I departed on Dec 19, 2003 for the United States and two weeks of leave with my family, who I had not seen in ten months. When I returned, somewhat dejectedly, to my bed in Hilla on January 8, 2004, I found out that Soldier X and Termite were in the Philippines. Evidently, in the two weeks that I was gone, Termite had taken Soldier X to Kuwait, gotten him a passport and a plane ticket, and flown with him to Manila. By the way, he also had to get passports and probably visas for the Iraqis, and bought all the plane tickets, round trip, in cash, plus he was carrying enough cash with him to pay for every one's hotel rooms and food for the duration of the trip.

The story gets a little fuzzy here because I don't have direct knowledge of what actually happened in the Philippines. I do know that I was approached about a week after I returned by Bob Stein (a CPA employee who is now serving prison time for embezzling CPA funds while he was there -but that's another story) about a problem. Evidently, he had just gotten a frantic phone call from Termite in the Philippines. Termite was frantic because he had given Soldier X ALL of the forty thousand or so dollars in cash that they had brought along for expenses and now Soldier X said that he did not have the money. I believe that I am on pretty firm ground here when I say that Soldier X no longer had the money.

I took the news calmly. I mean, what could he want me to do, go to the Philippines and get it back? I hadn't really approved any of this entire operation. I felt like this wasn't really my problem. Rather, in clear hindsight I can see now, I had let it happen through inaction. Yes, there is a twinge of guilt here. I could have told Termite, "What? Are you crazy? Forget it." But I didn't. I dramatically underestimated Termite. I didn't make a decision that got anyone killed in Iraq but I did, through my inaction, allow this kid to be put into a situation that he wasn't equipped to handle. And I think that Termite contributed in his own way to this sorry episode.

I really don't know what happened to the money. The story we got over the phone from Termite was that X met a girl, who introduced him to a guy, who had this really great scam job, and all he needed was some money and he could double it in 48 hours. Or maybe X gambled it all away in the casino. I don't know.

If you want to know how millions of dollars in Iraqi funds got wasted here's part of a story of how 40 grand was lost. There is a moral in this story somewhere. I am still looking for it.

When I got back home to the U.S. I got an email from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction about this incident. I replied that I did not have any direct knowledge about what happened to the money or why. And I still don't. I never spoke to Soldier X about this incident. He was talking to a lawyer and wasn't saying much.

I did see Termite again. The week before I left Iraq, in the last week of February 2004, I was involved in a basketball tournament. 5 on 5 half court. I was the only armed referee for the tournament. The first and last time I refereed a bball game wearing a loaded pistol.

The tournament had three Nepalese Gurkha teams, a Navy team, an Army Military Police Team, a KBR team and two Iraqi teams: one team who worked on the compound and another team comprised of Iraqi Olympic basketball players who participated at my request to Termite. Their fighters may not have known much about basketball, but they, like Termite, were enthusiastic. I actually refereed a basketball game between Nepalese and Iraqis. It was all quite an experience. The KBR team won.

I read in the paper after I returned home that Termite's Iraqi fighters never qualified in the regional games for the Olympics, but Termite was able to get a waiver from the International Olympic Committee and they all made it to the games. I wonder what Termite is doing now?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Visiting the Brits in Basra

I spent my first night in Iraq in Um Qasr on April 10, 2003. Um Qasr is Iraq's only port and at that time was being managed by Her Majesty's Armed Forces. The local news of interest was that packs of dogs roaming the port had gotten too aggressive and had even attacked and killed an Iraqi child. Consequently, the local commander had put the Brit Special Forces unit assigned to him on doggie detail, and they had begun summarily executing the dogs.

A U.S. Army female civil affairs captain and veterinarian had adopted a local pooch and came home from work to find her dog was dead. She objected to the Brit commander's canine policy by walking to the commander's office and dumping her dog's bloodied carcass on his desk. This wasn't nearly as colorful as the Army civil affairs Major, assigned to support a British Army infantry battalion, who made the front page of several British newspapers by accusing the battlion commander of war crimes. Or the Army (civil affairs once again) officer who got drunk with some Coalition force (country unspecified) brethern and decided to visit the Baghdad zoo. In the middle of the night. Our drunk friend decided to play with a rare tiger and accidentially got his arm in the tiger's mouth. He solved the conflict by shooting and killing the rare tiger with a war souvenir pistol that he wasn't supposed to have.

These stories are all true. I can't make this stuff up.

Um Qasr seemed like a fun place, and the British Army served a great breakfast with stewed tomatoes and eggs and bacon and sweet tea with milk but I had to get to Basra to meet with the civil-military officer for the British First Armored Division who had requested my presence. There were a lot of dead/abandoned Iraqi armored vehicles on the road, and LTC Murphy did a good job of navigating through the streets of Basra to the Armored Division headquarters on the grounds of "Chemical" Ali's palace.

I brought along some good officers with me: fellow Army Reservists who had excellent skills from their civilian jobs and who might be able to provide some real assistance to the Brits in their new task of running a large metropolis like Basra. This was a strange interview and I have thought back on it often. After I found him, he ushered me and my officers into this cavernous room in one of the buildings on the Palace grounds. The buildings all looked brand new and were in impeccable condition, except for one of the smaller ones on the compound which had taken a direct hit from a bomb dropped by a Harrier. The buildings looked so new that I thought at the time that the furnishings had not yet been installed. Later, after seeing the ruthless efficiency with which the Iraqi populace had stripped other buildings, I wasn't so sure.

The Brit officer was very polite. He sat us all down, said that they had basically just arrived, and asked us what we had to offer. The First Marine Expeditionary Force (or MEF) was technically the higher headquarters for the British First Armored Division, but they had a direct line open to Downing Street, and paid a little more attention to Tony Blair than they did to General Conway, the Marine MEF Commander. My civil affairs unit's responsibility was to support the MEF and General Conway. Thus, when the Brits asked for civil affairs support I and my team was sent.

I wonder what this Brit officer was expecting to get from us. He obviously was expecting something or he wouldn't have asked. What we had to offer wasn't what he wanted because he heard us out, thanked us politely, ushered us on our way and never called again. I thought that he wanted technical expertise in the gritty business of running a city. Thinking back on it now, I believe he wanted to hear what kind of guidance had been issued on the occupation of the country. He was looking for a plan. I didn't have one to give him, so he sent me on my way.

When you think about it, the task of occupying this large, Muslim country was formidable and as military officers, this Brit was curious about what the civilian leadership had in mind. As I was. Maybe he thought that the Americans had a plan for the occupation of the country. Maybe we had thought this thing out, and considered all the issues that would arise when the invasion ended and the occupation began. But I had nothing like that to offer. Instead, I had a few guys who might help him get the trains to run on time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My first visit to Iraq

After a week in Camp Commando, Kuwait in late March, early April 2003, Dale Foster, the Operations officer for my unit, pulled me aside and gave me a mission to go into Iraq in response to a request by the British First Armored Division for civil affairs support. This was a very significant moment in my life. For the first time in my military career I was being asked to lead men (and women) into combat and I immediately recognized the significance and importance of the task that I had been given.

While I admit the mission was significant to me, and was the first of dozens of siimilar missions that I was to perform over the next ten months, in the range of possible military leadership tasks this one was not very high on the scale of difficulty. For an untrained civilian this would have been an overwhelming and frightening prospect, but I was a Colonel and the Army had invested a considerable amount of money in training me to do what was, in this instance, essentially a squad leader's task. In spite of the fact that I was trained and confident that I could perform this mission, I was fully aware that I had never before in my life been responsible for so many lives in so perilous a situation.

From Camp Commando to the Iraqi border was an hour and a half, depending on the traffic, and the traffic was heavy, consisting mostly of military vehicles hauling supplies north to Iraq and empty vehicles heading south for more. The date was April 10, 2003 and there were twelve of us in four vehicles. The Brits had just seized Basra but the inteligence briefing I had received that morning was not reassuring: several of the smaller towns that we had to pass through on our way to Basra were still not totally pacified.

We were instructed to report to a Military Police checkpoint at a refueling site in Kuwait just inside the border. When we arrived the scene was reminiscent of the second Mad Max movie. There were hundreds of military vehicles battling for fuel in a lunar landscape. The dust was thick and pervasive. We were supposed to meet a British Army officer there and he was going to escort us to a meeting of tribal leaders in Safwan, a town directly across the border. The populace of Safwan resembled Dodge City right after a crew of hungry and horny cowboys arrived with a fresh herd of beef. The main supply route for all of Iraq (not the alternate, not the secondary, not even the tertiary supply route, but the MAIN) went through Safwan and the locals wanted a piece of the action even if it meant thrusting their children in front of convoy vehicles. This problem was only solved by building a bypass road around the town.

The Kuwaitis had built a giant berm along their border with Iraq to aid in keeping out Saddam's hordes and for those of us in Kuwait going to Iraq meant going "across the berm." I still had not crossed the berm, but settled down to wait for my British Army guide. Entertainment was availble from dogs and children, which were provided in abundance. The weather was warm, hinting at the furnace to come, and the dogs were in a constant state of pant. Some soldier sentries gave them some water in a dish.

After a hour and no contact with my guide, I pulled out my satellite phone and started making some phone calls. After two more hours I had my answer: my guide had been stricken with diarrea and vomiting and had been rushed to a hospital. We were too late in the day to make it to Basra and we certainly didn't want to return to Commando so I requested and received permission to go to the town of Um Qasr. Um Qasr was Iraq's only port and was now held by the British and had a large contingent of U.S. civil affairs soldiers. I decided to head there to spend the night and go to Basra the next day.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unplugged from the Global Village

I arrived in Camp Commando, Kuwait with my unit on March 26, 2003. Our job as a civil affairs unit was to assist the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in dealing with the Iraqi civilians. When I got to Commando I found very few Iraqi civilians and, anyway, the MEF was long gone, having already entered Iraq in pursuit of the First Marine Division (MARDIV). So we settled in to read about the war through classified reports from the units in contact in Iraq.

This wasn't as exciting as it sounds. Reading Marine Fagementation Orders is not as thrilling as hearing and watching a breathless reporter on TV from the front lines. We were unplugged from the Global Village and really knew very little about what was going on other than the very narrow situation we were focused on: the status of the Iraqi civil population. We had some reports but they were fragmentary and maddeningly incomplete. For example, we received civil affairs reports on several small villages, but the report writers failed to supply a grid coordinate for the town or even the province in which it resided. Consequently, I remember spending many minutes in front of a LARGE map looking for the small town of Nowhere, Iraq. The Marine had spent a lot of time writing a detailed report about the mayor and the police chief and the school but failed in the simple business of identifying even where the town was in relation to a big city. As with everyting, context is important.

Even though we had weapons and ammunition and body armor and helmets we were still in Kuwait and this rankled some of us. We had been torn from our civilian lives and hauled half way around the world (that's actually an exxageration, we were one third of the way around the world) to help deal with the problems of Iraqi civilians and the Marines told us to read about them from Kuwait. I could have read about them from home, in better conditions. We finally started getting requests for civil affairs support from, of all people, the British.

The Britiish First Armored Division was subordinated under the MEF. While the MARDIV was racing the Army's Third Infantry Division for Baghdad the Brits were manuevering, a la the movie "A Bridge too Far", to invest Basra, a short, very short, distance from the Kuwaiti border. I could drive there in two hours from Commando. But first they captured Um Qasr, Iraq's only seaport, and assumed the responsibility for the civilians of the town. The Brits had a lot of experience occupying a country (read: Northern Ireland) so they didn't need a lot of help from us. We did have a few of members of our unit get sent to Um Qasr and we eagerly sought them out to find out what Iraq was like.

Right after the Brits captured Basra in early April the Civil Affairs officer for the British First Armored Division sent a request to the MEF for civil affairs support in the task of dealing with the sizeable metropolis of Basra. This request was forwarded to my unit and then assigned to me. I assembled a team of ten soldiers and four vehicles and departed for Iraq and Basra the following morning.

When I arrived at the Brit headquarters in Basra I discovered that the Brit civil affairs officer who had made the request was looking for some idea of the plan for the occupation of the country.

I had no plan to give him. There was none.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The debate on Iraq

In my September posts I introduced a lot of the themes that I want to discuss in this blog - at least at the beginning. The debate over Iraq has not even approached the hostility and animosity that we saw during the war in Viet Nam. The current war in Iraq is an extrememly complicated issue that is generally translated by the national media into a series of 6 P.M. local news car crashes and apartment fires. I know more about the war in Iraq than 99% of the people in this country - which is an indication of the severity of the problem.

But I am a great believer in democracy and the good judgement of the American people as reflected every two years in their votes. The politicians will receive the judgement of the American people next month and we all will accept it - some more pleasantly than others - and continue with our lives.

I also believe in the collective good judgement of the Iraqi people. A few short months ago they got the opportunity, for the first time in many decades, to express their will at the ballot box. This election was considered fair by all international observers. Their new government is struggling now under very difficult circumstances. Those who look beyond the IED explosions on TV and the body count can see that they are trying to make this work.

But I don't want to talk about this now. I'm ready to talk about what happened during the first year of the war, when I was there. I published a book that was essentially a collection of the emails that I sent home when I was there. The book is mentioned elsewhere on this site. Those emails have the immediacy of when I wrote them. A reviewer said that this book doesn't have the warriors selective memory. But there was a lot that I didn't put in that book - for various reasons. Some of the omissions were dure to normal military operational security reasons. Others were due to the fact that I was sending these missives home to my family and I didn't want to overly alarm them. The fact that I was in a war zone was alarming enough.

What I really want to talk about is the plan for the occupation of Iraq. Or lack thereof. And that is what I plan to do.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Getting the blog published

After 2 weeks of steady labor I was able to create this blog page on my site. As you can see, it is still a work in progress. In between watching the baseball playoffs and college football on TV, I hope to make steady improvements in the performance of this blog and continue my rumuinations on the war.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September posts

September 6, 2006

I have been back from Iraq for over two years and I believe that I have come closer to digesting the experience. I haven't spoken out a lot publicly about the war since I returned but I have decided to now. I believe that I have something useful to contribute to the debate, and the recent publication of my book and the introduction of this web site has given me an opportunity and a platform to add my three cents to the discussion. At my decrepit age of fifty-two, I have finally decided to join the blogosphere.

As Ward Bond, playing an Irish Catholic priest in the fabulous The Quiet Man, said in the opening to the movie, Let's begin at the beginning. In the traditional media and Internet postings the din of the debate on Iraq revolves around people trying to answer two fundamental questions: Why Are We There? and What Do We Do Now? I call these Question #1 and Question #2.

Unfortunately, a great part of the debate has devolved to people providing detailed answers to the wrong question. Mostly, people are providing Question #1 answers to Question #2.

I am old enough to remember the debates over the war in Viet Nam. When I returned to graduate school in the early eighties they dragged out many of the same arguments over the war in El Salvador, and the U.S. participation in that conflict. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't much of a war, but there also wasn't much to the arguments. The point that I want to make about Viet Nam is that by 1969 there wasn't much arguing going on: both sides were just basically shouting at each other. So these are my ground rules, a Lessons Learned from the sixties. First, criticism of the conduct of the war does not mean that you are a treasonous, blame-America-first Communist. Secondly, support of the war does not mean that you are a fascist who enjoys watching babies getting bombed. Unfortunately, and this is NOT an exaggeration, my two previous examples describes the destination to which the Viet Nam war debate arrived. I plan to keep a civil tone, and leave the shrillness to others. When I return, I will begin the (lengthy) discussion of Question #1 and Question #2.

September 7, 2006

Had we but world enough and time, this coyness lady were no crime, said the poet to his mistress. We have "world enough and time," so I will digress for a moment. Yesterday's posting brought up the war in El Salvador and reminded me of when I was a columnist for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, during my long ago graduate student days in 1981. One of my columns, which I have excerpted below, will give you younger folks some perspective on the great issues of the day that we have discussed, are discussing and will discuss.

Excerpt from my Reflections column in the Florida Alligator in 1981:

UF has changed from 1975, when I left on a six year sabbatical, and last August, when I returned to enter the wasteland of higher education. The debate over Vietnam has been replaced by the debate over El Salvador. But, whereas the argument over El Salvador has just recently reached the stage where rhetoric overwhelms all fact, by 1971 the debate over Vietnam had passed that stage by about three years. Of course, like everyone else, we had our riots. In spring of 1972, Nixon decided to coax the enemy to the bargaining table by mining the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong and bombing the hell out of whatever was left of North Vietnam. The UF campus, which had slumbered peacefully through the Tet offensive and the invasion of Cambodia, suddenly sprang into life. The local anti-war leadership, defeated and dejected after beating a dead horse for six years, was overjoyed that they could finally break out their microphones and chant their slogans to a crowd of more than 10 people.

The brave students seized 13th street in front of Tigert Hall and waiting gamely for the enemy to arrive, which they shortly did. A weak attack by a fire truck spraying water and then a tear gas grenade was easily repulsed by the students (they threw the grenade on top of the fire truck). The enemy retreated, the students cheered, and then settled down to a game of Frisbee. Meanwhile dark clouds were gathering as, unbeknownst to our heroes, every red-neck sheriff and policeman for five counties was called to Gainesville for the counterattack, which took place just after dark.

Guerrilla war ensued when the students realized that the policemen were prevented from entering the campus. The students began to launch forays into enemy lines as the policemen, like Marines on a firebase, waited doggedly for the next assault. The students would drag a bench onto University Avenue in front of Murphree Hall, wait for a squad car to respond, and then pelt the officers with rocks when they arrived. Reinforcements were called, tear gas was fired, and the students would retreat into Murphree Hall until the next round. All this came to an abrupt halt when a tear gas grenade (accidentally?) landed in a first floor stairwell and smoked everyone out.

I watched all these proceedings, quite safely, from the roof of what is now Goering's Book Center. This not only looked like the movies, it bore a remarkable resemblance to the evening news of the last few years. So this is college life, I thought.

So this is college life. Unfortunately for these students, the war ended in a year and they had to return to more mundane things like studying. Today's freshman has no such mission or sense of purpose to guide his life. Oh, he has the environmental movement and the anti-nukes, and El Salvador is beginning to have possibilities, but nothing to offer him full commitment. Maybe Reagan will send the Marines into El Salvador. Wouldn't that be great? Then the old megaphones could be dusted off and the never ending battle for truth, compassion and justice could be continued against the Gainesville police, just like in the days of old. Who wants to study anyway?

September 8, 2006

Why are we in Iraq? Where do we go from here? I call these Question #1 and Question #2. Question #1 has been hashed over for years, and in fact was answered to my satisfaction in the 2004 Presidential election. Many commentators, politicians and citizens who disagreed with the decision to invade, when confronted with the choices of Question #2, respond with their answers to Question #1. The debate over the decision to invade is interesting from an historical perspective, but is essentially irrelevant when trying to answer Question #2.

The situation in Iraq and the Middle East is extremely complex and I don't pretend to know all the answers. My area of expertise is Latin America, a region where I know the culture, can speak the language and to which I have traveled extensively. But in 2003 and 2004 I received a doctorate level crash course in Iraq and the Middle East, and since I returned I have listened to a lot of people who have never been to Iraq, never met an Iraqi, never read a book about Iraq and have ever never been to the Middle East spout their opinions about this war on television, radio, newspapers, sidewalks and in office buildings. I believe that I can can provide better insight than they can. Hence, the reasons for these words that I am typing right now.

Although the public discussions about Iraq have focused on the aforementioned Question #1 and #2, for some time now I have been more interested in a third question. This question first arose in my brain when I read the invasion plan in 2002, cropped up continually during the year that I spent in Iraq and Kuwait, and has been the single-minded focus of the many books and articles that I have read since I returned. This question has gradually evolved through time. Initially, when I read the invasion plan, my question was - What is the plan for the occupation of the country after the invasion is completed? When I arrived in Iraq - still without a plan of occupation - the question became; How are we going to govern this place? When I left Iraq the question became - Why wasn't there a plan? In the two years since my return I have gathered bits and pieces but no definitive answer to this question.

In the subsequent days and weeks I hope to present here what I know and what I have learned. In this area I have specific personal knowledge and can make a contribution to the debate.
September 11, 2006

The five year anniversary of the events of 9/11 is very emotional for me because, like so many other people, the events of that day had a powerful effect on my life. If America had not been attacked on that day then I would not have gone to Iraq. I am in the midst of completing a novel that was inspired by the experiences that I had in the war. I want to quote here from a portion of the manuscript of that novel because this portion is very autobiographical, and very relevant to today's anniversary.

Herewith, an excerpt from the manuscript to "The Lion of Babylon", my novel on the war in Iraq:

As the helicopters flew northwest toward Baghdad, Nate looked below and saw, instead of a lifeless desert, a flat land of green, planted fields fed by canals with water that reflected flashes of light from the afternoon sun. Ahead lay the big city that, as of five days before, was under new management. As the buildings of the city passed below them, bisected by the Tigris River, Nate and Sam exchanged glances.

Bagram, Bogota or Baghdad, Nate said to Sam and Sam nodded.

In December of 2001, Nate, Sam, and Chuck Warren had been together in Pensacola for their monthly weekend Reserve meeting. As they did every Saturday night when they were together, they assembled on the second floor verandah to drink whiskey and smoke cigars and discuss the affairs of the world. The affairs of the world had changed dramatically from only a few short months before, when Nate had stood by the ocean at New Smyrna Beach watching the Fourth of July crowd enjoy the bright Florida sunshine. With an unusual prescience, watching his children playing in the surf amongst the holiday crowd, Nate had foreseen how fragile it all was. They were secure and unmindful of the horrors of war, and he said a prayer of thanks for the long peace that had lain over him and his country. After twenty-six years of preparing for war in the active Army and in the Reserves, he was reaching the end of his military career without having to use the skills and knowledge that he had long accumulated.

As the three Colonels sat on the verandah in the cool December evening, filling and refilling their glasses from a bottle of Scotch, with visions of September eleven fresh in their minds and war ongoing in Afghanistan, there was no talk of peace. They had all been in the military long enough to detect the signs, to feel the shudder as the Army, like a great, dormant beast, trembled and stirred and prepared to spring. Like the onset of a great flood, they could feel the waters rising and they all knew that in the coming year they would be swept up and carried away. The only question was where.

It's going to be Colombia, Afghanistan or Iraq," Nate had announced. Bogota, Bagram or Baghdad." And his friends had all agreed. And Baghdad it was. The one consolation in Nate's mind was that if he had to go to war, at least he was going with his friends.

That was one of my consolations of my trip to Iraq: at least I went with friends.

September 13, 2006

The question that puzzled me the entire time that I was in Iraq, the answer for which I have been pursuing since I returned (over two years) is: why didn't we have a plan for the occupation of the country that we were invading and occupying? I can speak from first hand experience when I tell one and all that there was no plan. A clear explanation as to why there was no plan continues to evade me.

Any number of people can provide various flippant answers to this question. I don't want a snide, condescending remark about Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as an explanation for why what happened happened. We could have avoided, and I also speak from first hand experience here, a lot of past and currrent problems if we had a plan of occupation.

When I arrived in Kuwait from Ft. Bragg on March 21, 2003 I actually had a plan of occupation in my footlocker. The plan was 100 pages long, was dated December 1944 and was the culmination of two years of work by a lot of smart people. This plan was for the occupation of Germany. I read the plan. It was a good plan. It worked. As I was to discover in the next ten months, this plan addressed and provided solutions for many of the problems that we were to face.

I have read "Plan of Attack" and "Cobra II" and James Fallows articles in the New Yorker and an interview with Douglas Feith (one of the Pentagon's neocons) and a lot of other varied sources but the answer to my question is not there. These books and articles have a lot of explanations but not answers. I first looked at the Operation Plan for the invasion in November 2002 and I said, "Holy shit." This was not going to be a namby-pamby Clintonesque Somalia/Bosnia/Kosovo type military operation. The mission statement had a lot of good action verbs - INVADE, REMOVE the regime, OCCUPY the country. The last verb got my attention because I was in the Army Civil Affairs branch and military government is one of the missions that we are trained for. In fact, I thought that this was my sole reason for participation in this great historical event.

But the question I asked in November 2002 after reading the invasion plan was: where is the occupation plan?

September 18, 2006

I arrived with my unit in Kuwait on March 21, 2003 and eventually made it forward to the Marine Expeditionary Force Rear Headquarters at Camp Commando by March 26, 2003. There I linked up with my good friend Colonel Larry West, who had been there in Kuwait since January as the leader of our advance planning element. Supposedly, Larry was supposed to be planning the utilization of our Army civil affairs unit with the Marines.

Naturally, when I linked up with Larry I was eager to find out what the Marines had in mind for us. Unfortunately, a lot of planning had been done with the expectation that we were going to arrive before the war started. But we didn't. The war started on March 19 and we didn't even get to Camp Commando until March 26, so the Marines started the invasion without us. Damn Marines.

One Marine in particular, General Mattis, the Commander of the First Marine Division, wasn't too interestefd in Iraqi civilians, civil affairs or the challenges involved in the occupation of a large Muslim country. I think that he read the mission statement (INVADE, REMOVE, OCCUPY) and didn't get back past the Invade part. The attitude of a lot of Marine officers was: "We don't do occupations. That's the Army's job."

General Mattis believed that his job was to get to Baghdad as fast as possible. Don Rumsfeld had the same idea. Consequently, General Mattis didn't EVEN want anyone stopping to deal with Iraqi civilians or their petty problems. The word was "Haul ass, re-gas and bypass." And that was what they did. I spoke to one of his battalion commanders in Najaf in June (he had Tariq Aziz's United Nations ID card in his pocket.) This battalion commander spoke about how he walked through the campus of Baghdad University, realizing that he had reached his final objective, and thinking to himself, "What do I do now?"

What do we do now indeed? There was a lot that needed to be done, but no plan had been developed. The Marine plan was to capture Baghdad, load on their ships and go home. The Marines weren't able to execute that plan either.

September 21, 2006

In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the Marine planning chief in Iraq wanted to start talking about the plan for the occupation. Colonel Larry Brown, the Marine Expeditionary Force Operations Officer, or G-3, overruled that suggestion. The planners had stil not finished exploring the umpteenth variation and possibility of the initial invasion plan. The Marines didn't appear worried about the occupation because Central Command in Quatar wasn't worried about it and Don Rumsfeld wasn't worried about it.

I was worried about it. It was my job to worry about it but the Generals didn't seem concerned so I kept my mouth shut. Hell, I had never been in a war before. I had never even been in Iraq before. I spoke Spanish, for God's sakes. What did I know?

Looking back on it now, I had the right concerns. I was asking the right questions. Nobody was ready to listen. The Marines were ready to take Baghdad and go home. None of the headquarters above them were asking the tough questions about the occupation. The commander and operations officer for my civil affairs unit worked for the Marines and weren't prepared to argue with a three star general, even if they disagreed with him. Which they didn't. Which argument were they supposed to make, that the work had just begun, or we did our job and it's time to go home?

Three weeks after I arrived at Camp Babylon in Iraq a discussion about preparations for returning to Kuwait to return home was first brought up. What? I asked. Go home? We just got here.

Litte did I know that we were going talk about going home almost constantly for the next five months. General Sanchez finally killed all that talk in early September, 2003 when he told us all that we were going to be there 365 days BOG, boots on the ground. We were busy occupying then.

Without a plan.