Sunday, October 28, 2007

Codetalkers: How to win friends & influence people in Iraq....

I'm currently sitting in the hold of a C-130 troop transport plane, staring at the bottom of a combat boot belonging to the soldier across from me and suddenly I realize there's a word on his sole. "Converse".

"Why are you flying to Kuwait," I idly asked the soldier. "Going home on leave?"

"My mother died suddenly this morning." I felt so bad for him, I even vainly tried to struggle past all of my seatbelts and Kevlar and give him a hug. When my mother died suddenly several years ago and my neighbor gave me a hug, it had really helped. The soldier was pretty much devastated by his loss. I felt so bad.

And the soldier next to him was absent-mindedly pointing his M-16 at my knee-cap. "Would it be okay if you pointed it at my duffel bag instead?" He obliged.

Will we get to the airbase in Kuwait before the dining facility closes? It's gonna be a tight squeeze but I hope we make it. I haven't hardly eaten anything in two days, having been suffering from "The Halls of Montezumas' Revenge".

Anyway, I was day-dreaming about this and that during the flight when it suddenly hit me -- the military over here in Iraq is equipped with almost every single weapon imaginable; has spent almost a trillion dollars on all these freaking weapons that you see all over this country -- but has spent only piddling amounts on the one weapon that counts the most -- words.

Two nights ago I was happily sleeping away on my cot at Forward Operating Base Haditha when the peace was totally shattered by the Thunder-Clap from Hell! OMG! This is it! We're being invaded! I thought about crawling under my cot for protection but really -- have you SEEN my cot?

"What the freak is going on!" I screamed. "We're all gonna die!"

"Jane, those are just outgoing illumination rounds," said our Captain. "If they had been incoming rounds, trust me, you would have known. The entire ground would have been shaking." Oh.

I'd gone up to Haditha to see the Marines' Lioness train program, wherein female Marines are taught how to interact with Iraqi women. The program has been a huge success. Iraqi women have really appreciated being able to deal with women like themselves. For instance, some of the Lionesses were asked to go provide moral support to a woman who had just been assaulted by an Iraqi man. And the Marines' female Iraqi interpreters are also important in helping make Iraqi women feel at ease.

Then we all trooped off to see a new medical clinic being build in joint collaboration with Iraqis, Marines and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Several Iraqi building inspectors were there. And yes when you build in Iraq, just like when you build in the States, you still need a permit. Which reminds me that when I get back home to Berkeley, I'm going to have to deal with getting a permit for my window because while I'm over here writing about Big Things, the Board of Directors at my housing project is busy tormenting me about Little Things. Punks.

Then we all got back in the Seven-Ton and convoyed over to the local hospital. It was only two blocks away. "We coulda walked here," I complained, "All this military stuff is making us look like we're the evil occupying force instead of just your friendly local neighborhood Marines trying to help the local police dudes keep the peace."

The Marine next to me laughed. "Jane, we usually just run foot patrols here in Haditha, sort of an informal neighborhood watch."

"Then what is all this heavy-duty gonzo in-your-face military equipment about?" Those Seven-Tons are HUGE. And totally intimidating.

"We're using all this gear because of YOU, Jane." Really? "How would it look if a 65-year-old visiting grandmother passed out from heat-stroke or something on our watch?" Ha. I bet that wasn't it. I bet that my daughter Ashley phoned up the Marines and told them that she was all worried that I would get lost again and would they PLEASE keep me on a short leash. Humph.

At the hospital, we looked at the emergency room and thought about ER and Gray's Anatomy but there wasn't much action there. It was a pretty calm day. "And here's our oncology room, cardiac room, men's ward, women's ward and pediatric wing." They had 80 beds total but only about 15 of them were filled. I had wanted to go see their morgue but it became pretty obvious to me while doing rounds that this hospital's morgue was gonna be empty.

But the hospital ward I liked best was the pediatric ward. There were cute little babies! Totally cute. And the mothers and sisters and grandmothers and the entire extended female family of each baby's mother was there, drinking chai tea and having a picnic on the floor. The older woman had blue tattoo marks on their faces. Table clothes were spread on the floor and everyone had made themselves at home. Cute little babies. I loved the maternity ward.

Back at Al Asad airbase, I started chatting with a young Marine. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"Arizona. I'm a full-blood Navajo. And my wife's grandfather was a Codetalker during World War II." A Codetalker? Holy cow! And then it dawned on me. That's what we need here in Iraq! Not necessarily a Navajo native speaker but someone who could speak Arabic -- lots of someones who could speak Arabic, to be exact. Heck, we gots all these expensive weapons -- 100,000 different ways to blow people up. But can the average American soldier even speak to the average Iraqi on the street? Nope.

I propose a new program wherein every single soldier in Iraq is required to memorize 20 words of Arabic a week. "But, Jane, the Arabic grammar is really complicated." Yeah but so is a Howitzer. If they can learn to operate one of those bad boys, surely they can master basic Arabic. And knowing a few sentences in Arabic would be SO much more effective. And maybe cost one-thousandth of the price.

While we were at the hospital, one Iraqi man came up to our officer in charge and said, "My mother is here because she had a diabetic attack in the middle of the night and we couldn't get her to the hospital because of the curfew and now she is very very sick because she couldn't get here for medicine in time."

"If that ever happens again," said the major, "approach one of our Marines and ask for an escort. Tell them it is an emergency."

"But if I do that, they will shoot me."

"No they won't. I promise you. They won't."

Guess what? I finally made it off the C-130 and actually got to the dining facility with only seconds to spare. But unfortunately, all that food just fueled my already-intense case of "The Halls of Montezumas' Revenge" and I was then forced to go do "research" on what the airbase's sick-bay was like. Thank goodness for Imodium! But as I sat in the waiting room, I noticed that the medical staff had the movie "Frankenstein" playing. "Don't worry about that," joked the medical tech as we watched Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant steal a brain from a surgical lab. "We only use this as our training film."

Meanwhile, back to my own brainstorm -- I think that having all the soldiers here learn Arabic would really help out. When I was in South Africa last month, I was told that the best way to remain safe in the villages and towns was to make friends with as many neighbors as possible. And if we learned the language, that would be a big safety help too. "They appreciate the effort you go through to learn Setswana, even if you only can say a few words." And that strategy of becoming safer by getting to know the locals can also prove true in Iraq. So. Let's start by having multilingual block parties in Baghdad, which, according to the Washington Post, is the most troubled region here and really could use a friendly neighborhood meet-and-greet.

To quote the Post, "'I honestly thought we were making a difference in Tikrit. Then we come back to [this] hellhole,' Marino said. 'That was a playground compared to Baghdad.' The American people don't fully realize what's going on, said Staff Sgt. Richard McClary, 27, a section leader from Buffalo. 'They just know back there what the higher-ups here tell them. But the higher-ups don't go anywhere, and actually they only go to the safe places, places with a little bit of gunfire,' he said. 'They don't ever [expletive] see what we see on the ground.'"

And with regard to our troops' burn-out in Baghdad, I also talked with a young West Point graduate stationed there -- one of the best and brightest of our younger generation of American military. "When my tour of duty here in Baghdad is up, I'm not going to re-enlist," he told me. "The West Point code states that one of its goals is 'To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets . . . toward a lifetime of selfless service to the Nation.' To some this clearly means a lifetime of service as an officer in the Army. I disagree. I strongly believe that there are a myriad other ways in which to selflessly serve the Nation and the world." Has serving as a career Army officer stopped being a satisfying goal? If so, that's scary.

For all the money that they have spent on weaponry bling in the past seven years, Bush and Cheney might have done better to have just learned Arabic themselves, or, better still, stayed home and tried to make friends in America -- before villagers across the US come after them with pitchforks and torches because of the damage those two Frankensteins have done to America's military, America's Constitution and America's budget.

In Iraq, things are looking a lot better right now, thanks to the Marines and their house-by-house efforts to win hearts and minds -- and also because, according to my friend Stewart, "Anbar is doing well because of the Iraqis," who are really trying hard to make omelets out of badly broken eggs and also are sick of all the killing. If the "insurgents" think that the recent kidnapping of ten major sheiks is going to endear them to the Iraqi people, they are definitely drinking the Kool-Aid. Iraqis really seem to like their sheiks and do not take kindly to anyone who messes with them.

But for whatever the reason, things truly are looking up in Iraq. I mean seriously. But, geez Louise, I surely do hate to see Bush and Cheney take the credit for any successes over here -- not after our military has worked like dogs to pull all of their freaking chestnuts out of the fire. Please let us never forget that If it hadn't been for Bush and Cheney, we would never have been in this mess in the first place!

But perhaps I being too hard on Cheney and Bush. Perhaps they have finally seen the light and are finally starting to do a good job now? Apparently not. According to even Time Magazine, these two duds are STILL missing the boat. "George W. Bush has abdicated his control over the military mission and seems boggled by the political side of the Iraqi equation," sez Time. "He has lashed himself to the inept, unrepresentative government of Nouri al-Maliki but seems powerless to influence that government's actions. Bush's Iraq poster boys, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, are doing a wonderful job but lack the rank to make strategic regional policy. The Administration was so inept in dealing with Turkey that its designated mediator, retired General Joseph Ralston, recently quit in frustration. Bush's refusal to engage the Iranians has left a clear field for Russian mini-czar Vladimir Putin to move in and build an alliance. The Secretary of State is chasing an Israeli-Palestinian chimera at a moment when a burst of high-level U.S. diplomatic pressure might actually make a difference in Iraq. There are...hugs to be had, and [Bush is] not grabbing them."

I'm really really glad that things are finally looking up in Iraq right now -- but I can't help but worry about what all this has cost us. According to the New York Times, "The operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day, estimates Scott Wallsten, an economist in Washington. That translates into a couple of billion dollars a week and, over the full course of the war, an eventual total of $700 billion in direct spending." $700 BILLION DOLLARS? That's approximately $35,000 per Iraqi! If we had spent that $700,000,000,000 on, say, California, I bet that we coulda built a new McMansion for every single victim of the San Diego fire and still have had enough money left over to build one house apiece for every Katrina victim too.

Ah, the tax-and-spend Republican neo-cons. Thanks to them, I strongly fear that the wealth of America's future generations is going down the toilet like a bad case of dysentery. According to the House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, "The national debt on October 27 [is] $9,061,206,589,592.53. Your share of the national debt [is] $29,883.69."

And according to Congressman Pete Stark, "I’m just amazed that they can’t figure out—the Republicans are worried that they can’t pay for insuring an additional 10 million children. They sure don’t care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal war in Iraq. Where are you going to get that money? Are you going to tell us lies like you’re telling us today? Is that how you’re going to fund the war? You don’t have money to fund the war on children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if he can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President’s [sic] amusement." Ann Coulter may accuse Rep. Stark of over-reacting, but Rep. Stark is right. Where the FREAK are we gonna get the money to afford more of Bush and Cheney's endless fiscal irresponsibility, with or without wars?

I'm not the only one with intestinal problems here. Any close examination of America's budget over the last seven years will clearly show that Bush and Cheney's irresponsible fiscal policies have given the US Treasury dysentery too. And if we don't send some Imodium off to the White House immediately and slow those bad boys down, then there is a very real danger that America is going to collapse from fiscal dehydration soon.

Perhaps historians will call it "Bush and Cheney's Revenge".

PS: While waiting for my flight from Kuwait to Frankfurt, I sat next to a contractor -- the whole freaking airport gate area was filled with contractors so this was not hard to do -- who gave me his personal version of the history of the so-called war in Iraq. "In 2003 and 2004, it was pretty peaceful and then all hell broke loose for the next few years. And now things are starting to stabilize again."

And now that I'm in Frankfurt -- that plane ride was SO different from flying in a C-130 -- some new questions are popping into my brain. For instance, "Why is the population of rural Iraq still living in Third World conditions when they are sitting on top of so much petroleum wealth?" Perhaps I am being naive? And also, "What do I think should happen next in Iraq?" Should our troops get out?

Rep. Dennis Kucinich recommends replacing American troops with an international peace-keeping force. He recognizes that the Iraqis still need help in keeping the peace and I agree with him there. But perhaps putting another force in place might not be the best way to go -- because after all these years, Iraqis are finally starting to trust the Marines in Al Anbar and sometimes even the Army in Baghdad. And if a new "peace-keeping" force were to come in now, that fragile trust-building mechanism would have to start all over again from scratch. However, if the American military is now serving as a de facto peace-keeping force -- and it is -- then perhaps the UN and/or various oil-using nations could help foot the bill, including the European Union, Russia, China, the Saudis and even Iran. Or perhaps the American oil companies who are making so much profit off this so-called war might be persuaded to finally "give something back".