Monday, March 31, 2008

Madam Jane predicts: The Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of neo-cons will attack Iran on....

(Photos: I truly wish that this painting by renowned artist Polly Frizzel was a portrait of Madam Jane drinking her morning coffee. But it's not. But that IS a photo of Madam Jane in her nightgown and bunny slippers.)

I just got an e-mail from my friend Karen. "Lately, I've been really worried that Bush is going to attack Iran and then use this as an excuse to suspend the November 2008 presidential elections. Could you please ask Madam Jane if she thinks that Bush is planning to bomb Iran before November?"

Gee, I'm not really sure if I should. I hate to bother Madam Jane all that much. She's kind of prickly even in the best of times but lately she's been even more temperamental.

"Why is that?"

"Because, way back in 1979, Madam Jane learned all her fabulous fortune-telling techniques from some ancient Tibetan lama from Oakland -- so all these recent protests and suppressions in Lhasa are stirring up a whole bunch of emotions for her. Did you know that the Chinese press just called the Dalai Lama a TERRORIST?" Geez Louise. The next thing you know they'll be calling Jesus a terrorist. Or Mohammed. Or Buddha. Or St. Catherine of Sienna. Or the Easter bunny.... But I digress.

There has been a lot of buzz on the internet lately about possible future attacks on Iran. And I too have been very worried that Bush's axis of imperialism is gonna end up doing something stupid like attacking Iran and putting the entire world in danger -- from economic and radioactive fallout at the least, if not from all-out world war.

Yesterday I read an article in OpEd News that said, "Last Friday, Dick Cheney was in Saudi Arabia for high-level meetings with the Saudi king and his ministers. On Saturday, it was revealed that the [top inner circle of Saudi decision-makers] is preparing 'national plans to deal with any sudden nuclear and radioactive hazards that may affect the kingdom following experts' warnings of possible attacks on Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactors.'" And the article goes on to cite that the last time Cheney made a grand tour of Middle East countries was right before he let loose with Shock and Awe.

And then RIA Novisti, a Russian information agency, also just wrote that "Russian military intelligence services are reporting a flurry of activity by U.S. Armed Forces near Iran's borders, a high-ranking security source said Tuesday. 'The latest military intelligence data point to heightened U.S. military preparations for both an air and ground operation against Iran,' the official said, adding that the Pentagon has probably not yet made a final decision as to when an attack will be launched."

This kind of intel makes it sound like the Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of globalization is planning to attack Iran at any moment, maybe even as early as April or May. Yikes! Maybe I SHOULD try to find out what MJ has to say about this.

So. Very gently, after she'd had her morning coffee, I approached Madam Jane. "Does the Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of [fill in the blank] plan to attack Iran before November?" I asked.


Okay. That's a good thing. Whew. That means that the November elections are gonna be safe -- not to mention the economy, the military, democracy, the Free World and apple pie. But maybe I had worded my question wrong. You gotta be very specific with Madam Jane. I'd better make sure.

"But might Bush and them be planning to attack Iran DURING November, right before the presidential elections?"

"No." Whew. Now we can relax!

Or not.

"I, Madam Jane, predict that the Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of destabilization will attack Iran AFTER the November elections." Gulp.

"But why then?"

"Don't you ever watch Big Brother House on TV," explained Madam Jane, "where Julie Chen is always saying, 'expect the unexpected'? Well, you need to do that with regard to this too. A lot of folks will be expecting Bush to pull an October Surprise and attack Iran right before the November elections. But what about a December Surprise? Right before the inauguration?" Wow, how deviously cleaver is that!

Then Madam Jane's eyes started to glow and I knew she was back thinking about Tibet again. "Over two hundred Tibetans killed so far...." I heard her mumble.

"Hey, MJ," I ventured. "Do you think we should try to boycott the Beijing Olympics? Would that help?"

"No." But why not? "Because that would only serve to isolate the Chinese and they wouldn't get to hear from all those Olympic visitors about how strongly the rest of the world hates it when large bully countries occupy smaller countries by force." Oh. You mean smaller countries like Tibet and Chechnya and Palestine and Iraq and...Iran?"

PS: "Hey, Madam Jane, I've got one more question. Will bombing Iran be of any help to America at all? I mean with regard to eliminating dangers from terrorism or helping the economy or making our military stronger or...anything?"


PPS: Here's an e-mail from Joe Thompson. "I figure that when the first air strike hits Iranian soil, the Navy in the Gulf will be one of the first hit by Iran. And Israel will probably receive a little attention too. There will also be a few other middle-east countries joining in the fray." That sounds like there will be a whole bunch of losers if Iran gets attacked. So exactly who in the freak WILL benefit from an attack on Iran? The Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of trillionaires! Of course.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Plan B: Just how defensible IS the American Green Zone in Iraq?

(Photos are from the Green Zone -- me embedded at CPIC, the embassy dining facility pie selection, the combat support hospital's courtyard where the wounded come in, Saddam Hussein's gold-plated bidet and the Iraqi parliament in session in the convention center next to the press room.)

Someone just sent me an article from a Canadian news service. What a jolt! "Baghdad's Green Zone -- often referred to as a relatively safe and fortified refuge for Americans, other Westerners, and politicians in Iraq -- appeared to be nothing short of a war zone Thursday. Warning sirens for bombs blared all day as diplomats and U.S. workers donned flak jackets and ducked for cover from mortars and rockets that poured down throughout Baghdad. Those U.S. government workers brave enough to ignore a lockdown order by their government and venture into nearly empty city streets saw a city under siege." Canadian TV News actually reported all this. I swear to God. I am not making this stuff up.

Apparently several different Shi'a groups in Iraq are now at each others' throats and that's what the fighting is about. Nope, the Sunni aren't fighting with the Shi'a any more. Now it's Shi'a against Shi'a, the violence is widespread throughout Baghdad and, apparently, American troops are being caught in the middle.

According to CTV News, "Al-Sadr's supporters appear to be upset by what they see as a clampdown on their members by competing Shiite groups within the Iraq military and Iraqi government. They're accusing opposing forces of using a ceasefire negotiated in February to rig provincial elections set for later this year." And as a result, not only are Shi'as bombing other Shi'as but they are bombing the Green Zone too for good measure.

I myself have a particular fondness for the Green Zone. It's funky, sure, but the place kind of grows on you. Friendly atmosphere, good food. But, frankly, the place is almost indefensible. The Green Zone needs a Plan B.

"Jane, you have it all wrong -- as usual," said a friend of mine in the military. "The Green Zone is very well fortified. Its defenses are impenetrable" Yeah, well. Tell that to Canadian TV News.

The Green Zone itself is located right in the heart of Baghdad and although the Tigris River protects it on one side, all the other sides abut right up against one of the most war-torn cities in the world. And in that prime-time location, almost anything can happen, especially with all this new internecine warfare now going on within the different Shi'a militias.

The Green Zone does have one very effective defense mechanism -- American forces completely control the airspace above it. This is a very important factor. But will it be important enough if ground fighting intensifies? And can it offset all the other negative factors facing an effective Green Zone defense strategy? And/or can the Green Zone fortify itself against these negative factors in time to protect itself from siege or from being overrun? And will this new fortification cost too much to be rationally feasible? I mean, after all. "Bush's War" is already costing us up to three trillion dollars. Can we honestly afford to spend billions of dollars more? Did anyone ever see that movie, "The Money Pit"? Does that principle apply here too? Yeah.

What exactly are these negative factors facing the Green Zone that would make it so indefensible? First of all, there's its vulnerability to rocket and mortar attacks. Next comes the possibility of the out-and-out siege of its walls. There are all kinds of check-points inside the Green Zone to keep bad guys from moving from one point to another INSIDE the Zone. But what if all the bad guys put on their party duds and hit the wall running in wave after wave? If this happens, is there a strong possibility that the GZ will be turned into a mosh pit? Yeah.

The third factor to consider is that the Green Zone's supply line is stretched far to thin. As things stand now, almost everything needs to get trucked in or flown in from the Baghdad International Airport, approximately 15 miles away. And most of the American military's firepower and manpower are clustered out by the airport. That's like having a fire station too far away from the fire to do any good if your house is burning down. If the American military wants to stay in the Green Zone, it will have to cut an escape-route corridor through to the camps and bases out near the airport in order to break any siege on its supply lines. But real estate ain't cheap in downtown Baghdad. And neither are blast walls.

"But what about using helicopters to bring in supplies?" you might ask. There would have to be helicopters going in and out of the Green Zone 24/7 in order to keep it supplied. And remember that mortar fire may be going on 24/7 too.

Which brings us around to the most important tactical issue -- evacuation. Does General Petraeus have a game plan for evacuating the entire Green Zone by helicopter? Will choppers be landing on the streets of the Green Zone as well as at LZ Washington if the spit hits the fan? Or can they land C-130s on any of those broad Green Zone avenues and take troops out that way? It would take a hecka lot of C-130s to get everyone out safely in case of a siege.

Anyway, those are just some ideas I have on how to help keep the Green Zone safe. But maybe things in Baghdad will settle down again soon and none of this will be necessary. However, in the meantime, there could be an up side to all this action inside the Zone -- now I can be embedded!

Baghdad's Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) has been telling me lately that they can't embed me as a journalist because they can't find any units outside the wire willing to accept me. But now that the action has all moved to the Green Zone, CPIC will no longer have that excuse. I could leave for the Green Zone tomorrow, spend my entire time inside the perimeter and still get a story!

PS: I just got an e-mail from a friend of mine in the Green Zone. He wrote, "Well, the sailor here who bought your book forgot to bring it in today so I will have to slog over to her hootch this weekend and grab it from her. From what I've seen as I thumbed through it, it's pretty witty....but is it good enough to dodge mortars for? I'll keep you updated. Wouldn't that be a great headline for your blog? 'Green Zone personnel injured (or killed) in quest for Stillwater tome!'"

I wrote him back, "It's a pretty good book -- but it's not THAT good." It would probably be safer for him to just buy his own copy.

What really happened to the Marines in Afghanistan? We may never know....

(Photos are of me in downtown Kabul herding some goats and an old bombed-out, land-mine-filled palace outside of town)

I just got an e-mail from an irate Marine mom. "Imagine that your son is a Marine stationed in Afghanistan and he gets fire-bombed by some wild Taliban driving an explosive-packed minivan into his convoy," she wrote. "Then imagine that the convoy, with no support element to back them up, starts to take small arms fire. Then imagine that the Marines fight back after they have been attacked." Okay. I can do that. That's pretty much what happens to Marines in hostile territory. I saw that movie about Iwo Jima. I've lived with the Marines in Iraq. I can visualize that.

"And then imagine," continued the Marine mom, "that the Taliban accuses them of firing on civilians and that the top Pentagon generals support the Taliban's claims instead of the troops' version of the story -- and then Bush nominates for promotion the head of the special-ops command who did not follow the #2 rule of Marine leadership that even the youngest corporals know by heart -- to take care of the welfare of your troops?" Now THAT'S hard to imagine. Did things really happen this way? Was this Marine company really left out to twist in the wind by higher-up bureaucracy?

"I am telling your right now," the MM continued, "if the enemy sees weakness on the part of our leadership from the Commander-in-Chief on down, and the generals start throwing Marines under the bus to save themselves and please the top dogs and hold onto their jobs, then we have lost the war in Afghanistan -- not because of the guys on the ground, like the ones that you have met and praised, but because that the Commander-in-Chief on down to the generals threw them under the bus." Whew. This Marine mom is TRULY irate!

Apparently the Marines involved in this March 4, 2007 incident in Afghanistan were part of a well-trained, 120-man company which had fought in Iraq but had been pulled out of Iraq and sent to Afghanistan as special-ops forces under the direction of the Army. Then, according to this Marine mom, what happened next was that when the spit hit the fan and a Marine convoy was attacked by Taliban, the Marines fired back in self-defense, killing several of the attackers. However, according to the MM, the Taliban then cried "Foul play!" and charged the Marines with killing innocent civilians. "And then the generals in the Pentagon took the word of the Taliban over the Marines. Please, Jane, can you look into this and write about it? Please?"

Who me?

For the past three weeks, I'veI tried to really hard to get out of writing about this incident and ahve done everything I could to stall this Marine mom off. After all, what do I know about what went on in that part of Afghanistan? I've only been to Kabul. Once. But, in the end, how can one possibly ignore such a desperate plea from a genuine bona fide Marine mom? One cannot. So I started to do some research. I HATE research! Thank goodness for Google.

Here's an Associated Press report of the incident:

"The company, on its first deployment following the 2006 creation of the Marine Special Operations Command, was traveling on Highway One in Nangahar province, returning to its base from the Pakistan border, on March 4 when an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their convoy. According to a report issued by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, which cites witness accounts, the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and people in cars, buses and taxis in six different locations along a 10-mile stretch of the road."

And here's the American Forces Press Service account:

"The five-vehicle convoy was moving through a crowded market place near Bari Kot, located in the Muhmand Dara district, when militants attacked the convoy from several directions with small-arms fire and a vehicle-borne bomb, officials said. Coalition forces returned fire, and along with Afghan police and army forces, secured the area and provided immediate on-site medical attention to the wounded civilians."

And according to Leatherneck Magazine, "In November, Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, the commander of the Marine Special Operations Command, said the Marines responded correctly when they were attacked and that he disagreed with Kearney's decision to pull them out of Afghanistan. The Defense Department's inspector general has since opened an investigation into Kearney's actions, responding to concerns raised by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., who said the Army had 'discarded the presumption of innocence.'"

So. Who dunnit? Did the Marines over-react under pressure or not? I still haven't got a clue.

But then I read where the Marine top brass had held a court of inquiry into the matter, the first one since the tragedy at Parris Island back in 1956. Okay. We gots a COI delving into this matter. That means that I'm off the hook and don't have to pull out all of my super investigative powers and deep-throat sources and moles to find out the truth. The Court of Inquiry should tell us what happened, right?


The Court of Inquiry was convened on January 7, 2008 and lasted two weeks. 40 witnesses testified and there were 5,000 pages of documents submitted as evidence. The proceedings lasted approximately two weeks. We shoulda heard some results by now, right?


According to my Marine mom source, "The results are being held secret. No one can find out what the court decided. What do they think this is? Some sort of Star Chamber? Our sons are involved here. We should be allowed to see the results!"

According to the Associated Press, the major questions asked at the COI by the defense were,

— Whether the convoy experienced at least one complex attack

— Whether the Marines made up the story about the attack
— Whether Afghan civilians lied or exaggerated in their statements
— Whether MSOC-F used proportionate and discriminate fire
— Whether the initial investigation of the incident was thorough and reliable
— Whether there was a disconnect between MSOC-F and CJSOTF and Army officials

Were answers to these questions obtained at the COI? How does one find out? I consulted a Marine that I know. "You have several different issues to consider here, Jane," he replied. "First let's look at the incident itself. It seems like the Marine mom has good intentions about protecting the Marines, but as any good Marine can tell you, whitewashing an incident like this -- if this IS a whitewash -- is ultimately bad for the Corps as a whole because Marines need to know that they can trust their command to follow the rules of engagement in order to lessen their own vulnerability to attack. The Corps needs to go after rotten apples and weed them out in order to protect other Marines. This way, grunts can have faith that their leaders will protect them during combat.

"Your Marine mom may prefer a whitewash, but it really is important to get at the truth.

"Second, the people making these charges -- whether or not they are allied with the Taliban -- have to present evidence of wrong-doing. Have they done that?"

According to a Daily News article on the COI proceedings, evidence is both being presented and questioned closely. "....[Defense attorney Knox] Nunnally also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of Haji Liwani Qumandan, an Afghan man who testified via video teleconference and was driving the blue sport utility vehicle near the blast site. Qumandan three times changed his story about who the passengers were in his vehicle, Nunnally said, and admitted he was transporting fertilizer and fuel the day of the blast — two components used in the suicide bomb. The initial investigations of the events were 'a rush to judgment,' Nunnally said, partly based on the investigating officer taking Afghan statements 'at face value'.”

"Third," continued my Marine source, "you are assuming that the COI report will never get released. Jane, you gotta take into account that the military is a BUREAUCRACY. These things take time. Expect at least a month or two more before it is released.

So I googled around about how long it took the Parris Island COI results to get released. According to Time Magazine, the Parris Island COI convened in April of 1956 and its report was released by May 14, 1956 -- less than a month afterward. So much for the bureaucracy issue. It's been over two months since the Afghanistan COI ended and we've heard nothing. Plus, according to an MSNBC article, "A special panel that heard testimony about a Marine shooting that killed up to 19 Afghan civilians delivered its report Friday, but it won't be made public."

"And, fourth," continued my Marine source, "if this was a cover-up, ask yourself who the Pentagon might be covering up for. Try to figure that out." I don't know the answer to that one either. Cover-ups are really popular in Washington these days. Under our current "administration," everyone in DC is ready, willing and able to cover up everything they possibly can in order to protect their [bottoms]. Sometimes the White House just covers up stuff out of habit or just for fun. Remember all those WMD cover-ups? And the Ganon cover-up and the pre-9-11 security failure cover-up and the Libby cover-up and the Katrina cover-up and.... I'm sorry but it's too long a list to go into here.

So. What exactly should I end up writing about this tragic incident? Should I write that the Marines did good? Or should I write that the Marines did bad? I still haven't got a clue. But one journalist I consulted on this matter just suggested that I file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to get the results of the Court of Inquiry trial. "If you do that, you will be in a better position to judge for yourself." Good thinking.

Except that when they mail me the 5,000 pages of evidence, am I gonna have to pay for postage?

PS: I looked up the postal service's parcel post rate for mailing me the evidence and it will be 62 dollars and 55 cents. However, this may not be such a strain on my limited budget after all because it appears that the COI report is now classified and will remain classified indefinately.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

John McCain in SF: A man of the people? Hardly.

Today started out to be a completely boring day. I didn't even want to get out of bed. But then my friend Melinda called and asked me if I would be on her radio show. Sure. If anyone ever wants to offer me a chance to diss the Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of opportunism, I'm there! But I wasn't the only one on the show. Cindy Sheehan was on too, talking about her campaign to unseat Nancy Pelosi in the November election. That's certainly not boring.

Then I found out that the Ciao Bella gelato shop in North Berkeley had a new flavor in stock -- Key Lime Graham Cracker. That's exciting. "Make my day!"

Then I read that John McCain was gonna be over in San Francisco at 5 pm. I should go and see him. Maybe that would get me out of my lethargy. Or not. But after going all the way to South Carolina to see Senator Clinton and Senator Obama speak, I figured that the least I could do was go across the bay to see Senator McCain. Maybe there would be a huge demonstration and I could get swept up in the crowd and end up in jail. That would be exciting. Sort of. Maybe.

"I'll be back in time to watch America's Next Top Model," I told my daughter-in-law on my way out the door -- unless I get arrested. "But if I do, please don't bail me out." A few days in jail might be just what I need. A paid vacation, a new outfit and all that free food? Sounds good to me. Plus making shivs and trying to avoid dropping the soap and getting initiated into the Black Guerrilla Family might add some spice to my life....

In any case, I took BART over to San Francisco and street-hiked up to the Ritz-Carlton hotel where there was a rather small demonstration going on -- a few Code Pink members, some World-Can't-Wait folks and three or four guys dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods -- but I didn't see any Republicans. There were absolutely NO large crowds of John McCain fans eagerly waiting around for autographs. Zero, zip, none. This lack of turnout of McCain supporters was very different from the masses of supporters I saw when Teddy Kennedy spoke in Oakland last month or when Senators Obama and Clinton spoke at the South Carolina debates. Was John McCain a man of the people? Hardly!

So I asked one of the cameramen that were standing around, "Where are all the ecstatic Republican McCain fans?"

"You got the wrong town."

Anyway, the Ritz-Carlton was up on the top of Nob Hill and it had some kind of marble Greek temple facade that was totally impressive and there was a sweeping curved driveway and portico leading up to the big front doors. "Is this where McCain and his entourage is gonna come up?" I asked the cameraman.

"Nah. They'll smuggle him in through the garage. I'm just here to get footage of the demonstrators." There weren't very many demonstrators. I guess nowadays, everyone protests online. Then I went around to the back entrance garage door and waited. And waited. A reporter's life is actually kind of dull. You just sit around and wait. I twiddled my thumbs. I got out my book. Senator McCain was late.

Finally about 45 minutes later, a few of the demonstrators trickled down from the main demonstration in front of the hotel, debating the logistics of moving the demonstration down here. "This must be the place where he'll come in," said one demonstrator. "Look at all the suits over there." I looked. Yep. There were about six guys in suits and ear-wires, also standing around. This must be the place.

But at this point the sun was starting to set and I was starting to get cold. Where in the freak was John McCain? He had kept GWB waiting on the steps of the White House and now he was keeping ME waiting too. Maybe I should do a little tap-dance routine like George? And what about all those Republicans waiting inside the Ritz? They had paid $2,300 each to hear him speak and were they all in there staring at their rubber chicken and starting to get more and more pissed off because he was so late? But what if there weren't any Republicans inside after all? I hadn't seen any fat-cat-looking types go in or come out in the last hour or so. What if McCain had put all those tickets on sale at $2,300 a plate and then nobody had bought them? How embarrassing for him. I mean, seriously. Can one even FIND that many Republicans in San Francisco these days?

"Do you know when he's coming?" I asked one of the guys in orange jumpsuits who had just taken off his hood and turned out to be a young woman. "He's almost an hour and a half late," I told her. "I can't just sit around here forever. I gotta get home before Big Brother 9 starts so I can find out if they vote off Chelsia or Sharon!" But the woman just looked bored. Ho-hum. Another day, another demonstration. I should send HER out for gelato!

While we were all getting ready for McCain's arrival, everybody was talking and joking with everyone else. Me, the news reporters, the cameramen, the demonstrators, some hotel employees on their break, the Secret Service guys and the cops. We were all just like actors standing around back stage, waiting for our cues. Demonstrators and cops chatted together amicably. The reporters and the hotel staff shot the breeze. I chatted with the young woman in the orange jumpsuit. "Have you ever been arrested for doing this?"

"Six times."

"What happens to you after you get arrested? What do the police do? What is jail like?"

"Usually they just give you a ticket and then you appear in court."

"How much is the fine?"

"It depends. $60 usually." That's about the same amount as a parking ticket. "But my last one was $160." But just then there was a whole bunch of motion out on the street and about 12 cops trotted out from the garage and blocked off the sidewalk and suddenly it was showtime. McCain was here! And then everyone went into their act. Demonstrators put their hoods back on and started taunting the cops. The cops got all tough. Newsmen started talking into their microphones. The cameras started to roll. And I pulled out my camera too. Oh crap.

My battery had died.

"Did you see that man with the white hair in that car! That was him!" one demonstrator screamed. Double crap. While I was digging madly through my purse looking for spare batteries, I had missed even seeing the guy. The possible next leader of the largest former superpower this side of the former Soviet Union had just driven by me, only four feet away, and I'd missed the whole thing.

PS: On the evening news, the anchor claimed that McCain had successfully avoided being confronted by the demonstrators. That's not true. I think. I almost actually saw it happen myself.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Iraq on $5,000 a second: Where to go & what to see

(Photos are of women in the maternity ward of a Haditha hospital, my "can" at Al Asad, view of the pre-fab latrines at Striker and some boys in rural Anbar)

Over the past year, many people have asked me, "Jane, what is it like in Iraq?" I have answered this question in many different ways but today I would like to focus on one aspect of my experience in Iraq -- getting around from one military base to another. Today I'd like to give you a personal tour of what it is actually like to embed in Iraq. Why? Because Lonely Planet hasn't been over there within the last five years. But I have.

Suppose you want to embed in Iraq or maybe even want to enlist. Can you simply turn to the transportation section of "Iraq on $5 a Day" and get all the information you need? No you can't. So I've located a much-neglected niche in the travel guidebook business and I'm gonna fill it. And you don't have to go to Barnes and Noble to buy my guide either. Everything that you need to know is right here. Welcome to "Iraq on $5,000 a Second".

In April of 2007 and then again last October, I embedded with the US military and saw a lot of Iraq from inside the wire. So if you want to get a guidebook to Iraq that will give you travel suggestions on where to go and what to see outside the wire, you are gonna have to contact Dahr Jamal or Aaron Glantz for that kind of stuff. In Anbar province, I was fortunate enough to go out into the towns and villages and meet individual Iraqis, but that was the exception. I met poor farmer families out in the countryside and sheiks and children in the city of Hit and women who had come to a hospital in Haditha to have their babies. And most of the Iraqis I met were dirt-poor -- which is totally ironic because the ground under their feet contains trillions of dollars worth of oil. But I digress. Most of the time I was in Iraq, I was inside the wire.

This is your guidebook to what's happening inside the wire -- an eye-witness account of what the place looks like, how to get around there and what to expect.

The first place that we are going to explore is Baghdad's Green Zone. While I was there in April, that's ALL that I saw. Ask me ANYTHING about the Green Zone! Been there, done that. "But why just the stay in the Green Zone," you might ask. Here's a travel tip. When asking for an embed outside the wire in Iraq, DO NOT write anything unfavorable about John McCain! Directly after I wrote an
article about McCain's so-called stroll through a Baghdad marketplace, I was informed by a fellow reporter that Condoleeza Rice's guys at the State Department were keeping me on a very tight rein and so I only got to see the inside of the Green Zone. Oh well. It just means that I will have to go back.

No, wait. Before I tell you about the Green Zone, I gotta tell you how to get there!

After you either get your embed permission papers from MNFI's CPIC (that stands for "Multi-National Forces Iraq" and its "Combined Press Information Center"), you go to and buy your plane ticket to Kuwait. Bargain Travel always gives you a good rate. The only problem with Bargain Travel tickets is that they are so cheap because they are non-refundable. So make sure that CPIC gives you the green light to come over there first before you buy your ticket or else you will be screwed. And you will have to take the Department of Defense to small claims court to get your money back. Can't you just see it now -- General Petraeus standing up there in front of Judge Judy, arguing his case. "But Your Honor, it wasn't our fault!"

After you have secured your CPIC permission and your plane ticket online, hop onto BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the Ashby station and wrangle your 100-odd pounds of luggage off to SFO. Then you fly for 16 hours to Frankfurt and sit around that airport for a day, waiting for your connection to board. Then you fly another six hours to Kuwait and you finally arrive at the Kuwait City international airport, all haggard and jet-lagged. And what does the Kuwait airport look like? It looks exactly like the San Francisco airport. Or the Phoenix airport. Or JFK. Except that most of the guys there are wearing white nightgowns and the ladies are wearing black headscarves.

Then you go try to find your ride out to the nearest US airbase -- there are a lot of US airbases in Kuwait. But where should you look for the person who will give you your ride? At the airport Starbucks, of course.

It used to be that if you couldn't find a ride to the base, you could spend the night in a Barca-Lounger at the KBR office at the airport for free but they closed that one down.

Here comes our ride coordinators. Army officers dressed in Nike T-shirts and Bermuda shorts drive us 40 miles out into the desert in their American SUVs.

The airbase is a tent city. Almost everything you will see on an American military base from this point on is some sort of pre-fab. And because guys build all of these bases and guys maintain them, most of the American stuff you see in Iraq resembles a cross between a Boy Scout camp, a trailer park and a fraternity house. Forget about the fine points of interior decoration. This is a guy thing.

War is a guy thing. It's like football. Only what's going on in Iraq isn't exactly a war. It's more like a barroom brawl, a free-for-all where everyone jumps into the fray -- except instead of fighting over Super Bowl rings, they are all fighting over oil.

After Kuwait, we board a C-130 troop transport plane (wearing our helmets and flak jackets of course) in the middle of the night and head off to BIAP -- Baghdad International Airport. Ha! BIAP consists of four large tents and some picnic tables -- and lots of concrete blast walls.

A bus picks you up at 3 am and takes you off to Camp Striker. More tents. A LOT more tents. Hundreds of them. And lots of soldiers, many in T-shirts and shorts and out for a jog every morning. Striker is a holding pen for troop movements so it's not all that formal. And everyone there eats well -- even you. The food is part of a recruitment campaign to get guys to re-up. The dining facility offers a grand cruise-ship-type buffet. Roast beef, chicken, turkey, salad bar. I recommend the pie but that's just me. You might prefer the build-it-yourself sundaes. But you can't have a beer. And no tequila either. Iraq is an alcohol-free state.

At sometime after midnight the next night, we board one of the Rhinos for the trip to Baghdad. A Rhino is an armored vehicle as big as a house. There are five or six of them in your convoy. They look like that parade of dinosaurs in "The Land Before Time". And then, hopefully, you safely make the 12-mile run into the Green Zone under the cover of darkness.

This whole trip is bizarre. You've been in Iraq for three days now and you have yet to see an Iraqi. Maybe you will never see an Iraqi. But you will see a lot of TCNs -- Third Country Nationals -- and a lot of American soldiers. And make no mistake. These are well-trained and intelligent people -- the cream of one whole American generation, a proud, well-developed fighting machine -- and totally wasted on Bush and Cheney's greedy, useless, selfish, criminal plans to make themselves into the world's first trillionaires. What a waste. At some point in time, America may need this fine fighting machine. And it will have been wasted on trivia and greed.

Not that what is happening in Iraq now is trivial. Our military is doing a lot of good things over there now and we should be proud of them. But their whole reason for being over in Iraq in the first place was trivial and Shock and Awe was trivial -- it trivialized the importance and meaning of human life. And Shock and Awe was also responsible for bringing down the greatest country in the world. No, I'm not referring to Iraq. Our wonderful America has been broken and almost destroyed by Bush's Shock and Awe. But I digress again. Let's go back to the tour.

What does the Green Zone look like? It looks like a cross between Fort Hood and Washington DC. The Iraqis originally designed it to be their nation's capital and it has government buildings and monuments and broad avenues, just like Washington DC. And then superimposed on top of all that is a typical American military base, just like Fort Benning or Fort Lewis. And the result is a strange hybrid.

Are you still thinking that you are going to meet some Iraqis? Think again. Most of the residents of the Green Zone are either American military personnel or TCNs. Peruvian soldiers man most of the security posts. And the most commonly-spoken language in the Green Zone is...Spanish.

You can take a shuttle bus around the Green Zone -- to the PX. To the helicopter landing pad. To the El Racheed Hotel. To the Combat Support Hospital. And to the Parliament. But there is a checkpoint or two or three on every block and between the press room and the El Racheed two blocks away, be prepared to go through two X-ray searches, two body searches and seven different document- examination points. Not to mention bomb-sniffing dogs.

Oh, and you can also go to the current US embassy which is a former palace of Saddam Hussein's. Olympic-sized swimming pool, gold-plated bidets. But you gotta have an escort to go there so you might have to cross that off your list -- even though it has a laundromat in a pre-fab in the garden and they teach aerobics in Saddam's former ballroom. The new US embassy is still being built and is over a mile long. It is HUGE.

Okay. You've done the Green Zone. Now you want to go visit Al Asad airbase out in Anbar province. So you put on your full body armor again, struggle down to the helicopter pad and fly out to TQ where you spend the night in a wooden Quonset hut and then board a C-130 in the morning. But Al Asad is different from Striker. Nobody here lives in a tent. Everyone lives in a "can". You will too. Its Can City consists of a LOT of those ship-to-shore kind of container thingies you see in the port of Oakland, coming off boats from China. Each one contains a table, a closet and beds. Way better than tents. Trust me. But the latrines and showers are still at least a football field away and this can be a problem if you have to pee in the middle of the night.

Next you get on a convoy of Humvees and go out to the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), out in the small towns. And from there you go to the COPs (Command Outposts), out in the deserts and rural areas. And at that point, if you are lucky, you may even see some Iraqis! Okay. You've gotten all the way to COP Timber Wolf way out in the middle of nowhere where the kitchen consists of a pallet with a wooden crate on it, full of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). And instead of latrines they have wag-bags, biodegradable bags that you poop in. Sorry but I'm not going to go into detail about these.

Okay, so you've done all this. So how do you get back home? The same way you came. You get back into the Humvee convoy. Back on those primitive gas-spewing helicopters that leave you deaf for 24 hours and back on the C-130s that look like they are left over from World War II. Back to the Green Zone. Back to the Rhinos. Back to Camp Striker. Back to the airbase in Kuwait. Back to the Kuwait airport and the Frankfurt airport and the San Francisco airport and BART. And then you are home, stuck with jet-lag.

And there you have it -- your own personal guidebook tour of the military bases of Iraq. Glad you could come. I hope you enjoyed it. And if I ever get embedded in a combat zone in Iraq, I'll write a guidebook tour of that too. Maybe this summer? I hear that you haven't really seen the REAL Iraq until you've carried around 65 pounds of body armor and a huge old 20-pound laptop, and gotten shot at in 145-degree heat....


Here's my John McCain article:

....After that, you will never guess what happened next! I got to interview John McCain! Seriously. He was here. Right here in the press room. Which is fifty feet down the corridor and around the corner from the cot where I had dumped off all my stuff this morning and is now my new home. Senator McCain, Senator Graham, Rep. Pence and Rep. Renzi had put together what appeared to be the 2007 GOP Hype-the-War Tour. "Do you think that they will give us souvenir T-shirts of the tour," I asked some guy from CNN. Probably not.

Anyway, Sen. McCain and his backup singers were here and even though I don't agree with them, I was glad that they came. It takes courage to come to Iraq.

"Our new strategy is making progress," said McCain.

"We are doing things differently," said Sen. Graham. "We cannot let suicide bombers set the pace. If we talk about leaving and losing, the car bombers win." Then Graham talked about how the four of them went down to the Baghdad market today and it was perfectly safe. "We bargained and bought rugs."

Pence agreed about the safety of the market. Later, however, he added that they did have to travel there in Humvees and be escorted by soldiers and wear body armor -- but other than that...

Later I talked with an Iraqi reporter who said that the market they went to was the safest in the city and several American reporters added that walking around in Baghdad without troops backing you up was suicidal and anyone who did something like that had a death wish.

Renzi then stated that, "We will not turn our backs on the Iraqi people," and the other Dream Boys agreed. And apparently if the bill to end the war makes it through Congress, Bush will veto it. "The President [sic] will veto any bill that will cut the legs out from under the military," added Graham.

So far, the group had talked a lot about how to make the "war" policy regarding Iraq succeed, but none of them talked about the elephant in the living room -- that the policy itself is fatally flawed. But I did! Shut up, Jane.

Yes, even with all those Senators and reporters and everything there I still had to have my say. So. Exactly what DID I say to John McCain? Sorry but you're gonna have to die of suspense a little bit longer. Someone just brought me some food!

Fried chicken, meatloaf, honeyed carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans and cookies! Giant chocolate chip cookies, macadamia nut cookies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate fudge cookies. Hey! You forgot the cheesecake.

So. What did I say to Sen. McCain? I gave him my famous "Light Brigade" speech. "I have been so completely impressed," I began, "by the quality, training, competence and skill of our troops here. They represent yet another generation in a long line of competent and capable Americans." McCain smiled and nodded his head, thinking I had finished my speech. Not.

"But," I continued, just getting warmed up, "our troops are also like the heroes of Lord Tennyson's poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' They are fighting bravely and well in a situation caused by a blunder. So why should we senselessly continue to put our troops in harm's way for a mistake?" Or in order to appease some greedy, immature Lord Nelson wannabe. It doesn't make sense to destroy a whole generation of American soldiers just to support Bush and Cheney.

Then I got down to the heart of my question. Giving McCain that special look that us moms usually reserve for recalcitrant children, I said, "And after this terrible blunder in Iraq, are you then going to go ahead and make that same horrible mistake in Iran?"

McCain's answer was brief. "No comment."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Madam Jane predicts the fall of America: Not with a bang but a whimper

(Photo is of Madam Jane, roughing it!)

America used to be so strong that it appeared to be invincible. But not any more. Currently we are as invincible as a house of cards -- or should I say a house of dollars -- because the cancer of monetary instability is destroying our country from within. And don't you find it ironic that the biggest threat to America today is coming from within instead of from outside -- and that our hyper-expensive, fabulously up-to-date military technology that has cost us trillions of dollars and is supposed to be a state-of-the-art defense operation guaranteed to keep us all safe in our beds forever cannot even begin to protect us from this danger at all?

There we all were, spending the last whole eight years of our lives fearfully huddled around the six-o'clock news, anxiously watching the Middle East for signs of danger to our country from "terrorists" -- while all along our safety was being systematically destroyed by "privatization" and "globalization" and the well-oiled Bush-Cheney-McCain axis of opportunism instead.

The dollar is falling right now -- and it's going continue to fall. You don't have to be Madam Jane to make that prediction, however. All you gotta do is look at the ads that are flashing across the top of your internet browser right now. "Take advantage of the fall of the dollar!" they scream.

Thanks to the fall of the dollar, America will probably never be a superpower again. But what's done is done. You can't put Humpty Dumpty back together. So what we need to do now is to figure out how to salvage what is left of our country and go on from there.

"Madam Jane, what is going to happen to us after the Fall?" Hmmm....

"First we need to take a look at what we have left to work with, boys and girls." We have approximately 300 million relatively well-educated people, some fairly intact infrastructure more or less, and a lot of land. Will we be able to use these basic ingredients and somehow manage to start over again? Sure. Hey, the Soviet Union did.

In order to rebuild ourselves, however, we are going to have to start thinking differently. Forget about financing a military on steroids that can dominate the world. Those days are gone. Forget about bailing out Wall Street with taxpayers' money. They had their chance and blew it. Forget about corporate welfare and globalization and insider perks at the White House. We already saw where that got us. If we just keep on trying to re-create the 1950s again and again, we are never gonna be happy in the future and will just end up being some tired old June Cleaver wannabes with no hope and no pride.

Americans need to get a whole new mindset going on if we are ever going to survive after the Fall. We need to start thinking about citizen-democracy on the local level and making things work within 50 miles of where we live instead of on K Street or on the other side of the world. And we need to start thinking about forming crafts cooperatives, building foundries and homesteading family farms.

"Madam Jane, that's crazy. That's too extreme. Crafts cooperatives? Family farms? You can't be serious. I'll get my hands all dirty. I'll break a nail!"

Sorry, dears. But it's just too late for quick fixes by Washington politicians and/or more corporate welfare and "globalization". The last time the dollar fell this low was in 1929 and we had a major Depression. Think about what people did back then and start doing it now. Do what the Okies and hobos did and become nomadic. Use your $300 tax rebate to buy solar panels, strap them on the back of your hooptie and follow the sun. Or, if you can still afford to stay at home, save all that junk in your closets for barter. Network with your friends. Think outside the box. Forget about malls. Sit down and figure out what your real power base is going to be and what exactly you will need to do to help you and your family survive in this new post-Bush economy.

What will you need as a power base to get you through the Fall of America? "Madam Jane predicts that it's not going to be television. It's not going to be CitiBank or Bear-Stearns. And it's sure as heck not going to be made in China or powered by oil."

Look around you. What do you value most? What can you hold onto during the coming hard times? And who will help you? Who can you trust?

The America that we know is gone. It was shoplifted out from under us while we were busy watching the Twin Towers burn and focused on Al Qaeda. And while we were distracted, guys in blue suits snuck into our treasury and happily replaced our big bags of gold with big bags of sand. All that stuff is gone. Wave goodbye to it, start looking at your life with fresh eyes and then pray that the rest of the world will help us in some other way than the way that we "helped" them.

Go out and plant some carrots.

Do you live near a park with open spaces that can be plowed? Can you drill a well? Can you put on a talent show when your I-Pod gives out? Did your grandmother teach you how to can? Then you might be okay after the Fall. "Your life may not be like it was in the good old days, but you WILL be all right." Always remember that 150 years ago, no one in America had cars and no one even had electricity. But they did okay. So can we.

PS: My trip to North Korea in April is currently on hold because of new travel limitations sent out from the DRNK. But frankly, it's probably just as well. My days of thinking that if I could only report accurately on what's going on in Iraq or North Korea or some place on the other side of the world, then I might somehow be able to save America from its own folly? Well, those days are gone too. The Next Big Story is no longer gonna be found in Gaza or Somalia or Afghanistan. The Next Big Story is going to be found right here at home.

I can no longer afford to squander time, money and energy on exposing the various different ways that the Bush-Cheney-McCain axis's foreign policies have failed us. At this point in time, I need to start using whatever few resources I have left to buy solar panels and root-stock instead.

And you should be doing this too.

PPS: Madam Jane just got some fan mail. "MJ, do you always have to be so gloomy about everything? Lighten up!" And then said fan then proceeded to open up a whole big can of gloom too. Humph.

"What is missing in this prediction," wrote the fan, "is a tad bit of historical context. If I was you, I would google 'downfall of nations and empires' and see if you can't come up with something universal on why nations crash. Maybe you could write something about over-reach. Historically, powerful and wealthy countries have built economic empires over time which keep getting larger and larger, but also require that they station troops further and further away in order to defend more and more economic interests further and further from home base -- to the point where their empires cost more than the economic benefits of said empires and, at that point, the big drain sets in. And the end of the big drain is called the big toilet."

This fan then goes on to hint that Madam Jane might be misguided. How can that be? Madam Jane sees all and knows all!

"It's not so much being screwed at home that is sinking us into the toilet. It is the mercenaries screwing us from afar that are draining the piggy bank at home," writes the fan. "We went into Iraq for oil, for economic interests, for empire -- and now it's costing us a fortune. The empire is now dry. And I'm not talking about being dry for just a year or two and then we'll bounce back. This drain-to-dry will be going on for decades to come. And in the meantime, there are other empires that do not have the overseas drain that we have and are building up their own power base at home and are raking in the money without having to pay the costs of defending an empire. That would be Europe and China and possibly India."

Madam Jane predicts that this fan may be on to something here.

"Oh yeah," added the fan, who now appears to be trying to compete for MJ's job himself. "Don't forget to remind people that their kids should be learning to speak French and Chinese."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Special "Extreme Makeover, Home Edition" issue of my housing co-op newsletter

(Photos are of investigative reporters Jane and Mena Stillwater checking out a leaking roof and a faulty irrigation system at Savo Island)

Whatever happened to "Desperate Housewives"? I guess it was a victim of the writers' strike. I liked "Desperate Housewives". But I never liked watching the program that came on before it. "Extreme Makeover, Home Edition". At least I never liked it until now.

Now I watch it with complete and utter fascination. Why? Because the housing co-op where I live is about to get an extreme makeover too! Yes, the re-hab that our Board of Directors' majority alliance has been zealously stalling off for the last seven years is finally about to happen! Will host Ty Pennington show up at Savo Island with his famous "Good Morning!" wake-up call? Why not? The Stillwaters are a deserving family. I want my home to get transformed!

"But Jane," you might say, "it sounds to me like you are back to hatin' on that poor Board of Directors alliance again. Why is that? They've done everything they can to make this re-hab happen. You think not? Just ask them." Yeah, well. Actions speak louder than words. Since when does it take seven years to get a re-hab off the ground?

And if the Board alliance didn't deliberately stall this re-hab on purpose, then they must be the most incompetent people this side of the White House --where even as we speak GWB is still trying to get Iraqis to just shut up and give him their oil after all these years, spending approximately three trillion dollars on Iraq's "re-hab," taking longer than World War II and still being no closer to shouting "Move the Bus!" than he was back in 2003.

The other day I was looking at a worksheet that listed what the estimated costs of the Savo re-hab would have been back in 2005. Then I compared it to a worksheet listing our estimated costs now. There has been approximately a three-million-dollar cost increase, due mainly to inflation. That means that every single member of the Board alliance who has been responsible for stalling (or fumbling) this re-hab has cost my co-op approximately $360,00 each. Thanks, guys.

Getting the re-hab started by September 2008 is an absolute imperative. I don't think this housing project can survive yet another winter without floating down the drain. Almost every unit in the project has had at least one leak this year. There are blue tarps on several of the roofs -- the kind that they used after Hurricane Katrina. Shingles are falling off the walls, shingles are falling off the roofs and the drainage and irrigation systems suck eggs -- not to mention the lack of effective maintenance inside the units themselves.

However, this is, hopefully, all about to change! In just six more months, if we are lucky, our "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" will finally begin -- by September of 2008. And once it gets started, I have been told that things will go quickly -- perhaps not in the seven days that it takes Ty Pennington's crew, but still and all....

The roofing and siding will go up rapidly and we'll have it all in place by the end of November. The window installation will take only a day or two per unit so we will only have crews inside our homes for a very short time (I've been told that our latest contractor is very good with working with families and not displacing them more than is absolutely necessary). And it will take two months maximum to slap on the roofs. The water heaters and finances can be replaced in approximately five hours per household. Go us! And, if all goes well, by July of 2009 we will finally be able to shout, "Move the bus!"

On the TV show, Ty talks about building eco-friendly homes. "This season expect to see more extreme homes, the latest in extreme technology -- highlighted by an all 'green' build in Arizona. And there will be a green element on every episode this season, with eco-friendly, low energy and recyclable sources being incorporated into the builds." Is Savo island going to get any 'green' elements? Heck no. In fact, the Board alliance went out of their way to avoid cost-effective, energy-saving siding in favor of 'real' cedar shingles that entail cutting down a whole bunch of trees -- and costing us more money too. And will we be getting those energy-saving solar panels that I begged for? What do you think?

If we had elected a forward-looking Board back in 2001, we could have changed Savo into a showcase for what eco-friendly homes could be. We had the money. We had the technology. Imagine what we could have done with that three million dollars that inflation just ate! Now our heating bills are skyrocketing and we're stuck with gas heating. If only.... If only the alliance had concentrated on future possibilities instead of on consolidating their power, keeping their market-rate rents low and hatin' on ME.

After apparently stalling the re-hab for approximately seven years, however, even I have got to admit that the Board alliance is finally becoming enthusiastic about getting this re-hab done. Why the sudden change in their attitude? We may never know. Perhaps it was because some of them are now receiving HUD subsidies and no longer mind that the market-rate rents will go up to help pay for the re-hab? Or could it be because of the stern lectures they have just received from HUD? Or maybe it was caused by the three (3) fair housing lawsuits filed against them? Or maybe it's just the "monkeys with typewriters" effect -- that sooner or later it was going to happen anyway?

In any case, the Board alliance's attitude toward ME hasn't changed. Not only are they still hell-bent on covering over my wonderful light-giving window, they are apparently trying to do everything they can to keep me from moving to a downstairs unit, which I desperately need because of my bad ankle and knees. Sorry, guys. HUD says you gotta do this, even if it involves helping me. And, yes, it IS illegal for you to keep trying to dig into my medical records and files. Sorry about that one too.

But worst of all, at the last Board meeting, one of the alliance members actually cited an out-of-date and illegal house rule that would have forced my two-month-old granddaughter and her parents to become homeless and out on the street if he had gotten his way. That's taking vengeance on me for being a whistle-blower a little too far, don't you think? I guess that they REALLY don't like me.

But all's well that ends well. The re-hab is coming, I'm moving into a smaller downstairs unit within a month and 57 deserving families will be getting an "Extreme Makeover, Home Edition" in the next year and a half. Plus Board-member elections are coming up soon and then we'll have a whole new chance to do an extreme makeover on our three-million-dollar Board alliance.

"Move the bus!"

PS: At the Board meeting last night, I was told on no uncertain terms that I had to shingle over my window even though my HUD appeal is still being considered by the Fair Housing arbitrator in Washington. I was also told that I was a liar, that my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter DID NOT live with me even though I can hear baby Mena crying in the next room even at this moment, that I couldn't move into a downstairs medical accommodation unit until I had shingled over my window, that I should be evicted, that they want to go through my medical files -- which is illegal -- and I forget what other things they said to me last night but most of it involved yelling at me and pounding on the table a lot.

In the past, other members of this alliance have moved out of their units due to medical accommodation needs but were not asked to repair the damage to their old units before they left. That's totally discriminatory! And also an alliance member's relative was allowed to stay in her unit this month even though she was over-housed according to HUD standards because said relative had claimed to have moved a roommate in. But said roommate was never approved by the Board. "We have to approve EVERY new person that moves in!" these Board alliance members are always telling us -- except, apparently, if the situation applies to them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Ides of March: A fire, winter soldiers, Barbara Lee & the squelch button

(Photos are of the elusive Rep. Lee, baby Mena (with my neighbor Gina) looking no worse for wear after the fire and of me on the squelch button, holding the official list of forbidden words)

So far, today has been one of those days -- the kind that you dread. What's up with that? It must be the Ides of March. Last night my apartment almost caught on fire. And things went downhill from there. Good grief.

There I was, sleeping away without a care in the world, when I heard my son pounding on my bedroom door and the whole room was suddenly enveloped in foul-smelling smoke.

There we were, at 1:00 a.m. in the freaking morning, my entire family including my son, his wife and my three-month-old granddaughter, standing out on the sidewalk and wondering what to do next as great waves of yellow billowing fumes poured out of our home. So we all street-hiked over to my daughter Ashley's apartment in our robes and nightgowns and bunny slippers and banged on her door until she let us in, handed us some sleeping bags and let us sleep on her couch.

This morning I called the poison control center and they said it would be safe to go back home after we aired the place out. Then I popped into my car and went off to hear Rep. Barbara Lee give one of her "State of the Congressional District" speeches in Oakland. But you know me. Every time I try to track Rep. Lee down, I seem to just miss her. I missed finding her at the South Carolina Democratic primary debates. I missed tracking her down at the event Teddy Kennedy gave for Barak Obama last month. And I missed seeing her at her last "State of the District" function because my car wouldn't work. I hadn't been having much luck. I hoped that the Ides of March wouldn't screw this one up too.

But, actually, I finally found her this time. "We must get out of Iraq," she said. "We cannot afford to stay in Iraq. We need those resources here at home. And we must trim the military budget as well. Sixty-five billion dollars is being wasted -- right now -- on buying obsolete Cold War weapons that we can no longer use. Congress needs to allot enough money to protect our troops and contractors in Iraq and then bring them home -- and with no long-term military bases left behind."

Apparently George W. Bush has signed six different congressional bills that would make it illegal for him to build long-term bases in Iraq. And Rice, Negroponte and Bush have all agreed to this. "But then Bush made a signing statement on this last bill saying that he was above the law. And you know what I have to say about this? 'See you in court, Mr. President [sic]!' They are also trying to get around these laws by signing side-agreements with Iraq without Congress's approval." That's illegal too.

"We need to prevent the invasion of Iran. And we need to impeach Vice-President [sic] Cheney. There is a long list of things that we need to do. But they have to get done. We have been misled about Iraq. They lied. This war has been going on for five years now. And now we also have to lead America out of a Bush-generated economic recession as well. We can't wait until November. We have to build the pressure NOW, to put on some street-heat NOW. We have to bring our troops and contractors home NOW." You gotta love it when Rep. Lee spells things out. I was glad I came even though I still smelled like toxic yellow smoke and no one would sit next to me.

That's the Ides of March for you.

Then Rep. Lee showed us a sneak preview of a documentary called "War Made Easy". According to Norman Solomon, Americans were lied to in order to get the Vietnam war going, lied to in order to get the Gulf War rolling and lied to in order to get the Iraq war off the ground. "The hardest part of a war is to get Americans to accept that the war is necessary and in order to achieve this end, we are bombarded night and day with media information touting the reasons for war. But once a war is actually started, then the war itself becomes its own reason for being and perpetuates its own self. 'We can't leave now' and 'support the troops' and 'stay the course' become rationale in themselves for continuing grim and illegal wars." At least I think that's what they said in the movie. It's really hard to take notes in the dark.

"We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are always willing to believe that, this time, the government is actually telling the truth." But the real truth has become a hostage of the information that the government feeds us. And this information is censored according to the needs of the people in power -- or else access to truth is completely denied. Ha! I can identify with that. Do you KNOW how hard it is for a progressive reporter to embed in Iraq? It took me over a year to get accepted for an embed the first time. The second time, it took a whole battalion of Marines to get me embedded and the third time I was granted an embed okay but then apparently they found out that I wrote for a progressive media outlet,, and my embed was rescinded and I had to live at the Kuwait airport Starbucks until they sorted things out -- which they never did and now I gotta sue the Department of Defense on Judge Judy to get my money back! But I digress.

"In World War I," continued the movie, "the percentage of civilians killed -- as compared to the percentage of actual combatants' deaths -- was 10%. In World War II, that percentage jumped up to 50%. And in Vietnam, the percentage of civilians killed skyrocketed up to 70%." But do you know how many civilians were killed in Iraq in relation to actual combatants? "90%." 90%? Holy cow!

Enough bad news. To heck with the Ides of March. I'm gonna go home and hide under the bed.

But that didn't happen either. I ended up going over to KPFA and helping out during the station's "Winter Soldier" broadcast of stories told by veterans from the war on Iraq. My job? To hit the squelch button. "If anyone says one of these forbidden words," a station employee told me, "you just hit this button here and the word gets deleted." So I spent the afternoon waiting for my big moment when I could hit the squelch button and delete an obscenity. I heard lots of obscene things all right, as soldiers and Iraqis testified to the misery they had either seen or induced -- but none, unfortunately, that I could just hit a button and delete. If only. If only I could just hit a button and delete that whole "war".

I heard how soldiers in Iraq had been forced to torture innocent civilians, how Blackwater thugs were given free reign to shoot anyone they wanted, how school children were too terrified to go to school, how even the most basic medicines had become unavailable, how Americans tortured Iraqis to get information when all they really needed to do was just ask and how much Iraqis truly want Americans to just go home. Now. "Iraqis are perfectly capable of managing their own affairs when the Americans leave. We don't need them to protect us," stated one Iraqi. How sweetly naive. This "war" isn't about protecting Iraqis. This "war" is about oil.

When I was in Iraq this past October, two things became perfectly clear to me. First, I learned that our soldiers were doing a fantastic job (even though it was not the job they should be doing and approximately half of the soldiers I talked to had no respect at all for GWB). Our soldiers should be protecting America -- not Bush's oil. And, second, I discovered that some of the poorest people in the world live in Iraq, right over the richest oil supply in the world.

The next winter soldier stated, "I had no idea that I'd been over there fighting for corporate profit."

A retired colonel testified that, "[The Bush-Cheney-McCain axis] has undercut our military to the point where it may never be able to recover."

And then another soldier said, "The veterans and soldiers of the Iraq war are building a community of resistance to this war. And when soldiers stop fighting a war, that war is OVER. That is the real reason why the Vietnam war finally ended, you know. The soldiers simply started refusing to fight." Interesting. I didn't know that.

In another two hours, the Ides of March will be over. My apartment is habitable again. I finally got to see Rep. Lee. And KPFA served us a delicious take-away Indian food buffet. So things are looking up. Now if we can only get out of Iraq before America goes completely bankrupt and our military is completely destroyed....

PS: If you missed the Winter Soldier testimonials -- and a lot of people did because the event was not hardly mentioned in the mainstream media at all -- it's not too late. They are still available for streaming at

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Death on the freeway: Eulogy for a former KBR-Iraq contractor

"When you were in Iraq, did you meet any contractors?" someone asked me recently. "What were they like? Were they scary?" No, not at all. They were nice. And helpful and efficient and friendly. But then I mostly only dealt with KBR contractors working on the administrative side of things. I never met any KBR contractors who were mercenaries. And I definitely never met any of those heavy-duty Blackwater guys.

One time I did spend the morning with a group of British bodyguards who looked like they might have been left over from "The Troubles" in Belfast and could snap your neck in a second, but they were just escorting around a group of civil engineers who were inspecting a health clinic. Nothing fierce.

"If you take a photo of us, we will have to destroy your camera," one of the bodyguards told me. But other than that, they also were quite nice.

However, like I said before, I didn't get a chance to see much of Iraq. The U.S. Army's CPIC [Combined Press Information Center] unit in Baghdad kept me pretty much away from combat zones when I was in Iraq during April and October of 2007. And when I kept asking them to send me to some of the dicier areas, they stopped letting me into Iraq at all. I guess they either didn't want me reporting back to my progressively-oriented editors regarding any blood-and-gore situations in Baghdad right before the 2008 presidential elections -- or else they figured it might look bad for "Bush's War" if something dire happened to me. "How could we possibly explain how a 65-year-old grandmother managed to get kidnapped or blown up?" But I digress.

I am here today to tell you the story of Dave Crow and to write his eulogy.

Dave was a well-built and beefy man, a carpenter who could lift 100-pound slabs of sheet-rock all day long and not break a sweat. But then he got lured overseas by all the easy money to be made as a contractor for KBR in Iraq.

"I was only over there for four months," he told me. "I was a truck driver for KBR. The money was good. But our camp was located over the site of a former depleted uranium dump and I got really sick. My body started just wasting away and now I'm weak, unhealthy, living in a trailer outside of San Diego and basically screwed up." He talked to me about his plans to sue KBR because they had reneged on their promise to provide him with healthcare when he came back from Iraq.

After he returned to the States, Dave's life went rapidly downhill. He lost weight. He was ill. He was in constant pain. His girlfriend left him. He drank. And then, apparently, he shot himself.

I was so sorry to hear that his life had ended this way.

One of Dave's friends sent me an article a few months ago. Dated September 29, 2007, the article said that on the previous Wednesday, Dave Crow had pulled over onto the side of a Southern California freeway and shot himself in the chest. Dave had commited suicide? I could understand that. The guy was frustrated and in pain. End of story.

But it wasn't the end of Dave's story. There was more to come. The other day, I ran into a friend of Dave's at a party and the friend started talking about Dave. "Several of the people who were close to Dave had given up on him right before he died," said his friend, "but it wasn't just because his health had bottomed out. It was because all he would ever talk about was how KBR had done him wrong. He was sick and in pain, sure, but he was also very sad, disillusioned and bitter -- that he would never again be the strong and healthy young man that he had been before going over to Iraq. All he could ever talk about were his losses and how KBR had promised to pay his medical expenses when he got back and how he was going to sue them. Some of his friends started avoiding him. It was hard to be around him. That was all that he could talk about."

And then Dave was found dead at the side of the freeway last fall. "At first I thought that he probably did shoot himself, " said his friend, "but then someone showed me his coroner's report and, frankly, it seemed sort of sketchy. Apparently Dave had been driving erratically on the freeway and then pulled off at an exit to buy gas or something in some town. And, according to the report, an off-duty police officer who had been driving his own personal car on the freeway had followed Dave off the freeway, followed him all through the town and then followed him back onto the freeway again. I think that Dave might have panicked about being followed by some strange unmarked car and tried to run."

According to Dave's friend, the coroner's report went on to say that the police became involved at some point and there was apparently a chase. then Dave swerved off the road and ran into some construction equipment. "The report then says that a police officer witnessed Dave shoot himself in the chest. Not in the head or the heart. In the chest."

Dave's friend was disappointed with the coroner's report. "It said that Dave was carrying a Glock firearm that was capable of holding 17 rounds but there were only three rounds left in the clip. That's strange. And the report didn't mention whether or not any shell casings had been found in the car. Why would Dave be carrying around a Glock with only three rounds? Had he been shooting at someone? Had they been shooting at him? And why would an off-duty policeman follow him all over town?"

Towards the end of the party, I had another chance to talk with Dave's friend again and the death of Dave Crow was still on his mind. "Having never done this sort of thing before -- questioning an official report -- I was hoping that you might know how to get the California Highway Patrol or someone to look into the events that led to Dave's death on the freeway in Azusa. For instance, is it standard procedure for an off-duty police officer to chase people that way? And if it is, does anyone think that maybe that's what started Dave running, and caused his ultimate 'suicide'?" Then Dave's friend looked pensive. "And does anyone even care? Maybe you can stir the pot or else that other journalist that interviewed Dave about KBR could check in to it. Or is there any other watch dog agency that oversees policy for the police that we could ask about this?" Dave's friend shrugged his shoulders.

"It's just that I'd like to have some sort of closure on my friend's death -- like some accounting of just what happened to him, and the answer to some of the basic questions. Did the bullet pulled from his body match the gun registered to him? And can a private citizen ask questions like I have, about a case that really isn't any of my business....other than that of 'no man is an island'? I know that Dave will still be dead either way of course. I just hate the idea that he might have been killed and someone out there somehow is getting away with it. That's all."

Perhaps there had been a shoot-out. Or perhaps Dave might have been paranoid enough to mistakenly think, when he was being followed for so long by an unmarked car, that KBR was going after him because of the lawsuit. Who knows? I certainly don't know. But there is one thing that I DO know: I know that I need to write an eulogy for David Crow. "I'm sorry, Dave, that your life ended this way -- sick and upset and bleeding to death alone on the side of some obscure California freeway. And I hope that now you are without pain and resting in a better place -- no matter what happened to you during your short life here on earth." Rest in peace, Dave. You deserve it.


Here's my OpEd News story on Dave from last year: Blackwater mercenaries, West Point graduates & other contractors' tales:
....When I was in Iraq, I brushed my teeth with the non-potable water. Having survived brushing my teeth with the tap water in Afghanistan and Mexico (with the help of some Cipro), I was thinking, "Who's afraid of a little bacteria?" Well, since I've been back, my mouth just hasn't felt right. OMG! Maybe the water was non-potable because it was filled with depleted uranium? Then I started getting really paranoid. "I'm gonna die of mouth cancer!" Me and Sigmund Freud. Yuck!
Then I got a phone call from a man who used to work as a trucker for KBR in Iraq and I realized that he had a LOT more to worry about than me. "I was only over there for four months but already my body has aged 30 years and my muscle mass is just melting away." KBR paid him $8,000 a month to drive the big rigs all over central Iraq. "And I'd give every cent of it back in a heartbeat if I could get my health back." Fat chance of that happening.
"After four months living in a tent pitched over an old bombed-out bunker, blood and pus started coming out of my eyes. It really scared me and I tried to get back to the states to get treated. But the moment I left Iraq, KBR canceled my health insurance. I used to be able to hang 160 sheets of drywall a day. Now I can hardly help the neighbors move their front room couch."
The contractor was very unhappy with KBR. "They promised me that I was going to get a COBRA but it never came through. I need an operation, I have severe nerve damage in my arms. I don't sleep because my hands and arms are so sore. I can take a lot of pain but this is constant. This is too much. If I ever get my hands on the KBR employee who canceled my insurance, they'd have to put me on four-way restraints!"
The contractor has lost three inches off of his biceps. What happened over there? Depleted uranium? "I wouldn't be surprised. Iraq is the most polluted country in the world. It scares the hell out of me." Then he added, "I think part of my nerve damage comes from wearing 56 pounds worth of body armor for 12 or 15 hours at a time because rather than up-armor the trucks, they up-armored the drivers."
He thought that the KBR operation was a circus run by buffoons. "They were only in it for the money." "Do you think you will ever go back to Iraq?" I asked him. "I can't go back. I'd never pass the physical." He then gave me the names and numbers of several friends who had suffered the same experience. Scary.