Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Dalai Lama & Costco: When Ultimate Truth met Relative Truth...

Since getting back from Iraq, I've been all grouchy and moody and sad. Every time I hear about another car bomb going off in Baghdad, it just breaks my heart. So I was all pleased to go off to hear the Dalai Lama speak in San Francisco on Friday and Saturday, hoping that maybe he would be able to cleanse my soul of the ugliness of Iraq.

San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is huge. I think it holds around 5,000 people. Its gigantic stage was covered with Buddhist monks and nuns -- I counted 40 rows of them -- all adorned with flowing, colorful gowns like so many flowers. The opening prayer was recited in Tibetan, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. And then the Dalai Lama started his lecture. And "The message I send is one of compassion," were the first words out of his mouth.

The thing that you gotta understand about listening to the Dalai Lama -- and to most highly-trained lamas from the old school for that matter -- is that he has the ability to use the sound of his voice like a scalpel, cutting through our garbage, our extra trappings and all our unnecessary stuff so that it falls away from us like a snake sheds its skin. So I sat back and let the DL work his magic. And I started feeling better already -- just knowing that SOMEBODY cared about whether or not the world we know and love is descending into chaos, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You have to understand the origins of suffering in order to eliminate suffering," he said. "It comes from karma and afflictions; afflicted mental states." And apparently the only forces that can oppose these mental afflictions are also mental -- that in order to escape from mental afflictions you have to have a change in perspective, away from the distorted mental states. "Is it possible to cultivate a mental state that can see through the deception of the afflicted mental state and see the true reality of existence?" the Dalai Lama asked. In my case? Probably not.

"Which one of these mental states is the most powerful?" Hummm. I would bet on the afflicted mental states. I tend to hold onto my little peeves and grudges. "But the afflicted mental states are based solely on false appearances. The essential nature of the human mind is luminous." Is the Dalai Lama saying that Mankind is essentially good? Lord, I hope so. This is the hope that keeps me going -- the ultimate perfectibility of Man.

"This is the heart of eliminating afflictions -- to grasp the true nature of reality." And the true nature of reality doesn't involve blowing up civilians in Baghdad. My mind keeps going back to the concept of getting blown up. Maybe I've got post-traumatic stress? If I do, then I've come to the exact right place to get cured.

"What should we do? We must understand the nature of suffering -- and the Buddha isn't talking about just ordinary pain but deeper suffering. One needs to cultivate a deeper understanding of suffering. And then once you understand suffering, then eliminate it." Hey, I'm willing. But then I fell asleep.

"Sleeping in the presence of the Dalai Lama is highly auspicious," I told my friend after she had nudged me awake, "because when you are asleep, what he says bypasses one's mental censors and goes straight to the subconscious mind which needs this information the most." It's called a mind-to-mind transmission -- not just me being lazy.

"I'm thinking about lunch," my friend whispered back.

"At the fundamental level," the DL continued, "all things and events can only be understood through their interdependent nature." Oh. So that's why this seminar is called Dependent Origination. "No individual thing possesses an independent nature of its own." All is cause and effect.

"There is conventional truth -- relating to appearances and everyday experiences. But if we probe deeper into relativity, there is the Ultimate Truth." Apparently, one must tap-dance between these two truths. "This is called the Middle Way."

How does one dig around and arrive at Ultimate Truth? "Critical analysis." Mindfulness? Non-attachment? Which got me to thinking about going home and throwing out a whole bunch of junk. But who am I kidding? I'm attached. No enlightenment for me. But boy am I not alone in this aspect. Especially here in America. And in Iraq.

"Suffering must be understood and recognized at the level of conventional truth. Yet, at the level of Ultimate Truth, there is no suffering." So the great masters of the Middle Way school kept their eye on both types of truth and one foot in both camps. Don't be frivolous on the one hand but don't be a dharma snob on the other.

So. I combined relative truth with Ultimate Truth -- the mundane with the sublime -- and asked the woman sitting next to me, "Have you seen Richard Gere?"

At the break, my friend and I went to lunch at The Gyro King across from the fabulous new public library and had lamb kabobs. Then we street-hiked down to the south of Market Street area and went to Costco. "Isn't it kind of unholy to go to a Costco on your lunch break while seeing the Dalai Lama?"

"But, Jane. I need contact lens solution!" This Costco was HUGE. Wall to wall STUFF. It's been ten years since I'd been inside a Costco. They had EVERYTHING. And massive amounts of everything. Acres of everything.

"Uh, pardon me, sir," I asked the sales clerk. "Is this the Ultimate Truth aisle or is this where they sell the Relative Truth?" He thought for a moment and then pointed us in the direction of the aisle where they were giving away free desserts.

After the lunch break, the Dalai Lama got all into explaining the technical aspects of Relative and Ultimate Truth. It was like attending a physics lecture. But at least you couldn't say he was talking down to us. And he also touched on the subject of karma, cause-and-effect. I could understand that part. "What goes around, comes around." Got that.

The next day, the DL told us how to distinguish between Relative Truth and Ultimate Truth. "The best way to achieve liberation is to reflect on ignorance and attachment to the objects of this life. We are chained to our obsessive preoccupation with the things of this life, our bodies and our feelings." Kindness and faith cannot bring liberation. "Liberation can only come by cultivating the emptiness that opposes the ignorance of grasping. Grasping at self underlies all our afflictions. When distinctions are drawn between self and other, a whole host of problems are caused by attachments. At the root of all our problems is ignorance of the true state of reality."

So there must be criteria for determining if something is ultimately real. "It is a combination of comparing [the truth currently under inspection] with conventional knowledge, conventional knowledge that cannot be contradicted by other conventional knowledge and knowledge that cannot be invalidated by an inquiry into Ultimate Reality." I think he was referring to such Golden Oldies as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal".

After the talk, the Dalai Lama answered questions. I shoulda asked him what will happen to our poor sweet Iraq. But, taking the day's teachings about karma into consideration, I think I have an idea of how to apply what he said to what is happening over there now. And here's what I came up with: That ALL of the people now in Iraq -- be they American, Iraqi, Peruvian, Sri Lankan or whatever -- have basically been dropped down into a nightmarish, speeded-up karmic purgatory carwash where, if the DL is right about the causes and effects of karma, everyone there is either working off, paying off or accumulating their karmic debts at the speed of light.

If one believes in karma, just imagine what you must have done wrong in a past life to have been reborn in Iraq!

Just imagine the karmic crimes one must have committed to be born into a life that would either send you to that sweet hellhole if you are a non-Iraqi -- or to be born there if you are. For those of us who have been to that terrible karmic cauldron, you know what I'm talking about. There, one's individual handhold on the mountainside of karmic reality is being shuffled around at breakneck speed. There, instantaneous moments between life and death are everyday things. Your karma instantly ripens! If you kill someone, you are immediately hurled off the karmic cliff to the bottom of the bottomless pit -- but if you help protect a child or save a life, then you are immediately sent to the mountaintop.

PS: Speaking of religions, let's talk about four of the world's major religions and how they have served or not served their followers in times of crisis, stress and need. Correct me if I'm wrong -- and this generalization can't be applied to every individual Christian, Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist or Jew -- but in assessing historical patterns in general, this is what I have seen:

During the vicious religious persecutions following the death of Jesus when Romans were throwing Christians to the lions en mass, early Christians martyrs followed Jesus' teaching of non-violent resistance and remained true to their creed. Their religion's ideals sustained them.

Score one for Jesus. The early Christians get an A+.

Later on, however, there was backsliding and we got the Inquisition, the Crusades and George W. Bush, the man who blew up Baghdad and Kabul. Has the long road taken by Christianity only led Jesus' followers to this sorry state of affairs? Yeah.

Has their religion failed them or have they failed their religion? Who can tell.

Now let's look at the Jews. During the terrible Nazi Holocaust, millions of Jews were thrown into ghettos, starved and/or killed and their lands were seized. Injustice! Murder! Terror. So how did all too many Jews react to these terrible atrocities? Did they remain true to Moses' Ten Commandments? Nah.

As a direct result of the suffering caused to Jews by the Nazis, as far as I can tell, "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal" were the first ideals to go and Jews themselves switched to becoming the oppressors. Now all that is left of Palestine are ghettos, prisons, stolen land and various versions of "we who are about to die salute you". Has their religion failed them or have they failed their religion? Who can tell.

Now let's look at Islam. Muslims have suffered terribly in the last 20 years. It's been a second Holocaust in Iraq alone -- two million dead if you include the Gulf War dead and those who died because of the sanctions. That's one in ten Iraqis. And let's not even mention the nightmare of Afghanistan under the USSR, the Mujaheddin and Bush's test-drive of Shock and Awe. So many Muslims were viciously killed. And the result of these barbaric attacks? In all too many instances, the teachings of Mohammed have been thrown out the window by Islamic extremists merely for the promise of hot sex -- payable upon death. Eeuuww.

Has their religion failed them or have they failed their religion? Who can tell.

Then there are the Tibetan Buddhists. They went through the same horrible firestorm of persecution and Holocaust as have Christians, Muslims and Jews. Since 1959, the Communist Chinese have killed 1.2 million Tibetans -- so far. And what did the Tibetan Buddhists bring with them out of this nightmare crucible? Compassion. Hopefulness. Their continued quest for Ultimate Truth. The Dalai Lama.

Of all these four major religions, in time of crisis only the Tibetan Buddhists have stayed true to their beliefs. And they alone haven't had their psyches horribly scarred and twisted and warped by man's inhumanity to man. Hurray for Tibetan Buddhism! May the other religions of the world watch and learn.

PPS: The Dalai Lama also said, "What is most surprising and amazing to me is those who find the Lion's Roar of emptiness and non-attachment to be unbearable and intolerable." Is this why peace activists and "bleeding-heart liberals" are so scorned and ridiculed by the gangstas, grasping materialists and pseudo-religionists of this world -- those who so vocally disrespect all who attempt to see beyond our self-annihilating cocoon of relative truth?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

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.

After I got done talking with the contractor, I biked downtown to get a copy of the Berkeley Daily Planet, featuring an article about the Blackwater mercenaries. Even MORE scary! According to reporter Jeremy Scahill, "In February 2006 Donald Rumsfeld issued the Pentagon’s quadrennial review which lays out the Pentagon’s vision for years to come. There he classified Blackwater and other contractors as a legitimate part of the total force making up the U.S. war machine." So. The neo-cons are hopefully anticipating the day when they can contract out our entire Army -- not just the quartermaster department and the KP. I wonder if the troops know about this?

"This was legitimacy that they could not have dreamed of," continued Scahill. "Now Blackwater has taken that designation and used it in two wrongful death suits filed against it -- one for the incident in Fallujah and one for a plane crash in Afghanistan. They have said they should be immune from civilian legislation inside the United States because they are essentially part of the U.S. national security apparatus. At the same time it lobbies against placing its men under the US court-martial system." Oh boy. What will happen to our soldiers, our sailors, our Marines if even the soldiering part of our military is contracted out? If I was a career West Pointer and read that, I'd be DEFINITELY worried about job security!

"The Democrats’ plan for withdrawal from Iraq doesn’t mention private contractors," says Scahill. "The congressional initiatives are all aimed at oversight and transparency. No one with the exception of Congressman Dennis Kucinich is framing this in concept as the radical privatization of war."

Now our troops not only have to worry about losing their jobs because of the withdrawal from Iraq and because of Bush's highly successful attempts to stretch the military to its breaking point. Now our troops also have to worry about losing their jobs to scab labor. Sucks to be you!

PS: I just talked with my contractor friend again. He said that he doesn't have an e-mail address "because I don't see very well any more," and needs an operation -- but he still doesn't have any health insurance except for Medicaid. Plus he is now fully disabled and living on Social Security. In other words, the American taxpayer is now taking up the "benefits" slack for KBR -- just like we do for Wal-Mart.

PPS: Another contractor just called me -- I guess my 15 minutes of fame isn't quite over yet -- and this one started telling me some really scary stories about a mysterious place called "Area 51" where trained-killer special-ops forces hunker down in between "jobs". And he REALLY scared me as he described soul-less men with glazed-over eyed who lived like those hordes of evil bad guys from The Lord of the Rings -- just waiting to be let out of their cages. But what he said spooked me so much that let's not talk about that.

PPPS: Holy cow! I just received an e-mail from my friend Stewart who just missed getting blown up by a truck bomb. "There are body parts all over the place here." Listen up, all you psychotic bombers -- be you Iraqi extremists or George W. Bush. Don't make me go over there and give you a stern talking-to. I will, you know. You had better freaking APOLOGIZE to my friend this instant -- and to the people of Iraq. And DON'T DO IT AGAIN. Blowing up people is the height of barbarism. Get a grip.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Savo Island Cooperative Homes, Inc. Board of Directors does it again! Or not....

At an open meeting tonight, the Savo Island Board of Directors once again tussled with the question of whether a Board member's needs take precedence over the needs of just your average resident. The answer to that question was tabled for another night -- one that will apparently give the Board member in question more time to marshal more support for her project. But that is neither here nor there.

What is of urgent importance to me at this point regarding this meeting is whether or not I can now reveal what went on in executive session last week because now a Board member has revealed that information in tonight's open session. Perhaps I am still not allowed to talk about this MAJOR EVENT. What would an official ruling be? Can I now say that a Board majority voted last Thursday night to fire our general contractor for the re-hab project? Or not? Probably not. So I will keep mum on the subject until such time as Board members who voted for this measure finally decide to let the mere residents -- and perhaps HUD -- know this startlingly important piece of information.

If anyone has any information regarding whether or not this is now public knowledge, please let me know.

If our general contractor has been fired, our re-hab is screwed.

Savo residents need to know this kind of information -- if for no other reason than so they can go out and buy more buckets for when it rains next winter and their roofs start to leak. Again.

PS: I am still in a quandry as to whether or not it is now public knowledge that the Board also voted to fire our re-hab Project Manager in another executive session two months ago.... And this Board has already made life so miserable for our excellent management company that it has served its 90-day notice to quit. So. Who is next on the Board's hit list? The re-hab architect? Me? I shoulda stayed in Iraq where it's safe!

I am currently circulating a document that will dissolve the co-op. After 20 years of watching this Board cost Savo Island thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of dollars while in pursuit of self-interest agendas, I just can't take it any more.

Washed in the blood of the lamb: Iraq in retrospect

"So, Jane," someone just asked me, "what have you learned from your trip to Iraq?"

What have I learned? That coming back to Berkeley was a let-down? I always thought that Berkeley was the hot-gossip epicenter for the entire universe but now everything here seems to fall flat. Who even CARES if the same tired old feuds are still going on and X isn't speaking to Y and both X and Y are still going out of their way to avoid Z?

And when I went to my housing co-op's board meeting the day after I got back and watched the same old group of self-interested slobs compete to see who could benefit most from being on the board of directors at the expense of the residents and HUD, I just yawned.

Did the Fox News interviewer cut me off in mid-sentence when I stated that the assault on Iraq by Bush and Cheney was as criminal an act as that shooter's assault on Virginia Tech? Yes he did -- but did it really matter all that much? In Iraq, I had looked directly into the terrified eyes of a woman all covered with blood. After that, who can worry about the niceties of being polite on the air and pretending that the men who run our country are anything but pond scum?

Sure I had a good time in Iraq. Cruising the Green Zone in a humvee, flying by helicopter over the countryside, meeting top-quality reporters, being impressed by dashing young officers and enlisted men who knew what they were doing and did it well? And eating dessert at the D-FAC! What's not to like?

But the bottom line is this -- the same shroud of sadness that hangs over Virginia Tech these days also hangs over Iraq.

And right now I am feeling like Lady Macbeth.

There's got to be a better way to solve human conflict than to blow everybody up.

Sure, America has to pull its troops out of Iraq. It has to -- but not for the deeply moral reasons that I would feel so proud of my country for honoring. Nope, we gotta pull out for a more practical reason. We can't afford it!

Currently, America is like some college kid who's been sent a new credit card in the mail and, holding it in his hot little hands, is now drooling over the possibility of using it to buy a new Mercedes-Benz. Sure, it's a lovely car. Sure the kid would love to own it and drive it happily for the next umpteen years. But can the kid afford it? Will his new credit card allow him to buy it? No. End of story.

Why has no one in America yet realized -- aside from possibly Harry Reid -- that we cannot AFFORD to continue to stay in Iraq? All of us pay our bills and balance our checkbooks every month. We all know the facts of life. If you ain't got the cash, they cut off your electricity. Can America afford to continue to pay the credit card bill on Iraq month after month after month? Ask the USSR for the answer to that one. We are going to HAVE to get out. But I digress.

Without American troops, Iraq may or may not sink into chaos. The whole Middle East may or may not sink into chaos. Terrorists, as a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal, may or may not arrive on our shores and start blowing up things here too. Life's a crap shoot. Dookie happens. But so does good stuff. So does good stuff.

Are we so absolutely certain that if we don't go on killing people in Iraq and across the globe that our world will fall apart?

I've been to Iraq. It made me feel unclean. And I want to feel clean again.

PS: This coming up Friday and Saturday I have tickets to go see the Dalai Lama give a rare two-day seminar over in San Francisco. I'm hoping that maybe he has some answers to the question of how good-hearted and honest men and women can free themselves from being dominated by the world's bullies and barbarians.

"The raider-warriors will always be with us," a wise man once said, "and they will always want what we have. And they think that what they want from us lies in our bodies and that if they can only control or destroy our bodies, they will own what we have. But our greatness doesn't lie in our bodies. It lies in our souls." And they can never take that.

PPS: I just got an e-mail from a friend of mine in the Green Zone. "Jane," he said, "guess what? I was just watching FOX News (almost the only channel allowed on the Armed Forces Network) and there you were -- the Activist Grandmother, Kevlar and all. And I agree with what you said, that Cheney and Bush need to be put in jail -- but let's make it Abu Ghraib."

I immediately e-mailed my friend back -- don't you just love the internet? -- and asked if HE had any suggestions regarding what to do. Here's his answer. "What do we do next? I just hope the Democrats have guts and cut off funding altogether. The only way to protect the troops is to bring them home. The war is finished in Iraq and the Shiites have won. They will rule now no matter what happens next. While not fully aligned with Iran, they are of the same branch of religion. It is too late to put it all back into the bottle -- and the Sunnis, with our help, are out of power. I doubt if there will be any more of a blood bath than is already occurring if we leave. It may accelerate the stabilization by more killing sooner but it will happen eventually until the Shia-Sunnis balance is obtained. They do not want us, so why stay? Except the American public can be led around like sheep and the 'born-again' group only have eyes for Israel."

Good grief. There's that Israel/Palestine question again. "The only real area where we can do any good is with the Palestinian-Israeli solution," said my friend, "and unfortunately we are further from being on the 'right' side of this issue at this moment than we are on the Iraq situation. And what is going on in Iraq just gets more ridiculous as the days go on. Now the US is forcing wall construction around communities while al-Maliki is telling them to stop (and four more communities are in our plans). That is about as stupid as we can get. Forget about the Berlin wall, they only have to look to the north-west a short distance to see the Israeli wall and then be associated, by inference, with that wall. We cannot do anything correct in the Middle East."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Contracting our troop death tolls out: Why more US soldiers died in Nam than Iraq

On my plane flight back from Iraq, I was cogitating on what I had learned while I was there and, in between the inflight movie and the rubber chicken, I started remembering what one female Parliamentarian I had interviewed kept saying to me. "The number of American troops that have died over here is much higher than reported because they do not count the contractors."

Counting contractors' deaths? Was she talking about including the deaths of mercenary soldiers into the U.S. troop death count? I guess she was. But their deaths, although tragic, wouldn't have made the troop death toll all that much higher. Or would it?

Then, as my plane was cruising at 35,000 feet somewhere over Greenland, it finally hit me what she was talking about. "Contractors!" She wasn't talking about the handful of mercenaries out doing battle on the front lines. She was talking about the 130,000 contractors (according to Defense News) doing battle on the chow lines, the truck lines, the supply lines and PX lines in Iraq.

Everywhere you go in the Green Zone and on all the military bases in Iraq, you see "Contractors" doing jobs that were formerly done by soldiers. In Vietnam, the soldiers themselves did all these jobs. The supply clerks were soldiers. The janitors were soldiers. The sentries were soldiers. There were soldiers on KP, in the motor pool, in the offices, on guard duty, manning checkpoints, on the road. Now all that work is being done by contractors. Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "When you cut them, do they not also bleed?"

"The reason there are significantly lower numbers of troop deaths in Iraq now than there were in Vietnam is because of our more efficient body armor," everyone tells me. Hell, no. The reason there is a significantly lower number of troop deaths in Iraq now is because nobody counts the contractors' deaths. 600 contractors are dead and 4,000 are wounded? But now we can't count them because of semantics? Whatever.

One contractor I met in Iraq said to me recently, "A friend of mine in the supply office got killed by a mortar last week." And then she cried.

Whether we officially count them or not, the price that "Contractors" pay for our country is the same. And the costs of this "war" are just as enormous to THEIR families and friends. By using contractors instead of soldiers and not counting their deaths and fiddling with the numbers, the Department of Defense tries to make this "war" a little bit more palatable. But guess what? I find this peekaboo game that the DoD is playing with dead people to be in "grave" error.

PS: Contractors do not like to get killed. But our troops don't particularly like getting killed either!

PPS: Every time I talked with a soldier and he or she found out that I was a journalist, they would always say the same thing. "When you go back home, PLEASE tell people that our tours of duty have just been extended to 15 months and we are not happy campers about that!" You know, serving in Iraq isn't all that bad -- because of the work ethic, the comradeship and the can-do attitude of our troops and, yes, of our contractors too. Plus it's a steady job. But still and all. It's HOT over there in the summer and people SHOOT at you! And despite help from the "Contractors," our troops are really stretched thin (and that idiot in the White House is talking about starting a war with Iran? With WHAT troops?) Thus yet another extended tour of duty far away from spouses and family does NOT sit well with the troops.

PPPS: Bush and Cheney's failure of leadership have gotten us bogged down in disaster after disaster, including the World Trade Center, Katrina, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Israel/Palestine tragedy and Iraq. Bad concepts, bad planning and bad execution are their stock in trade. Let's ditch these bums before they can think up something else to foul up!

Iraqi citizens in the neighborhoods are truly sick of all this violence and they appear to be organizing at the neighborhood level to protect their own from the warring factions that rage above them -- at their expense. Listen up, guys. This is hopeful.

I just got an e-mail from reporter Stewart Nusbaumer. He said, "you would love to be where i am now. the Col. here is damn sensative, and is doing the right way. let the iraqis sort it out, help them. don't impose. let them have their neighborhood watches, make them professionals slowly."

"i'm in town now, it looks like a nuke was dropped here. Hit, the town, was a major insurgents stronghold, they ran the town. then the people, evidently, said enough. now the big thing is for the US to help them create a police from local people.

"now, that is simplified, and things are not black/white, and the commander is taking a chance here in trusting locals, helping them out a little at a time. but the Col knows he is leaving, that it is up to them...." So. If Americans throw Bush and Cheney in jail, then average Iraqis who are struggling so hard to bring order to their poor shredded country will see by example that Americans don't tolerate gangsta behavior either. Throwing Bush and Cheney in jail just might be the exact token gesture to start bringing peace to Iraq!

PPPPS: I met the most wonderful surgical tech at the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. "I was trained by the Army for this job," she told me. You shoulda seen her in action, stepping up to the plate and helping to save lives. The most important thing in the world one can possibly do is to save a human life. I envied her. I wanna save human lives too! And if you are just out of high school and jobless and are afraid to leave your sleazy boyfriend because he's so needy and cute, here's a recommendation from me: Join the Army and become a surgical tech. You will be helping out people far more needy than the cute boyfriend -- plus the guys over here are all far more cute.

And, like that wonderful surgical tech in Baghdad, let's concentrate on helping to save lives in Iraq, not to destroy them. Iraq needs a Marshall Plan, not a "surge". Exxon doesn't need all that extra oil money. But Iraq does. 3,000 Iraqi citizens meet violent deaths every month. Imagine the Virginia Tech tragedy times 100 every single month. That's a hecka lot of post-traumatic stress.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cannon fodder: What will happen next in Iraq -- and America?

I'm typing this on a very slow computer at an American airbase in Kuwait. My plane leaves back for America tonight. So. What have I learned over here? That the situation in Iraq is more complicated than I had thought. "Complicated!" shouted the journalist sitting next to me. "Complicated? That's the best you can come up with?" Yeah. "You coulda learned that from watching Fox News back in the States!"

Maybe. Maybe not. On the one hand, there are the Americans, who are conscientiously trying to re-build the very thing that they themselves have destroyed. And on the other hand, they are obviously doing something very wrong out there beyond the walls of the Green Zone because after four freaking years, Iraq is STILL living in a terrible nightmare. Only this nightmare keeps getting worse.

"Jane, you are not being objective," said my fellow reporter. "You are allowing yourself to get to angry." Angry! I'm WAY beyond angry. I'm hecka pissed off! People are DYING here! Americans are dying. Iraqis are dying. This is no time to be calm!

First let me lay some basic home-truths on the "insurgents" -- or terrorists or rebels or patriots or whatever the freak you are. "Guys! When you kill your fellow Iraqis and fellow Muslims, that's not heroics or resistance or fighting back or religion. THAT'S PSYCHOSIS! That's insanity." Guess what? Your actions look more like you are gangstas out gangbanging than worshipers of God. Don't give me any of that "holier-than-thou" crap. I don't buy it. And neither would Mohammed (PBUH).

And what about the American troops and their Iraqi Army clones? They aren't exactly saints either, sweeping through neighborhoods with tanks and machine guns in the middle of the night like they was Al Capone. Doors being kicked down and homes searched, even in the "good" parts of town? Collateral damage ignored? What's with that? Have the "good guys" become gangbangers too?

And are all these weapons-toting Old Gangsta wannabe factions in Iraq's new turf wars happily chewing each other new arseholes at the expense of the people of Iraq? Duh, yeah.

Wanna know what else I am angry about? What REALLY gets my knickers in a twist is how Bush and Cheney are obviously using our troops as cannon fodder so that they can line their Swiss bank accounts. Cannon fodder! Cannon fodder! That's just not right.

When I first came to Iraq, I was thinking that American troops should come home, like, right now. And then I decided that they were doing some good things over here -- like preventing a bloodbath between the Sunni nutcases and the Shia nutcases, restoring electricity, building schools, that whole Marshall Plan route. But two things that I have seen here changed my mind. The first was when I actually saw the results of warfare up close -- innocent people all bleeding and raw. And the second was when I came here to Kuwait and started watching platoon after platoon of young raw recruits getting ready to board transports to "surge" off to Iraq after, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, only two weeks of training. When I saw them standing for roll call outside their tents every morning, the words "cannon fodder" just kept popping back into my brain.

Did you know that most of these kids here are stereotypical all-American boys? I've never seen so many Norman Rockwell blue-eyed blonds, straight from small towns in Tennessee and Nebraska and Wyoming and upstate New York -- places that depend on Fox News. Fresh clean kids, idealists, here to help God-and-country. Heroic youths. Poorly trained, inappropriately equiped -- and wasted on this freaking "war". Cannon fodder. Cannon fodder. Cannon fodder.

Gangsta wannabes control the streets of Baghdad. And gangsta wannabes have taken over America's government too. You guys all want to gangbang? Don't do it on our dime. Get a job. Get a life.

Am I finished being angry yet? Not even close.

"Ta hell with Iraq," I told my fellow jounalist. "Let God-slash-Allah sort it all out. It's high time for Americans to start watching out for America instead." It is time for America to pull back, stop depending on strong-arm tactics and extortion rackets to bully the world into giving the Bush gang its lunch money, stop picking at the scabs of Iran, put Bush and Cheney in jail, become self-reliant, learn how to manufacture all our own stuff, fix the environment, solve the housing-bubble problem and hunker down for the long run. We can't afford to let a whole generation of fresh-faced boys be forced to turn into gangsta wannabes in some foreign country just to benefit the Bush/Cheney de-Americanization fund. We need our troops at home. Here. Now.

PS: I asked a soldier sitting next to me at lunch today if he would read this and comment on it. After he read it he said, "It sounds about right to me -- except for the cannon fodder part. I would prefer not to end up as cannon fodder if you don't mind." I don't mind. Not at all. No more "cannon fodder" for George? Works for me.

PPS: My plan to eat healthily over here seems to be working, despite numerous DFAC (dining facility) temptations. The secret is to only eat high-fiber foods such as salads, oatmeal and steak. But, you may ask, does pumpkin pie count as a high-fiber food? Who cares! This is a war!
Bringing it all back home: I'm almost on my way back from Iraq....

A few days ago, Multi-National Forces-Iraq flew a bunch of us journalists down to Diwaniyah by helicopter to a press conference about the recent cleanup action conducted there. Before we left the the Green Zone press room, they handed us a press release on Operation Black Eagle that read, "Soldiers from the Iraqi Army and coalition forces entered their third day of fighting against illegally-armed militia in Diwaniyah in order to secure the city and provide stability to the region."

"Wow!" I thought. This was finally it! I was gonna go for a helicopter ride, embed outside the Green Zone and actually see with my own eyes the site of an actual firefight -- to say nothing about seeing an actual Iraqi town.

The helicopter ride to Diwaniyah was spectacular. For almost an hour, we skimmed over fields of rice and/or wheat, adobe brick compounds, sheep and cows. As we looked down out of the open helicopter door onto a pastoral scene almost older than time, peaceful rural Iraq seemed so very far away from the violence and suspicion of war.

So. Did I attend the press conference? Yep. Did I get lunch at the military base's dining facility? You bet! Did I set foot in the town? Not even one toe -- let alone a whole shoe! "Sorry," said our minder, "but we don't have time to go outside the base." It was a fabulous helicopter ride. It was an informative press conference. But did I meet any day-to-day Iraqis? No. Did I step outside the wire? No no no. As we left the base however, I did catch a glimpse of Diwaniyah out of the corner of my eye from the helicopter -- so I guess that I HAD been to the famous Diwaniyah! And when I ran into CNN's Michael Ware back at the press room at 2 am the next morning as he got ready to embed in Diwaniyah, I was able to casually brag, "Diwaniyah? Yeah, I been there."

In the press room, it was maddening to sit around listening to guys talk about their embeds. "Be patient, Jane," said one reporter. "It took me a couple of days to get my assignment." A couple of DAYS? I'd been there for two weeks! Some of these guys went to joint security stations, Sadr City, the infamous Haifa Street... The list goes on and on. And from what I hear, embedding in a joint security station in Baghdad in many ways resembles living at Fort Apache -- including the latrines.

But I'm not cowed by these other reporters' stories of front-line adventures. I've got bragging rights to combat duty too. "I spent 14 days in the press room." Hey, that's combat duty! I fought over access to the computer a lot. Plus those guys really snore.

And now my embed is over and I'm about to go home. And believe it or not, I'm really going to miss Iraq -- or at least all my friends in the Green Zone.

"Jane," you might ask, " why is it that you never got an embed outside the wire? Everyone else did. Why not you?"

Was it because, with all the hundreds of American troop units in Iraq, they just couldn't manage to find even ONE unit willing to take a little old lady? What? Our troops are ageists? Nah.
Was it because I was a liberal blogger? That doesn't make sense either. While I have been in Iraq, my reporting has all been fair and balanced. I have honestly and fairly debated all sides of the issues of occupation -- and I certainly have praised the Army a lot (especially the dining hall!). The Army got a whole bunch of favorable free publicity out of me. So that couldn't have been the reason.

Was it because I think George W. Bush belongs in jail? Well, hey. He does. And a large number of troops here agree with me. So it couldn't have been that.

Then this morning it hit me. "Ye cats! Maybe it was because I'm a Muslim?" Nah, Americans LOVE Muslims. It couldn't be that.

Could it be that no one wanted me to see what is actually going on out in the streets of Baghdad -- where the saintly choirboy troop types I see back on the base appear to be given very few boundaries and little supervision, miraculously transforming into "Boys behaving badly" when they are out of the sight of their moms? Why exactly do the Iraqis hate this occupation so much? Is having your home invaded and searched in the middle of the night by disrespectful GIs who get power-mad after driving around in their souped-up Humvees all night and who are not disciplined by their superiors for being disrespectful to cultural differences costing us any hearts and minds? And that no one wanted me to see this and report on it back home? Nope. Couldn't be that.

Regarding professor Phil Zimbardo's "Lucifer Effect" theory, maybe they don't want me to see it applied here? That it's not a few bad apples that spoil the barrel -- it's the barrel itself that is bad. And that the whole occupation smells like a five-year-old cheese? Nah.

Maybe I missed getting an embed because I was defeated by a ton of military paperwork? More than likely.

"Jane, you gotta stop fixating on not getting embedded outside the Green Zone," I keep telling myself. Sure, I managed to get lots of good stories and make lots of good friends even despite not having access to the "real stuff". But still and all. Did they really have to go and cancel my scheduled embed today at the Kuwait airbase too? Isn't that doing it up a bit TOO brown?

Bottom line? I've just come up with a good way to test my theory that I was deliberated dawged about getting out of the Green Zone. I'll simply apply for another embed in June, giving them plenty of time to find me an embed out in Sadr City or Haifa Street -- and see if I do get to return....

But maybe the reason I didn't get embedded was actually the reason they claim; that I was just the innocent victim of too much paperwork. Okay. Maybe we should defeat the enemy that way -- smother them all in triplicate forms!

By the way, I never got to go to Sadr City with my new Parliamentarian friends -- for two reasons. First, when I called their contact number, the man who answered said, "I cannot talk now. I am on the street. It is dangerous for me to be heard speaking English on the street". And, second, the Parliament cafeteria blew up.

PS: When I get back to the states, I will have so much to think about. How can we successfully get America out of this "war"? I know! Let's give every Muslim Iraqi $25,000 of their own oil money and send them all off on the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca (called the Hajj) and let the Saudis sort it all out. They host the Hajj every year. They are good at organizing large groups of people. For them, getting 15 million Arabic-speaking Iraqis to play nice would be a snap.

PPS: It is always difficult to ride in an open-sided helicopter without developing "Helicopter Hair" -- but completely worth every tangle. But now I am covering my hair with a trucker cap that reads, "Caution: Stay 100 meters back or you will be shot." The GIs love this hat. First they look at my hat and then they look at me and then they break out in smiles.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

An hour after I left: Iraqi Parliament attack by possible suicide bomber!

Yesterday I went down to the Iraqi Parliament and interviewed two female Parliament members regarding their views on the current situation in Iraq. The Parliament was meeting in what formerly used to be Baghdad’s most prestigious convention center. I sat in the Center’s restaurant for over an hour, interviewing the Parliamentarians and observing various delegates come and go.

After I had written and filed my story this morning, I returned to the convention center in order to see if I could give a copy of it to my two female Parliamentarian interviewees. I entered the front of the building and climbed the stairs to the second floor but after a visual search of the many delegates gathered there to caucus between sessions, I was unable to find who I was looking for and so I left.

An hour later an apparent suicide bomber somehow managed to enter the restaurant and set off an incendiary device which, according to Reuters, injured over a dozen delegates, some of them seriously. Two delegates were allegedly killed.

My heart goes out to the injured delegates and their families – and to all of Iraq. Am I relieved that I missed being injured by flying shrapnel or burned? Of course. But more than that, I am deeply grieved by this tragic horror that happened to people who were well and whole just mintues before.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Courage & Grief: Iraqi Parliament's memorial service for its slain members

Bored out of my mind from hanging around the press room and having not even received an embed with the local Boy Scout jamboree, I decided to walk next door to the Convention Center and see what I could see regarding yesterday’s suicide bombing of the Center’s cafeteria – where one Parliamentarian was killed and approximately 25 Parliamentarians were injured.

Outside the Center, I was suddenly caught up in a wave of people flowing toward the Center's doors so I joined them. We all went through strict body searches and got sniffed at by bomb-sniffing dogs but then they let us into the building.

“Can I go see where the bomb went off?” I asked a guard. Sure. “Can I take photos?” No no no no. The guard pointed to a slit in a partition from where I could see the bombed-out cafeteria. There had been four or five tables completely destroyed – right next to the one where I had sat the other day. There were shards of glass everywhere throughout the area and a balcony wall had been blown out. I picked a piece of glass up off the floor and looked at it. It was at least one-fourth inch thick. It must have been quite a blast.

Then I followed the flow of Iraqi cameramen and Iraqis dressed in abayas and suits into the Parliament meeting chamber itself. OMG. This is a memorial service for the Parliamentarian who had died yesterday!

“We are here to show the terrorists that we will not be intimidated,” the delegate in line behind me said.

I took a seat in the back of the assembly hall with about 50 other journalists and cameramen – located on the other side of the wall from the poor doomed cafeteria. In the front of the room sat over 100 delegates.

Three men presided from the dais and then a fourth man read verses from the Qur’an. Then du’a was prayed for the injured and the dead. On all of the tables – it was set up like what UN conferences look like on TV – there were tactfully-placed boxes of Kleenex.

There were too many empty chairs.

I grabbed a Kleenex.

The speeches – eulogies? -- were all in Arabic but even a third-grader could figure out the gist. The event had the aura of a funeral service – and just on the other side of the wall next to me, the carnage of broken tables, broken glass and broken hearts existed in mute testimony to human sorrow.

“When will mankind finally start living up to its ideals,” I had asked the English-speaking delegate, “and stop catering to our lowest emotions?”

The delegate just shook his head. “Jesus and Mohammed showed us the way. Why are we so slow to learn? Only Allah knows.”

There was another moment of silent prayer. This WAS a memorial service. Steady, Jane. Don’t start crying! Too late.

I couldn’t tell what the next speaker was saying because of the Arabic but it wasn’t hard to guess. His voice seemed to be filled with grief and it broke several times. It was the same with the next speaker. Passion and heartbreak.

Then some delegates spoke from the floor. One Iraqi newsman fell asleep. More delegates came and left. I needed to use the bathroom. But the solemnity of the occasion held strong, held me in my seat. I could wait. A nation’s heart was breaking here.

A woman delegate spoke next. More sadness.

I’m missing lunch here but this is worth it. I could always live on energy bars when I got back to the press room. This is food for the soul.

In this assemby hall are Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – and they all are getting along fine. I wonder if Prime Minister Maliki is here. “Is Maliki here?” I asked the reporter next to me. He nodded his head no. A large wreath of flowers was presented to someone and everyone stood for du’a again. And I’m here in my jeans.

When we had come into the Center, we were all investigated by bomb-sniffing dogs and body-searched too. But still and all, it’s gotta be a brave thing that the delegates are doing, to come here today.

Then about 20 or 30 more delegates arrived who had apparently not been able to get through the checkpoints until then. And a wreath was placed in the chair of the slain Parliamentarian. I developed a cough and drowned myself with water but I just couldn’t leave. The air itself was filled with courage and grief. I could always use the restroom later.

“Is this a memorial service?” I asked the reporter next to me. "No. It’s a show of defiance against the terrorists and a condemnation of carnage.” But that in itself is a memorial too.
Friday the 13th: No luck getting out of the Green Zone -- or the war

With the bombing of the Iraqi Parliament on April 12th, my thinking about war in general and this war in particular changed radically. This freaking adventure isn’t fun any more.

Be careful what you pray for. Every single day of my life, I get up in the morning and pray that I will be able to do as many good deeds as possible that day. And then I add, “And have fun doing it too.” Well, this invasion/war/occupation/police action/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Bush blunder (or whatever it is) isn't fun any more. It stopped being fun for me at around 2 pm yesterday afternoon.

I had gone to the Baghdad convention center yesterday to see if I could find my two new Parliamentarian friends. They weren’t there so I left. Had they been there, we might have talked for a while and we might still have been there when the suicide bomber blew himslef up a short time later. Apparently, he blew himself up only about three or four tables away from where we had been sitting the day before. We could have been injured or killed. But that didn’t happen. End of story.

But here is another story about yesterday – which, for security reasons, I was asked not to tell at the time. But I can tell it now. After I left the convention center, I then went over to the CSH – the Combat Support Hospital – and took a tour. The public affairs officer was wonderful and gave me a complete tour of the facility. “The wounded soldiers are medi-vac-ed to the CSH by helicopter.” Then they are triaged at the ER and sent upstairs to the ICU or the operating rooms. I met doctors and nurses and saw a bunch of stuff like the sterilization room, the blood bank and the chapel. It was a fabulous hospital. It was a great tour. According to the PAO, "Our staff is always calm, collected, professional and proficient despite whatever challenges they face." I believe it. These guys look like they are ready for ANYTHING!

At one point, however, a middle-aged Iraqi man with blood on his face came in through the front door. “Sometimes civilians arrive here for treatment,” said the PAO, “and we treat them. It’s not all that common but it does happen.” We both thought nothing more about it. Until the NEXT middle-aged Iraqi man appeared with blood on his face and hands. And then there was another. And another. Good grief! What is going on here!

“The Parliament has been bombed! The Parliament has been bombed!” someone sobbed. And then suddenly we were in the mix. The injured started pouring in. The CSH went into high gear, proving its worth once again as one of the best trauma centers in the world.

You cannot imagine the hell that ensued. Soon the corridors and examining rooms and operating theaters were filled with gurneys with bleeding Parliamentarians on them. “How many women were injured!” I screamed. “Where are they! What do they look like!” Three women were injured. I raced to look at them. They were not my friends. I was happy. Sure I was happy. But my heart was also breaking for these others.

One Parliament member, a woman, a younger woman, wrapped in blankets, turned her terror-filled eyes toward me. Her face streamed with blood. I looked into her eyes as deeply as I could and whispered, “I will perform du’a for you, Sister,” and pantomimed the universal Muslim gesture for prayer. God, I hope that my futile gesture did some good.

Doctors and nurses came and went. The gurneys piled up in the hallways. They cut the clothes off the victims. One man’s face was completely blackened from the collar-line up. I hoped that somehow it was just blackness from powder and not from burns. Another man’s hand was badly injured and laid limply on his chest while he was strapped with IVs.

And then it hit me. “War is Hell.” War isn’t some stupid little thing that someone playing at President declares (with or without the approval of Congress) so that he can fatten his Swiss bank account. War is your worst nightmare. End of story. "Lighten up, Jane."

So last night I was finally gonna leave the Green Zone and take the Rhino – and armored transport vehicle the size of a house – out to Baghdad airport and start going home. But guess what? Even THAT didn’t happen! I can’t even get to the Red Zone on my way home! I’m doomed to stay here forever. Like that old Kingston Trio song about Charlie who was stuck on the MTA, I may “never return”!

But that’s not the point. What happens to me or doesn’t happen to me doesn’t matter. What matter is this: People are being KILLED over here folks. I don’t CARE who started it. I don’t CARE who’s to blame. I don’t CARE who the good guys are or who the bad guys are. I JUST WANT IT TO STOP. To stop here. To stop in Israel/Palestine. To stop in Darfur. I want man’s inhumanity to man to STOP. I don’t want to see my friends who are American troops die. I don’t want to see my friends in the Parliament die. I want this bloody nonsense to STOP.

And violence is never prevented by the use of more violence. Never.

Last night I called a cell phone number of an Iraqi friend. “I can’t talk now,” he said. “I’m walking to my home. I can’t be heard speaking English on the street.” There you have it, summed up in a few words. On the streets of Baghdad, speaking English can get you killed. Hell, on the streets of Baghdad, ANYTHING can get you killed.

What do I propose as a solution? Edmund Burke said it best. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." There are six billion people alive on the planet today. Of all those people, surely a majority of us are not in the killing business. It’s time for the rest of us to put our “boots on the ground”. Enough! Enough killing. Enough war. It’s time for the human race to evolve.

PS: After my experience at the CSH, I started seeing the Green Zone in a whole new light. Before this, I had seen it as a small bit of America plopped down in the middle of Iraq, where you could get pumpkin pie at the dining facility and watch America’s Next Top Model on TV. Now I see that it too is a war zone and that every day people here also deal with the ever-present possiblity of sudden death.

PS: I got some schemes up my sleeve to get out of the Green Zone. I could always say something in my articles that are against the ground rules and then they would throw me out – but I don’t want to do that. I could develop a mysterious disease and get med-evac-ed out. I could go on strike and walk around the press room with my fist raised, chanting, “Attica! Attica! Sal si Puedes! We shall overcome!” Or I could whip out my REAL secret weapon – my dirty laundry. I could stop taking showers and keep wearing yesterday’s clothes. That oughta do it.
Sadr City: My fall-back date to the prom

After being stuck in the Green Zone press room for more than a week, I was starting to feel like a real wallflower. Nobody loves me! But when the Iraqi Army boldly asked me out to the Red Zone prom, you can imagine how I felt! At last! A chance to get dressed up in my very best Kevlar! And maybe even get driven in a chauffeured limo Humvee!

But then I got stood up.

No tour of Baghdad for me. No going to the Red Zone accompanied by the most popular date in town. Rats. And the Iraqi Army didn’t even call me back with some lame excuse. Not even, “My mother needs me to help her with the housework.” Humph.

So I called up everybody I knew of any influence over here and begged them to get me to the Red Zone. I tried to call General Petraeus but his line was busy. I even called CNN. “Sorry, Jane. No tour of the Baghdad hot spots for you.” And there are LOTS of hot spots in Baghdad right now. Lots of action. And here I am stuck in the press room in my nightgown and bunny slippers.

So I pouted and moped around the press room and made everybody around me so totally miserable that I finally decided to go for a walk. And guess what? The freaking Iraqi parliament was meeting right next door. Forget about my prom date! This story was hot!

“Pardon me, do you speak English,” I asked two female parliamentarians who were sitting around the cafeteria during a lunch break. They did. One was an attorney and the other was a university professor. And they were ready, willing and able to talk!

“The main thing we want right now is security," said the lawyer. “Right now there are no jobs, our schools are weak and there are military in the roads. Our lives have been stopped. We want to be able to safely walk on our streets without the presence everywhere of tanks and the military -- like any other community would want.”

“At first, when the Americans first arrived,” said the professor, “we had hope. Now there are no hopes.” She couldn’t understand why the Americans invaded. “For money and power?” In the beginning thetwo parliamentarians had been against Saddam. “But now we prefer him to America, who caused this terror. They are the invisible hand behind the terrorists. They pushed the terrorists to do it. However, now we cannot tell the Americans to go away until they help to subdue the Al Qaeda, terrorists and Baathists that the Americans caused as a reaction from the occupation.”

“I want the American people to know the truth,” said the lawyer. “You cannot believe what the media says. Most of them lie. There have been many more than 3,200 soldiers killed here – because they do not count the..." Her English faltered here and she stretched to try to find the right words. "...mercenaries.” Hummm. “In Basra, Americans released criminals from the jails.” "Over a million Iraqis have been killed. And there are three million refugees."

“We want the government to be strong, not weak,” said the professor. “The presence of U.S. soldiers here weakens the government. Maliki is okay – but he hasn’t any real authority." Then a debate ensued between the two parliamentarians regarding whether U.S. troops should stay and help the government or get out now. “All the problems come from them. Maliki doesn’t have any real authority.” Both agreed on this point. “Americans put their noses into everything here. They claim this is a democracy but it is not.”

“Tell me about the status of women now,” I asked. Both women were wearing black abayas over their clothes.

“It is the same for women now as then.” The lawyer shrugged. “They need to pump money into the schools, electricity, hospitals and roads.”

I also asked the parliamentarians about Islam. “Muslims have big hearts," the professor replied. "They have good manners, character and patience.”

“Americans in America can’t understand what has happened here because they do not understand the culture of our community. We have endured four wars and they have hurt the country. All of them were caused by the Americans. Iraqis are cleaver and understand what is going on. They know who is responsible. Bush needs to stop being crazy.”

I asked the parliamentarians if they personally had been affected by the invasion and occupation. They had. “Six members of my neighbor’s family were killed and my daughter was injured in an explosion. What America is doing is against the UN. And the UN is supposed to defend any country that is occupied. Why are they not defending us!”

“They recently killed a ten-year-old boy who was throwing stones,” added the professor. "Fallugah was destroyed. And Najaf and Sadr City. They were attacked for no reason.”

Regarding the terrorists, both parliamentarians agreed that, “Everyone knows that with their high technology, Americans could stop the terrorists – but they don’t.”

At this point I told the parliamentarians about how I was having so much trouble getting out of the Green Zone. “No problem,” said the professor. “Leave it to us. We will ask the [city council?] if you can come with us and we will give you a tour of Sadr City.” Really? Fabulous! Let’s go right now! “Sorry. We cannot go right now. There is a parliament meeting!” Oh. Right. I forgot. But can we go tomorrow?

PS: Last night I gave up my seat on the "Rhino" armored bus to the Baghdad airport because the Iraqi Army had sweet-talked me again. "We will embed you tomorrow," they said. Ha! Stood up once more.

PPS: At a press conference yesterday, an American general actually said with his mouth, "Death and violence is bad enough in Iraq without outside influences." During the Q&A, I asked him about this again, just to make sure that I had actually gotten the quote right. He said that I had. However, I think that HE was referring to Syria and Iran.
Tales from the Press Room: Camping out with journalists in Iraq

Here I am sitting around the press room in the Green Zone, waiting to go out into Baghdad and find some STORIES. And then suddenly it occurred to me that there are about 25 really interesting stories hanging around within ten feet of me here, just waiting to get discovered. Your fearless reporter Jane is on the job!

I'm typing this from inside a room the size of a large trailer -- actually it sort of IS a large trailer. There's a table for this computer, a table for food, some hook-ups for laptops, four sets of bunk beds, two couches and eleven cots. Journalists are typing, sleeping, eating Cheerios, sorting through their dirty laundry, chatting and shrugging into their Kevlar to go out on an embed.

"Is there any coffee left?" Yes. And a box of Girl Scout cookies too.

"Where are you off to today," I asked a journalist from Finland.

"I'm gonna spend another day at the Combat Support Hospital." He and about three other journalists spend a lot of time there. Apparently, it's like Gray's Anatomy -- so many doctors, so many operations, so many stories. "You see a lot of tragedy there but the hardest to deal with are the children. Yesterday there was a four-year-old Iraqi boy with shrapnel in his abdomen. My son is that age. It really got to me."

Some journalists come rushing into the press room with blood on their khakis, muttering something about having just been missed by a mortar round or having just witnessed a firefight. And some journalists seem to be very reserved and quiet about their accomplishments -- storing up their energy between grueling assignments out in the field.

Another journalist was on his way to embed in a western province today. "I've been following this one GI all through his training in the states and now I'm going to fly out to interview him here in Iraq." That's a lot of effort to put into a story. Go you.

Most of the journalists here bring their own laptops and let me hog the only hard-drive computer. However, there was one German guy who insisted on fighting me for it and he and I would always have mock wars which usually ended with us laughing so much we forgot what we were fighting about. But then some French journalist arrived and he got really NASTY about it. "You were on that computer until midnight last night! Now it's MY turn." He's right. I've been busted. My bad.

Ten feet away from me, three Iraqi journalists and an Iraqi cameraman are sound asleep. I have so much respect for Iraqi journalists. They ask the hard questions at the press conferences, they follow the troops into the heat of battle and they risk their lives daily for stories. In the last few months, 15 of them have been killed.

Here is an example of some of their questions:

1. Is the continued use of car bombs the fault of the security forces?

2. 2000 families have moved out of Mosul because of threats. Why don't you deploy more security forces in Mosul?

3. Many ministries such as the Interior, Defense and Energy, are ineffective. What are you doing about that?

4. Americans are handing over the hot spots to Iraqi forces but the Iraqi forces are not capable of handling this....

5. Has the dialog between the [insurgent and government] parties started yet?

6. The U.S. has been waging war for four years and we still have violence and no electricity! We need more electricity!

7. There are many areas in South Baghdad that suffer terrorist attacks. Why don't you send more troops there?

8. We have noticed that the phenomenon of the militias and unidentified [groups] have come back after they have adjusted to the new security conditions....

9. What are the names of the terrorist groups?

10. After the fighting in Diwaniyah, are you going to supply rations and fuel? Compensation for damages? Clean up the city? Allow workers and students to go back to their jobs and schools? The whole city is suffering. What do you hope to achieve? And what about the female detainees?

Speaking of females, there are several lady journalists working out of this press room. They are fierce. They suit up, go out where the male journalists go and bring back the goods. And they do it all backwards and in high heels! (Just kidding -- that's a quote from Ginger Rodgers.) Some of them are really young. Would I want one of my daughters to be doing this? Not really, but boy would I be proud of her.

Speaking of daughters, I commented to one of the soldiers here the other day, "I am so impressed with the excellence of American troops. I haven't met one yet that I wouldn't want to marry one of my daughters." Or in the case of the female soldiers, marry my son. But he already has a girlfriend. Eat your hearts out, troops!

Down the corridor from the press room is the broadcasting booth for Freedom Radio FM. “We try to give the troops here a taste of home,” said the DJ. His little broadcast room was the size of a large closet but it was lined from floor to ceiling with CDs. “We don’t use those any more,” he said. “Now we use a database program.” Then we talked about the definition of “classic rock”.

“You mean Bill Haley and the Comets, right? Maybe with a little Elvis and some Little Richard and some of my hometown boy Johnny Otis thrown in?”

“No, classic rock is anything that was playing 20 years ago.” 20 years ago? Was he talking about Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Eddie Money and The Cult? Those guys were in diapers or not even born when Classic Rock was alive and well. Humph. But other than that, the DJ was a really class act.

About two days ago we had a “surge” of reporters. They all swarmed in, spent the night on cots and bunkbeds and the floor. Then in the morning, like the tide, they were gone. Reporters stay here from all over the world. When one guy from CNN said that his employers would pay to put him up at the Hotel El Racheed instead of here, boy were we jealous!

Then another reporter friend from the press room just e-mailed me a really great description of his day outside the Green Zone today. Here it is. Wish I could write like that!

"You should have seen it, Jane. It's called Haifa Street, but I call it Dodge City the day after. There are so many bullet holes in the buildings they are now on top of each other -- looks like some type of sick war matting. The only business that is thriving in the neighborhood is the grave marker business. Maybe you need to notify Haliburton about that. The Shia's ride through at night and shoot the place up even more. They call it the swiss cheese side of town. Who said these people don't have a sense of humor? They hoping the Sunni's will move on to where ever. Hey, Jane, have you thought about embedding with the Shia night cruisers? Or maybe the Sunni pilgrims? See, you have more chances to embed, don't give up yet. And please, stop this whining. We have a war to win here."

Hurray for reporters. They are the Fourth Estate, the true heroes of democracy! And they are totally "interesting" too.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Too much stuff: The Paris Hilton rationale for not leaving Iraq

"When I first came to Iraq," I told one of the reporters in the press room today, "my thinking was very cut and dried -- that we needed to withdraw American troops from here immediately, like, next week. But now that I've been here for a while, I've come to realize that the situation here is a lot more complex." It is VERY complex. It's time for me to sit down and really think about this. Should U.S. troops stay in Iraq? Or should they leave? At this point, it seems pretty much like a coin toss to me.

One U.S. soldier I talked to said, "I think that the situation here in Iraq is very similar to back when the mob ruled Chicago in the 1930s and the Untouchables had to go in and clean up the town. We can't leave here until we've cleaned the place up."

And another soldier I talked with agreed. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in this mission. We just can't leave right now. There'd be a bloodbath."

So I got to thinking that maybe it IS a good thing for American troops to stay here. But then I got a wake-up-call from my friend Angela. "Jane, did any of the soldiers you talked to ever ask you about what is going on in the rest of the world and why everyone -- besides Bush and the neo-cons -- wants the Americans out of Iraq? And what about torture and all? Was anyone willing to comment on that? What about the more than one million dead Iraqis -- any comment there? And what about the two million who have left the country and fled?" Good grief! I forgot about that. Am I being brainwashed over here? Am I being lured into accepting the Bush version of the occupation by all that fabulous food served at the DFac?

I need to be fair and balanced! I need to interview an Insurgent! "What are my chances of getting an interview with The Other Side?" I asked a fellow reporter.

"Just about zero. Unless you are willing to tie yourself to a stake in the Red Zone and wait to get kidnapped...." Hummm. Exactly how far am I willing to go for a story?

"What about if I go out interview an insurgent out at Abu Ghraib?"

"You wouldn't even be able to get near the place." So I settled for taking a spin around the block in a Humvee. Those things are so cool. When you are behind the wheel of one of those puppies, NOBODY gets in your way!

When I got back from joy-riding, I talked with a journalist who had been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalist extremists about a year ago and he said, "Basically those guys are psychopaths and will kill anyone who gets in their way -- Muslim or non-Muslim."

"What makes them like that?" I wondered.

"Many of them, like Saddam Hussein himself, grew up in the streets, practically feral. These guys don't want to TALK to anyone. They don't want to negotiate. Basically, they really just don't care." And we want to leave and abandon Iraq to these guys? I think not.

Then I went to a press conference held by the Ministry of Energy and during the Q&A, an Iraqi reporter stated that the people of Baghdad needed more electricity than just six hours worth a day. The Ministry's rep replied that so far, "40 of our workers have been killed, 300 have been kidnapped and 300 have been injured. Work has been abandoned because of the threats. In Baghdad it is very difficult. We are trying to establish power but our towers are being destroyed. We are working under very difficult conditions." Apparently the insurgents are targeting power stations and power lines in an effort to discredit the Multi-National Forces who are guarding them.

This information seems to indicate that the best rationale for keeping U.S. troops here is to aid in trying to bring stability to the country -- but I can't guarantee that statement to be true because I haven't been able to hear the insurgents' side of the story. So far I've attended five press conferences given by the Multi-National Forces. But have I attended any press conferences given by "Insurgents"? Nope. None. Zero, zip, nada. Humph. Why aren't THEY here in the press room giving conferences too? "We report. You decide." And boy do I have questions for them! Guys, you are missing a real opportunity here by not granting an interview to moi.

What kind of questions would I ask the "insurgents" aka "terrorists" aka "Al Qaeda" if I had the chance? First of all I'd ask, "Hey, guys, why aren't YOU trying to upgrade YOUR image? If you are serious about winning this 'war', you need to get a hot new name and maybe take out a few commercials on 'Deal or No Deal' or 'Jeopardy'. And stop blowing up all those markets and school children. It's bad for PR."

"Secondly," I'd ask the insurgents, "if the US troops do leave, will you actually be able to form an efficient and safe and organized government? Or are you guys the type who only understands violence, can only 'swift-boat' people and are at a complete loss when it comes to actually creating and building new stuff?" Well, if the insurgents ARE like that, then they need to give up their fixation with Iraq and come over to Washington DC where that kind of stuff is very popular. They'd fit right in.

Then my friend Ilene e-mailed me an article that said, "Disillusioned with their 'liberators,' many Iraqis believe that the withdrawal of the foreign troops the only solution to their trauma. 'The Americans must leave, they are responsible for the situation today,' said Mohamed Ali, an employee of the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad. 'If they go, the situation will become stable in one or two months.'"

And now that we've chatted about what U.S. troops think and what the insurgents are up to, I would also like to talk about what the average Iraqi is thinking. Are the mothers, shop-keepers, farmers and children of Iraq tired of watching armed combatants battle it out in the streets around them while they themselves are simply trying to get on with their lives? Do they simply wish that all these "Men with Guns" would simply go away and let them get back to selling their goods, harvesting their crops and trying to educate their children? Who knows? It's hard for me to get a handle on this from the depths of the Green Zone press room -- but I'll try.

Should American troops leave Iraq or not? Right now, this burning question totally occupies my mind.

My new bunkmate then argued that the troops DO need to stay, citing a point of view that she had just heard on Fox News. "We can't leave here now because we have too much stuff." Oh. THAT'S why Bush and them are staying here? Because their closets are too full and they can't fit all their junk in a suitcase? The Paris Hilton rationale? Yeah right.

To leave or not to leave? "I'm beginning to think," I told my reporter friend, "that SOMEBODY should stay in Iraq -- although maybe not US troops per se because they are the ones who caused this mess in the first place and the Iraqis still appear to be sort of bitter about that. Is there anyone else that can take over the peace-keeping operation until Iraq is stabilized? Maybe the UN?"

"That wouldn't work. I think that Iraqis would feel the same way about UN occupiers as they now do about the American occupation."

"But what if they used Muslim troops coming from outside the country? Would that be acceptable to Iraqis?"

"That tactic was tried during the first invasion of Lebanon and it didn't work either. Even Muslim troops were still considered to be occupiers." Sigh. What to do? Iraqis hate being occupied but they appear to be too factionalized to make their own selves secure -- although according to an article in The Nation by Juan Cole, "The key to preventing an intensified civil war is US withdrawal from the equation so as to force the parties to an accommodation. Therefore, the United States should announce its intention to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, which will bring Sunnis to the negotiating table and put pressure on Kurds and Shiites to seek a compromise with them. But a simple US departure would not be enough; the civil war must be negotiated to a settlement, on the model of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon."

Who knows what should happen next here in Iraq? Who knows what the right thing to do really is. The situation here is truly complex. However, if our troops do decide to leave, maybe they can hire Paris Hilton to teach them how to pack!

PS: Last night in the press room, we moved some of the cots out of the way and watched a movie called "300" on DVD. Sitting in the geographical center of Iraq and watching a movie that totally glorifies violent death was a truly bizarre experience, especially since the New York Times just reported that there have been 37 reports of violent attacks in Baghdad in just the last seven days.

PPS: I'm so totally excited! I went to another press conference today wherein an Iraqi general briefed us about the Iraqi Army's new Operation Imposing Law and, during the Q&A, an Iraqi journalist asked the general how come most of the 15 journalists killed on these missions were killed in front of the Iraqi forces. The general replied that the loss of these outstanding professionals was a great loss to Iraq. Then the general added, "When we go out on our missions, we take the media with us." Oh? Really? I wanna go!

So I am now signed up to go out with the Iraqi Army on Wednesday to cordon off and search some neighborhoods. I am totally jazzed!

Plus tomorrow I get to go to Diwaniyah to see the site of a recent firefight where 39 militia members were captured. According to the press release, "We have freed the people of Diwaniyah from the murder and intimidation that has plagued the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months." Wow! That's a great press release! How come the "Insurgents" never put out press releases like that? Here's some good advice for you, insurgent guys. "Get a new PR agent!"

And I forgot to mention that EVERYONE involved here is gleefully breaking the greatest law of all: "Thou shalt not kill!"

Green Zone Cabin Fever: Prime Minister Maliki, help help help!

Here in Iraq, there are embeds and then there are EMBEDS. I’m happily here in Baghdad, embedded in the Green Zone, but – I have yet to set foot in the Red Zone, the real Iraq. I can’t believe that I have come all this way to Iraq and will soon leave -- but will have never set foot in the Red Zone!

I woke up this morning to face yet another day in the press room. My flight leaves Kuwait International Airport on April 17. It takes four or five days to get from Baghdad to Kuwait. That only leaves me a few days to get a Red Zone embed. There’s no time left now for me to fly out to Anbar province or anything fancy but I still have time to see something around here.

Maybe I could just rent a Humvee from Enterprise and drive over to Sadr City myself? Probably not.

“I know!” I told my new bunkmate (my old bunkmate left on R&R yesterday and I miss her already). “I’ll put out an appeal to the insurgents!” The insurgents around here are all now called “Al Qaeda” so that Americans will obediently start thinking that our troops are now fighting the dudes who allegedly blew up the World Trade Center. However, this spin may backfire on its spinners because on September 11, 2001 there were NO Al Qaeda in Iraq and currently, thanks to the miracle of re-naming and the leadership skills of George W. Bush, there are now hundreds of thousands of Al Qaeda in post-invasion Iraq. Someone has indeed blundered and it wasn't our troops.

“I’ll ask Al Qaeda for a 24-hour ceasefire," I said, "so that I can go out and tour the city!”

My new bunkmate shuddered. What kind of a person was she sharing her trailer with now? “No, Jane. No. Definitely not.”

“How about that I appeal to Muqtada Al Sadr? He’s planning a day of protest this week and has put out the call for people to go out into the streets of Baghdad. I'm a person. And I wanna go out into the streets!”

“No, Jane. That’s not a good idea either.” I liked my old bunkmate better. She was more game.

“Then what about asking Prime Minister Maliki?”

“Hummm. Maybe. It might be good publicity for him…. Women safe on the streets of Baghdad and all that, now that the Joint Security Stations are forming up all over town...." Works for me. Plus maybe I’ll get a free lunch.

“There’s no free lunch in America, Jane.” William Burroughs was right? “And there’s certainly no free lunch in Iraq!” Unless of course you own stock in Halliburton….

Okay. I got a plan. “Dear Prime Minister Maliki: Please give me a tour of the Red Zone sometime between now and April 11. I’d prefer to see Sadr City but will settle for the Palestine Hotel. Yours very truly, Jane.”

PS: I just heard that President [sic] Bush is planning to send four brigades of National Guards BACK to Iraq – guys who have already been over here once, twice or three times. Looks like someone in Washsington DC has blundered – again. And, as usual, it isn’t our wonderful Light Brigade troops. How ironic it is that I WANT to get out into the Red Zone and these guys are being sent here instead, even though they have served their country faithfully and well time and time again already.
Make War not Love: Sex & the City (of Baghdad)

“I’m SURE there must be an equal number of men and women in Baghdad,” I told my bunkmate, “if we could only figure a way to match them all up”. Let’s see. There’s all the Iraqi women who have almost no chance of finding a husband because so many Iraqi men have been killed in the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and George W. Bush's current pet project. These women have as much chance of finding a husband as the women of New York City – where rumor has it that there are six women to every man. These Iraqi ladies could use!

Then there are the guest workers. They come here and work for peanuts and leave their wives and sweethearts back home in Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, etc. These guys are desperate for female companionship., where are you when you are needed the most!

Then there are all those poor lonely far-from-home security guards. Most of them come from Peru. How in the WORLD can you snag a girlfriend in the Green Zone when you need a translator to ask for a date? This is a big problem, folks. I recommend trying And for the Georgian security guards, there's always that old standby,

And what about our troops? Many of them have wives and husbands back in the states. And of course they are all staunchly faithful, but you know they gotta be hurting. And I’m really impressed by all the young male and female troops who work side by side together daily in a professional capacity without crossing over the line. No is going to keep them from performing their duties. Good job!

And what about all the old folks, the geezers and the little old ladies like me over here? Hook us up with ASAP! We don’t have much time left to fart around.

Sometimes the repressed sexual tension in the air around here is so palpable you could almost cut it with a knife. Let's do something about that!

At this point, however, my bunkmate, who herself is a hottie and never has to worry about this sort of thing, made an attempt to change the subject to something more intellectual but I was on a roll. “If we can only get everyone in Iraq who is lonely, horny and/or unhappy properly matched," I pointed out, "then everyone here will have better things to do than constantly trying to blow each other up.” Not to mention that it might cut down on the insurgents’ (excuse me, they are now being referred to as "Al Qaeda" even though they are not) ghastly new technique of using chlorine gas to eliminate other contestants playing The Dating Game.

Currently, I am living in the Green Zone press room (I still haven’t gotten embedded) and the chances of me getting out into Iraq proper to start playing Cupid are just about nil. For instance, today I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk. In order to walk around the neighborhood, I had to pass through a bunch of checkpoints, go through several body searches and convince a handful of contractors, lots of Iraqi policemen, a group of Peruvian security guards and more than a few Georgians that I was not a terrorist. “I’m not a terrorist, guys. Honest. I’m just trying to find the press room again. I’m just LOST.” But nobody believed me. Hey, guys. Do I look like an evil-doer? Are these beady eyes? Don't answer that.

Even though the soldiers, security guards, policemen, body-searchers, passport-checkers, and MPs are totally wonderful and totally nice and totally doing a fabulous job and I just love them to pieces, their presence here in the Green Zone does give it a touch of “flava” reminiscent of East Berlin circa 1955.

So it looks like the Iraqis, Americans, contractors, Peruvians, etc. are gonna be making war and not love for a little while longer – at least until I can follow Cupid's example and figure out a way to sprout wings -- and to smuggle in a bow and arrow!
Dear US embassy: This is just a draft. I haven't sent it to my editors yet. If there is anything in it that violates the press ground rules, PLEASE let me know!

Message from the Green Zone: Humpty Dumpty was here

I’m tired of being in Iraq. I’m tired of facing tragedy here day after day. This country is in trouble. This country is screwed.

I’ve been in Iraq for a week now and already I’m ready to go home. Everywhere I look, there is tragedy – tragedy for the Americans, tragedy for the Iraqis. This country is like Humpty Dumpty. It’s a freaking broken egg. And nothing the Americans or the insurgents or the thugs or the Iraqi government can do will put it back together again and make it back into an egg.

So. If you can’t put the egg back in its shell, what CAN you do? Make an omelet? Sure. But even if you make it into the best omelet in the world, Iraq is still gonna get all eaten up.

“There you go again, Jane," said that voice in back of my brain, "playing Little Ms. Smarty-Pants. If you are such a know-it-all, then what would YOU do?” That’s simple. That’s easy. That’s a no-brainer. I’d stop trying to put the freaking egg back together. I’d even stop trying to make deviled egg sandwiches. I’d go back to the freaking CHICKEN that laid the freaking egg and start all over. That’s what I’d do.

Yesterday we visited an Iraqi bakery that makes fabulous bread. As we poked our heads over the counter in curiosity to see how the bread was made, we saw stacks of flour stamped with the UN logo, a huge mixer for the dough and six or eight young men kneading the dough and shaping it into loaves. Then the dough was laid out on long wooden boards and shoved into a kiln. The air smelled like hot fresh-baked bread. Heavenly.

And in the back of the bakery was an open door where I could sort of make out a very small room stuffed with three-tiered bunk beds. It had holes in the ceiling and it looked like the last time it had been painted was back in the days of Adam and Eve. “Who lives there?” I asked my guide.

“The men who are making the bread. They live there.” You’re kidding me! Let’s talk about this. Here we are in a country that has the second largest oil supply in the world lying under its feet and its citizens are living like THAT? Huh?

If I was in charge of the Iraqi chicken, here’s what I’d do: I’d get Exxon or Bush or whoever owns Iraq's oil money now to give every man, woman and child in Iraq $15,000 and a passport and tell them to get the hell out. I’d send them off to the country of their choice. Tahiti, Iceland, Venezuela, wherever -- even America! And I’d make sure they also got $15,000 a year for the rest of their lives. Let them open bakeries in Cleveland! Everyone would be happy. The Iraqis would be happy. The American troops would be happy. Even Exxon would be pleased. And then we could start all over again in Iraq with all new people.

PS: The only person who would be unhappy about this arrangement would be George W. Bush. The man thrives on chaos. My plan would have no margin for chaos. This would make George Bush sad.

PPS: Whenever a country is run by a dictator or there is a war or children are spanked when they are tykes – or there are too many re-runs of CSI – then you will always find violence. After decades of British subjugation and years of being bullied by that idiot Saddam, the last thing that Iraqis needed was more violence and more war. This is why the egg cracked. And this is why, in my estimation, there is so much violence there now. One can NEVER stop violence by the use of more violence. Ever.

Sorry, guys.

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun: Highway Baghdad revisited

Since I’ve been staying here in Baghdad's Green Zone, an old Bob Dylan song keeps running through my head -- “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”. Did I ever tell you that one time I actually MET Bob Dylan? It was at some folk music dive in Greenwich Village in 1965 and he was sitting at the bar with John Lee Hooker. Bob was so CUTE! But back then, even I was cute.

My friend Stewart Nusbaumer just arrived in the Green Zone. “You know, Jane,” he told me, “I agree with what you said about Kevlar body armor being too cumbersome. American soldiers have become just like those medieval knights who became obsolete because they couldn’t move around any more.” Nice analogy. Thanks, Stewart.

Today there was a press conference given by General William Caldwell. The good general told us in detail about how American troops, working in tandem with Iraqi forces, are going to make the people of Iraq feel more secure because now there will be a whole bunch of soldiers and/or policemen on every street (or else it might make them feel more like they are living in a police state, depending on your point of view). “And as the people of Iraq gain confidence in their protectors, they will take the law less into their own hands.” And, apparently, as more and more Iraqis learn the joys of turning their neighbors in to the police, more and more democracy will come to Iraq.

One of the soldiers here had told me earlier that Gen. Caldwell was a good guy and that I should go easy on him during the Q&A. So I did. “Speaking of democracy,” I said, ”last November Americans in great numbers voted for candidates who would bring our troops home. A majority of Americans want our troops home. What can we do to get that process started ASAP?" How easy-going is that!

“Democracy is good for debate," replied General Caldwell, “but what is NOT debatable is our commitment to Iraq. Every day we are putting more boots on the ground, strapping up and going out to protect the people of Iraq.”

When I heard that statement, I freaked. “Good grief!” I exclaimed to poor Stewart. “That general just told the American people to go screw themselves!”

“Not necessarily,” Stewart replied. “Sometimes there is a disconnect between what America thinks and what the military THINKS that America thinks. Sometimes the professional military just gets isolated from what the rest of America is thinking.” Oh.

Then my bunkmate jumped into the fray. “You gotta realize, Jane, that the military takes its orders from its Commander-in-Chief, not from Congress. That’s the law. So until Bush decides against the war, the military has to implement HIS strategy.” Yeah, but...don’t you have to be legally elected to the presidency in order to become Commander-in-Chief? But I digress.

And another thing that bothered me about that press conference was that apparently every insurgent in Iraq is now being collectively called “Al Qaeda”. The word “insurgent” didn’t come up once at the press conference. Not even once. But we heard the words "Al Qaeda" about 85 times.

However, my bunkmate then changed the subject by dropping a bomb shell -- almost literally -- when she announced, “I almost got mortared when I was out in the Red Zone today. And it really made me angry! I only have one day and a wake-up call standing between me and leaving Iraq. How dare they!”

Then a member of the International Zone military police patrol came by and asked me if I wanted to drive around with him for a while and get another tour of the Green Zone. Sure! First we drove around for a while to see if we could catch some speeders. Then we drove past the construction zone for the new American embassy. “It covers 15 square acres.” It was HUGE.

“But if this is the Green Zone, then what is the Red Zone,” I asked.

“The Red Zone is everything in Iraq that isn’t in the Green Zone.” Oh. Then we came to the Tigris River. The Tigris! Wow! The Cradle of Civilization! “This is the 14th of July Bridge. This is where the bodies of people who have been executed by the death squads wash up – it’s not a pretty sight. But the river itself is lovely.” We stopped and I got a photo of me and the Tigris River, with the Palestine Hotel on the opposite bank. Then I saw my first Bradley tank. I want one! But I bet the gas mileage sucks eggs.

We did some more MP-type stuff but nothing exciting. We didn’t get to stop any speeders or catch any crooks. Then we went back to my little trailer home in the Green Zone and ate hot dogs for dinner.

To quote Bob Dylan, “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home. All your reindeer armies, are all going home.” Except for General Caldwell's army, which apparently plans to be here forever. And except for me. I’m still waiting for an embed.