Sunday, August 31, 2008

Exponential happiness: McCain, Obama, Chekhov & my 93-year-old aunt

"Oh, I could never vote for Obama," said my 93-year-old aunt.

"Why not?"

"Because he's too inexperienced."

"But what about Biden? He's had experience."

"Oh, I can't stand Biden."

"But," I argued, "McCain doesn't appear to be able to control his temper. Do you really want someone like that in charge of the Red Button? And Palin has zero experience either."

"Actually," said my aunt, "I'm not planning to vote for anyone this year. Why should I? I'm 93 years old. What do I care about what happens next?"

I was shocked. "But what about the next generations? What about them?"

"Our generation lived through the hell of the Great Depression and World War II -- and we survived. They'll figure out some way to deal with it. We did. Whatever happens next just isn't my problem."

Then I watched a video ( about how to get over fear of flying. "First," said the video, "you need to realize that everything on an airplane is always completely and continually checked and double-checked for safety. And every system and all equipment also have backup mechanisms in case of failure, and then there are three more backup mechanisms built into every system after that." Or words to that effect. I wasn't taking word-for-word notes.

But if they can build airplanes that way, why can't they build voting machines like that too? Not to mention governments.

"Second," continued the man in the video, "when you realize how the human mind works, you can see that people get anxious exponentially and that their anxieties build up after the fact. During a real crisis, one doesn't get anxious. One just acts." But after the crisis is over -- like with PTSD -- only then does one build up anxiety in one's mind, in retrospect, piece by piece -- until the accumulated anxieties get out of control.

Well. If we humans can get anxious exponentially, then why can't we get happy exponentially too?

What would make me happy? Living in a world where we have leaders who are smart enough to avoid spending over half of the planet's wealth on weapons!

How can I reach that level of happiness exponentially? Good question.

At the housing co-op where I live now, I've spent the last 15 years watching our Board of Directors serve their own financial self-interests instead of the co-op's best interests. So I sued the bastards. And lost. So I sued them again. And won. And yet when it came time to vote to fix our leaking roofs at the last Board meeting, the Board was actually going to vote to NOT fix the roofs -- apparently to save themselves having their rents raised.


But then apparently someone on the Board actually seemed to remember my lawsuits -- and the Board then actually voted to fix the roofs! Boy, was I happy. Happiness begins small and then expands.

The women of Afghanistan organized locally against the Taliban. The Continental Congress organized locally against the British. And Jesus organized locally against hypocritical religious leaders. The moral? One by one, if we work at it really hard, us "meek" people of the world can exponentially organize to inherit the earth.

That would make me VERY happy.

Or else, like my 93-year-old aunt, we can just leave our messes for the next generation to deal with.

PS: Speaking of organizing the world locally, I just went to a lecture on Anton Chekhov. The man was born into brutal poverty in pre-revolutionary Russia, became a doctor despite his hardships, wrote some of the world's greatest literature, set up over a hundred free clinics during a cholera epidemic while making over 500 house calls simultaneously, did all of this with a bad case of tuberculosis and died before he reached age 50.

If Chekhov can accomplish that many good deeds even during his short lifetime on earth, surely we who now have the opportunity to live to age 100 and beyond can try to do at least half as much.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The $2,685 sweater: When did it become cool in America to pay $2,685 for a SWEATER?

I got bad knees. So I decided to do something about it and go have my knees checked out by a specialist. Finding a specialist who would see me and convincing my health insurance to cover the cost took me over a year but it finally happened.

"Jane, you have a lack of cartledge in your knees and you need to have physical therapy," my specialist told me. Great. More healthcare paperwork to endure. It then took me another three months to get the costs of my PT approved -- but I'm tenacious. So today I went in for my first session. And forgot to put a book in my purse. I never go anywhere without a book in my purse. Grocery lines, waiting rooms, taking public transportation? You gotta have a book in your purse!

So in the waiting room of my physical therapist, I had nothing to read. What about "People Magazine"? Nope, they didn't even have that. But I'm a reading junkie. Other people may only have to eat and breathe, but I gotta read too. Moving my eyes back and forth across a page full of words has a hypnotic effect on me and always calms me right down. It's better than Valium. Or even Ambien.

Then I spotted something hidden over in a corner of the waiting room -- a copy of "Town and Country" magazine. Good grief! The people who inhabit the pages of "Town and Country" live in a whole different world, a whole different UNIVERSE from you and me.

Can you imagine paying $2,685 for a SWEATER? Or $3,491 for a pair of SHOES? Or a $15,000 outfit? That you only wear once? They even had a freaking TENT for sale to put in your back yard -- for $25,000. A TENT?

Is this what our brave soldiers in Iraq are fighting for? So that some rich war-merchant's wife will be able to buy a $1,273 scarf?

I wouldn't even know what to do with a $2,685 sweater. Perhaps one could sell it for enough money to feed an African village for a year? Feed an average American family for several months? Hang it in a museum?

Or use it to pay for 25 sessions of physical therapy...or even to make a down payment on a new set of knees!

Horny old man: Could Sarah Palin actually be THAT desperate?

I just got an e-mail from my friend Joe Thompson. Joe used to work in the Louisiana oil patch back in the day and has apparently seen it all. "Jane," wrote Joe, "You aren't the only one shaking your head over John McCain's choice of a running mate. From my point of view he is a horny old man, who selected a horny young woman and intends to screw America all the way to the White House and beyond."

Whoa, Joe! You gotta stop thinking like that! You're a Democrat. Democrats fight fair. Making nasty innuendos and spreading disgusting rumors is Karl Rove's job. You're out of your league.

Then I got an e-mail from my friend Hanna. "C'mon, guys," she wrote me and Joe. "Nobody would actually voluntarily touch that repulsive old geriatric case John McCain .... not even Palin... for a Vice Presidency ... would she?"

Perhaps Palin might not eagerly jump at the chance to become John McCain's next Cindy -- and I bet that even Cindy herself is currently letting said opportunity slide (perhaps she's too busy right now mourning the fact that Austin Kutcher is married?) -- but I imagine that there are whole bunches of desperate octogenarian ladies living in rest homes in Florida who still think that John McCain is a BABE.

PS: I myself, while still only a sexagenarian, am not especially attracted to the Republican presumptive candidate for President -- but give me 20 more years and maybe even he will start to look good. In the meantime, I'm leaving on Wednesday to spend a week in some unnamed Asian country that is currently totally out of favor with McCain's neo-con clique, so if John wants to name ME as his vice president and offer some hanky-panky on the side too, he's gonna have to track me down there.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ah the life of a Reporter: McCain tried to kill me & Obama doesn't want me backstage!

[Photos are of the Alegio chocolate shop in Berkeley (the place where I get my best flu medications), some of the hundreds of the private jets lined up in Aspen while their owners went off to hear John McCain speak -- photo courtesy of Karen Day -- and proof that I'm not wealthy enough to get credentialed for the Republican convention -- sorry, I don't have a maid.]

It's hard being a reporter. You always gotta be coming up with hot stories.

The highlight of my life as a journalist so far -- aside from the time I missed getting blown up in the Iraqi parliament by mere minutes, the time the Red Army tried to arrest me in the middle of the Yalu River, the time I almost got trampled to death in Mecca and the time in Hebron when irate Israeli settlers threatened me with Kalashnikovs, etc -- was when John McCain lied to a bunch of us reporters at a press conference in the Green Zone, telling us that it was safe to walk around the streets of Baghdad. I keep telling that story again and again. It's become my granddaughter's favorite bedtime story. "If I had listened to John McCain," I always tell baby Mena, "and followed his example and gone into Baghdad myself, your poor sweet grandma would probably be dead right now!"

That's a heck of a story -- that America's current Republican presidential candidate actually tried to kill me? What could I possibly write about to top that!

Of course, I could always write about how I am now suffering from a horrible case of the flu after returning from my fourth-and-a-half trip to Iraq -- but no one wants to hear about that. Eckhart Tolle is always telling us to "live in the Now". Yeah, right. YOU try living in the Now when you're down with the flu. I hurt too much to live in the Now. At this point in time, all I wanna do is go off and live in the Past -- preferably the pre-George W. Bush past. (Does that make me a Conservative?)

I had hoped to find something to write about at the two national political conventions, but that idea fell through. I applied to get credentialed to cover the Republican convention in Minneapolis in September but, honestly, why would the Republicans want ME at their convention? I hate George Bush. He's a liar and a crook. And John McCain? That man tried to KILL me. Why would I want to write anything nice about him?

Not only that, but most of the really juicy McCain stories have apparently already been written. For instance, there's that one about him using Ambien to help get to sleep at night -- yeah but. If our John becomes the President and is off in pharmaceutical dreamland at 3:00 am, will he still be able to wake up in time if he needs to press the Red Button? Yawn.

Then there's the story about McCain having PTSD, left over from his POW days -- that would have the opposite effect. What if he got hit with another one of those flashback nightmares at 3:00 am, walked in his sleep and pushed the Red Button while thinking it was the call-button for room service at the Hanoi Hilton!

And several people have already written up that story about how the Veterans Administration has certified McCain as being 100% totally disabled, opening up the distinct possibility that he might croak at any minute, which would leave America with only his vice president in charge -- probably still Dick Cheney.

And of course there's the seven-houses story and the one about him cheating on his loyal and faithful first wife, but those have already pretty much been done to death.

What could possibly be the big story that the Republicans in charge of credentialing me for Minneapolis might be afraid that I would scoop? I bet it's the one I could score if I was actually allowed to get a good look at McCain up close. Then I could write an article about their presidential candidate's many face-lifts. Hey, no worries there! I got nothing against face-lifts. I want a face-lift! But of course my big question there would be, "Will the Israel lobby or the weapons manufacturing lobby or the pharmaceutical lobby pay for mine too?" Not hardly.

According to Sterling Greenwood of the Aspen Free Press, McCain's backers are so wealthy that when they came to Aspen to hear him speak, their Lear-jets caused a traffic jam out at the airport! "One limo driver told the Aspen Free Press that there were 200 private jets parked at the Aspen airport, but officials only would say that the figure was less than 150." Sorry. I don't own a Lear-jet. So my idea for getting a hot story out of the Republican convention is toast.

Then I got all hopeful that I could get a story out of the Denver convention and so actually paid $25 to enter that contest to go "Backstage with Obama". But that didn't happen either. Sigh.

Maybe I could convince some members of the RNC and DNC's billionaire base -- all those obscenely wealthy weapons manufacturers who seem to LOVE the war in Iraq and appear to be gleefully looking forward to the next wars in Afghanistan, Georgia, North Korea and Cleveland -- to donate funds to my PayPal account (go to and type in so that I can hire a blimp and report the news while flying over Obama's acceptance event at Invesco Field in Denver or over the convention center in St. Paul-Minneapolis, while a huge sign saying "Goodyear" flashes on and off over my head. But that's probably not going to happen either. Why would billionaires want to donate to ME? I don't even have a seat in Congress.

So. Where in the world am I going to get my next big story from? Who knows.

As I was bicycling through Berkeley the other day, I passed a newspaper stand with a headline photo of a group of middle-class Americans trying to break into a bank to get their money out before it was too late. I was so shocked that I almost fell off my bike. Good grief! "Bank run!" screamed the headlines. I could write a story about that....

According to ABC News, "The worst of the global financial crisis is yet to come and a large U.S. bank will fail in the next few months as the world's biggest economy hits further troubles, former IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff said on Tuesday. 'The U.S. is not out of the woods. I think the financial crisis is at the halfway point, perhaps. I would even go further to say the worst is to come, he told a financial conference. 'We're not just going to see mid-sized banks go...'"

Can you believe that major banks in America are actually in danger of failing? Maybe there's a hot story there.

Or maybe I should just give up trying to scoop the world's next catastrophe. Maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe America doesn't NEED any more hot stories.

Maybe America just needs to bring all her troops home, elect honest men and women to our government, enforce our Constitution, throw all Constitution violators and self-interested lobbyists in jail, concentrate on rebuilding our decayed infrastructure, use our creativity to invent new ways to stop global warming, buy products at home instead of buying everything from abroad, stop handing out corporate welfare to the rich hand-over-fist, and start taking care of business in our own back yard right now -- while we still can.

Nah, that wouldn't be a big story. No one would want to read about that.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The new Spartans: Dealing with the results of a militarized America

  • (Photos are of me returning from Iraq -- and the first thing I noticed after arriving in SFO was the Starbucks and how LARGE Americans have become while I was gone. Also, I now actually have roses in bloom at my new apartment after my daughter Ashley took care of them for me while I was gone. Wow!)

Here I am -- once again stating the obvious. I keep going over this same PowerPoint presentation again and again and again -- but nobody seems to be getting it.

"America can't afford any more war."

So what has got my knickers in a twist this time? Well. Recently, the Taliban (yes, that Taliban) attacked an American military base in Afghanistan and apparently kept our guys under siege from 4:00 am in the morning through most of the rest of the day. Nine US soldiers were killed.

"But, Jane," you might say, "war is like that. And the Taliban were repulsed eventually. So what's the big deal?"

The big deal is that the Taliban are still trying! Don't these guys ever give up? Apparently not. So the US military has just sent a whole bunch of Marines and stuff off to Afghanistan and is currently training whole battalions of them here at home to follow those later. And in addition, during The Surge we sent a whole [boat] load of soldiers and Marines off to Iraq to augment the ones who were already there. That's enough money and troops to keep America's military over-stretched and bogged down for years and years to come.

But our vast military commitments don't just end there. Now we've also got that whole mess in Georgia, where our troops and financial resources are currently engaged up to their eyebrows in bringing in "humanitarian" relief -- causing Russia to get totally pissed off at us because Washington is flaunting military posturing within miles of its borders and Putin is threatening to start up the Cold War again -- which gives Washington an excuse for committing to the added expense of money and troops necessary to build a huge anti-missile defense system in Poland.

Plus we have to be prepared for other long-range financial and troop commitments as well. China is currently battling us in a surrogate situation in Darfur. And we have all those troops in South Korea just in case North Korea decides to get uppity. And our military is currently spending many billions of dollars to equip and train soldiers to be ready for attacks here at home. And then we have Israel, America's mini-me, who is always threatening to bomb the heck out of Lebanon, Syria and Iran -- so multiple billions of our tax dollars have to go toward propping up that ally, so it can afford to maintain its current "bantam rooster" cock-of-the-walk posture in the Middle East, a posture that would deflate like a balloon if US taxpayers ever stopped supporting its strut.

And then there's South America, which is now in total revolution against multiple generations of American economic domination -- except for Columbia, a country where Washington spends billions each year bailing them out. And then there's....

You do the math.

Our soldiers are supposed to be holding down the fort here in America, fighting insurgents in Iraq, dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan AND also be taking on Russia, China, South America and Iran? Yep. That's the plan. And not only that but we American taxpayers are supposed to pay for all this too. And we ARE paying for it -- at the expense of healthcare and education and infrastructure repair. Which causes Jim Grant of the Wall Street Journal to ask why Americans continue to put up with this unbalanced and unstable situation. "Why no outrage?" he asks.

Paul B. Farrell at MarketWatch has the answer to that one. "America's economy is a war economy. Not a 'manufacturing' economy. Not an 'agricultural' economy. Nor a 'service' economy. Not even a 'consumer' economy. Seriously, I looked into your eyes, America, saw deep into your soul. So let's get honest and officially call it 'America's Outrageous War Economy.' Admit it: we secretly love our war economy. And that's the answer to Jim Grant's thought-provoking question last month in the Wall Street Journal -- 'Why No Outrage?' There really is only one answer: Deep inside we love war..... Why else are Americans so eager and willing to surrender 54% of their tax dollars to a war machine, which consumes 47% of the world's total military budgets?"

The current economy, culture and philosophy of America today, following a pattern once set by the ancient Greek state of Sparta, now appears to completely revolve around "war" -- and Americans seem to like it that way too.

But at the rate that things are going with regard to America's current love affair with war, this passionate relationship is both unstable and doomed. It cannot last forever. And we are going to be in big trouble really soon if we just continue to sit back, go along for the ride, and watch America's economic and physical resources continue to melt away right before our very eyes -- like some military-industrial complex Wicked Witch of the West.

At this rate, I'm thinking that if John McCain wins the presidency in November, he's better be ready to go back into uniform -- because America is going to need every soldier it can get! And Obama? "Barak, you'd better start packing for Boot Camp." Every man-jack in this country is gonna have to strap one on and lock and load at the rate things are going now.

"But Jane," argued a journalist friend of mine, "you've got it all wrong. The corporations that control the decision-making process in Washington make their money by selling weapons and provisioning wars. They just want to make money off the military. They don't want to actually go out and conquer countries and stuff. That would force them to deal with the HUMAN factor. I think they would prefer it if we just gave them money to spend on manufacturing missile systems that don't work, dreaming up Star Wars-type fantasy projects and creating fabulous new sci-fi secret weapons that no one will use -- and letting the messy stuff slide."

But the journalist also brought up another interesting point. "Right now, nearly the entire US military is either in Afghanistan and Iraq or going to or coming from those two mouse-sized countries. And, according to some, nearly the entire military machine is stretched as tight as a rubber band ready to snap. And we are going to need a lot more rubber if the powers-that-be plan to keep stretching the machine. We will need to either re-start the draft -- or to leave Afghanistan and Iraq."

I agree.

For these reasons alone (not to mention that war is also morally wrong), whoever is running the show in Washington needs to chill out regarding the wars that they have already started and also to stop starting new wars -- wars that will involve using US troops. Can't we just GIVE our money to weapons manufacturers, packing it up in neat little bundles and sending it off to the military-industrial complex straight from the mint? Cut out the middle man? Because if we don't, America is gonna end up becoming the new Sparta -- brave warriors to a man, but with no backup plan for anything else.

PS: Paul B. Farrell's article continues to list examples of our "War Economy" situation and, judging from what he says, it looks like we are ALREADY giving weapons manufacturers tons of money -- directly from our treasury to them:

"America's war economy has no idea where its money goes. Read Portfolio magazine's special report, "The Pentagon's $1 Trillion Problem.' The Pentagon's 2007 budget of $440 billion included $16 billion to operate and upgrade its financial system. Unfortunately 'the defense department has spent billions to fix its antiquated financial systems [but] still has no idea where its money goes. And it gets worse: Back 'in 2000, Defense's inspector general told Congress that his auditors stopped counting after finding $2.3 trillion in unsupported entries.' Yikes, our war machine has no records for $2.3 trillion!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Report from Iraq # 11: Wherein 25 Iraqi journalists invade my bedroom & I meet an admiral

(Photos are of Admiral Jawad, the naval press conference at CPIC, and some sand and McMansions in Kuwait)

After getting only three hours sleep the night before because I had to take the Rhino armored bus convoy in from Camp Stryker in the middle of the night, I woke up the next morning in the Green Zone in a bunk bed in the press room at the Combined Press Information Center, tired and hungry. "Got any breakfast?" I asked the sergeant on desk duty.

"Would you like some Cocoa Puffs?" she replied. Er, no thanks. "But lunch will be ready in about an hour." So I went back to the media room where I had set up a bedroom behind a blanket hung over the top of my bunk bed, and crawled into bed to wait for said lunch. But then suddenly the entire media room began filling up with Iraqi journalists.

"There's going to be a press conference here at 2:00 pm today," said one of the reporters. "An Iraqi admiral will speak." Cool. You learn something new every day. I didn't even know that Iraq had a navy.

Then another Iraqi journalist helped me get my thumb-drive's USB port to upload my photos and we got to talking. At first I completely hogged our conversation, telling him all about my family and stuff and how my middle daughter had just e-mailed me that I was a bad mother. Huh? It's not like she's still in diapers or nothing. She's practically middle-aged herself. She needs to get over it. It's not like she needs me to be back home to be reading her bedtime stories or watching Libra get evicted from Big Brother 10.

But then it suddenly hit me. "Here I am in Iraq, sitting right next to an actual real live Iraqi journalist! This guy must have seen it all. I should be interviewing him!" So I did.

"I'm currently working on an article about the Baghdad electrical system," he told me. "In some areas of the city they only receive electricity for one hour a day." I imagine that it's hard to keep ice cream cold in the refrigerator that way -- to say nothing about running the A/C. Then we talked for a while about the problems of getting the local power stations up and running. But what I really wanted to grill this guy about was how he felt about Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's current prime minster.

"What about Maliki?" I asked. "What can you tell me about him?"

"He pretty much has to do what the Americans tell him to do," said the journalist. "Plus there are Iraqis who he respects who come to him and ask him to do things that he doesn't want to do -- and he has to do them anyway because he respects the requesters, if not the requests." And apparently Maliki, like Karzai in Afghanistan, is more powerful in the capital than he is in the provinces.

Then I tried to take a nap before the press conference started but it was no use. "We have you signed up for the Rhino again tonight," said one of the CPIC press coordinators. Not ANOTHER night without sleep, I groaned to myself. But I was still glad that I had come to the Green Zone -- if for no other reason than to meet 25-plus Iraqi journalists, right here in my own, er, bedroom. Theirs is an extremely risky occupation and I admire them a lot. They do everything else that all the rest of us do -- plus they do it all in Arabic as well!

Then the press conference began.

"This day commemorates the 72nd anniversary of the Iraqi Navy, founded in 1937," said the moderator. Then an Iraqi admiral was introduced and a British navy dude too. The Brit was wearing tan camos. Hmmm. How come Navy camos are tan? If they were truly meant to camouflage anything out on the ocean, shouldn't they be done up in blue? Or green at the least.

"90% of the oil exported from Iraq goes through its ports, so the Navy is obviously important," said the admiral. And the British captain said that the Iraqi navy is being totally renovated and that the renovation is being financed by the nation's oil wealth. "The British are in charge of training young Iraqi naval officers." And apparently the US navy is involved in the training as well.

One journalist asked about the current state of the navy's vessels and also about its conflicts with Iranian vessels. "We have a small number of boats now," replied the admiral, "but we are planning to increase equipment and crews in phases. International companies will receive contracts for our new boats. But we must also have trained crews. As for the trespassing issue, we have had no assaults; only trespassing fishermen who are respectfully returned to their own waters."

I wish I could have asked a hot-spit question myself, but even though my father had been the head of the fleet post office in Occupied Japan after World War II and thus, theoretically, I should have salt water running through my veins, I just couldn't think of any -- except of course for the one about the navy's choice of designer colors for their camos -- so I kept my mouth shut.

"The Iraqi navy deals with smuggling and terrorism," said the British captain, "but the British navy is responsible for protecting oil interests." Did he really just say that or did I misunderstand?

Apparently the Iraqi navy recruited their crews from non-Baathists at first but now they recruit from everybody. There are 1,900 personnel now -- aiming for 2,000 by the year 2010. "But we are aiming for quality rather than numbers," said the admiral. Then the moderator told us about an Iraqi naval lieutenant who had just been presented with the prestigious "Queen's Binoculars Award" -- and that was the end of the press conference.

Now let's talk about sleep. A three-hour nap is totally priceless at this point and that's what I got this evening, before popping back on the Rhino to Camp Stryker sometime after midnight. It seems all of a sudden that three hours of sleep will keep me going for days.

While camping out in the CPIC media room, I also met an American journalist who was working for a well-known conservative magazine, and he kept arguing about the glories of capitalism and the Surge. "Hey, I like capitalism fine," I replied. "Too bad it hasn't been practiced in America for the last 40 to 60 years."

And of course he asked what I thought that we WERE practicing. "Welfare for corporations. American corporations receive all kinds of welfare. That's not very conservative, is it now? Plus according to a recent GAO report, 80% of them don't even pay taxes." If I had been home in Berkeley, I coulda whipped out my 1996 Intel clone, googled Wikipedia and hit him with the facts:

"The label of corporate welfare," says Wikipedia, "is often used to decry projects advertised as benefiting the general welfare that spend a disproportionate amount of funds on large corporations. For instance, in the United States,
agricultural subsidies are usually portrayed as helping honest, hardworking independent farmers stay afloat. However, the majority of income gained from commodity support programs actually goes to large agribusiness corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland, as they own a considerably larger percentage of production. According to the Cato Institute, the U.S. federal government spent $92 billion on corporate welfare during fiscal year 2006. Recipients included Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, and General Electric."

Then me and the conservative journalist started arguing about Georgia. "Bush and them rigged the so-called Rose Revolution elections back in 2004 and Georgians were then stuck with some weird loose cannon president who loved to bait Russia."

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

But other than his Fantasyland belief that neo-cons are actually conservatives and not just crooks, the guy was really nice and we bonded a lot over having to endure the Rhino ordeal-by-sleep-deprivation together, arriving back at Camp Stryker by 2:00 am. By 3:00 am, I was busy plotting how to get out to the Baghdad airport and get on Space-A for a C-130 flight to Kuwait. Then I would have 24 hours at the US airbase there in order to do laundry and get bug-bite medication before taking a bus to KWI and flying to Frankfurt the following night.

In the meantime, I kept complaining about my bug bites. "Oh, I bet you have Leishmaniasis," said the conservative journalist.

"What's that?"

"It's a disease spread by sand flies. You'd better get it treated over here because no one back in the states knows how to deal with it so you will end up itching for the rest of your life." Now there's a grim thought.

The conservative journalist also told me that he had been to Haifa Street in 2003 and 2004. "It's really different here now. The whole way soldiers operate is different." Yeah. That's my point too. Now they use carrots instead of sticks. Carrots work better. Too bad Rumsfeld and Brenner didn't figure that one out back in 2003. We could have saved hundreds of billions of dollars, approximately a million lives and a whole bunch of grief.

"But you can't say that the Surge isn't working!" said the conservative journalist. So I won't. But mostly what is happening here in Iraq today seems to be the result of the Iraqis themselves saying, "Enough killing!" Or maybe it was because I came over here back in 2007 and gave them all a good talking to. Could be. I gots the motherly touch, even despite what my middle daughter thinks.

But the way I see it about the Surge is that it did help somewhat -- but the bottom line is that 30,000 more US soldiers aren't going to make that big of a difference in a country full of 25 million Iraqis if said Iraqis don't want a difference to be made -- and if the US militray's policies hadn't changed. And even I have to give General Petraeus snaps for that. He took our policies here out of the Washington salons -- where it is all too easy to just give orders to drop more and more bombs -- and started working the streets instead.

It's 5:00 am now (again). Everyone else in the entire world is asleep. Where the freak is my bus to the airport!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Leaving with honor: My 12th and final report from Iraq

After waiting around for most of the night at a bus stop at Camp Stryker, I finally made it out to BIAP (the so-called Baghdad International Airport -- consisting of a whole bunch of porta-potties, lots of blast walls, a few Quonset huts and a handful of tents). By the time I arrived, it was five in the morning and everyone there was dog-tired so I huddled down next to a small airborne Army unit that was waiting to go home on R&R and we all tried to catch some sleep. Have you ever tried to sleep on a hard-as-a-rock cement apron next to some blast walls without pillows or blankets and surrounded by soldiers, backpacks and Kevlar? Forget it. I read a book.

The guy next to me also gave up trying to sleep and squatted over a drain grill to shave himself, using bottled water and no mirror.

"So that's how this man's army manages to stay clean-shaven," I joked.

"Hey, this is better than in the wintertime," the soldier replied. "At least the water is warm." Which reminded us that the sun was about to come up and cause us all to be very hot once again. And then the guy on the other side of me pulled an electric shaver out of his gear.

I'm too tired to come up with an analogy between men and women getting up and getting ready for work in America and men and women getting up and getting ready for work in Iraq.

"You know that there's a DFAC right down the road," said the shaver. A dining facility! I'm there. And the sign at the DFAC read. "Dear guests: Upon hearing unannounced explosions or rocket whistling, drop to the ground. DO NOT wait for giant voice announcement to react!"

By 11:00 am, I was lucky enough to get a C-130 flying Space-Available back to Kuwait, and of course once I arrived at the American airbase there, I went straight to their DFAC too. I love DFACs. You don't have to cook. Or do dishes.

While I was happily eating my pot roast, mashed potatoes and salad at the DFAC, John McCain came on the wide-screen TV and started talking about solving our energy crisis by building "45 nuclear reactors". What? Does McCain even realize how crazy that sounds? 45 more nuclear reactors would create enough radioactively-contaminated waste water to kill every man, woman and child on the planet approximately ten times over. That's a rough estimate but still....

On the other hand, maybe McCain is on to something here. If we're all dead, then we won't be making all that many energy demands, the amount of oil we have now will last us forever and we will never again have to be afraid of the words "Peak Oil". We'd be dead.

Then I went off to find a tent to stay in while waiting for my visa to come back from the Kuwaiti government -- you need to get a visa in order to enter Kuwait when you fly in from Iraq -- and took a short nap on a real bed with real sheets. Then I popped off to the medical clinic here on the airbase to have my bug bites checked out. This is the third time that I've staggered back from Iraq all broken and they've patched me back up. "I may have caught Leishmaniasis," I whined.

"Leishmaniasis is a very serious infection and we don't treat it without extensive tests first. But if it migrates to your liver, you could die." Yeah. but then I'd get to write a heck of an article about it first!

"Here's some Calamine lotion. Give that a try." So now I'm all bright pink and look like I just got back from Girl Scout camp with a case of poison oak.

At one of the soldiers' recreation and welfare centers back in Iraq, I had picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle's book, "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose," which is highly recommended by Oprah's book club. I thought it looked a bit New Age to be reading on Army bases because of its numerous anti-war quotes -- such as, "These days you frequently hear the expression 'the war against' this or that, and whenever I hear it, I know that it is condemned to failure.... War is a mind-set, and all action that comes of of such a mind-set will either strengthen the enemy, the perceived evil, or if the war is won, will create a new enemy, a new evil equal to and often worse than the one that was defeated.... Beware of making it your mission to 'eradicate evil' as you are likely to turn into the very thing you are fighting against."

However, much to my surprise, several different soldiers came up to me and said, "Hey, I see that you are reading Tolle too," and "I've got all of his books," and "He really knows what he's talking about." Good. Maybe Eckhart and Oprah will finally be the ones to succeed in putting an end to war. I'm down with that.

I also talked with a reservist about what will happen next for him, after he gets out of the service. "The new GI bill is a step in the right direction," he said. "It gives vets a $1,200 living allowance to go back to school with. That's good. But to qualify for it 100%, you need to have been on active duty for five years AFTER September 11, 2001. Which means that the time that I served in the Gulf War doesn't count and I have to stay over here one more year in order to qualify."

One of the main reasons that this reservist is over here is economic. "If this job disappears, I don't know if I can find another one."

"Yeah, but..." I said, as we stood chatting in the chow hall of a military camp that must have cost ten billion dollars to build, "all that military money could have been used to employ people to stop global warming or build hospitals and schools. You guys are intelligent and well-trained. You could have done that instead. You guys could do anything." Plus all that money spent on the last five years of constant warfare hasn't bought America any more safety at all. In fact, it is the general consensus that America is far less safe now than it was even right after 9-11. Heck, even as we speak, those [leaders] in Washington are hinting around about starting a nuclear war with Russia! How safe is that?

Plus when the spit really hits the fan ecologically and our planet turns into deserts, we are all gonna be smacking our foreheads and saying "Doh!" just like we were all Homer Simpsons. "Doh! Why did we spend all those resources on war! We shoulda spent them on soil conservation and alternative energy." Not that those would be Homer's words exactly -- but even he would get the drift.

Getting back to the reality of what Tolle describes as living in the NOW, here's my plan: Tomorrow I will take a bus into Kuwait City, board United Airlines flight 8743 to Frankfurt and then spend the next 24 hours watching inflight movies and waiting between flights. So. Before my brain goes on strike again, let me summarize what I have learned in Iraq. "If our troops pull out now, we will be leaving with honor...."

Another thing to consider regarding having our troops leave Iraq now is that those [leaders] in Washington have just gone out of their way to make an enemy of Russia and Russia has a lot of oil and Iran doesn't like us either and Iran has a lot of oil. Plus China and Europe are looking to buy oil from Russia and Iran -- and Iraq -- and because they too have been antagonized by the threatening and bellicose attitude of those [leaders] in Washington, they are pretty much going to jump at a chance to use euros and rubles instead of dollars to buy oil. And if this happens, America's economy will probably eat dirt and we won't even be able to AFFORD Iraq any more. In this case, then our ability to "Leave with honor" right now might be a good thing.

And as for myself? Right now, I feel like I've lost something important over here, but I don't quite know what. I gave this trip to Iraq everything I had, put every ounce of my entire heart and soul into learning as much as I could about the situation here and trying to write about it in a manner that would allow people back in America who have never been here to actually get an idea of what it is like -- and now that I've got no heart and soul left, I still have to endure yet another 24 hours of fear of flying. Again. Was this trip worth it? Who knows. If I can in any small way effect America's ability to see that both the foreign and domestic policies of those [leaders] in Washington are hurtful, expensive, scary and wrong, then this trip will have been a success.

And let us also hope that I can still somehow manage to not get bitten by any more bugs or get lost in the next 24 hours, make it to the Kuwait City airport in one piece, get myself and my luggage onto Flight 8743 tomorrow night and "Leave with honor" myself.

The scariest thing that I've seen in Iraq so far? CNN!

(Photos are of me trying to fall asleep across the road from the Rhino bus stop, trying to fall asleep at the Baghdad airport, Baghdad and a section of the Great Wall of Baghdad from the air, and the inside of an MRAP)

After getting all lost in Baghdad, I finally made it to the Green Zone around 5:00 am. Someone came out from the Combined Press Information Center, picked me up, drove me back to CPIC and gave me a place to sleep -- a bottom bunk in the media room.

I am so completely fouled up and drained and exhausted from lack of sleep that I have no confidence left. "Everything you have ever written is trash!" proclaims my brain. "Nothing you've ever written or done matters." So what if I think that the Army is composed of good guys? The fact remains that I am now staying in a country that has been mercilessly and needlessly invaded, bombed and destroyed at the will of America's so-called commander-in-chief. And yet on CNN last night as I was watching TV while waiting for a Rhino up-armored bus convoy to take me to the Green Zone, Bush had the audacity to accuse RUSSIA of the crime of invading a sovereign nation. Apparently George Orwell was spot-on when he wrote, "Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth." Does no one on CNN have any memory of what went on here in Iraq -- just five short years ago?

In low, hushed tones like carnival hypnotists talking to their shills, the newscasters at CNN spun us an elaborate web of deceit -- about how John McCain was a great war leader -- yeah right. The man has proved again and again that he has NO judgment when it comes to deciding when and when not to release the dread Dogs of War. "But I supported The Surge," he cries. Yeah but. If you'd done your homework in the first place, John, we wouldn't have NEEDED a surge.

According to analyst Brent Budowsky, "The Bush and McCain obsession with Iraq and Iran has not only done grave damage to our military force structures and deterrent, they have warped our international policy, endangered our national security and created a crisis of inattention from Pakistan to Russia that makes the world a far more dangerous place."

Further, according to Think Progress, "...a new analysis by Open Secrets finds that the U.S. military is increasingly rejecting McCain as its spokesman. Obama has received
nearly six times as much money from soldiers deployed overseas. Even anti-war libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who has suspended his campaign, has received more than four times as much [from deployed soldiers] as McCain."

Then the hypnotists at CNN went on and on about John Edwards' affair, not even mentioning that McCain had apparently been committing adultery with young Cindy-the-beer-heiress long before he filed for divorce from his wife who had stayed faithful to him for the entire time he had been a prisoner of war. Is that affair ever going to be discussed on TV too? Or is history being ignored here as well.

At 3:00 am, stranded at the military equivalent of a Greyhound bus depot and in a depressingly sleepless state of mind after watching CNN verbally pat Bush and McCain on the back again and again, the only thought running through my brain again and again was, "America is screwed."

And this thought was followed in quick succession by, "Jane, stop pretending that there is anything you can do about it."

No matter how many times I pop off to Iraq to see what is actually going on over here and no matter how much I proclaim how efficient and honorable our military is, our soldiers are still following a leader in Washington with blood on his hands. And they will soon follow yet another leader with blood on his hands -- be it McCain or even Obama -- into a grim future that appears to be offering Americans nothing more than an endless stream of unnecessary wars which in turn will lead to economic devastation as well. And is there ANYTHING I can do to stop this horror movie from unfolding? No.

Further, while our American military now has the awesome and incredible battle capability to be able to attack almost the entire world on both land and on sea, our military can do nothing to prevent America from being defeated in our most vulnerable place -- our bank vaults. According to news analyst Mike Whitney, "...will [Medvedev and Putin launch a military attack on Georgia or will they] launch an asymmetrical attack on the fragile US financial system by selling all $50 billion of their Fannie Mae mortgage-backed bonds and all of their US dollar-backed assets while refusing to sell oil or natural gas in any currencies other than rubles and euros. Such an announcement could send the dollar crashing and the Dow Jones into a death-spiral. Why would Putin use a blunderbuss when a flyswatter will do just fine."

As I see it, bin Ladin himself hadn't been a big enough military threat to justify the expense of corporatists in Washington shelling out billions of dollars in taxpayers' money on buying every weaponry gadget ever invented. So the guys inside Washington's beltway upped the ante and the war on Al Qaeda upgraded into the "War on Terror". Still not scary enough? Apparently not. So they added weapons of mass destruction and the war on Iraq to the list.

But as our armed forces continue to do their work well in Iraq and this "war" continues to wind down, what will the corporatists do to justify their next $100 billion allocation from Congress? Hmmm. There's the war on Iran waiting in the wings. Whew. But now Russia is offering America's corporatist weapons manufacturers what amounts to their ultimate nirvana short of resurrecting the Third Reich -- the grand possibility of starting the Second Cold War.

And with enemies as daunting as Russia (and possibly combined with Iran and China if the corporatists get lucky), the sky's the limit for America's military budget. Plus here comes the end of any hopes we might have harbored in our bosom of stopping global warming and starting the evolution of human kindness and the re-birth of the human soul.

The bottom line here is that the corporatist weapons manufacturers and their main Bush/McCain supporters seem to want a military solution to EVERYTHING. And so, judging from what I had watched on television at the Rhino bus stop somewhere south of Baghdad at 3:00 am in the morning, does CNN. Now THAT'S scary!

With that thought, I finally fell asleep.

Then some people started talking in the media room and woke me up. I peeked at my watch and groaned. 8:00 am. Three hours sleep. Again. And what's ahead of me now? Four grueling days of transit -- first to the Baghdad airport, followed by a C-130 flight to Kuwait and a trans-Atlantic flight to California that will last forever. And all for what? All for nothing. Nothing that I can possibly write about my experiences over here will ever be able to stop the avalanche of war happening back in Washington.

Sure, I made a few deep and lasting friendships over here, witnessed pain and recovery, saw mankind at its best as lotuses once again started to grow out of the mud (or in this case out of sewage ponds) and rode around in MRAPs with soldiers of honor. But what good is all this new hopefulness really going to do us if Americans continue to be hypnotized by the evening news into continuing to support politicians who willingly allow us to continue to fall off the cliff again and again -- into even more Iraqs, even more Vietnams, even more Rwandas, Mogadishus and failed states?

I've got nothing.

My children and grandchildren are screwed.

I need more sleep. Or at least to eat breakfast.

Ready & Forward: Going on patrol with 10 Cav and getting lost again (My report from Iraq, Pt 9)

(Photos are of an abandoned photograph of an unnamed graduating class, some places we visited on patrol, Admiral Jawad, the Great Wall of Baghdad, my room with the 10 Cav Buffalo Soldiers whose motto is "Ready and Forward," Alex the gunner and some chai.)

It's showtime again. Today me and a 10 Cav platoon from JSS Karbdegla are going out to a COP (combat outpost) in Saha to join up with another platoon and then we're going to hang out on the main market street in Abu D'Shir.

"How can you spend time with those murderers and then actually write nice things about them?" someone e-mailed me today, referring to American soldiers.

"As far as I can tell after actually being here," I replied, "the situation now just isn't like that. But that's why I'm over here -- to find out what it's really like in Iraq. And what I have discovered so far is that most Army guys have honor, have character, are idealists like us. Honest. They really are." But the US military is being used and abused by the corporatists in Washington -- just like most of the rest of America is. But. The big test lie ahead for the US military (and of course for the American people as well.) If the Bush/McCain/corporatists once again send our "cavalry" off to fight in yet another unjust war -- one of a long series of unjust wars that have been stirred up by those who ahave discovered that their profits sky-rocket in time of war -- and then the "cavalry" goes along with the plan....

The main test of our soldiers' idealism, character and honor will be if our military once again blindly follows the corporatists' orders with out doing their research. If Bush or Cheney or McCain orders our military to attack Iran...or Venezuela...or Russia...or San Francisco, where will these honorable men and women draw the line?

Now we're driving past miles and miles of blast walls again. There must be a million blast walls in Baghdad. It's like visiting the Great Wall of Iraq. Where the freak do they get all that cement?

Then we arrived at the COP, constructed out of three or four former McMansions that used to belong to mid-level bureaucrats in Saddam's government. It is the usual combination of Army kitch and Iraqi-ness. And the person in charge of first aid here checked out my bug bite and gave me some hydrocortizone cream. "Come back if it starts abscessing," he said.

"Do you think it was a spider bite?" I asked. A tarantula? A scorpion? A three-horned alien? Hey, this is Iraq. Anything's possible.

While we were waiting around the COP for the patrol to begin, I checked my e-mail. "Mom, I'm having a mini-breakdown," wrote my daughter Ashley. "I miss you! Plus I have a bug." What kind of a bug? A scorpion? A tarantula?

Now it's time to hurry up and wait. We're supposed to go out to the markets but today nobody seems to be in any hurry. Me neither -- except that I need to catch a helicopter to the Green Zone at 3:00 pm. So we sat around and talked about the Olympic games -- they are on every TV screen all of the time here -- and where soldiers would go during their leave. Mostly they would be doing family stuff like taking the kids to Disneyland. A lot of these guys are family men. Rats. I can't find any recruits to come home and marry my daughter.

Then we popped into an MRAP. "Hi. I'm Alex. I'll be your gunner for today."

Alex used to be a punk with a Mohawk. Now he is a family man. He showed me a photo of his daughter. Total cuteness! "She'll be one year old pretty soon. I've only seen her for a total of 25 days." Again and again I keep hearing about how hard it is to be separated from family for at least six months at a time. Another guy I talked with had five children. Another one had three. Someone else told me that his divorce papers had just come through.

I just realized that for the past four days, I'm one of the only women I've talked to. There was a physicians' assistant at the JSS and that's about it. She was a Stanford graduate but don't tell no one form Berkeley that I wore my red Stanford T-shirt today just for her. But the strange thing about living without women is that one doesn't miss them. Don't tell nobody I said that either.

"You hungry?" asked the gunner. I'm always hungry. So the MRAP went over to the drive-through at Camp Falcon and we got chicken, french fries and Gatorade.

Then we rolled over to Abu D'Shir -- Shia territory. "How can you tell?"

"See those images of the Prophet's grandson Ali painted on the walls? That's how."

First we stopped by a doctor's home to give him a mini-grant. "I need some new stethoscopes and a blood pressure machine."

"How is healthcare in Iraq?"

"Expensive." Apparently, the private hospitals here are good but cost a lot more than the state-sponsored ones. This doctor volunteers in a clinic every morning and then sees five to ten private patients in the afternoons. His wife served us chai. I love Iraqi chai!

"Did you go to the university?" we asked the doctor's oldest son.

"No. I couldn't afford to. I had to drop out and work. None of my family will be able to afford to go to university." I wish we could give scholarships and mini-grants out to students as well as to small businesses.

What do I mean "we"? It turns out I was wrong about this money coming from America. The mini-grant money we give out comes from the Iraqi government. "Why is that?"

"I think it's because Iraqis trust us to be impartial," a soldier replied.

After the doctor's wife served us chai, we met the rest of the family and then went on to the next task -- giving a mini-grant to a man who ran a carpentry shop.

Then someone from COP Comanche came to pick me up from downtown Abu D'shir and haul me off to meet my helicopter ride up to the Green Zone.

"I want to tell you why I'm here," said the officer from COP Comanche. "We were out on patrol in our battle area back at the height of the violence when a smiling young girl came over and stood next to me. 'Why are you smiling,' I asked her and she answered, 'Because I know that for the next 20 minutes I will be safe.' That really got to me. And also around that time we were looking through an abandoned home and found an old-fashioned family portrait lying in the dust. And later that day we found a mass grave for that entire family, buried in their own front yard."

I sort of shivered. While prowling through an abandoned house the other day, I too had found a photograph of what looked like a class photo from some university graduation ceremony. I wonder how many people in that photo are now dead, killed in this war.

Back at the 10 Cav JSS, everyone came to say goodbye to me at the landing zone and I left on the chopper. "I miss you guys already," I cried. Then we flew off to the Green Zone but guess what? I swear that, while totally strapped into a freaking helicopter driven by experienced pilots, I STILL managed to get lost!

When the helicopter landed, I got out, waved to the pilot and mouthed "Thanks!" over the rotor-blade noise. Then I walked off to the terminal. "Welcome to Camp Liberty," said the flagman. Camp Liberty? What?

And this is the reason that I'm now sitting at Camp Stryker at 2:00 in the freaking morning waiting for the freaking Rhino to drive me across Baghdad in an armed convoy in the dead of night instead of being happily tucked into my soft little bed in the Green Zone right now. Am I pissed off? You cannot even begin to imagine. The freaking helicopter guy put me off at the wrong stop.

So here I am, red-eyed and freaked out, sitting around the Army equivalent of a Greyhound bus station, trying to stay awake by playing about a hundred games of solitaire.

I'm too old for this.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Jane Stillwater, Cache Raider? (My embed report from Iraq, Part 8)

I arrived at the Karbdegla joint security station yesterday night and had trouble sleeping due to multiple insect bites, so by the time I got to meet with the colonel in charge, I was still beau-coup sleep-deprived. But the colonel was an eye-opener and well worth paying attention to as he described his area of control here in the West Tigris section of Baghdad and his future hopes for that area. I wish that people in America could hear men like him talk. They would get an entirely different -- and happier -- picture of how our troops in Iraq are trying as hard as they can to build up Iraq's economy, security and infrastructure right now. They are not just all trying to play at being Chuck Norris and kick down a bunch of doors.

"Our immediate goal is to implement security and to help the local people in as many way as we can," said the colonel. "We're looking to create durable security -- security that will last even after our troops leave."

Then I asked the colonel if the national postal service was functioning here yet. He laughed. "Everyone here uses e-mail, internet cafes and cell phones." He said. "But the big change in Iraq now was that the Iraqis had gone to the edge of the cliff, looked over the edge, seen themselves turning into another Rwanda or Mogadishu and pulled back. No one wants to go back to fighting."

"So what will happen next? Will the Iraqi government step up to the plate?"

"No one knows right now. A lot of people complain about the government. But at least they feel safe enough to complain."

Next I met with a captain who served as a liaison between the US Army and the local councils. "Of course some of the people we deal with here are not to be trusted," he said, "but many of them are true idealists who really care about their community and country." He too had hopes and dreams for the future of Iraq and was not only conscientious in working toward making his ideals into reality but he was extremely good at his job. Plus he was only 28 years old. I was impressed.

"I run two types of operations here -- kinetic and non-kinetic --and they are not mutually exclusive. We run them both at the same time." He uses both military and non-military solutions. "We work with educational institutions, local politics, infrastructure and various other people-focused operations. And at the same time we are also tracking down criminals, gathering intelligence and processing detentions. But we haven't kicked down one single door since I've been here."

The captain and I also talked about how many of the local professionals have fled the area. It would be as if the American hometown where you came from no longer had most of its doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. because they had all suddenly left.

The rest of my talk with the captain was very interesting and productive. I'm ashamed to say, however, that I forgot to take notes.

Then me and everyone in the platoon I was assigned to ate some plastic pizza, jumped into some Strikers and went out on patrol.

At the first home we stopped at, the young mother who lived there asked us to help get her husband out of jail. Apparently his brother had been mixed up in some shady business and when the police came for the brother, they took the husband away instead. His wife was desperate. The dread Ministry of the Interior was mentioned several times. The wife had no idea what to do next. Neither did we.

Then we went to another house, which was abandoned. "What happened?" I asked a neighbor.

"The husband was a doctor and he was shot and killed by...." By who? I missed who. "We guard his home against squatters and terrorists now, but no one in his family is ever coming back."

As we walked through the abandoned home to make sure that no one was using it as a safe house or a cache dump, I saw a few remnants left lying around from the time that it had been somebody's home -- a stuffed child's toy, a flaming red Victoria's Secret-type female undergarment and an old group photograph stood out in the dust.

Then we went to another house to question someone who had seen a suspicious black Toyota lurking about. One of the soldiers, an ex-police officer, pulled out his notebook and went into his police-interrogator/CSI mode, taking down info for a police report. "When was it that you saw this car? Who was driving it? Have you seen him since?"

"I reported this because I'm afraid that something bad is going to happen in this neighborhood now," replied the witness. "I think the driver was AQI." That's Al Qaeda-Iraq, the local Al Qaeda franchise branch.

Then we went to another home and visited a very nice family. The grandmother was religious -- but in a good way. She practically glowed from the effects of being so wise and kind. And there was also a one-month-old baby who looked at us like she was the wisest person in the world.

Then we talked with another woman who refused to wear hijab -- a headscarf -- out in public. "One AQI man started to give me trouble about that, but I just yelled at him so much that he gave up."

The AQI's support system in this area is definitely threatened right now so the big question here is, "Will they strike back?" People are worried. But it hasn't happened so far.

Next house. "Did you hear about the guy who just got chopped up?" No! We gossiped about the Sons of Iraq, the AQI and various other good guys and law-breakers for the next hour. Then the soldiers in my platoon started planning a raid on a bad guy's house. If they did it tonight, I could come! "Jane Stillwater, Cache Raider".

"The problem here," said the head of our platoon, "s that people will turn other people in -- not because they are guilty of crimes but because someone doesn't like them or wants their job...." Or even is having a bad hair day.

"One thing that amazes me over here," commented the policeman, "is the small amount of evidence that the Iraqi police require in order to arrest people. You need to build a lot stronger case back in the States." I thought about that poor woman's husband and nodded. Then we headed back to the joint security station, a job well done -- for now. Would the bad guys be back? Sure. But they'd be weaker and fewer in number, thanks to my platoon.

Am I over-glorifying the work our troops do here in Iraq? I don't think so. GWB should never have started this "war" in the first place. But he did. And now our soldiers are doing a good job cleaning up his mess.

PS: The next big question here is whether or not our troops will be as willing (or even as able) to clean up after GWB once again -- if he tries to create another mess like this in Iran.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dear Abby: I'm over here in Iraq.... Part 7 of my Iraq embed report

(Photos are of a weapons cache, the phone call center at COP Guerro, my suite at the Camp Falcon Hilton, an MRAP, the rural part of Karbdegla, the former meat-packing company where the Tenth Cav has their JSS and a little boy we met out on patrol)

As the sun set this evening, I left Camp Falcon in the company of my next embed unit and headed out to spend a few days at the Karbdegla joint security station in the West Tigris area. West Tigris is a combination of urban areas and farmland and of Sunnis and Shia. Our JSS is located right in the middle of the mix, in the administrative building of a former meat-packing plant.

After a 20-minute ride in an MRAP, I got settled in my room and sort of collapsed. It's been an intense seven days since I left SFO on August 2 and the jet-lag and lack of sleep has finally caught up with me. The soldiers here are all very nice and were giving me lots of helpful information about their mission, but my mind just kept drifting away. There's just been too much input to absorb since I've arrived here and it's gonna take me months to digest it all -- but I only have a few days left before it's time to go home and I still have so many unanswered questions left about Iraq that I think that my next article should be called "Dear Abby...."

[My apologies to the ghost of the real Abigail Van Buren for this satire. The real "Dear Abby" is not now in Iraq -- although maybe she should be!]

Dear Abby: What really happened at Camp Falcon back in 2004 when it allegedly blew up?

Dear Explosive: According to the official sources I talked with at Camp Falcon, you've got the dates wrong. It was 2006, not 2004. Wise up. And what apparently happened was that a stray mortar shell hit an ammunition dump inside the wire and then went ker-BOOM. Miraculously no one was hurt. And no, you may NOT have a mortar round to take home with you.

Dear Abby: I'm a journalist and I came to Iraq to report on weapons-cache discoveries in Baghdad. So far, I haven't seen any. Do you think I should try to make a fuss?

Dear Fussy: What are you THINKING? You want to go looking for mortar rounds? Why! Get a life.

Dear Abby: What is your opinion of the new MRAPs? They look top-heavy and unstable. Riding in them feels like you might be starring in "Tokyo Drift" at any minute. They look like someone crossed a freight train with that Swiss Family Robinson tree house at Disneyland. According to MNFI recent press releases, there's been several "non-combat-related" deaths recently -- possibly caused by MRAPs? And what if I'm in one and need to get out and the power has failed and I can't get the door open. What should I do?

Dear M-Rapper: My advice to you is to stay out of war zones and stick with your 1990 Toyota

Dear Abby: With this new war happening between Georgia and Russia, will the Georgian troops stationed in Iraq now go home? And does this mean that Bush, Cheney and them are trying to get us into another Cold War with Russia?

Dear Ray Charles: You got to much Georgia on your mind. Move back to Chechnya.

Dear Abby: I'm out here in the West Tigris section of Baghdad in a joint security station with the Tenth Cav Buffalo Soldiers, and there isn't any running water. How will I brush my teeth?

Dear Bad Mouth: If you went over to Iraq expecting the Hilton, you're expecting too much from a war-battered country. Give it time.
Both the Americans and the Iraqis are working on establishing indoor plumbing and it will probably happen within the next year or so. But in the meantime, man up and use Perrier.

Dear Abby: Someone just e-mailed me that it was wrong to force the Iraqis to use their oil money on reconstruction. "You are making an occupied country pay for its own occupation." he said. What do you think?

Dear Occupied: I think we need to do whatever is necessary to help make the Iraqis self-sufficient so we can get out ASAP. We need to go home and start protecting our own country from those corporatist Beagle Boys who are occupying Washington DC. I just wish that Afghanistan, Palestine, etc. had oil money too so we could stop occupying them as well. Heck, I'd even like to see AMERICA become self-sufficient.

Dear Abby: When do you think the Iraqis should start paying for their own reconstruction?

Dear unReconstructed: They are already doing that. They give US troops money for mini-grants, schools, etc. and we distribute it. You got that one wrong. Pay attention!

Dear Abby: I hate to have to drink over a gallon of water a day over here. It seems like all I ever do is drink water. It's ruining my life.

Dear All Wet: In 120-degree heat, you gotta stay hydrated. When you are sweating so much that your entire color-coordinated camo ensemble is soaking wet down to your boots, just bite the bullet and suck it up. Otherwise you could get heat stroke, sunstroke, bladder infections, kidney infections, constipation, chapped lips and wrinkles. Admit it, All Wet. You just don't want to drink all that water because you don't want to have to get up in the middle of the night and stumble out to the porta-potty to pee.

Dear Abby: My girlfriend is starting to date other men while I'm over here in Iraq. Do you think that if I yell at her over the phone loud enough and long enough, it would help keep her faithful?

Dear Phone Guy: Yelling never helps anything. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And like the song says, "Try a little tenderness." And also talk glowingly about your future together, such as "When I get home we are gonna...." Help her to see what I can see about you -- that you are well worth waiting for.

Dear Abby: I have a lot of trouble sleeping at night over here. I try to fall asleep but my mind just keeps racing.

Dear Sleepless in Baghdad: There are so many urgent and important things a person can do these days to help the human race evolve -- or even just to keep the human race from driving its own-self to extinct. Spend your extra time doing some of those things. Forget about sleep. Sleep when you're dead.

Dear Abby: I keep losing my pens and have nothing to write with. What should I do?

Dear Pinhead: You suck eggs at writing. Take up gardening instead. It's harder to lose a shovel.

Dear Abby: How come John Edwards' affair made front page news but John McCain's didn't?

Dear Affairs-Seem-Stupid: How come the battle of Little Big Horn made Custer a hero? Wake up, ASS. Whoever owns the press wins.
Dear Abby: Now I gotta ask you the really hard question -- what is the time "horizon" for US troop withdrawal from Iraq?
Dear Really Hard: Troop withdrawal? Coming soon? Hardly. Rest assured that either this "war" or the next "war" or the one after that one will continue to go on ad infinitum as long as corporatists continue to make major profits off of ammunition sales. And I am glad to hear that you have already assumed the horizontal position, because, to paraphrase the words of the late Dwght D. Eisenhower, as long as war-profiteering is allowed to continue, American taxpayers will continue to get screwed.