Friday, May 30, 2008

Camping near Yosemite in the freezing rain while looking for gold: One Love, Part 2

After coming back from Iraq, all I wanted to do was to vegetate -- and what better way to do that than to go camping! But after spending almost a month in the 95-degree heat, I had forgotten that northern California is no Middle Eastern desert. It was freaking COLD up near Yosemite.

Sitting around in a Quonset hut that serves as Al Asad airbase's airport in western Iraq and waiting for my flight to TQ, I got to talking with a construction contractor on his way back home to the States.

"I've been here for four years now, overseeing a construction crew in Fallugah, but about two months ago it suddenly hit me -- that I was D-O-N-E here. Done. This is it. I've had it. I'm finished. I just want to go home." I guess at some point, even the huge sums of money that some contractors make per month stops being the overruling factor. For this man, four years was enough.

"Where are you from?" I asked out of idle curiosity, trying to pass the time between flight announcements and flight cancellation announcements due to sandstorms.

"I'm from Montana." Then he started telling me about what he had been doing back home before signing on for Iraq. "I'm good with my hands, I've been doing carpentry all my life. I can fix ANYTHING." And he had a small ranch back home too. "And in my spare time, I go pan for gold."

I want to pan for gold!

"First you've got to learn how to tell real gold from fool's gold. If it has geometric angles and corners and flat sides, then it's fool's gold. Real gold is all worn away at the corners, like stones that have been tumbled around in riverbeds for thousands of years."

At almost one thousand dollars an ounce, a piece of gold shaped like a stone works for me.

"Sometimes you can find nuggets as big as your fist," said the contractor, "but you always have to prospect where you can see black sand. If you don't see any black sand then there's no gold. And you need a pan, a vial to put your gold in and some tweezers." I guess he was assuming that I was going to find little tiny pieces of gold. If I found whole ROCKS made of gold, then I wouldn't need the tweezers. Or the vial. And probably not even the pan.

So after I flew home from Iraq, my daughter Ashley and I set off to go camping on the Tuolumne River with dollar signs in our eyes. "Pan for gold. Get rich." That was the plan.

But first we had to stop by the outlet mall stores in Tracy, just off the Interstate that bisects the Central Valley -- and two freeway exits down from In 'n' Out Burgers (they actually make their own fries right there on the premises!) Then we stopped at the big Hersey's chocolate factory in Oakdale but it was closed. Then we bought some cherries at a roadside stand and bought some gas -- $4.07 a gallon, don't get me started on that one -- and root beer floats in Groveland.

And then it started to rain. And it poured. And the temperature dropped. It looked like camping was going to suck eggs. And it did. All that night and the next day we just huddled around the campfire. And the day after that...we wimped out and went home.

"Mom, you look terrible," said Ashley. "Want to borrow my Bob Marley sweatshirt?"

Perhaps you are thinking that YOU might have a loving and caring daughter? Ha! Would YOUR daughter give up a Bob Marley sweatshirt for YOU? In the middle of a freezing rainy night? I think not!

PS: We did manage to get in approximately a half-hour's worth of panning for gold. Forget it. That guy from Montana was wrong. There was NO gold in them thar hills -- nothing but cold wet black sand.

PPS: The one thing that this camping trip taught me (aside from the lesson that there is "No Free Gold") was that if we ever have another huge depression or global cooling or ice age or anything, I'm gonna be in big trouble. I'm screwed. Without heat and electricity -- not to mention root beer floats -- I'd be on death's doorstep within hours.

How did those old-timey pioneer women ever manage to survive?

Monday, May 26, 2008

One Love, Part 1: Visiting a Combat Support Hospital in Iraq

Whenever I sit down to write something, the stories usually just seem to write themselves but that's not happening here so I guess I'm just gonna have to grind this one out the hard way -- with elbow grease. This is going to be a two-part story. Part one involves my tour of a Marine combat support hospital (CSH) at the Al Asad airbase in western Iraq. And both you and me will have to wait and see what Part 2 is going to be about.

Last October, I had e-mailed another reporter about how things seemed to be going really peacefully over here in Anbar province.

"Don't just naively believe everything that you hear, Jane," he e-mailed me back. "Before you go getting all mushy and teary-eyed about how well things are going over in Anbar, take a look at the airbase's combat support hospital -- where they bring in the casualties. When I was there this summer, all the beds were filled up with seriously injured soldiers and they lined the corridors too. Check it out."

Aha! So. They were trying to hide the true story from me, were they? No one keeps the truth from Journalist Jane! So I DEMANDED to see the CSH hospital.

"Well, sure," replied the airbase's public affairs officer. "When would you like to go? Would tomorrow be okay?" Yeah, I guess. So the next morning I stolidly set off to visit the CSH hospital -- totally prepared for the worst.

"If you had come here last summer," said the doctor in charge, "you would have seen every bed in the ICU taken and people sleeping on the floor of the operating room as well. But now? We only have 13 patients currently and most of them are Iraqis. It's been this way since September." Oh yeah? Then prove it. So we went on a tour.

"Here's the ER," said the doctor. Wow. It was super-equipped, looked as efficient and sanitary as our ER back home in Berkeley -- or better. No waiting around to fill out insurance forms here. And, unlike our ER in Berkeley, this one was empty.

"Soldiers arrive at the CSH by helicopter except when there's a sandstorm and then they are ground-evaced," continued the doctor. "Casualties first go to the triage tent where they are resuscitated and stabilized and then are sent off to Balad, Kuwait or Longsteul in Germany for further treatment if necessary. We try to med-evac them within three days. Combat wounds are usually evacuated. And this is also where we send the Angels off to Germany." The Angels? Oh. Dead soldiers.

Then the doctor showed me their MRI machine. "IED injuries usually involve concussions. We use this in order to diagnose them more accurately." I went through one of those machines once when some doctor thought I had Altzheimers. I didn't have Altzheimers, however. I'm just eccentric.

"And over here is our 12-bed ICU, with a full-time intensive care staff." All 12 beds were empty.

"And here is our general surgical ward. 20 beds." I saw a couple of Iraqis and their families and also one American soldier. Aha. At last. A casualty of war!

"What are you in here for, soldier?" I asked. IED concussion? Shrapnel removal? Bullet wound?

"A gall bladder operation, Ma'am." Oh well.

"They treating you well here, soldier?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Hmmm. The food did look good....

But I still didn't want to be too soft on the Marines because I had just finished watching a DVD entitled, "Caught in the Crossfire," a documentary about how American military forces had literally flattened Fallugah, a city of 250,00 people. Based on the Middle Eastern tribal tradition of an eye for an eye, however, apparently this would have been an understandable and acceptable form of warfare in Iraq -- Fallugah had given the top dog trouble and therefore Fallugah had then been shown the error of its ways -- graphically. End of discussion. This is the sort of thing that Saddam had done to the Kurds when they had stepped out of line and although the Kurds had really hated what Saddam had done, the Kurds had understood why he had done it. Saddam knew the rules. The Kurds knew the rules. As Thomas Friedman had written in his book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," this sort of behavior is common in the Middle East.

But the big difference here is that, as far as the Middle East was concerned, it was Bush and Cheney who had broken the rules. Their scurrilous deceit and injustice were the reasons that Americans were in Fallugah in the first place. And the citizens of Fallugah just didn't understand. "If Bush wanted to rid the world of horrible dictators, why start with Saddam? Surely there were worse ones around...." So. One can blame the Marines for carrying out unjust and deceitful orders -- but it is Bush and Cheney who should be facing the Nuremberg trials. But I digress.

"We have 23 doctors rotating through this CSH," said the doctor in charge. "They work 12-hour shifts. We also have a lab for blood-work and a complete psychiatric staff. Last summer there was fierce combat and we were busy but not now. At this point in time, we are completely ready for anything -- but hope that we won't be needed. So far so good."

Then the doctor talked about the Hippocratic Oath and how they treat everyone here equally, American or not. "We've even treated insurgents who injured themselves while manufacturing IEDs. We take care of everyone, regardless of team colors. Our war is on disease."

"So," I asked, "have you been here for most of the war?" Five whole years of being up to your elbows in blood and guts must be really surreal.

I'm currently reading Thomas Friedman's book on Beirut where he talks about how people there coped with the ongoing stress of war. Regarding coping mechanisms, Friedman wrote that, "those who survived the Israeli invasion of Beirut in the best physical and mental health were those who learned how to block out what was going on around them that was not under their own control and to focus instead on their immediate environment and the things they could control." But what the freak could one focus on and control in a combat hospital ER!

"Actually, the doctors here don't stay here that long but rotate in and out," said my doctor/tour leader. "Every 18 months they come here and serve for 90 days and then go back home. I myself work at the Mayo Clinic for most of the year."

Then the tour came to an end and I was forced to realize that things really HAVE changed in Anbar. "Do you have any more questions?" asked the doctor. No, not really. I wasn't about to ask him where the CSH's stash of Girl Scout cookies was located or where on the base I could purchase the best souvenirs.

After seeing the CSH hospital, my level of concern about T-shirts and cookies seemed sort of trivial, however. Or, as Thomas Friedman said in his book, "Beirut's enduring lesson for me was how thin is the veneer of civilization, how easily the ties that bind can unravel.... Ever since I left Lebanon I have felt, no matter where I am, that I am living in [Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist] house, never knowing when a door might fly open and suddenly I will be face to face again with the boiling abyss I glimpsed in Beirut. I go to baseball games or to the theater, and I look around at all the people seated so nicely and wonder to myself how easily all of this could turn into a Beirut. It has been my own private nightmare, but also a source of inner fortitude."

PS: After my tour of the hospital, several of the doctors, some officers and the PAO all drove me off to the PX to make sure I got my souvenirs. And they all stood around and offered helpful suggestions while I picked out a coolness red "Marines" T-shirt. And over the intercom at the PX I could hear them playing Bob Marley's song, "One Love".

America's citizen-soldiers: My interview with a Marine colonel in Iraq

(Photos are of some of our honorable soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan including one reading my book, my parents' graves on Memorial Day, a Vietnam war vet and the mysterious sheik in Anbar province)

Good grief, I've done it again. Right in the middle of a very important interview in Iraq, I got brain freeze.

Remember last October when I was granted that exclusive interview with one of the most powerful sheiks in Anbar province but couldn't think of ANYTHING to say? Well, the same thing happened to me the other day when I finally scored an interview with the commanding officer of the Marines' Fifth Regiment, charged with keeping the peace in western Iraq -- and then couldn't think of a single question to ask him.

I coulda asked this colonel all sorts of things -- like questions regarding Marine troop strength in Anbar province, their strategic capabilities and goals, number of insurgent incidents per month, the significance of the six Marines killed in Ramadi recently, how the Marine CAG units' relations with the local city councils were going, how the Iraqi police were doing, if there was any blowback in Anbar after the Basra and Sadr City uprisings, etc.

And on a more personal level I coulda asked the colonel about his own experiences with war, had he served in Bosnia, was he present during the second Battle of Fallugah, what were his own hopes, dreams and aspirations for Iraq, how was he handling being in the unique position of having turned the corner here from fighting for one's life 24/7 to being able to set up a true Marshall Plan and working with the Iraqis as partners in the new Anbar reconstruction movement -- and has he personally ever killed anyone in battle?
Katy Couric herself would have drooled at the thought of being in my shoes! And all I could come up with was, "Er, hi...."

However, the colonel apparently hadn't become a colonel without having learned enough people skills to deal with reporters whose brains had just left the building and it wasn't long before he had put me at ease as he talked about his life as a citizen-soldier in the long-standing and honorable tradition of American citizen-soldiers.

"I was raised on our family's farm in upstate New York," the colonel told me, "getting up at 5 in the morning to do the chores, milk the cows." And then what happened? How did he end up becoming a Marine....

"I come from an Irish immigrant family of farmers and military men. My father and uncles and brothers served in the military and I simply followed their lead, starting out as an enlisted man and then when my tour of duty was up I went on to college under the GI bill, graduated in sociology and then became an officer. That's what I like about the Marines. They don't discriminate against enlisted men moving up in the ranks. If you meet the requirements, you become an officer. And that's that."

I'd heard that said before about the Marines' open promotion system. When I was in Haditha last fall, I'd met a captain who had also worked his way up through the ranks. I'd always intended to write his story but never had time. He was a Puerto Rican who had enlisted as a private and now he was a captain -- or was he a major? I can never figure out what those little tiny patches on the uniforms mean. Maybe he was a colonel too? In any case, he had come up through the ranks, going from the very bottom rung to rather close to the top -- solely based on his abilities.

"So. How's the reconstruction going?" I finally managed to squeak out.

"Let me tell you about reconstruction," said the colonel who I was supposed to be interviewing. "Reconstruction takes money. And money is a coward. It never goes where it's not safe. And now that there is relative safety here in Anbar province, we've been actually able to start putting reconstruction money to work."

Then the colonel looked me straight in the eye. "Make no mistake," he said. "We Marines are the sledgehammer of war. We are killing machines. My regiment, the legendary "Fighting Fifth," was at Guadalcanal and Okinawa. We are warriors and we do what warriors do. But do you know what a warrior's job is?"

"Er, no...."

"A warrior's job is to protect. And that's what we do. We project combat power -- but there is a limit to what combat power can achieve."

"The sledgehammer should only be used when it's needed?"


I guess that this is the message that the Marines in Iraq want to get through to both the Iraqis and the American people -- that the Marines are the fiercest warriors on earth. But they don't just live and die by the sword and if the Iraqis want and need their services as protectors and helpers during times when reconstruction is called for, the Marines can do that too.

I think that what the Marines are now proving here in Anbar -- regarding their ability to create as well as destroy -- is amazing. It certainly has amazed me. They are proving that if the Iraqis are willing to take a chance on the "Fighting Fifth" and lay down their guns, then the Iraqis CAN trust the Marines to not be bullies and barbarian conquerors and Attila-the Huns but rather partners in reconstruction, lending their skills and resources to help rebuild Anbar province and to try to make it whole once again.

The message that the Marines are trying to deliver by their actions here in Anbar is that they are NOT here to torture Iraqis' sons, rape Iraqis' daughters and open more Abu Ghraibs -- and also that, as American citizen-soldiers with a history of service and honor in the finest American tradition, the Marines here can be trusted.

Too bad that this mutual partnership of trust and desire to work toward a mutually beneficial goal isn't taking root in the rest of Iraq.

I have met many other honorable American citizen-soldiers serving in the rest of Iraq -- so perhaps the symbiotic relationship in Anbar could also happen in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. But it is certainly not happening now, not the way that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" has been conducted by those barbarians and fools in Washington -- Cheney and Bush, men who have not only never been to war but who are not statesmen either and seem to have the ethics of tomcats. Why SHOULD the Iraqis trust them? Heck, we Americans don't trust them either. And I also wouldn't trust John McCain. He lied to me while I was in the Green Zone, about Baghdad being safe. If I had believed him, I woulda gotten my head blown off. Humph.

"But, Jane," you might be saying right now, "are you actually trying to hint that Bush's brutal and bloody occupation of Iraq might actually be a good thing?"

"No. What I am saying is that there ARE honorable men (and women) serving in our armed forces -- high quality people, idealists, warriors and protectors -- who can and will do a good job and CAN be trusted to help the Iraqis carry out an honest and well-considered reconstruction. And I am also saying that this side of the American military is being used and abused by the Shock-and-Awe neo-cons in Washington who have never carried a gun, only like to stir up the pot and do not understand that killing is serious business, not to be taken lightly. But I digress.

Getting back to my interview with the colonel -- I did manage to dream up at least one question. "What about the Marines' stop-loss policy and the back-door draft?"

"The Marines don't do stop-loss. Or stop-move either."

I had been allotted 15 minutes for my interview with the colonel -- and he had graciously granted me an hour and a half of his time. And I had actually managed to get a story out of it too, proving once again how good the Marines are at reconstruction -- they had even reconstructed my brain!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Expanding the "war" in order to end it: What Cambodia & Iran have in common

(Photos are of Nixon's Cambodia policy and Bush's policy in Iraq)

Did you know that Richard M. Nixon was elected to the US presidency in 1968 on a platform that claimed he would end the war on Vietnam? It's true. And what did Nixon do once he was safely elected? He broke his promise, escalated the war on Vietnam and then went on to bomb Cambodia! "Why did you bomb Cambodia?" the press asked Mr. Nixon.

"I bombed Cambodia in order to end the war in Vietnam," Nixon replied. And did bombing Cambodia end the war on Vietnam? Absolutely! The total outrage engendered throughout Southeast Asia by Nixon's merciless killing of approximately 150,000 Cambodians drove the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge to fight even harder and the local civilian population to support them and to eventually hand America its greatest military defeat ever. Yep, Nixon's Cambodia bombing campaign DID end the Vietnam war.

According to Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan of the Yale Genocide Project, "The Cambodian bombing campaign had two unintended side effects that ultimately combined to produce the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent. First, the bombing forced the Vietnamese Communists deeper and deeper into Cambodia, bringing them into greater contact with Khmer Rouge insurgents. Second, the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success."

Did you know that George W. Bush is now planning to do the exact same thing to Iran that Nixon did to Cambodia? Apparently Bush is now vowing to attack Iran in order to expand the war on Iraq in order to end it. "Because Iran is aiding and abetting our enemies in Iraq, we are justified in attacking Iran as a matter of self-defense."

Also, according to Fox News, former UN Ambassador and Bush administration insider John Bolton recently stated that, "the situation that our forces face in Iraq now is that they are being attacked, they are in danger from Iranian-lead, financed, trained and equipped terrorists." When asked if Bush would invade Iran before the end of his term, Bolton responded, "I think so, definitely."

We've definitely got some de-ja Voo happening here.

And will the results of Bush's plans to bomb Iran be the same as the results of Nixon's plans to bomb Cambodia? Do we really want to risk finding out?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dust bowl: Like Okies in the 1930s, Iraqi farmers must move on or dig in

Last June, I attended the 2007 Book Expo in New York City and when I walked into the gigantic Jacob Javits Center, all I could see was oceans of books. There were 5,000 booths and each booth had a publisher and each publisher was just dying to give me a free book. It was Heaven! And along with the 30 or 40 other booksI scored from various publishers, I also received a copy of Cyan Press's new book, "High Tea in Mosul".

Unfortunately, however, I didn't get around to reading "High Tea" until I got to Iraq last week and now I'm still not going to finish it because at least ten people here on the Marine base have asked me if they could read it so I'm leaving it behind when I go. But I thought I'd give you some quotes before I pass the book on and go off to catch my flight back to Kuwait this afternoon. Inshallah. I missed the flight yesterday because a sandstorm was brewing. But hopefully I will fly out today.

"On May 16 [2003]," said the book, "five days after landing in Baghdad and without any apparent attempt at wide-ranging consultation on what such sweeping moves [such as dissolving the Iraqi army, sacking most senior civil servants and curtailing moves toward the creation of an interim domestic government] might have on the social landscape, Bremer transformed Iraqis from friends-in-waiting to resentful foes. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were without work and income."

Did Bremer do this deliberately in order to promote chaos in Iraq -- following the Bush-Cheney neo-con plan that Naomi Klein labeled "Disaster Capitalism" wherein super-profits are made for a few top dogs as a result of the mega-disasters suffered by the rest of us? Or was Bremer just stupid?

"Jane, you think too much," said my conscience. "You are in way over your head here, trying to figure out what all the good guys and bad guys are up to -- and trying to figure out which is which. You just need to chill out and go back to California." Hey, I been trying! But that sandstorm canceled my flight yesterday and today I actually made it as far as the airfield before they told me that THIS flight was canceled too because some stupid bird had just flown at our plane and punched a hole in the tail. That's war for you. War is hell.

"But Jane, you are the one who is always saying that what is happening now in Iraq isn't a 'war'." Okay then, if it's not a 'war' then what is it? "In Iraq, we appear to be witnessing the deliberate creation of chaos by all those who benefit from chaos."

I'm tired of chaos. I don't do well with chaos. I want peace and quiet. Fortunately, there is a lot of that in Al Anbar province. But what about Baghdad and Mosul and Basra? Who is benefiting from creating chaos there? I'm not really sure. But I'm definitely here to tell you that the Average American is NOT.

"We are going to have to get out of Iraq," I preached to a KBR contractor sitting next to me in the giant Quonset hut that passes for an air terminal at Al Asad, "because America simply cannot afford to stay here any more."

"Heck, no," he replied. "In another two or three years, the oil here will start to pay for everything America has spent on the war." Everything? Really? THIS is the plan?

Then we trudged off back to the airbase to spend the night while the bird-hole in the airplane got repaired. But I couldn't sleep. I just kept thinking about farmers -- no, not the winner of the "Farmer Wants a Wife" reality show. I got to thinking about Iraqi farmers.

By 5 am, I was all ready to jump up and go track down and interview some Iraqi farmers. Everyone here has read Steinbeck's book entitled "The Grapes of Wrath," about the terrible dust storms in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Great Depression -- it's required reading in high school. So. Is farming in Iraq like that too? A dust bowl where you either dig in and stay by the skin of your teeth or, like the Joad family, move somewhere else?

My great-grandfather on my father's side was a deputy US Marshall at Talequa, Oklahoma. My grandfather was an itinerant sharecropper who moved west around 1910. I can relate to farmers! But where am I going to find an Iraqi farmer who speaks English on a Marine airbase out in the middle of nowhere at 5 am?

When people here refer to sandstorms, their terminology is wrong. It's not sand in the air. It's dust. A sandstorm here basically looks like very thick smog. As I flew into Kuwait last week, the whole country looked like China had -- covered with smog. But it wasn't smog. It was dust. Billions and billions and billions of particles of dust. It reminded me of Oklahoma in the 1930s.

If I ever get a flight out of this dust bowl, I'm going to go off to this year's Book Expo being held in Los Angeles on May 29. And I'm going to get another three tons of free books. But
if I can't get a flight out of here and am stuck in Anbar province forever? Not to worry. I've got a mission. I've got a goal. I'm going to go out and interview farmers. "What would you do if you had unlimited water?" I'd ask. Because, in the end, after everything is said and done, if you are an Iraqi, water is life. Water is even more precious than oil.

PS: I am not totally without resources here regarding information about farmers. By 7 am, I had managed to track down an actual expert on Iraqi dirt -- in the airbase's dining facility, eating boiled eggs and Froot Loops. The man actually had a PhD on the subject of Iraqi soil.

"Here in Iraq," said the expert, "they have had a wind erosion problem since they created this desert. I've seen too many water patterns created by rivers and streams to think that this area has always been a desert. Geological formations indicate it was once pretty good land."

"Really? So it wasn't always like this? When did it start to change?"

"I don't know exactly but would say probably several thousand years ago."

"Do you think they could ever get it restored?"

"It will never change back the way it was completely," replied the expert, "but there is a lot they can do to manage resources here that will really help improve the current situation. First, we need to deal with the way that the nomads graze their sheep. We have several million sheep here in Anbar right now and their ability to de-nude the landscape is remarkable. And they come down into the valleys at night and eat farmers' crops as well. And if you notice on the banks of the river here, the riverian area -- the green part that usually covers the area near river banks -- it has been totally eaten away."

"Holy sheep dookie!" I said to myself. "Have there always been this many sheep around here?"

"No, actually, we are currently down from five million sheep because we are going through a famine here right now because they have missed their usual seasonal rains."

"Is this because of global warming?"

"I don't think so. This sort of drought has also occasionally happened in the past as well."

"So do you think that what is happening here is analogous to the dust bowls of the 1930s in Oklahoma and Arkansas back in the States?" The expert nods his head. "And so are the farmers leaving the land here like they did in Oklahoma -- or are they staying around and toughing it out, do you think?"

"Many people in this area have already left. They are the richer ones, the ones who can afford to leave. But the poor ones are pretty much stuck here. They are staying. They can't afford to go anyplace else."

"And how do the Iraqi farmers feel about the Americans?" I asked. This man had been out talking to Iraqi farmers. He would know.

"They see the Americans as the Great Occupiers. But if you believe what they say, the Iraqis still want the Americans to stay here from a safety standpoint and because the Americans are generous. The Iraqis want their money."

"Where do the farmers get their water?" I asked.

"Out of the river or out of canals. They have small gas engines that pump the water. It's pretty much a hand operation. They grow a lot of vegetables -- cucumbers and tomatoes. But these are for local consumption. They don't usually even sell them in Haditha or Hit, let alone send them to Baghdad. Even sending them as far as Hit is too far." What? No Saturday morning farmers markets? Now there's a project I could work on. Are these tomatoes organic?

"The farming patterns here have changed in the last few years," commented the expert. "Farmers today only farm half the land that they did ten years ago. They farm only along the river, not further out toward the desert. Those who can have already left. And then there's the death tolls." What death tolls? But the expert had gotten up to get a cup of coffee and when he got back, I forgot to ask.

"The one thing that's never been broken in this country," continued the expert, "is Baghdad's ability to get food out to the people -- even the farmers. Rice and lentils. No one has gone completely hungry. But farmers still grow crops to supplement their diet and income. And the war -- the actual shooting part of the war -- has greatly effected farming and farm life.

"So. What happens next?" I asked. "Is the next generation here planning to continue staying down on the farm?"

"Frankly, most of them would rather be in the Iraqi police force or join the Iraqi army. Farming is hard -- especially when you have to do it with sticks."


"Hoes, shovels, picks. They don't have plows or plow animals here -- and definitely not tractors. In fact, they farm more poorly now than they did here in Roman times or the Mesopotamians did. They actually knew how to farm better back then."


"There are several reasons. Firs it the problem of salinization. Next there is the war, an obvious disruption of supplies and security. And, third, farmers often lack the will to make things better."

"Do you see any hope on the horizon for the farmers of Anbar province?"

"Well, this country does have the money. But whether they are willing to do this in a proper manner that will build character and integrity is yet to be seen. And the farmers need tractors, solar pumps, proper sheep management and salinity testing."

"Which is what?"

Using electro-magnetic equipment to test the salinity of the soil and to set up a de-salinization process. It can be done. They did it in the Imperial Valley in California. There is an accumulation of salt in the soil here that is a result of the 140-180 surface inches of evaporation, leaving salt behind in the soil."

Then we finished eating our breakfast and I thanked the expert for his time. He had answered my main question. Yes, the situation here in Iraq is very much like the situation in Oklahoma in the 1930s. But will the Iraqi farmers also get a new deal? That remains to be seen. And will this fabulous late-breaking scoop about Iraqi farmers of Anbar win me a Pulitzer and make the editors of the New York Times turn green with envy? That too remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Irony: I'm over here safe in Iraq and my neighbor just got shot to death in Berkeley

(Photos are of the new MRAP, the PRT team leader, me at the council meeting with the new radio antenna in the background, a happy street scene in Hit, a sad street scene in Berkeley -- -- and us fighting over the last Beanie Baby.)

Here I am, over in Anbar province with the Iraqis and the Marines. You'd think that it would be dangerous here but it's not. Things in Anbar are pretty safe -- but the irony of the situation wasn't lost on me when a friend e-mailed me an article yesterday about someone getting shot to death in the streets of Berkeley, CA, my hometown.

"OMG," I immediately e-mailed back. "I KNOW that guy! That guy was my NEIGHBOR!"

Here I am sitting around Al Asad airbase in western Iraq, listening to some US Marines, a State Department PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and a US-AID rep giving me the 411 on how they are helping to rebuild Anbar province, while back home my neighbor couldn't even safely walk down the street.

I've got about 25 pages of notes from meeting with the various reconstruction teams here. Let me try to make sense of them for you so that you can get a clearer picture of what's going on. First I interviewed a Marine officer in charge of civil interaction with local Iraqis.

"The Marines are approaching their reconstruction missions here in the same manner that they approached a combat mission," said the officer. "We identify a target and then initiate a development process. We add to the target list, prioritize it, develop a plan, conduct reconnaissance, develop the project, execute it and assess." He gave me some examples of how they use this strategy to also identify, organize and tackle civil development projects such as sewage treatments or electrification.

"So instead of using these organizational techniques to design the best way to take out, say, a bomb factory, you use them to target and initiate civic development projects?"

"Exactly." Then he gave me copy of the Marines' "Targeting Cycle" flow chart template. Hey, maybe I could use this to plan an assault on all that junk in my apartment when I get home.

Then I got sent off to interview the PRT leader for this area. "Basically," he said, "there weren't very many mid-level bureaucrats in Anbar when we arrived because Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a top-down operation." There used to be a lot of yes-men in Iraq. "So we are trying to help develop bureaucrats who can make decisions by themselves."

The PRT expert, a career diplomat for the State Department, talked about encouraging more bureaucratic executions. "Under Saddam, 'bureaucratic execution' had a whole different meaning and back then it was safer just to sit on your hands.

"One of the biggest challenges that we face here is money. There is plenty available -- but how do you transport it? Because the banking system still needs development, we have to make most of our payments in cash. We can't just issue ATM cards or checks. So all that cash has to be accounted for at all times."

Then I asked him about distributing oil revenue money to Iraqis. "This region has a lot of potential due to its resources and location but in order to get these projects off the the ground, the Iraqis need manpower and so just handing out oil revenue could make things worse by taking away incentives to roll up their sleeves. Plus its like when people win lottery money. First the money is here and then it's gone." So I guess that my assumption that handing out more oil revenues will be the solution to Iraq's problems is rather simplistic. Sigh.

Another big problem here is that Saddam didn't support the infrastructure so that most of it needs to be repaired or replaced. And they didn't build refineries for the oil. And transportation is still a challenge. If it is run right, Iraq has the potential to be a great country. But for the last 40 years, it hasn't been run right."

"Is the PRT making progress and, if so, how can you tell?"

"The way that I judge progress within my subject area is by observing little things -- like bananas. Can one ship bananas to the stores before they turn brown? When you see yellow bananas for sale, that indicates that a good distribution chain has been set up."

Next I talked with the PRT's language and liaison specialist, an Iraqi-American who was born in Mosul and studied at the American University in Cairo but now lives in San Diego. "It's not that Iraq lacks in trained and intelligent people," he said. "Iraq used to have more PhDs per capita than any other country in the world. But for the last two decades or so, there has been a brain drain as the intellectual and professional classes left because of Saddam and the wars and the embargoes -- so this is another reason why the bureaucracy is shattered today."

The third person I talked to on the Provincial Reconstruction Team was their agricultural adviser, who had just gotten back from a field trip to Haditha. "This area could be another Imperial Valley," he told me, "if enough water was made available. You look around you now and all you see is barren desert but if you just add water, the desert comes to life." Sort of like those post-card flat sponges that kids like so much where you just add water and they turn into rubber duckies.

"I just spent most of last week opening up a spring in the Haditha area that is now an oasis about one acre square. Finding springs here is easy. You just look at satellite photos, pick your spot and go out there with a backhoe." He had just spent the last four days sleeping under his bulldozer. "No, I only slept next to it." Yeah, but sleeping under it sounds more, er, nomadic.

"If we can help get a lot of water out to the desert and use the right irrigation practices, they can achieve another Garden of Eden here." Really? "They can grow date palms, citrus, pomegranates and alfalfa. But this type of operation would probably take around 15 years to complete. And another problem we're facing right now is sheep."

"Sheep?" I thought they were only a problem when they were lost. Or am I thinking about nursery rhymes?

"There are approximately 1.2 million sheep in Anbar, tended by nomadic sheperds. The issue is that the sheep eat the entire grass plant, including the roots -- they just pull the plants out of the ground like tweezers, roots and all -- and this leads to the degradation of the desert. In the American west, this problem was addressed by the use of barbed wire fences but here in Anbar the sheep are free to roam everywhere. And in order to keep these tremendous eating machines from being out there running loose and degrading the ecology, private land ownership may have to come into play if you want to develop better resource grass management."

Then me and the PRT team leader suited up in our Kevlar, jumped into our Humvees and MRAPS and convoyed off to the city of Hit to meet with the mayor and some city council members to discuss setting up a radio station. "Humvees, like SUVs have a tendency to tip over," said the PRT leader, "so your job, while sitting in the back seat, is to grab the gunner's legs if the Humvee starts to roll." What? My job is to grab at a young, handsome Marine's legs? Well, if I have to....

At the city hall in Hit, the Marine officer in charge of civil affairs in west Anbar gave a nifty presentation on how a local radio station could be set up in a very small space for only around $4,000.

"But nobody listens to radio any more," said one sheik. "We want TV." At first I was shocked. Having a local radio station? That's GOT to be a plus. You could communicate locally, listen to it in your car, get advertising revenues, etc. What's not to like! Heck, if I spoke Arabic, I could start my own radio talk show. I'd be a big hit in Hit!

But then I sort of realized that what was happening here was that the council was bargaining. Bargaining is big in the Middle East. They were trying to see if they could purchase the transmitter for less. "And will you throw in the software?"

Then we went walking through the city's streets and talked with some of the residents. And then the PRT leader pulled out a bag full of Beanie Babies to give to the kids. Hey! I want a Beanie Baby! Don't give it to him. Give it to me!

Then I got to interview the US-AID rep when we got back on the airbase. His office is in a tent. "Our emphasis is on interfacing with the Iraqi provincial government and developing a five-year plan involving economics, agriculture, social services, infrastructure and governance/rule of law."

In the agricultural phase, one of the big challenges is to clarify property rights and clean up the deed offices. "Trying to find water is another large task. Most of the wells here used to be run by electrical pumps but now, with the diesel fuel shortages in place, they have to both switch back to using old-fashioned windmills and water wheels and to start making plans to build an oil refinery to supply fuel."

Then he showed me the local US-AID budget. "$532,000 for agriculture, $3,229,000 for infrastructure, $1,759,000 for social services. Of course the money aspect is interesting but most important is the outcome. For instance, how much electricity is the generator we paid for providing? And are people being employed after the economic packages are in place? And we are also trying to coordinate efforts between ourselves, the Iraqis and the Marines. There are a lot of people out here doing a lot of things. You'd be surprised. And also you need to factor in that this is NOT a post-conflict situation."

But the US-AID guy was hopeful. "We are all taking baby steps here but we are at least TAKING them. I like to use the tent-pole analogy. If we gave Iraqis a tent pole, they could use it while we are here -- but then what will they do when we take it with us when we leave? Better to help them learn how to fell trees, strip bark, use a lathe. And also I have hope for the future because of the city councils. They are really taking care of business."

I agreed. I'd seen the Hit city council in action and they were definitely on top of things.

So. Today I learned a lot about the reconstruction process here in Anbar province -- that it IS happening. And I walked around the city of Hit and was perfectly safe. But my heart still cries out for the people of Baghdad and Mosul and Basra, where day-to-day life is still a crap-shoot. And I also cry out for the wife and three children of my neighbor who was just murdered in Berkeley.

Am I about to come up with a moral here? No. The only thing I can come up with right now is a deeply-felt wish that all human beings will finally learn to live in peace.

PS: I can't believe that I just brushed my teeth with Kool-Aid. Strawberry Kool-Aid! Does this mean that I am drinking the Kool-Aid over here? I don't think so. But I've definitely been brushing my teeth with it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The most frequently asked question in Iraq: "What the freak is going on over here?"

(Photos are of a countryside oasis in Ambar province, one of many shot-down old airplanes out in the desert, me, some children and an MRAP)

FAQ: "How long does it take to fly from Kuwait to Anbar province, in western Iraq?" If you fly in a C-17, it takes about an hour. The C-17 is a huge no-frills military troop transport jet that looks like the Bat Cave inside. All the plane's freight cargo and everybody's luggage sit right in there next to you, lined up on pallets, and you yourself have the choice of sitting in regular airline seats or sitting in lawn chairs. And there are no stewardesses, no inflight movies and no airline food.

Watching soldiers exit a C-17 at night is truly bizarre. It's like watching a big silver shark the size of Chicago giving birth to hundreds of tiny robots onto a large field covered with glo-sticks instead of runway lights.

FAQ: "What does the average soldier think of the war in Iraq?" Who the freak knows?

One soldier sitting next to me at the DFAC (dining facility) the other day told me that he thought that Iraq was a "resource war". "And this is just the beginning," he added. "Americans are soft, and are basically clueless about how to survive without their cars, appliances, supermarkets and gadgets. They are used to having everything done for them. They need to man up and learn how to grow things and build things and maintain some of the skills that our grandparents had. They are going to need these skills in the hard times to come."

FAQ: "What does Naomi Klein have to say about Iraq?" I actually found a copy of Klein's latest book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" in an airbase give-away library yesterday while looking for something to read. Good grief, what a book! Am I the last person in the world to be reading this book? And if so, and everything that she writes is true, then why isn't everyone in the whole freaking world up in arms against the globalization movement and its "Disaster Capitalism" flying monkeys who deliberately take advantage of situations involving large-scale human misery in order to steal other people's stuff?

In her book, Klein states that economist Milton Friedman, the apparent godfather of globalization, "first learned how to exploit a large-scale shock or crisis in the mid-seventies, when he acted as adviser to the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Not only were Chileans in a state of shock following Pinochet's violent coup, but the country was also traumatized by severe hyperinflation. Friedman advised Pinochet to impose a rapid-fire transformation of the economy -- tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation." Sound familiar?

This same plan of using chaos and disaster as an excuse to "de-regulate" and "privatize" and torture and murder and establish dictatorships and let corporatism raid the national treasury worked very well in Indonesia under Suharto, the USSR, the former Yugoslavia, Argentina after Peron, Brazil right after its 1964 coup, Asia during the 1997 financial crisis, Sri Lanka after the tsunami, a whole laundry list of African countries who fell victim of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund and, of course, Iraq. And don't forget that even here in the USA, Friedman and his followers had a field day after 9-11 and Katrina.

Klein also appears to think that, during Bush's 2003 famous Shock and Awe attack on Iraq and for several years afterward, Iraq was deliberately allowed to go to Hell in a hand-basket in order to create conditions of chaos that would generate an opportunity for rebuilding Iraq from the ground up as a colonial state controlled by corporatism -- like a neo-con version of what Mao was trying to do with his Cultural Revolution.

Further, Klein also strongly hints that American neo-cons have spent the last several years carefully engineering and orchestrating America's upcoming Great Depression sequel in order to generate some kick-ass Shock and Awe here at home -- so that in the chaos and confusion that results after the subprime goes nuts, hyperinflation hits hard and banks like Bear Stearns go under, they will be able to disassemble America as we know it and rebuild it again according to their own Disaster Capitalism model as well. Oops.

There appears to be a definite "intersection between super-profits and mega-disasters" in the minds of the followers of Milton Friedman, writes Klein. All I can say to that is Lord help us if they ever learn how to create man-made earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

FAQ: "What are the chances of Jane marching for at least half a mile in almost total darkness, across an unpaved airfield, from the C-17 to the Al Asad terminal pre-fab, while carrying all of her gear and yet managing to avoid falling flat on her face?" Zero.

FAQ: "How does one get from an airfield out in the middle of nowhere to the main part of Al Asad airbase at 1 am in the morning?" One stands around the terminal looking miserable for about 20 minutes, curses when one can't get the terminal's only telephone to work, searches for someone with an internet connection in order to e-mail one's point of contact to PLEEZE come get her and chats with a nice Kurdish man with a laptop but with no wi-fi connection. "What's it like up in Kurdistan now," one asks.

"Honestly? Right now it's rather peaceful and safe."

Then one goes and asks for help at the KBR office. Although KBR has a bad rep in the US for price gouging, no-bid contracts and violence toward its women employees, here in Iraq they are usually our go-to guys. "Walk outside that door, hang a left, proceed north for 50 feet and there will be a bus stop -- right past the construction equipment, port-a-johns, Humvees and blast walls. You can't miss it. A bus usually comes by every half-hour."

FAQ: "How do you find someplace to sleep at Al Asad?" You get off the bus at Camp Ripper and some really nice Navy medical corpsman on R&R from Husaybah in Al Qaim up near the Syrian border helps you to carry your gear. Then some really nice KBR guy finds you a "can" -- a pre-fab trailer -- to sleep in for what's left of night.

FAQ: "How are things going in Anbar province right now?"
"We have around 60 incidents a month -- snipers, IEDs, caches discovered, etc.," said one Marine operations officer I talked with, "but when you consider there are over 2,000 aggravated assaults per month in Los Angeles alone, that's not too bad. Anbar used to be the most restive province in Iraq, far worse than Baghdad. But now things have really turned around." I sincerely hope that this means that even the powers-that-be in Washington have finally given up on Disaster Capitalism in Iraq -- but I'm not holding my breath. It could simply mean that the Marines are doing a good job even despite of the White House.

FAQ: What's for dinner in the DFAC tonight?" Chicken, ribs, baked potatoes, tacos, pizza and a salad bar. And root beer floats.

FAQ: "If the American economy falls apart and we can no longer afford to keep up the financial drain of maintaining a presence in Iraq, then what will happen?"

"The Iraqis will just have to step up to the plate," replied one officer I met in the chow line. "They will have to pay more. They have oil money that they aren't spending -- and with the price of oil going up, they will have even more oil money. And as the Iraqis do more to pull their country together, Americans will have to do less. As long as Americans keep funding and organizing projects, the Iraqis will continue to act like teenagers who are more than willing to let their parents do their chores for them but once the parents stop doing their chores, they will step up and do those chores themselves."

armored vehicles are working out -- and although their shock absorbers aren't all that good, they give you a rather bumpy ride and they are hard to climb into, the FAQ: "Are the Marines being supplied adequately enough here to allow them to do their work in helping with the reconstruction and also to keep themselves safe from harm?"

"There is nothing that Marines need that they are not getting now. The supply lines are good. The new MRAPMRAP's outside up-armoring is very effective.
"Basically, the Marines and the local sheiks have been working hand in hand in western Iraq for the last year or so and violent incidents are way down. People are out in the streets again. There are goods in the shops. Anbar province seems to have reached critical mass and then suddenly tipped in favor of the rule of law. Basic humanitarian needs are now being met -- water, sewage treatment, electricity, healthcare...." Better not let the neo-cons hear about that! They will all start yelling about how the government is not supposed to be interfering with economic freedom -- except of course for when major corporations want to go on the dole. But I digress.

FAQ: "Will this current calm in Anbar be spreading to the rest of Iraq any time soon?" I couldn't find anybody yet who could answer that question. But, trust me, I'm still asking around.

FAQ: "Why do you think the Marines are so effective in Anbar?"

"Because we are flexible," stated one Marine.

FAQ: "What do you think will happen in Iraq after the next presidential election?"

"One of the things we are trying to do here is to give the next president options...." said another officer I talked with.

FAQ: "What gives you hope?"

Look at it this way. The people of the Middle East like to bargain. It's an integral part of their culture. In most markets and shops, if you simply go in and pay the price that they ask or just walk away, it is almost like an insult to them. Bargaining is part of their life. And western politicians need to understand this and drop their currently unsuccessful "My way or the highway" approach to Middle Eastern affairs if they ever want to be at peace with this region. Bargaining is much more effective here than Shock and Awe.

However, if the Bush-Cheney neo-cons are searching for more arenas to inflict their "Disaster Capitalism" on, then they ARE using the right approach in the Middle East. Their efforts are bringing results. Under the constant barrage of their continued threats, refusal to bargain, mismanagement and military antagonism, the entire Middle East is rapidly falling apart -- and a pre-emptive attack on Iran will be just the thing needed to create TOTAL disaster in the Middle East (mission accomplished!) But if peace and security are the end goals that we want to achieve, then Americans need to learn how to bargain too. And if they learn to do this, then perhaps there may be some hope.

FAQ: "Have we pretty much covered the topic here now concerning what the freak is going on in Iraq?" Hell no. We've barely even scratched the tip of the iceberg.

FAQ: "By the way, how long does it take a country to recover from the effects of Disaster Capitalism?"

Good question. And pertinent too. In Chile, it took approximately 30 years from the time Pinochet introduced his military dictatorship until when he was first charged by a court of law with 94 counts of torture -- but even today, Chile's middle class, which had grown and thrived under Allende's pre-coup new deal, is still marginal and 45 percent of its citizens are now living in poverty. And nobody is quite sure how long it will take for Iraq to recover or for Bush and Cheney to be charged for their crimes. Hopefully it will only take less time than it took Chile -- perhaps ten or 15 years max due to Iraq's access to oil profits. Frankly, however, Iraq isn't the country that I am most worried about right now.

Right now, I just want to know how long it is going to take AMERICA to recover from Bush, Cheney and Friedman's implementation of "The Shock Doctrine".

Saturday, May 10, 2008

One plane-ride away from pretty: Mothers Day in Iraq
  • (Photos are of my friend Cliff at the Qatar airport and of a double-wide pre-fab Army latrine)
My third embed in Iraq is going so smoothly that it's scary -- especially after the fiasco of my first embed attempt which left me stranded in the Green Zone for weeks and my last attempt to embed, which left me stranded at the Kuwait airport Starbucks for days. But this embed appears to be different.

I arrived in Qatar for a 12-hour layover yesterday and sat in front of the airport for an hour and a half, waiting for my friends to pick me up and take me on a tour of Doha. And during the whole time that I sat there, I wasn't hassled or bothered once -- not even by porters or cabbies. That's impressive. "Men are very polite to women in Qatar," someone told me. "And not only that but there are more women attending universities here than men."

"Why is that?"

"Because the alternative is to sit home and be bored." Boy I can identify with that one. Which would I rather do? Fly to somewhere exciting or stay at home and do the laundry? I need to get a job as a stewardess so that I can afford to travel full-time -- except that I'm afraid of airplanes.

Anyway, I got to Kuwait and went straight to the American airbase there and then straight to its dining facility. Yea, pumpkin pie! Hey, pumpkin pie is healthy. Pumpkin pie is a vegetable.

Then I went back to the DFAC for dinner, went to the grand opening of the newly-remodeled USO and signed up for a flight to Anbar province for the next day so that I could go hang out with the Marines in Iraq. And then I trudged out of my tent and off to the shower.

"My little girl is in kindergarten," said one young woman next to me in the shower room. I think she was a staff sergeant in the Army but I'm not good at deciphering what those bar-code thingies on military uniforms mean. "And her teacher said that she was doing really well." My reporter's instincts perked up. Could there be a story here?

"Who takes care of your little girl while you are serving over here?" I asked.

"My mother." The young woman was transiting out of Iraq after a 15-month deployment. Boy, it must have been hard to leave her child for that long of a time. "But we talk on the phone a lot," she added.

"Are you going to re-enlist?" I asked. There's a lot of talk over here about stop-loss and the back-door draft. I overhear soldiers talk about it on their phone calls back home. Stars And Stripes just ran an article that stated, "From 2002 to 2007, 58,300 soldiers were given stop-loss orders forcing them to remain in the service past the end of their enlistment period."

Another young woman who worked with the sergeant then joined our conversation. "She's going to stay in the States and work at a training unit at Fort Gordon, but I'll be going back to Iraq." This young woman had two children, ages six and ten, a boy and a girl. She also missed her kids. But for these young mothers, the Army supplied good jobs and good benefits and, like what is true for so many other young women in their position these days, there really wasn't any other viable choice.

Then we talked about what it was like back home. "Be ready for a shocker," I warned them. "The price of gasoline has shot up to almost $4.00 a gallon and the price of vegetables and meat has almost doubled." Gas was only 80 cents a gallon in Qatar.

And then we talked about their children some more and as we chatted about the hardships of mothering from afar, it suddenly hit me. Tomorrow was freaking Mothers Day! "I have four children myself," I said, "and here we all are, over here in a tent city in the middle of a desert, on Mothers Day." Group hug. And that's how I spent the evening before Mothers Day in a women's shower room pre-fab in a transit airbase on my way to Iraq.

"Stop by my tent tomorrow," I said. "I've got Girl Scout cookies." Yes! I found this base's Girl Scout cookie stash. Every base has a pile of boxes of Girl Scout cookies somewhere. You just gotta sniff them out. Hurray for the Girl Scouts!

A fellow reporter here once told me about some graffiti he'd seen in Iraq. "You b*tches all think you're so hot? Ha! You all are just one plane-ride away from ugly." But this means that the opposite is also true. We are also just one plane-ride away from pretty. And for these young women out here in the middle of nowhere -- I saw Bedouins herding camels today just outside the base -- to me, they are pretty wherever they go, whether plane rides are involved or not.

And then I suddenly woke up at 1 am. Tragedy had struck! I had to go to the freaking bathroom. So I threw on my jacket over my nightgown and bunny slippers and street-hiked off in the hot night air, past rows and rows and rows of 50-person tents. WHY do they have to put the freaking women's latrine two city-block lengths away?

"Do you know where the women's showers are?" someone asked me.

"Sure. Walk down past three men's latrines, one laundry room, another men's latrine, a men's shower, two more men's latrines and another laundry room and you're there."

And don't let nobody make any freaking cracks about me marching around this airbase in my bunny slippers. I gots my rights. It's Mothers Day!

And once at the female latrine -- consisting of 20 toilets and 20 sinks located in a 100-foot-long pre-fab double-wide -- I read the following graffiti: "There are two defining forces in this world -- Jesus Christ and the American soldier. Jesus Christ died for your sins. The American soldier dies for your freedom."

And underneath that someone else wrote, "If you believe that we are over here fighting for freedom, then you are one clueless soldier."

And if I had a pen, I would have added, "The American soldier dies so that George W. Bush can become the world's first trillionaire." But then perhaps I'm being too cynical and shouldn't go around bursting this poor idealist's bubble.
"But Jane," you might say, "all this stuff takes place in Kuwait and this story is supposed to be about Mothers Day in Iraq." Not to worry. I spent most of Mothers Day in transit to Iraq but I actually did get there by 11:33 pm. So I DID spend the last 27 minutes of Mothers Day in Iraq. So there.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Where to next: A slow boat to Gaza?

(Photos are of Dr. Paul Larudee and my lamb dinner at DishDash)

Someone just wrote and asked me if I was planning to go on any more trips. "Where are you going to go next?" she asked.

"I'm planning to go hide under the bed," I replied. It's cheap and easy to get to and nobody tries to shoot at you once you get there. Except maybe the dust bunnies.

"But would you go back to Iraq if you got the chance?" Let's get real here. Nobody in their right mind is going to let me back into Iraq. I figure it this way. Everyone over there KNOWS that I totally support the troops. But they probably also know that I'm not exactly supporting the "war".

"But Jane," you might ask, "if you really want to go back and embed in Iraq, why don't you just keep your mouth shut about not supporting the war -- then you might stand a chance that they would let you back in." I'm sorry, but I just can't do that. Why not? Because it wouldn't be fair to the very people who seem to want me to spin my stories toward making the "war" look good. I mean, seriously. Just look at the reality of the situation.
Bush's war is bankrupting America. We are no longer a super-power because of Bush's Shock and Awe folly. And we are going to HAVE to evacuate Iraq or else face another sub-prime disaster here in the US -- only when this next one hits, we will lose our treasury, our healthcare, our infrastructure and our jobs as well as our homes.

And when the American military IS forced to get out of Iraq -- not by insurgents but by economics -- I want be over there so that I can report on the evacuation. Why? Because I'm a freaking journalist! That's only good journalism -- to want to go where there's a story. Double-duh!

Not only that, but even the Pentagon itself should be freaking THANKING me for alerting them to this new sub-prime problem. Then when the spit hits the fan dollar-wise, they won't be surprised. Why wait until they've got to pull everything together at the last moment when with a proper amount of warning they won't have to worry about last-minute packing.

"But would you like to go and report on Gaza if you have the chance?" Yeah, right. How much fun can that be. They strip-search you at the border, you live in abject poverty with no food, water or electricity, you get to watch the sewage run down the streets and the little children die slowly and painfully from bullet wounds. You get your sleep interrupted by sound bombs all night, sleep in the heat because there's no electricity to run the A/C and live on witchity-grubs because there isn't any food. And on the way out you get strip-searched again. No thanks. I'm a rational adult. I prefer to hide under the bed.

But then I got invited to a dinner in Sunnyvale, a benefit for the Free Gaza Movement. They are planning to buy a boat and sail from Cyprus to Gaza, bringing food and clothing and fuel. That sounded sort of interesting. A Mediterranean cruise. Would there be shuffleboard and a buffet?

After dinner, Dr. Hatem Bazian spoke. "The Israeli policy in Gaza is deliberate -- to promote isolation," he said. "They tell Palestinians that, 'We need to occupy you in order to bring you democracy. And if that doesn't work, then we shoot you.' Bush pushed for an election in Palestine so that there would be a victory for Fatah. However, Fatah was divided and its candidates were known to be corrupt. Their corruption was common knowledge to the Palestinians on the street, so Fatah lost the election.

"So then the United States went to Option 2: To prevent a unity government from emerging. And so they imported the El Salvador model -- to create a civil war, trying to get rid of the party that has popular support and trying to bring back the old party. So they brought in Elliot Abrams, the man who was successful in creating the El Salvador civil war." Wow! America actually brought in the original oldie-but-goodie guy who INVENTED the Salvador Model. That's a real walk down memory lane.

"Meanwhile, the Egyptians were trying to block the Islamic Brotherhood in their own country and so Egypt supported Fatah. And the Sunnis supported the enemies of Iran. But despite all their efforts, the civil war plan didn't work and so they started the siege instead." Plan C.

"Currently the Israelis are withholding fuel from Gaza. But what is ironic is that the European Union and the Palestinians pay for the fuel, not the Israelis." And also apparently the Israelis also make the EU pay Israel a gas tax as well. "It is the responsibility of an occupying power to provide necessities to the country that they are occupying, yet the Israelis are forcing the Palestinians to pay for their own occupation." Then they served us lamb shiskabobs and tabuli.

Then Dr. Paul Larudee showed us a film on Gaza. "There are often up to 25 people living in one room, there are extremely narrow alleyways instead of streets and the children have no place to play." And apparently Dov Weinglass stated that it is the Israeli policy to put the people of Gaza on diets -- not to starve them to death totally, like the Nazis did at Auschwitz. Whew! I took another bite of the lamb.

"Children under the age of five," stated Dr. Larudee, "have stunted growth. 40 million litres of sewage per day flow into the Mediterranean because there is no fuel to process it. 107 different types of medications are completely unavailable. Water is 10 times more polluted than international standards allow. Kidney failure is rampant. There is NO FUEL AT ALL -- even to power the generators at the hospitals. 123 people have died so far because they can't get even the simplest medical treatment. 1,500 people are on the waiting list for medical care." People are always saying that Gaza is like a jail but it sounds like these people would be better off at San Quentin.

"African-Americans were suffering in the 1950s and they needed relief," continued Dr. Larudee, "but the civil rights movement didn't just cover up the results of years of segregation but addressed the problem itself. The people of Gaza are not suffering life-threatening danger as a result of an earthquake or a tsunami. Their situation is the result of human rights violations."

Then Dr. Larudee talked about the boat that his group plans to send in order to relieve the siege of Gaza and that the boat shouldn't have any resistance from Israel because they can no longer control access to Gaza by sea. "Oslo gave Israel the power to patrol the waters off of Gaza. But Ariel Sharon himself stated that Oslo isn't in effect any more so the Israelis have given up that right as well. We will be making two trips -- with food, medicine and books -- and it will take two days to get from Cyprus to Gaza. And we also hope to be escorted by other volunteer boats. The Mediterranean in August is like a big party, so there will be plenty of other boats around. We also plan to have our secret weapons on board -- little old ladies and clerics." Hey, I'm a little old lady! I could come too.

"The people on this boat will be going to Gaza unarmed -- and they will be facing the third most powerful army in the world." Hmmm. Does the Princess line or the Royal Caribbean offer an entertainment package like that? I think not!

Then Mohammed Raja spoke. "Before you can get away with committing genocide, you have to make the rest of the world think that your victim is an object of fear. And so you create conditions that lead to resistance in order to justify the suppression. Ariel Sharon used to say, 'Give us just one week of quiet and we will sit down at the negotiating table.' So the Palestinians gave him three weeks of quiet. And it got to be embarrassing for Sharon because he still hadn't negotiated. So he ordered the assassination of four Palestinian leaders in order to get resistance going again." Then we had baklava for dessert.

So. There is a moral dilemma here. Is it that the Israelis should stop turning Gaza into a post-modern Auschwitz? Or is it that I should start standing up for justice and stop hiding under the bed....

I think that I would chose to keep hiding under the bed forever if it weren't for one problem. It's getting sort of crowded under here -- what with most of America down here hiding under the bed with me.

PS: Good grief! I just got word from Baghdad that I AM gonna get embedded in Iraq! And that I should get over there ASAP! So I immediately bought a ticket, flew to Qatar, spent 12 hours with my wonderful friends Betsy and Cliff in Doha and am now at an unnamed airbase in Kuwait, about to toddle off to have lunch at the DFAC! I am totally amazed.

And what was more amazing still was that as my plane winged its way from California to Qatar, we passed right over Gaza.