Sunday, February 28, 2010

Genie Maples, Artist

A Life Gone Lacy
Oil on canvas, 36"x36"

Have you ever watched somebody slowly get better and better at what they do, maybe for years, and then suddenly something seems to click and they take off like a rocket? My friend Genie Maples is one such person. Her studio is down the hall from mine. When she moved in, she was painting large, vibrant, colorful, sometimes jolting abstract paintings. I've watched her work gradually get better and stronger since then. She is a very intuitive painter and works from some deep, non-verbal, but very powerful source. It seemed to me that immersion in our artists' community in Asheville's River Arts District gave her exposure to new ways of thinking about, and making, her paintings. She gained a lot of experience and understanding of her process, the technical and formal aspects of paint on canvas, and most importantly, how to connect her feelings and intuition with the expressive power of paint. So for the past few years, her work has gradually gotten better and better.

Over the past six to nine months, it's like she's hit afterburner. In my own opinion, her paintings have gotten much more sophisticated, sensitive, complex, and powerful. Her newest group of paintings, from which the image above is taken, just blows me away. She's going off in a different direction now and I, for one, am amazed. It's kinda like, "This is one of Genie's paintings? Our little girl has hit the big time?"

Yes, she has. Take a look at her web site and see. Genie's an artist to watch - she's going places.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Poorly-Aimed Bill

Representative Bernie Sanders (D-VT) will soon introduce the "Stop Outsourcing Our Security Act" in Congress. The act would prohibit the use of private contractors for military, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and armed rescue functions. I think this bill is unnecessary and counterproductive. Below is an email that I just sent to my Congressman, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC):

Dear Congressman:

I am one of your constituents who is currently working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad, Iraq. Rep. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) will soon introduce the "Stop Outsourcing Our Security Act". The act would prohibit the use of private contractors for military, security, law enforcement, intelligence, and armed rescue functions.

After having been in Iraq for 17 months now and counting, I see this Act as misguided. There are still lots of very valid reasons for using private security guards.

Here at Victory Base, we use Ugandan and others as guards at entry points all over the base. They're armed because this is still a war zone. If they were gone, then we'd have to bring several hundred more junior soldiers to pull various kinds of guard duty just for this base, and several thousand for the theater. There are guards at the gates, at the entry points for most buildings and offices, and escorting local and third-country nationals doing construction and other work. Trust me, this kind of guard duty is a waste of a trained U.S. Army soldier.

When I move around the country to our offices and job sites, I am taken by a private security firm who's under contract to the Corps. These guys are experienced, skilled, and professional - they're not maniacal killers as the press likes to portray them. Their mission is to get me from point A to point B and back again without any trouble, and they do that well. If we had to rely on US troops to get our job done, we'd need about another 500 soldiers just in Iraq; maybe double that in Afghanistan. And that's just for the Corps.

Politically, there is a huge difference between an Army soldier and a civilian security guard in the local community. Imagine if a foreign leader - the Prime Minister of Iraq, say - came to Washington with a contingent of armed Iraqi soldiers in Strykers and HummVees to escort him around. Americans would go nuts. The same thing happens here in Iraq: our heavy-handed (by necessity) military presence leaves a sour taste in most Iraqi's mouths. Private security firms, like those we use and those that escort Embassy officials, are lower-profile, using cars and trucks that are usually modified civilian vehicles, and the security guards may even be in coat and tie if the occasion demands it. A small group of up-armored Ford Excursions makes much less of an impact than a train of huge MRAPs.

Proponents of the legislation point to the disparity between what contractors make and what soldiers make. Private security contractors, at least those from western countries, do make a lot more than military members. The Ugandans make far, far less. But pay is only a small part of it. If we need more contractors, we hire them, and they're on the job within weeks. When we don't need them, we cut them loose, and we're gradually doing that now. We can't hire and fire soldiers that quickly. It takes one to two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit, train, and deploy one soldier. Then they're with us for a period of years.

The differences in missions are what set contractors and soldiers apart. Soldiers are part of the government and their mission is to execute government policies. Contractors are there to provide support: food services, transportation, maintenance, and self-defense security among them. Take away the contractors and you'll have either a much bigger military presence, or else a reduced military effectiveness. And as our military leaders, from Mr. Gates on down, have made clear, our military is already over-stretched and over-stressed.

We're moving toward a more realistic balance of contractors now. The Bush mindset of privatizing everything is gone, thank God. But there is still a need for contractors in a war zone, so this bill makes no sense. It removes a valuable tool from our toolchest based on misperceptions of things that happened years ago.


Skip Rohde

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Marine Corps Combat Artist

All of the services have a combat artist program. A couple of years ago, while I was working on the "Meditation on War" series, I tried to do some work with them. It never happened. The Army, Navy, and Air Force had their funding zeroed out, while the Marine Corps had an artist on active duty. I never found out who that was, but today I did. His name is Kris Battles. He's a talented, skilled, and trained painter and sculptor who is currently deployed to the operations in Haiti. Take a look at his blog and his web site. The guy is good.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Never volunteer to work in a contingency environment if you can't deal with changes. You may go into the office in the morning doing one thing, and come out in the evening doing something entirely different. It's certainly going on in my world.

Two of my projects have been cancelled in the past week. The reason is that the Embassy changed the required completion dates. Where we had been planning on a 1-year period for these projects, from the end of March this year to the end of March next year, suddenly the Embassy moved the required completion dates up to the end of December. That meant that two of mine were no longer viable - there wasn't enough time available to do the required work. So with two whacks of the ax, two projects were gone. More may follow.

One of the killed projects was my biggest - a huge effort to provide training to Iraqi provincial governments all around the country. We've been working on developing this thing for nine months. It was extremely complex. The ground rules that we were given were vague, amounting to little more than "provide training to any provincial government on any kind of subject they need, anywhere they need it, any time they need it." Figuring out how to do that took a lot of work. We were just a couple of days from putting it out for bids when it was cut.

On the one hand, it's very frustrating to see nine months' worth of work thrown out like that. My predecessors put heart and soul into it, and then I picked up the ball and pushed it as hard as I could. This was a project that could have had a very positive impact on the ability of local governments to do things like get the roads paved, provide electricity and water, and pay the salaries of school teachers. All to no avail.

On the other hand, they just made my life a lot easier. Managing that program would've been a nightmare.

I'm seeing a very different mentality from US leadership now. They're definitely shifting into a "no more" mindset. For the past several years, fueled by huge amounts of money that Congress allocated, the Embassy and the Corps have been working feverishly to build infrastructure (schools, water, sewers, roads, hospitals, you name it) all over the country. We're now in the end game. By August, we will be down to 50,000 military left in Iraq, none of them (officially) "combat troops". (We will have "advisors", who look remarkably like "combat troops" - the difference is in their mission). And by December, 2011, they'll all be gone. Meanwhile, we're drawing down, too. Our projects are wrapping up. We have just a few left on the drawing board, mine included. But now I'm seeing our leaders thinking that we should close things down even quicker. Starting new projects doesn't close things down quicker. So, of my seven programs, two are now cancelled, I think two more are in danger of being cancelled, one may not go forward for other reasons, one is about to wrap up, and one is safe.

It's a lot of fun being on the front end of things, starting programs and projects left and right. Wrapping things up and shutting things down isn't near as much fun.

But for now, I still have five active programs that I believe in.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Two New Paintings

Here are a couple of small paintings that I did last Sunday - our holiday. I went up on the roof of our barracks and spent a few happy hours slopping paint around. Both of these are 12"x16", in oil on linen board.

Abu Ghraib Wall

Just to the north of our barracks is the wall that separates the base from Abu Ghraib. The infamous prison is a few miles west of here.

Abu Ghraib Afternoon

As the sun set, this was the view looking out to the west, along the wall.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Flying Things

There's a lot of stuff in the air here. Besides dust, I mean. Birds and bugs and machines. It makes for some interesting experiences.

Early in the morning, right around sunrise, our compound is the gathering place for thousands of crows. Literally thousands of them. You see 'em flying in from wherever the spent the night and they converge on top of us. They'll go for the radio antennae, or settle on the barbed wire on top of the walls, or perch on top of the streetlights. Mostly they fly back and forth, pushing and jostling in the air and for landing spots. They're a noisy bunch, too: cawing at each other and raising quite a racket. After a bit of ruckus, they'll settle on the wire fence. Long rows of crows, all lined up next to each other, all facing into our compound. Then it gets quiet, just an occasional squawk. Seems like they're getting their marching orders from their command sergeant major.

Crow Sergeant Major: "Blackie! Take your squad and check out the dumpster behind the DFAC. Report back to me."
Blackie: "Yowp!"
Crow Sergeant Major: "Yellowbeak! You get your boys and recon the fire station."
Yellowbeak: "Aawk! How come we never get to do the DFAC?"
Crow Sergeant Major: "Shaddap! Squawker! Your squad's got the north canal. Get goin'!"
Squawker: "Aaarp!"

Then all the crows scatter for their work day. Not all at once: one leaves, then two and four, and within just a minute or so, the thousands of crows are gone. And the next morning, they do it again.

We have a lot of pigeons here, too. They don't seem too bright. They'll come flying in right about the time all the crows arrive, only where the crows are pushing and shoving each other, the pigeons are more like "Pardon me! 'Scuse me! Sorry, sir!" They're all flustered, trying to get out of the crows' way, ducking for cover. Then, of course, they make the same mistake the next morning. Well, duh: if you don't want to get into a shoving match with the crows, then don't show up over our compound at sunrise. But there they are, every morning. "Scuse me! I'm sorry!"

I get a kick out of the sparrows. At least I think they're sparrows: little bitty mouse-brown birds, all chirpy and alert. We don't have a sparrow-tree on our compound - maybe because of the crows - but I've seen sparrow-trees on other parts of the base. Sparrows like to congregate at sunset. They'll have hundreds of them in one tree. And they don't just amble in, either. They'll come screaming in at high speed, slam on their brakes just inches from the leaves, and disappear skidding into the tree. Where crows have the morning mission brief, sparrows have Happy Hour!! which is properly spelled in caps and with exclamation points. Happy Hour!! is very festive - you can see the whole tree vibrating as the birds hop from branch to branch, chirping with all their friends, telling tall tales about their exploits that day. They're just as noisy as the crows, but high-pitched and excited. "Whoopee! It's Happy Hour!! Let's get naked!"

We have a rather surprising type of bird here, too. Seagulls. Yes, you read that right. Seagulls. Damned if I know why they're here, but they are. I see them congregate around shallow ponds of stagnant muck as far as they can get from humans. Sometimes I see them circling in the air in some updraft, going round and round, not doing anything in particular. When they're on the ground, they just stand there, not doing anything in particular there, either. They're the wallflower of the bird world.

We also have a lot of flies. Iraqi flies are the most aggressive, persistent, and annoying flies I've ever encountered. Brush it away and it comes right back. If it decides that it likes your eye, it's going to land right by your eye come hell or high water. Moving to a different area will do nothing to dissuade it: it'll follow you around until it friggin' lands on your eye. Period. I guess life as an Iraqi fly is hard, so they have to be even hardier to survive.

Speaking of bugs, right around sunset, the gnats come out. I don't know if they're really gnats, or mosquitoes, or whatever. They don't bite me, they just swarm in different areas, going round and round, maybe following me as I walk, but not really landing and biting. They're annoying, but not for long, because just a few minutes after they show up, the bats do, too.

I like watching the bats. They're very quick, zipping around, changing direction inside their own length. They never present any kind of trouble to humans - it's really hard for a bat to eat a human - but they munch right down on the gnats and whatever other bugs are unfortunate enough to be airborne at sunset. They're quiet, too, since their built-in sonar systems are pitched way too high for us to hear.

What we can hear, and way too loudly, are the commercial airliners on final approach to the airport. They pass directly over our building, a few hundred feet up. Sometimes, I swear that they're trying to land on our roof. I can walk outside and do a visual inspection of the plane's landing gear as they fly by. Inside our office, sometimes the whole building shakes. I am not a fan of living under final approach, but so far, none have fallen out of the sky, so I guess we're safe.

But I like the helicopters. They're the reminder that we're not in Kansas anymore. Helicopters always fly in pairs. We see Blackhawks, the CH-46's from the Marines, and occasionally the Embassy's blue birds. As they fly over the base at night, the helos will have their lights on. As they pass over the perimeter, though, the lights go out. No running lights. Just the sound, which you can't really pinpoint. This is an extremely active base for helicopters. Go to the BX and there are two landing zones nearby, one of which is often being used. Right down the road is another landing zone. Cross the canal, and there's another. I don't ride in helos anymore, more's the pity - I always got a kick out of it. Sure would be fun to get one more ride before I leave here in April.

We have several blimps around the base, too. These have various kinds of bad-guy detectors on them. I like the blimps. They don't move around, they don't make any noise, they just float in the air and do their job. Cool.

Finally, there are the Predators. You can often hear them when it's quiet outside. Sounds like somebody's little model airplane off in the distance. Which it is, sorta. Sometimes you can even spot them, cruising slowly along at a few thousand feet. Predators have more bad-guy detectors on them, and ways to track the bad guys, and maybe even ways to hit at them, too. I really like the Predators!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In the Groove

Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get caught up! Holy moly. While I was home having a good time, a lot of people were moving at warp speed here. Some evil trolls were trying to take money from my projects, some were trying to kill them off, some were making changes to the ground rules governing all our projects, a few were just monkeying around, deadlines were adjusted, tempers flared, and a few things actually got done as they were supposed to be done. I've got action items out the wazoo, all of which had to be done yesterday. Or last week.

So what can you do? You just do a triage on everything in the "in" box, pick the ones that need to get done first, and push the others to the back, often with a song-and-dance to try to keep somebody happy. I'll be pulling a lot of late nights for a while. At least it's not permanent - I do know that much.

I went to a meeting at the Embassy yesterday to discuss all my capacity development projects. It was a good meeting and I think we're all, more or less, on the same page. Some of the evil trolls mentioned earlier live and work at the Embassy, but we were all able to make nice and come to agreements on what we really wanted to get done. It was very encouraging, actually. I've spent today in a mad rush to try to answer a lot of issues that were finally decided yesterday (or at least the decision process was set in motion). As a follow-up, we've got a visitor here to work on some key documents with us bright and early tomorrow morning. We'll get that item nailed down by lunch time and we'll be making tracks by mid-afternoon. I'm pretty stoked about it.

Yesterday was the first time that I'd been in the International Zone since we packed up and moved back in July/August. The IZ felt much more like a unfriendly bunker than it used to. There were more checkpoints everywhere, all manned by Iraqi Army or Iraqi police. More heavy armor: one checkpoint had a frickin' tank sitting there, with it's barrel literally right in our faces. When US troops manned the IZ checkpoints, there wasn't that much of a visible presence and we could move in and out pretty quickly. Not now. Traffic is backed up and they search vehicles, even ours. I also noticed that they're using bomb-sniffing dogs, which is a big deal. Iraqis don't like dogs, considering them unclean. The last time I went through an IZ checkpoint, they used these little electronic wands to "sniff" vehicles. The problem with the wands is that they're completely useless. The Iraqis are finally wising up to that, after all these car bombs in the city, and now they're getting more bomb-sniffing dogs. Dogs: good. Wands: bad.

The weather on the east coast is affecting what we do here. We rely on our reach-back capabilities, most of which are in the Washington area, but others scattered across the eastern half of the country. And almost all of them are shut down. So this afternoon I got a frantic call from one of my contacts at the Embassy, needing an important financial report right now. Well, I can't provide it from here anymore, that comes from our reachback, so we'll get it for him tomorrow morning ... oh, wait, there's nobody at reachback today ... uh, bummer, dude.

We're having our own weather considerations here. We got a boatload of rain the other day. One day of rain means five days of mud, so we're on day 3 of mud recovery operations. Two more to go. In the States, you have things like grass and trees and drains that generally get rid of all that water pretty quickly. Not here - there's no real plant life around the base to suck up all that moisture so it sits in the top two inches of this rock-hard dirt and turns it into nasty gray stuff that gets in your boots and pants. Yes, I know, I'm whining. Deal with it!

On the positive side, my body clock seems to be adjusting pretty quickly. I take half a melatonin tablet before going to bed, and then if/when I wake up at 2:30 in the morning, I take the other half. At least, that's what I did the first three or four days. Now it's tapering off and I'm more or less on Baghdad time. I like melatonin. It's a natural chemical that your body produces to put you to sleep anyway, and I don't have any adverse effects like with Ambien - I felt like a zombie after taking that stuff. Might even be able to go off the melatonin tonight. We'll see.

I put in my redeployment package today. "Redeployment" means "going home". I'll be leaving here a little earlier than I'd thought: will be gone the last week in April. The countdown has begun. I've got a lot of work to do before then, but at least the end is in sight.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Starting the Final Push

I'm back in Baghdad again, starting my final stint in the country. The R&R trip was just what I needed: a break from the grind, a re-acquaintance with home, and a reminder of what's important.

The trip took 36 hours from home to barracks. The flight from Asheville to Charlotte was delayed a half hour due to weather. The flight from Charlotte to Dulles was delayed a half hour due to weather. The flight from Dulles to Kuwait was delayed 2 1/2 hours due to really bad weather: snow was coming down so hard that they had to de-ice the plane, and we were at the end of a very long line of planes. I had a window seat, which meant that I had something to lean against so I could sleep once we were in the air. Unfortunately, once I woke up, there was nothing to look at: there were solid clouds all the way from Dulles to southern Iraq. It only cleared up as we entered Kuwaiti airspace and by then it was dark. Bummer.

Ali Al Salem airbase was the same old same old. We showed up at 4 a.m. to turn in our bags, then had roll call at 6 a.m., loaded up onto the bus, and were delivered to the C130. This time I got smart. To get a good seat on a C130, you want to be either in the very front or the very back, where you can stretch your legs a bit. Otherwise, you're sitting sideways, jammed in like sardines, knee-to-knee with the poor slob across from you, with your carry-on carried in your lap. Oh, and you're wearing 40 pounds of body armor and helmet. So this time, I positioned myself at the very front. It worked out well, as I was able to stretch and move a little bit.

The flight to Baghdad takes about an hour and a half. We offloaded and went through the usual arrival drills. A guy from my command picked me up and took me back to the barracks. A shower, shave, change of clothes, and a bite of lunch, and I was a new man.

The evil trolls have been busy while I was gone, chipping away at the funding for my programs or causing delays or generally making mischief. I have a good bit of remedial action that needs to be taken quickly. But that's pretty much par for the course.

I feel a bit different this time back. I'm not as personally invested in these projects as I was three weeks ago - there's a distance there, so I can look at the projects a bit more dispassionately. That, I think, is a good thing. Maybe it's the fact that I had a breather and can look at the projects with new eyes. Or maybe it's the fact that I'm entering my final three-month stretch. Whatever the case, I hear a lot of noise and rumblings from On High, from the people we're doing these projects for, and from other related organizations, and I'm not taking it personally, as I might have just a few weeks ago. You want this project done? Let me run it. You want to cancel it? Okay, fine: here's the impact, now make the decision.

I turned in my notice yesterday that I will leave here when my term ends during the first week in May. It felt like a load began to be shifted off my shoulders.

So. Here I am. I still have a lot that I want to accomplish. I want to push my projects further along, and I want to find a good caretaker to turn them over to. Time to get to work.