Sunday, May 31, 2009

Memorial Ceremonies

There were memorial services on Thursday and Friday for my two friends, Terry Barnich and Maged Hussein, as well as Navy CDR Duane Wolfe.  All three of them were killed in Fallujah on Monday.  The services were exceptionally well attended.  My command held one in our DFAC on Thursday for CDR Wolfe, since he came under our Army Corps of Engineers umbrella organization.  It was a very moving ceremony, well done.  On Friday, the Embassy held a service for Maged and Terry.  They were expecting about 500 people, but my guess is about three or four times that many showed up.  In addition to Ambassador Hill, we had General Odierno, the Japanese Ambassador, the Iraqi ministers of water and electricity, and many many others.  I found the service to be exceptionally moving, particularly the tributes from my boss at the Embassy and her husband, who each talked about their friendship with Terry and Maged.  Their testimony and their personal pain was heart-wrenching to experience.

It was funny, too, as odd as it may seem.  Karen and John recounted a few stories of Maged and Terry's exploits, and since those two men were full of life, there were plenty of stories to choose from.  Because this was a very public tribute, John chose not to mention that crude story about Terry's speaking abilities that I described in my last post ... good choice, John.  But he did tell about the time that Terry got hit on the nose by a piece of spent shrapnel.  It only gave him a minor cut, but that brush with mortality caused him to refocus his attention on what was important.  Terry soon afterward announced his resolution to never drink bad wine again.  And to our knowledge, he didn't.

I came to my own epiphany during the ceremony.  In case anything ever happens to me, I do not want some guy with bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace".  No way.  If you gotta have a bagpipes, well, okay, but keep the "Amazing Grace" stuff off the playlist.  Instead, I want a brief ceremony, and then at the end, I want 'em to turn up the sound system and play "I Like To Move It Move It".  Who says you can't have fun at one of these things?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Two Friends Gone

On Monday evening, Memorial Day, I learned that two friends of mine from the Embassy had just been killed.  They were on a visit to one of our major projects in Fallujah when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb.  A third individual with them, a Navy officer whom I did not know, was also killed.  Two security personnel were badly wounded but survived.

Hearing news like this is a punch in the gut.  These two men, Maged Hussein and Terry Barnich, weren't just names to me, or faces I knew around campus.  We were teammates in the Iraq Transition Assistance Office (ITAO).  And these two were the stars of the team.

Maged was an American of Egyptian background.  He was tall, slender, impeccably dressed, modest, gracious, funny, and brilliant.  He was a true gentleman.  He never mentioned his PhD and never copped an attitude with anybody.  When I first got to the Embassy and was trying to learn my job, Maged spent hours with me going over projects, funding, technical details, political implications, how each effort fit (or didn't) in the grand scheme of things, and the background of each one.  Maged rarely had to look things up - he knew everything going on with dozens of projects.  And he told it straight, no matter what.  Maged was our "water guy".  He was in charge of everything ITAO was doing with water treatment plants, sewer systems, irrigation and drainage, dams, everything.  Including the Fallujah waste water treatment plant, which is what the team was visiting that day.  Because of Maged, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tonight who have clean water or working sewers.  He would shrug it off or say I'm exaggerating, but it's the truth.  Maged made a difference in this country.

Terry Barnich was just as brilliant and just as much a gentleman.  He was also very outgoing, athletic, good-looking, and a bit of a mischievous rogue - but always in the spirit of fun.  Terry was always game for something new, and if it happened to push the boundaries a bit, so much the better.  He had a background in law and an incredible talent with words, so he was often called on to provide briefings to the multitude of study groups and high-level visitors coming through.  One of our office partners, after hearing Terry spin a problem project as a great success story, said "Terry can polish a turd better than anybody I know".  A bit crude, but true, and Terry loved that phrase when he heard it.  He served as the deputy in the office, and with his innate grasp of the political environment in both the Iraqi government and our own Embassy, he kept our office well-positioned to do our job.  I always enjoyed working with Terry - his comments and advice were excellent and he respected my input.  And he jumped in and provided cover for me on a couple of occasions when I got myself into hot water.  Most people would've let me flounder.  Not Terry.

And now they're gone, killed by a bomb planted who-knows-when by some nameless goon.  These deaths are a tragedy.  Not just to Maged and Terry's friends and families, but to the Iraqi people.  When I heard the news, I just felt like saying "fuck it, if that's the way they're going to be, then let 'em have this goddam country".  But that's not right.  Terry and Maged came here to make this place better.  "Came here" isn't the right term ... that sounds passive, as if the fickle finger of fate pointed to them and said "You!  Go!".  No, to get to a job here takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.  You don't just raise your hand.  These two guys worked hard to get here, then they worked amazingly hard to make a difference.  And they made a helluva difference.

Another thing.  As bad as I feel right now, and as all ITAO members feel, there's not an Iraqi in this town who hasn't had the same experience.  One day, something bad happens, and somebody near and dear is dead.  The Iraqis that I work with have had enough of that.  They just want to have a job, take care of their families, and live in peace.  They're sick of the fighting and killing.

So I've buried myself in my job the past couple of days.  I'm okay until somebody asks me about it or makes some sympathetic remark.  Then I have to struggle for control.  Terry and Maged worked as hard as they could to make Iraq a better place, so Iraqis like those I work with will have a better chance at life and fewer reasons to take up the gun.  Neither of them would have walked away from the job if the bomb had hit a different vehicle.  I can't, either.

But Memorial Day will forever mean something different to me.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

Memorial Day in Baghdad is not like it is in the States.  Okay, so we got a full day off.  Our little group was sitting around dinner in the DFAC last night discussing what our options were.  Go to the beach?  Nah - the drive down to Basrah is too long.  To the mall?  No, that's out ... too many teenyboppers.  Ball games, car races, and casinos were all ruled out for various nitnoid reasons.

Instead it was supposed to be a day of doing pretty much nothing.  A rarity, here.  We work six and a half days a week, so having a full day off is a bit jarring.  I tried to sleep late but woke up at my regular time, anyway.  After chatting with Janis on Skype, I crawled back in the pit for an extra glorious hour.  Breakfast was a fresh-brewed cappuccino from the Green Bean and a newly-nuked Cinnabon that I picked up from Camp Liberty yesterday.  Ahh, bliss.  

Several of us went over to Union 3 later in the morning.  The stated reason was to drop off a work package.  The real reason was just to get off our compound.  We browsed the little shops for the umpteenth time and, for the umpteenth time, looked at exactly the same tacky little items.  No matter.  We weren't at work.

When we got back I made the mistake of wandering over to my desk just to check email.  Two hours later, I finished up a couple of "I NEED THIS TODAY!!!!" taskers.  So much for a full day off.

This evening we had a Memorial Day ceremony.  It was short and sweet.  But there's something about a Memorial Day ceremony that honors those who have gone before us, when we're still in a war zone.  "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes takes on a new connotation when two Blackhawk helicopters fly overhead.  "Those who have gone before us" aren't just overseas or far away, they're here, right here.  They're 200 feet overhead, or manning the gate 50 yards away, or standing right next to you.  

This past week, we had some stark reminders that we're still in a war zone.  It's pretty easy to forget that at times.  Baghdad has been fairly quiet for almost a year, but during the last couple of months, there has been a marked uptick in bombings and attacks.  Most of it has been targeted against Iraqis, but just the other day, two of our brethren here in the International Zone were killed.  It's something that you have to be aware of all the time.

But now it's evening.  I've got the TV on for only the third time since I arrived here.  It's tuned to the Indianapolis 500.  I'm gonna get to watch a race!  And then hit the rack.  Back to work tomorrow morning.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Visit to Flintstone Village

Today I went out to Victory Base, out at the airport, for some work on a couple of projects.  When that was done, a group of us went over to Flintstone Village.  This, according to my probably erroneous information, was built by Saddam Hussein for the enjoyment of his extended family, many of whom were big fans of the Flintstones.  The "village" is an interconnected series of cave-like structures made out of concrete that's falling apart.  But it's imaginative and it was a hoot to visit.

Americans have left their own imaginative tags on the place ever since we arrived in 2003.

Flintstone Village was the kind of place where you're saying "you gotta be kidding" about every three minutes.  And be careful where you step!  All these "houses" and "mountains" are all built out of crumbling concrete over rusty wire mesh, with a very scary-looking structure underneath.

But hey, next time you're in Baghdad, you gotta take a look!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Rant

So Dick Cheney launched an attack on Obama today.  Reading through the reports, I continue to be amazed at the man's arrogance and stupefying ignorance of the irony of his own statements.  When Dick Cheney accuses Obama of "recklessness cloaked in righteousness", it just boggles the mind.  A phrase like that is how I would have described Cheney at any time over the past eight years.

What I want to know is, why does anybody think Dick Cheney has any credibility anymore?  He did more to undermine the Constitution's protections, such as separation of powers, protection from government intrusion, and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, than anybody alive.  He gave us a war with Iraq that was founded on a lie (I believe a deliberate lie) and shattered our economy with a program of massive government growth that was exceeded only by massive government giveaways to his rich and powerful friends.  His convoluted reasoning to support his positions is so twisted that it makes George Orwell's "1984" seem tame by comparison.  The man is a mean-spirited, evil scorpion.  Enough already.

I was just reading one of many obituaries of the Republican party.  Seems like every magazine has to have an article on how the Republicans are down and out, maybe forever; they've lost their way and have no hope.  I, of course, don't believe that for a heartbeat.  They're just going through a period where the conservative movement has been hijacked by hard-right ideologues who became intoxicated with power.  Tom DeLay, for example.  And Dick Cheney.  Men who thought that anything goes as long as they're the ones calling the shots.  Fortunately, the country has tossed them out and begun to repair the damage.  It'll take a long, long time.  Meanwhile, the Republicans have a chance now to re-invent themselves.  And I hope to God they do.  We need a responsible, thoughtful, articulate, pro-active conservative movement to keep this country balanced.  Not the morally and intellectually bankrupt old guard like Cheney, Gingrich, and Palin.

C'mon, guys.  I was a Republican once, until your drift to the far right pushed me out.  Get it together, come up with an inspiring and inclusive platform, and let's get serious about making this country better.  And get rid of Cheney and Limbaugh and their ilk.  They're dragging you down.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Groundhog Day, Revisited

My last posting was about how I'm stuck in Groundhog Day, going through the same routine every day.  One way to view that is being stuck in a rut.  But that's not what I feel here ... "stuck in a rut" means experiencing the same thing over and over.  Instead, I'm noticing the variety that's to be found within a routine.  A routine gives structure that enables you to appreciate the differences, big and little, that provide interest.

Walking my dogs is an example.  When I'm at home, I walk them twice a day.  We go at pretty much the same time every day and follow pretty much the same route.  You'd think we'd be bored to tears.  You'd be wrong.  Soozee and Indy are acutely aware of tiny variations from the norm.  They know where to expect the neighborhood dogs, where a squirrel or rabbit might appear, and whether this car or tin can or burger wrapper is out of place.  Each scent demands their full attention.  Is it a regular one?  Or is it new?  Indy has an ongoing debate with another dog about which one is the neighborhood alpha female (the other one is four times her size, but that doesn't matter in the least), so when this other dog's scent is smelled, Indy goes to General Quarters.  Which makes keeping up with her quite a challenge, despite the fact that her legs are only about four inches long.  My point is, the routine of the walk gives a structure to their world and allows them to notice, appreciate, and respond to all the hundreds of variations.

When we take the dogs someplace entirely new, they can go into sensory overload.  Too many new things are going on to be able to make sense of it all.  Man, I know that feeling, too!

So within my own little Groundhog Day here in Baghdad, I'm getting to somewhat the same place as my dogs on their walks.  I know what the routine is expected to be each day.  But it never plays out the way it's supposed to.  Meetings are changed or cancelled.  Something that wasn't even on the radar is suddenly my top priority, at least for a few hours.  I'll be tasked with preparing a decision briefing for the general that will affect how the Corps of Engineers will operate in Iraq for the next couple of years.  Meanwhile, we have to fit in breakfast, lunch, dinner, workouts, and laundry.  Any one of those things could consume my full attention and be the most interesting thing in the world - for me, for a while - but be of no interest whatsoever to anybody else.  And it certainly makes for boring blog posts.  What do you care about the jokes at lunch that had me rolling off my chair?  Particularly since I can't repeat them in polite company!  

So today was Groundhog Day again.  I got up, Skyped with my wife, went to breakfast, and went to work.  Had a bunch of drive-by taskers that I took care of.  Went to lunch and yukked it up with my lunch group.  Took care of a few projects and emergent minor crises in the afternoon.  Went to dinner with my dinner group (same as my lunch group) and we yukked it up some more.  Went back to the office and cranked out a couple of emails and called it a night.  That was my day.  

And it was actually a pretty good day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Groundhog Day

Lately it's been Groundhog Day here, over and over.  I get up around 6 am and do a Skype chat with Janis.  Then I take a shower and head over to the DFAC for breakfast.  Then I go into work.  Something normally hits the fan about 9 and it takes until about 11 to get it calmed down again.  Then it's back to working on various projects until lunchtime.  There's a group of us that goes over to the Dirtbag DFAC (not its real name) for lunch.  Then back to work.  Something different normally hits the fan about 2 pm and it takes us until about 4 to get it under control.  Then it's back to whatever project has the least time until it's due ... which is often sometime in the past.  Around 6 pm, our group wanders down to a different DFAC for dinner.  Their food is usually better than the Dirtbag's.  Wednesday (today) is their specialty: surf'n'turf.  It's the best shoe leather you'll find in the IZ, at least on Wednesday nights.  After that, I usually head back into work for another hour or two.  It's quieter then and I can finally get around to finishing up all those tasks that were due a few days ago.  Then I head back to my little hooch for some quiet time and hit the rack.  Get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Sounds boring, but there are always surprises.  Today I discovered something new at the Dirtbag.  The main line and short-order choices looked particularly unappetizing, so I decided to try the stir-fry guy.  This is a stand where you pick out what you want stir-fried (mushrooms, cabbage, onions, broccoli, olives, rice, noodles, stuff like that) and give it to the guy who does a Benihana performance on it.  I asked for a tiny bit of curry powder and he dumped in a load that would make your toes curl.  But I gotta tell you, it turned out mighty good.  It's my new favorite thing in the Dirtbag.  (My previous favorite was watching the cheerleaders for the cricket teams on Sky Sports TV ... they do some very energetic and creative dance routines, much more involved than any pro sports cheerleaders in the US).

So if you've been wondering where I've been since my last post ... well, just doing the same thing I did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before ... working, eating, hitting the gym, and watching the cricket cheerleaders on Sky TV.  And you thought Baghdad was exciting.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pizza Night

Friday is the weekend in Iraq, meaning our Thursday night is like your Friday night.  (Except for college kids, for whom every night is Friday night).  Tonight I met up with some of my friends from the Embassy and we went out for pizza at our favorite Green Zone pizza joint.  It also happens to be the only Green Zone pizza joint.  After wolfing down two pizzas, we retired to the hookah room for smoke and chai.

This is the "chai" part.  Chai is tea, which Iraqis love.  Americans drink cold tea by the gallon, but Iraqis drink hot tea by the milliliter.  And they dump an amazing amount of sugar into it.

Here's one of our hookahs.  Many of us of a certain age would call it a "bong".  However, there's no wacky tobacky in here.  Iraqi hookahs use a highly flavored tobacco in which the tobacco taste is almost obscured.  Part of the enjoyment of the hookah bar is picking out which flavor to try.  I went with watermelon.

Flavor or no, I am not a smoker.  And this stuff is, indeed, tobacco.  Cough, cough.

The owners of the pizza joint/hookah bar have a prized pigeon.  That stuff on his back is feathers.  The little guy strutted around, showing off his amazing feathers to all ("I have these beautiful feathers ... you infidels do not!") before deciding we were beneath him, and then returning to his little palace.

Not quite as much fun as a rockin' night in Georgetown, but it will do.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Laundry Day

So this morning, I dumped all my laundry on the bed.  It was about time: the bag was full and starting to get fragrant.  I sorted it into piles: the light stuff over here, the dark stuff over there, and the in-between stuff in the middle, where I could dole it out to the light and dark piles to even things out.  (Hey, you have your way of sorting laundry, I have mine).  That task done, I scurried out the door to work.  I'll wash later.

Later, I came in the door and couldn't believe my eyes.  Today the cleaning lady came through.  (Yes, we have cleaning ladies here ... they come irregularly, empty the trash, do a quick dusting, probably say "gaack" when they come in my room, and that's normally about it).  And there, on my bed, were all my dirty clothes.  Except they'd all been neatly and carefully folded and arranged.  Even my skivvies and socks.  

These cleaning ladies survived Saddam Hussein and years of the insurrection.  I guess my dirty laundry doesn't faze them in the slightest.

And yes, I washed my clothes in the evening.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Kids' Drawings

A co-worker of mine participated in a special daycamp with a bunch of Iraqi kids aged maybe 6 to 13.  She was in charge of the art table.  Her kids were enthusiastic, going through hundreds of pieces of paper during the day.  She brought in a bunch of them, and I thought I'd share some with you.  I photoshopped out the kids' names - even though the security situation here is better than last year, it's still best to be safe.

Does anything strike you as surprising in these drawings?  Anything at all?

What got my attention was just how normal these drawings are.  They could have been done by any kid in the United States.  Here are happy families with little houses in the countryside with flowers and trees and puffy clouds.  I'm not quite sure what that thing is in the sky in the bottom picture - a bird? a bug? - but for sure it isn't threatening.  All the figures have big happy smiles on their faces.  These are happy drawings from happy kids.

They sure are resilient.  These kids have spent all or most of their lives in post-invasion Iraq, when car bombs and urban warfare were a normal part of daily life.  At least, they were normal until less than a year ago.  With things quieter now (not what we'd consider "quiet", but you get the idea), these kids are looking like normal kids anywhere.

I call that a good sign.