Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thoughts on Bosnia

Good news from the Balkans: a couple of days ago, Serbian police arrested Ratko Mladic. He was the leader of Serbian paramilitary forces during the horrible Bosnian conflict of the early '90's, and the one responsible for the slaughter of 8,000 people in Srebrenica in July, 1995. Even better, the Serbian police forces put down a small protest riot today by ultra-nationalist Serbs who were demanding his release. Mladic will soon be sent to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. This marks a milestone, a finish line of sorts, to the Bosnian war.

I was in Sarajevo in the spring of 1996 as part of the Operation Joint Endeavor peacekeeping forces. I was part of a small team providing intelligence support to the NATO commander, Admiral Leighton Smith, and a few select senior leaders. Our team had a unique ringside seat to the negotiations and maneuvering between NATO, the various nations that made up NATO forces, the Serbians, the Bosnian Muslims, the Croats, and the UN. This was soon after the ceasefire had been established. The fighting had officially stopped, but peace had definitely not broken out, and keeping things under control meant walking a tightrope.

A great many people at that time were demanding that NATO capture Mladic, along with Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Serbians. This pressure began to build, to the point that many, even in the NATO forces, assumed that we were getting ready to mount an operation to nab them. Frankly, it would not have been that hard. Admiral Smith, though, refused to do it. He had good reason. We had a very close call in the spring when a low-level Serbian general took a wrong turn, blundered into a NATO checkpoint, and was arrested. The Serbians were furious and came within a heartbeat of pulling out of the peace process. Somehow, they were persuaded to stay, and eventually were convinced that the general really did just take a wrong turn and that it wasn't a planned NATO operation. But this event showed just how tenuous the whole situation was. Admiral Smith knew that if we gone after Karadzic and Mladic, the peace process would have collapsed and the Balkans plunged back into civil war. His view was that we were there to establish the peace. That came first. Whatever justice was to be meted out would have to wait until it could be done without bringing ruin.

That time is now. Radovan Karadzic was arrested three years ago and is currently being held in the Hague. Now Ratko Mladic has been brought in. Just a few years ago, his arrest would have brought down the Serbian government. Now, though, it just provoked a relatively small protest with a few hundred people that was contained by Serbian police.

When Yugoslavia collapsed, it did so very quickly, and when it went violent, it did so even more quickly. It has taken 15 years to get to the point where the arrest of former Serbian leaders can be done without destroying the country. Similarly, when our government made the decision to go to war against Afghanistan and then Iraq, it did so very quickly, but the process of building the peace is still ongoing nine years later. This has always been the case: wars can come quickly, but the recovery often takes decades.

Food for thought on this Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"No Bad Wine" Day

Two years ago today, we lost three amazing men. Terry Barnich, Maged Hussein, and Navy Commander Duane Wolfe were killed when their vehicle hit an IED outside of Fallujah, Iraq. Terry and Maged were friends of mine. We worked together in the Iraq Transition Assistance Office (ITAO) at the US Embassy. They were, literally, our two finest, and their deaths hit all of us who knew them very hard. I wrote about them in a blog post here.

Terry had a close call once before. During one of the innumerable rocket attacks on the Green Zone and Embassy, a piece of spent shrapnel hit him on his nose. After thinking about it, he announced that life was short and that he would never drink bad wine again. And he didn't.

Memorial Day is coming up soon. It was not created as an excuse for furniture sales, it was to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Most of us think of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines on this date (if we think of them at all), but you should include civilians as well. A life given for our country is a life given, no matter what clothes they wear.

For me, though, Memorial Day is a day to remember those losses in the aggregate. I knew Maged and Terry personally, and saving their remembrance for Memorial Day doesn't seem right. So I've set aside May 25th, the day they were killed, as my own personal day of remembrance. And, in honor of Terry's credo, I've tagged it as National "No Bad Wine" day.

So right now, I'm sitting here with a glass of fine 2007 Cabernet. I've also got a glass of iced fresh water in honor of Maged, who was in charge of our water development projects. Two men forever in my memory. Here's to you, guys.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Disney and SEAL Team 6

I just read that the Disney company has trademarked "SEAL Team 6". That is just so disgustingly wrong. What the hell are they thinking? They have no right to that name at all. None. Basically, they're stealing the good name of the best fighting team in the whole world. Why? To make a few bucks, of course. What are they going to do, have a SEAL Team 6 ride at Disneyworld? Give the yokels a roller-coaster ride that ends with an image of bin Laden's head getting blown off? Have Mickey Mouse run around with an M16 and a kevlar helmet?

The SEALs put their lives on the line every day. Now Disney is taking their name and making money off it.

Disney is scum. 'Nuff said.

My New (Temporary) Studio

Here's my new temporary studio. Looks a lot like a garage, doesn't it? Yeah, nothing like oil drips and snow shovels to make an artist feel right at home.

I moved out of my studio at the end of April. It was a pretty big job getting everything packed up, sold, given away, thrown away, and moved into a storage unit. Then I had to get the storage unit organized so that I could actually find things. (Photo of the storage unit forthcoming). Then I had to take care of a lot of other things, so today was the first day I actually set up my easel and an unfinished painting and slopped some paint. It felt pretty good to be able to do that. Did I do any good? Not really. It takes a while to get the rhythm going. At least I was able to put the finishing touches on this painting, sign it, declare victory, and get ready to move on to the next one.

My main occupation these days is job hunting. Part of it is going well: I'm finding lots of interesting jobs. The problem is, none of them are finding me. It's a very frustrating, maddening experience. The job deck is stacked against the job hunter these days, and the old rules ("old" being anything older than 3 years) no longer apply.

One of the things that has really hit home is that resumes have to be written for the specific opening. Generic resumes don't work. The reason is that most employers are now using automated systems that scan your resume and (maybe) your cover letter for specific keywords. The keywords are different for each job and, of course, you don't know what they are. Your best guide is the job announcement itself. So you take your resume and cut/paste/reorganize it to match what the job announcement says they're looking for, using as many of their specific words as possible. That will, hopefully, get your resume past the automated system and into the hot little hands of a real person.

Another is that each halfway-decent job announcement will get dozens, or hundreds, of applications. With so many people looking for work (thank you, Wall Street), the competition is really fierce. So your resume has to out-shine not only the next guy's, but a whole boatload of others as well.

Even if the resume is top-notch, you may be cut out for really bullshit reasons. There was one really cool job where I made the first cut. The next step was to take a written test. Yes, this was a government position, no civilian company that I'm aware of requires written tests. The test could only be taken in person, in their HR shop. I suggested that they email me the test, or mail it to a contact in the Asheville city government and they could administer it, but no. Had to be there or else. So it was "else". They could afford to be dickheads because there were so many people applying.

Lots of job-hunting guides tell you to network, to meet people working in the company that you want to work for, and establish personal connections. That's fine if you're living in a major city and not planning on relocating. But I live in Asheville, which is one of the 10 worst cities for finding a job, and I'm planning on going somewhere else. Our goal is San Diego, where we have family, or possibly some other place if needed. You can't personally network from a couple thousand miles away. I'm doing what I can with emails, social networking, and phone calls, but distance is definitely an issue.

On a personal note, I find myself getting angry with TV and print advertisements. It's like they're rubbing salt into my jobless wound. Yes, I would love to buy a new Mustang, but I need a job first. All these ads are populated by sleek, well-dressed people, and the message I'm getting is "this stuff is for successful people, and you're NOT". In my head, I know that's not right, but that's the feeling I get anyway.

So I keep going. Get up, search for jobs, network, send out notes, work on an application for several hours, fire it off and forget it. Repeat. Something will break for us.

Monday, May 09, 2011


The Dispatch Rider
Photo by Mark Hogancamp

I just watched the film "Marwencol". I thought it was a stunning, thought-provoking, and insightful documentary. The backstory: Mark Hogancamp, a heavy drinker, was assaulted outside a bar one night by five men. They beat him so badly that he was in a coma for nine days. His face was smashed, his memory gone, his personality permanently altered, and he had to learn to walk again. Dumped from the hospital and then from therapy when Medicaid wouldn't pay anymore, Mark created his own therapy. He invented the town of Marwencol, located in Belgium in World War II. It is peopled by 1/6-scale dolls that Mark dresses, poses, and photographs, as they act out situations and stories. The photos have been exhibited in New York galleries, and caught the attention of filmmakers who created this documentary.

All the above is true and accurate. But it doesn't capture the power of this film. It is gripping on so many levels. On one, it is a story about traumatic brain injury (TBI). Mark was damaged in the same way that so many of our soldiers have been: his brain was badly battered and will never completely heal. You see him struggling with the simple task of walking, five years after the attack. You see him trying to make sense of his world and try to relate to people when he can't think the same way others do.

On another level, it is the story of a lonely individual who is trying to connect with others. He vaguely remembers being married at one time, but that is now gone. Now he wants to love and be loved, but he can't. Part of the reason is the TBI; part may be something else that the filmmakers decided not to touch upon. So Mark lives out his desires through the "people" of Marwencol.

On still another level, it is the story of art as therapy. Mark started down the road that led to Marwencol by a lucky accident, and he continued because he had to. He was dropped from Medicaid and had nothing else. Fortunately for him, Marwencol worked. Creating the town, the "people", and the stories gave him a world in which he could live. He could be a strong man, love a woman, fight evil (especially the attackers), be independent, and do the things that he couldn't do in real life.

And it's a story about art. Where does art come from? Watching Mark Hogencamp, I thought of Vincent Van Gogh, another individual with mental issues who created amazing images. The filmmakers discussed Mark's images as powerful images in their own right. There are other contemporary artists who photograph dolls, manikins, or other such stand-ins for real people, but virtually all of them do it in an ironic way. "It's a soldier! No, it's a doll (wink wink)". Mark's work has no irony in it whatsoever, something that I think is wonderful. Irony is over-rated, and I say that as somebody who has done a whole series of ironic paintings. If making art is a way of understanding your world, then Mark is a master. If you're an artist, are you willing to go the distance that he has?

And there are still other stories to the film, such as what led to the assault in the first place, who the "people" in Marwencol are, and even where the name "Marwencol" came from. If you're interested in brain injury, art as therapy, art as art, or just interested in a gripping story of somebody trying to make sense out of their life, see this movie. Put it on your Netflix queue. It's well worth watching.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Guillermo Munoz Vera

Even though I've closed my art studio, I'm still an artist, and still interested in seeing what other painters are doing. One of my monthly rituals is to go through the newest issue of Art in America magazine and flag the pages with interesting images. Then I google those artists and study their work. Sometimes there are lots of artists to research, sometimes only one or two. Lately there have been very few, which was making me discouraged, but the newest issue has several.

One of them is Guillermo Munoz Vera, who has a show at the Forum Gallery. This gallery tends toward traditionally-executed, highly representational works. Guillermo's current exhibit is an unusual one: it's made up of about 20 hyper-realistic paintings, all on the theme of European voyages of discovery in the 16th century.

The Cartographer
Oil on canvas

As expected of the Forum gallery, these paintings are exceptionally well done. Besides the unusual theme, several other details caught my eye. For one, all of these paintings were done in 2010 and 2011. Most of them are quite large. That's a hell of a lot of painting to get done in a short period of time. When I looked him up on the 'net, it appears that this is his normal pace. Even allowing for the use of projectors to assist in drawing and color selection, this guy is cranking. I can't do that. I poke along and can work on one painting for months.

For another, I'm wondering where he gets his reference materials. Many arrangements can be staged in a studio, but some of them can't. Cape Horn, for instance, is a large (59"x59") painting of a 16th-century Spanish sailing vessel that's pounding through rough seas under a stormy sky. When you look at the details of the rigging, spray, and so forth, that's not roughed in, it's photographically accurate. He had to base it on photos of a real ship, but exactly how is beyond me.

Guillermo Vera doesn't normally work on historical paintings. Do a google search for his images and you'll see that he's done photo-realistic work of people, interiors, landscapes, Cuban cars, and more. Here's one that resonated with me:

Maia with Kalashnikov AK-47
Oil on canvas

Jolting, isn't it? I'd love to see this work in person.

Just as I don't do abstracts, I don't do photo-realistic works. I like to make representational paintings that are still about painting, where the visible brush strokes are an important part of the finished piece. But I appreciate well-done abstract and photo-realistic paintings. Munoz's are extremely well done. I just wish I could get to New York to see the show.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden

By now, the whole world knows that Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs last night in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Information is still coming out and we'll probably never know many of the true details of the operation. Still, this is a time to congratulate the unnamed (and un-nameable) intelligence analysts who worked for ten years to piece together the details that led to finding bin Laden. We must also congratulate the unnamed (and un-nameable) Special Operations forces that planned and executed the attack. The dedication, professionalism, and tenacity of these individuals is what led to yesterday's successes. Raise a toast in their honor: they deserve it.

The disclosure of bin Laden's location raises a ton of questions about Pakistan, however. For years, Pakistani leaders, including Pervez Musharraf (former military strongman and President) and Asif Ali Zardari (current President) have said that bin Laden was not in Pakistan; and if he was, he was probably in Waziristan, the lawless area along the border with Afghanistan. Last night proved them wrong. Bin Laden was "hiding" in a huge house in a highly populated area only 40 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. His compound was within a short walking distance of the headquarters of a regiment of the Pakistani army. The house was a fortress: eight times the size of anything else in the area, surrounded by tall walls topped with barbed wire. Does this sound like he was particularly worried about the Pakistani government finding him? It's like finding Adolf Hitler "hiding" in a fortress in Frederick, Maryland.

No, I think this proves the Pakistani lie. Their intelligence agency, the ISI, helped establish the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The ISI has always been a bit of a rogue element, outside the control of the President and even, to a certain extent, the military. At the same time that we've been providing Pakistan with aid and assistance over the years, we've been leaning on them to rein in the ISI. They've been giving us lip service, saying one thing while doing the opposite. While telling the world that they were "searching" for bin Laden, they were instead practically treating him as a guest of honor. Now they have world-class egg on their faces, as well they should have. Their lie is exposed.

Apparently, not all Pakistanis are in league with the ISI. President Obama last night mentioned that it was Pakistani information that led to the discovery of the compound. The wording, however, indicates to me that it was individual Pakistanis who passed the information, not official government agencies who are supposed to be working with us.

So what do we do with Pakistan now? Cut all aid and support, tell them to go screw themselves? No. We need them and they need us. Most importantly, we need to maintain a good handle on what's going on in that country. To be blunt, I think the only reason we're still involved in Afghanistan is because Pakistan, right next door, is a nuclear power that's teetering on the brink of falling to the Islamists and Taliban/Al Qaeda supporters. If they did, that would be a disaster of world-wide proportions. Not only would international terrorists have a safe home base, but they'd have access to nuclear bombs and materials. A nuclear war with India would only be a matter of time.

As the saying goes, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer". Pakistan is a "frenemy", so we need to keep them in a headlock while trying to encourage the growth of a less-corrupt and more democratic government. A very difficult task.

I've been very interested in exactly how this operation went down. Information is pretty sparse, as it really should be. Apparently, two helicopters with the SEAL team left Afghanistan and flew to Abbottabad for the attack. One helo had a mechanical failure during the operation (possibly due to a sudden ingestion of many bullets from AK47's?) and was destroyed by the team. After the attack was over, the team left with bin Laden's body on the remaining helo and flew back to its base in Afghanistan. The body was apparently photographed, something was taken to provide DNA evidence, and then it was loaded into a US Navy plane and flown to the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. Then it was buried according to "Islamic tradition". The burial was probably filmed for propaganda and historical purposes, although nobody has said that yet.

So: how did the helos get from Afghanistan to Abbottabad? They're not stealthy. Did they disguise themselves as a routine supply flight until arriving at Abbottabad? Did they fly low, under the radar? That's a hard trick to do for any length of time, as it requires skimming the earth and flying through valleys. Very dangerous and risky. The Pakistanis weren't told of the attack until it was over, so the Pakistani air traffic controllers certainly weren't in on the game. And how about the fixed-wing flight from Afghanistan to the carrier? By then, everybody knew about the attack.

Going forward, it's going to be interesting to see what the Pakistanis do. They've been caught out before the whole world in a lie. Their people are already furious about the ongoing drone strikes. They can't cut us off because they can't afford to lose our aid and support. Their leaders will probably make a lot of noise about territorial integrity or some such nonsense, but I doubt they'll do anything really rash. So it will be interesting.

As for the remaining Al Qaeda and related terrorists, it's pretty clear that there will be some reprisal attacks. I would expect to see some suicide bombings very soon - almost certainly in Afghanistan, possibly Pakistan, and possibly a few other (unexpected) places. Suicide bombings are easy for them to arrange on short notice. We will probably see much more complicated attacks being planned for the longer term (several months). Al Qaeda used to have a very long-term view, in the decades, but now it's much shorter. They've been beaten back over the past few years. I think they have to quickly prove they're still relevant or else they'll lose their support, so they're probably thinking in terms of months now, rather than decades.

One target down. More must follow. The momentum seems to be on our side now, though.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Out of the Studio

After eight years, I no longer have a studio. I finished moving out yesterday. The walls no longer have my works on them, my supplies and equipment are gone, and all that's left belongs to my studio partner. I feel kinda sad - the place was my professional home for a long time and now it belongs to somebody else.

But it's time to go on to the next stage of life, whatever that is. I've always found that, when the decision to make a change is made (whether it's a change of duty station, change of job, whatever), then I don't mope about what is past. I get excited about whatever's coming down the pike. That's the situation now. I decided three months ago to find some other full-time employment. Then, in order to focus more on the job search and be better prepared for any offer, I decided three weeks ago to close down the studio. I think that was a good decision. It removed an ongoing distraction ("gotta go down to the studio and paint") as well as a Sword of Damocles ("what am I gonna do with the studio if I get a job offer and have to be somewhere in a week?"). Of course, it took quite a bit longer to close it up than I thought: two weeks instead of the anticipated four or five days.

But in the end, it worked out. I sold off a lot of stuff: furniture and equipment mostly. I packed up the reasonably-good artworks and destroyed a lot of substandard ones. Some artist friends and Goodwill got some things gratis. When I removed my workbench and painting rack, I found some really hideous bug sanctuaries. (Hey, the bench and rack were there for eight years, what did you expect?). Now all the "keeper" items are in a 10x10 storage unit, ready to be loaded into a moving van for transportation wherever we go next.

And I'm pretty sure we're going to go somewhere. Asheville is a wonderful place to live, but it has been recognized for having one of the 10 worst job markets in the country. There are lots of examples: a PhD who's working as a federal GS-5 clerk, a young lady with a masters in biology working as a figure model, a large number of people with bachelor's degrees working as waiters and waitresses, former owners of construction companies working at Lowe's. And those are the lucky ones.

As noted in previous posts, I think something will pop for me before too long. It probably will not be here. So tomorrow I double-down on the job search. It won't be a half-time effort anymore.

And I'm pretty excited about it. Whatever it brings.