Saturday, October 8, 2011

Extremism is a hydra

For the past ten ten years, it's felt like fighting terrorists is a game of whack-a-mole.  As soon as you beat one down, another pops up to take its place.  The fact is that there will always be someone to fill the place of a terrorist once they're gone.  This is the human condition.  Statistically speaking, there is at least one person with extreme psycho(or socio)pathic tendencies in every hundred people.  Experts may disagree on the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, but the one thing they do agree on is the lack of remorse or guilt either feels.  Both are drawn to a destructive cause or purpose out of sheer selfishness and lack of empathy for their fellow human beings.


For example, this is true of Islamic extremists.  Those with political agendas take and manipulated the weak minded and ignorant Muslims who are susceptible to influence because of their real (or perceived) disenfranchisement and lack of altruistic nature.  They're taught to believe that someone else should be the target for their current condition and lot in life, and that their destructive actions, while probably enjoyable to them, are also going to provide them with a later reward.  If you remember, I wrote several months ago about the concept of revenge in Middle Eastern society, and this plays directly into this line of thinking with the lack of empathy.  The foot soldiers of the Taliban, Al Qaida, the Haqqani Network, etc are perfect examples.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism
Christian extremists are no different in that they're influenced by fringe religious leaders, although they usually act alone and have little to no direct contact with their mentors.  This is typically a "lone wolf" type of scenario, however, upon searches of their homes, it's clear that the campaigns of these fringe religious cults have specifically targeted these types of people, albeit indirectly, to carry out their agenda.  Abortion clinics and gay bashings are a favorite target.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_terrorism


Political extremists form from the inflammatory religious fanatics, political pundits, and assorted extremist organizational mouth pieces with political power agenda.  While most of these individuals do act alone, they're usually influenced by one of the groups I listed through means of brainwashing of the weak minded person with some type of anti-social personality disorder and lacking a functional conscience.  The extremist is able to identify their problems or anger with a situation on a specific group of people based on the rhetoric of the power players spouting this message of hate.  The extremist then feels fully justified in taking harm to others because they feel it is in their own best interest.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_extremism

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a multiple headed dragon that once you chopped off one head, two grew back in its place.  The only way that Hercules was able to defeat this monster was by burning or cauterizing the neck of each head cut off so that others would not grow back.  The same can be said for extremism.  The ability to sprout new heads will always be there, but we must make sure that the ability for them to grow and flourish is greatly diminished.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lernaean_Hydra

So how do we stop this? That's the tricky part.  How do we protect a population and not diminish the freedoms of another?  Here are some suggestions:
1) Seek out disenfranchised groups in society and seek to include them in the culture.
2) Better define gun control laws and enforcement of who can and cannot own deadly weapons.
3) Better tracking of individuals that may have prior indicators of psychopathic/sociopathic behaviors.
4) Set limits of free speech when it advocates harm to another human.

At this point, you're probably thinking me a fascist, but before our Bill of Rights and before our Constitution, we had the Declaration of Independence which stated that among other things that "that all [humans] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  The greater sin here is to infringe on that pursuit of happiness for another, and extremists, through sheer selfishness do just that.

So how do you stop extremism?  You cut off the head at the neck, which is the support system, and you cauterise the ability to regrow by stopping the rhetoric which makes these actions seem ok in modern and civilized society.  After all, we are humans, flawed to the core, with primordial and evil tendencies.  Legislating morality is usually not good practice, but I would advocate just need to legislate a code of morality that violence and extremism are never ok.  Now, where can we find Hercules when we need him?

More to follow.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Something with nothing

I had the opportunity to assist one of my Sergeants today in a humanitarian aid project she was assigned.  The National Director of Daycares and Orphanages has the main office in Kabul with facilities throughout the city and the rest of the country.  The director was a woman and my Sergeant, being the only female in the office, was chosen as the project point of contact in keeping with traditional male/female business relationships here.  She asked me to assist her in helping run this project from a experience perspective.

After a good meeting of discussing the director's wants and needs for the program and our explaining what we were able to provide at present and what we would take back to the office to consider alternate funding sources, we all drank chi tea and small chocolates.  Throughout the Middle East, guests are always entertained with refreshments, which are typically chi tea and some form of a small snack.  The tea is usually served near boiling hot and is customarily sipped after agreements are reached.  Hospitality is a very important concept in the Middle East.


With the end of the meeting, we received a list of all the government run orphanages/daycares in the Kabul area.  After which, we took a tour of the orphanage/daycare they had on site that serviced the central area of Kabul to view the conditions, staffing, and supplies.  It was dark and barren by most Western standards.  But it was obvious from the amount of women there running the facility, the children were still well cared for with the limited means they had available.


It was as if we had walked into an orphanage from the late 19th to early 20th century.  Yes, they had electricity, but very few lights and only a couple fans to make use of it.  There were no places for the children to sleep as they all slept on the floor, the lucky ones on smal mats.  There were few toys and books, and the institution also served as a school of sorts with educational material all over the walls in Dari, the most common language.  One child who wasn't afraid to shake my hand came up to me and said hi.  I gave him a piece of gum, and he looked thrilled.  With the prodding of his nannies, he told me "/tasha coor/", which means "thank you" in Dari.



In the U.S. Military, I'm used to accomplishing missions with less than optimal resources.  At times, we improvise and others, we make use of the limited resources available, because we know failure is not an option.  These women taking care of the children I saw today are dedicated individuals who make do with the limited support the Afghan Government can provide and still manage to make sure every child is cared for.



Our unit intends to make humanitarian drops to the ones most in need of supplies throughout the next year until we redeploy.  If you would like to donate to our humanitarian drive for clothing, shoes, hygiene products, toys, diapers, etc, for children between the ages of 2-12, please email me and I can give you specifics and an address to ship donated items.   Thank you.

More to follow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Religious hypocrisy

"Hypocrisy: prejudice with a halo", Ambrose Bierce

So I've been talking about how hyopcritic the Taliban are in that they use the very same things they decry as their own tools. Technology to them is a tool to win a war even though they refuse to let the population they want to control use any technology themselves. This got me to thinking, and I know at this point you know what is coming. Another rant about some social ill I wish to address. Well at the risk of disappointing you, I'll proceed with my thoughts on this subject.

Religion and politics should never mix. Fundamentally, the two are like gasoline and styrofoam (together they make a simple napalm). In and of themselves, both can be bad for their environment, but put them together and they are terrible. Don't believe me? Let's look at religiously controlling governments throughout history.

I believe the Vatican speaks for itself throughout the past thousand years. More recently, what does the world think now about the decades of sexual abuse of children that had been known to all but covered up and excused? What about the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition? Let's not forget the reason England broke away from the Catholic faith, for one man to get a new wife. How about the Hebrew state, and lack thereof recent history not withstanding? If you read the Old Testament, the Jewish people did some pretty horrific things in their past too. And Islam is not free and clear of my scorn either. Just look what Iran has done to their own people in the last few decades? And all Islamic militants have at least a religious undertone and goals to their insurgency and not purely political. Neither Judaism or Christianity at this day in age will force everyone to conform exactly to their beliefs like many Islamic countries do. Every major monotheistic religion has gone through a dark ages. Muslims, welcome to your time.

Let's look at where I am now. The Taliban are fighting for control of Afghanistan to set up an Islamic emirate under Sharia law. The Taliban abhor and ban technology, however they're well versed in the use of twitter. They make audio and video recordings to send out their propaganda. They believe in using 20th century weapons to fight for their cause, yet they beat their women with horse whips. At least that's keeping up some kind of standard. Al Qaeda wants to do the same as well as the multitude of other factional militant scum bag insurgent groups. Just look at Osama Bin Ladin. After he was taken out, among the things that were confiscated from his Pakistani ISI secured home was a laptop full of pornography. So much for that being un-Islamic.

Back home in the United States, we have politicians who espouse religious and moral values yet are caught up in sex scandals and assorted ethics violations. They pander to the uneducated Christian masses quoting selective Biblical based morality, yet they are most often guilty of major infractions themselves. One of our prospective candidates for President has had rumors of sex scandals (both hetero and homo) swirling around their office for years, yet they rail against homosexuals and advocate laws against them. Another candidate has a husband that to every person in the world seems gay, yet she calls homosexuality a sickness and does her best to legislate morality based on her sickening amateur non-psychiatric views. Politicians value the sanctity of marriage and vow to forbid gays and lesbians from legal marriage by amending the country's Constitution, but they philander on their own spouses and turn a blind eye to any heterosexual marriage that does not result in offspring. They espouse the precious nature of life itself by stopping women from having early term abortions for any reason what so ever, yet they gut the foster care and social systems of support for minor orphans or kids with no legal guardians other than the State. Priorities?

Let's look at the Bible for a second. In *some* versions of the Bible it speaks against homosexuality based on certain ancient customs in the Old Testament, yet Christians focus on this prohibition and forget the others. Should we stone to death our women who adulterer or go out in public during their menstrual cycle? Shall we shut down all Southern BBQ joints since pork is not allowed? How about shutting seafood restaurants for serving shellfish? Children should be beaten and executed for not honoring their parents. You should smite your neighbors for their planting two crops in the same field, wearing a garment made of two different fibers, and what about no longer keeping the Sabbath a holy day? Even the most devout of Christians rarely do absolutely nothing but worship God on our Sabbath.

Personal religion is good as I believe it gives a person something to believe in bigger than themselves. I'm not saying in order to have religion a person must believe in God, a god, or any god at all. Religion is necessary to believe in something bigger than themselves, such as science, art, or the compassion of the entire human race coming together in helping others. Alternately, a non-theological based religion such as the worship of money is also popular, but not as recognized. Organized religion is the root of all evil as the human condition is corrupted by power. Organized religion provides power in a control of its base by those in charge. Combine that with politics in government, and you have force by rule of law to enforce religious dogma and legislate morality. At this point, those in power believe they are above the law, and thus hypocrisy is born. Tell me fundamentalist Christians, WWJD? (what would Jesus do?) Yeah, I thought so...

"The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.", Andre Gide

More to follow.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

All access

Today the roads were finally opened up for travel.  After three weeks, I was pretty tired of being cooped up on my small compound, so a short trip across the street to ISAF was a good break.  Even though the Green Zone is right across the street from us on the other side of Massoud Circle, it is not within the confines of the "secured" Green Zone and therefore we must travel via armored shuttle.

I can't wait for when it starts turning colder.  When that happens, they typically open up the area to walking between camps.  As it turns out, insurgents are weather sensitive and solar powered.  They don't fight when it's cold or wet and they don't fight at night.  We all knew this in Iraq as well since the incidents of IEDs and other attacks drastically decreased during the winter months.

I had some unfinished business at the ISAF compound since before the Kabul attacks a few weeks ago, but this was the first opportunity I had had to come back to complete it.  Because of the meetings I regularly attend, I had to get an escorted visitor's badge every time I attended.  I think the staff of the company's meetings I attend got tired of having to escort me and they sponsored me to get an all access ISAF badge.  Score...

So as it appears, more doors are opening for me now.  As soon as I'm completed with a new document standardization software tool, I'll be able to travel the whole country to distribute and train everyone on how to us the software I'm creating.  Now, having this badge will make things a lot easier, so I'll have unrestricted access to not only the U.S. run compounds, but also the bases run by our NATO partners as well.  Kind of a backstage pass, and I've got all access.  But for now, I'm just happy the roads have reopened and I have access back to ISAF.  That way, I can go and sit at one of the European run cafes and contemplate my existence over a good cup of coffee.

More to follow.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ideas are bulletproof

Being Friday, I was looking forward to my weekly meeting at ISAF (that I'd missed for the past two weeks because of restricted travel from threat conditions).  Truth be told, I was more missing my other weekly pleasure of a cup of coffee at one of the European cafes on ISAF.  But before I could leave our compound, it was decided to restrict travel one more day due to the unrest in Kabul.  If you remember, while I was out yesterday at the Olympic stadium, the streets were literally filled with banners, posters, and signs comemorating the recent loss.


Today was the funeral for former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, ethnic Tajik and head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, who was killed two days ago by Taliban posing as peace negotiators.  Security in the capital was unprecedented for the event with thousands of mourners.  Several factional leaders attended the funeral, which devolved into a protest and riot.  Much of the anger was directed at current President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, since he had pushed Rabbani to meet with the Taliban (who are made up mostly of ethnic Pashtuns).  In his eulagy, Karzai called Rabbani a martyr.   Once a person becomes immortalized as a martyr, their status transcends the mortal confines of their body to become an idea.


I'd like to share a quote:  "We are taught to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten. But 400 years later an idea can still change the world. I've witnessed first hand the power of ides. I've seen people kill in the name of them and die defending them. But you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it or hold it. Ideas do not bleed or fell pain and do not love."   http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0434409/


This is a quote from the beginning of a movie I watched again the other night, "V for Vendetta".  If you haven't seen the movie, I won't give away the plot.  But the main theme of the movie is that an idea, until forgotten, is stronger than any force on Earth.  Ideas are conveyed by words, and as the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword.  One of my favorite quotes form this movie is:   "While the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen the enunciation of truth."

While I know that the Taliban think they are winning by selectively and cowardly taking out key people throughout the GIRoA and innocent civilians throughout the country, they don't realize that with every innocent death, they create a martyr, which creates an idea.  To quote from the movie again, "Fairness, Justice, and Freedom, are more than just words, they're perspectives."  And perspectives are ideas.  While the Taliban may continue to destroy things and kill people to stop the ideas they oppose, they will never stop the ideas themselves.  Because as the protagonist of the movie states, "ideas are bulletproof".

More to follow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Public events

Today I had the pleasure of attending a basketball game between a team from the US Forces Headquarters in Afghanistan and the Afghanistan national basketball team at the Olympic complex in Kabul.  On the way there, the streets were full of signs commemorating the martyrdom of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated yesterday by emissaries from the Taliban.  The posters tell of the funeral to be held in Kabul tomorrow.  Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend.


We get to the Olympic complex and our first stop was to Ghazi (Hero) Stadium.  Built in 1923, it was constructed by then King Amanullah Khan after his defeat of the British.  It later became used for public executions during the Taliban's rule from 1996-2001.  Today it is being renovated and resurfaced to become an official FIFA regulation soccer (football) field.  Walking out on the very spot that had been the site of public executions was an erie feeling.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghazi_Stadium

Afterwards, we made our way to the gymnasium where the USFOR-A team was suited up to play the Afghan national team.  The U.S. Military brought about twenty people for cheering support and spectators.  The Afghans brought just about as many, until the ANA and ANPs in the area showed up interested in seeing this showdown.  It was a close game, right down to the buzzer with a 3 point shot that clinched the game, 73 to 76, Afghanistan.  What a great publicity event this was for bragging rights, and they have every reason to celebrate.  They've overcome a lot in the last few years in forming their team.  They definitely earned their win.


Public events can bring people together in unity or tear them apart.  The Taliban are masters at tearing at the basic fabric of society by the use of fear of violence and death.  Yes, the peace process is in shambles at the moment with their chief negotiator dead at the hands of the party he was trying to reintegrate, but the Afghan people share a power that is stronger than the fear the Taliban used to instill in them.  Afghans have a force of unity through a hope for peace and a better life.  Whether it be from a symbolic sports win for national pride or the solidarity of celebrating a martyr and carrying on their mission to bring peace to a land that has seen so little over the millennia.  My hope?  The next public event here will be the completed turnover of all security to the Afghan Government and the reintegration and reconciliation of a group currently hell bent on destruction.  That would be a true test of the public unity.

More to follow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

At it again

As is typical of the Taliban, once again they showed their ass and proved yet again they have no honor.  Yesterday, an envoy of Taliban "peace negotiators" detonated a bomb hidden in a turbin at the home of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, a chief negotiator in the peace and reconciliation process.  A sneaky and underhanded way to attack your enemy similar to the way they assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001, who I mentioned in an earlier post.
http://articles.cnn.com/2011-09-20/asia/world_asia_afghanistan-violence_1_afghan-president-burhanuddin-rabbani-afghan-people
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44593185/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/ex-afghan-president-slain-his-kabul-home/
http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/us_embassy_in_kabul_sounds_attack_bcBNjquEDNOaUHleJ161dI

What's even more astonishing is that the Taliban, who are staunchly anti-technology when it comes to dictating the daily lives of their targeted population, use a wide array of technological devices and communication forms.  What I find absolutely amazing is that the ISAF public affairs office is engaged in a "Twitter war" with Taliban spokesmen.  You really need to check this out.  It's absolutely hilarious.  They both taunt each other, and reading through the Taliban's tweets, they aren't accurate at all.  It's all very reminiscent of the communist radio broadcasts during the Korean and VietNam wars.
https://twitter.com/#!/ISAFMedia
https://twitter.com/#!/ABalkhi
https://twitter.com/#!/alemarahweb

The Taliban claim to speak for the people, yet they really aren't even citizens of the country.  Most are original Pakistani ethnic Pashtun refugees now living in the Kandahar region who left their own country for more fertile ground since the military dictatorship in Pakistan wouldn't allow them to practice their perverse form of Islam within its borders.  Kinda like how the English kicked out the religious nut jobs who settled the United States 400 years ago.

Fighting an enemy with no honor is a difficult task.  They don't obey the Geneva Conventions.  They don't follow International law.  And fighting an enemy that will use a "follow as I command, but not as I live" mentality is not the kind of enemy worthy of making peace.  In my own personal opinion, and I don't speak for anyone but myself, squash these cockroaches like the vermin they are.  For those who seek to plunge this country back into darkness, all I have to say is that most vermin are afraid of the light.  To the legitimate GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) let your light shine on.

More to follow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

End of an era

Unless you're involved with the U.S. Military in one way or another, the significance of today may pass you by.  Today is a day eighteen years in the making to undo an injustice that was legislated in the name of a political compromise.  President Clinton signed into law a bill now infamously known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don't_ask,_don't_tell
http://www.npr.org/2011/09/20/140605121/with-repeal-of-dont-ask-dont-tell-an-era-ends


In 1993, under Defense Department Directive 1332.14 later codified into Title 10 U.S.C. § 654, the law in full name was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue", but that last part was conspicuously left off as witch hunts that this law was designed to stop continued to flourish through misuse and abuse of the policy.  Under it's reign, the combined Services lost well over 13,000 talented individuals, who did nothing more than to let their orientation be known by either on purpose or on accident.  Arguably, without this law that paved the way for Service involuntary discharges, it did much more harm than good.  Even the original author of the law, now dead, was later quoted as saying it was a temporary compromise and never should have been left permanently in law.

Personally I have lived under the thumb of this rule my entire career.  In fact, even before my career took off, I was forced to sign a statement acknowledging the policy.  At that time, I didn't even know what I was signing or the significance it would hold.  After I entered the Army, I studied the policy and knew the rules inside and out.  We had annual training classes which included the policy; the PowerPoint presentations even gave us a handy acronym to understand what was prohibited: SAM (Statements about your orientation, Actions of prohibited conduct, and Marriage to or attempt to marry a person of the opposite gender).  It all seemed like a nice little legislative package where everyone was happy and there were no problems.  But that was far from reality.

Everywhere I went, I carried business cards with me from the Servicemember's Legal Defense Network (SLDN) to give to fellow Service Members whenever I met one. (http://www.sldn.org)  I even went so far as to place them at local bars and clubs so the naive and those ignorant of the policy knew their rights.  For years, I found the loopholes and kept my personal life completely separate from my work.    I even endured several "informal investigations" by rogue commanders who had heard rumors and decided to do some (albeit illegal) investigations of their own outside of what the policy legally allows. As I said, I've been smart throughout my career, and those spotlights died down with lack of credible evidence and with the threat of the Inspector General.

And here I am today, looking at the end of the policy under which I have lived for my entire Military career.  Even to this day while deployed, I still carry the SLDN cards in my wallet.  I suppose I can take them out now. And what of the contract addendum in my computer archived permanent file?  Will it magically disappear or will it follow me as a legacy document from a time less friendly?  And what has changed for me now?  Very little unfortunately as the removal of a law does not change attitudes.  That will take some time, and probably not before my career is through.  In any case, I can clean out my wallet and marry the person I love without repercussions.  I guess a little has changed for me as that small fear I always carried around with me can no longer own me.

More to follow.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clash of cultures

Kabul is an odd city.  It has a population that is pushing forward with progress while parts are still intermixed with anachronism, meaning much of it still seems out of place and time.  However, they seem to exist side by side relatively peacefully.  The past week has given me a the opportunity to do hours of people watching.  During the five years of Taliban control, much of the Afghan society was morally legislated and enforced by the religious policemen.  So much that was considered unIslamic is now back and flourishing in Kabul.  It's interesting to watch the people walk up and down the street.  I get very little interaction with them so I am limited to mostly observation.

Watching to see how someone dresses is a great window into their society.  A large number of people dress in western styled clothing now.  Some dress in business attire, either formal or casual.  I can only speculate that they're somehow connected with the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan).  A lot of the younger generation has the means to dress a little more trendy.  Acid washed and colorfully stitched designer jeans similar to what is popular in the Western world are often worn with tailored and colorful fashionable shirts.  The ensemble is complete with either tennis shoes or designer dress shoes and a styled hair cut which was banned during Taliban control.  Many men still wear the Perahan Tunban, which is like a long tunic and baggy pants, and what we often refer to as "man jammies".  Women wear many different styles of clothing and modest dresses but complete their covering with some sort of modesty garment, depending on how conservative the family prefers she dress.  The options are a full burqa, body covering but face showing abaya, or the now largely popular hejab head covering scarf.
http://www.afghanistan-culture.com/afghanistan-clothing.html

Vehicles and modes of transportation are the other main category of my observations.  Unlike much of the rest of the country, there are a lot of vehicles in Kabul.  Rush hour starts early, at around 6am, and you see all types of locomotion until early evening.  Much of the city carpools, whether through shared rides in private vehicles, shared taxis, or use of "public transportation" which is little more than minivans or small private buses.

Scooters and mopeds are popular.  Not only do they serve as cheap transportation, they also serve as mass transportation of sorts. It's very common to see three grown men riding on a scooter.  In some cases, entire families can go out for a ride.  I saw a man with his wife riding in back in full burqa, with three children between them out for a ride somewhere.

Vehicles of every kind roll through the streets.  The majority of the International community here uses some sort of SUV, but some of the locals have them too.  The police typically ride around in crew cab trucks and are also fitted with bucket seats in the bed for easier machine gun access.  Minivans typically serve as privately owned mass transportation, and taxi cabs are either small late model sedans or station wagons.  There are any number and kind of other sedans and sports cars, albeit, not very expensive ones.

It surprised me the amount of horse and donkey drawn wagons that bring products to market at all hours of the day and night.  Even human pushed vegetable and other ware carts are pushed through the streets.  A lot of residents use bicycles, and they look as if they're made in the 1960s.

I was able to witness a new trend of sorts.  On wedding nights, typically Thursday and Friday (which are their weekend days) after the wedding, the bride and groom lead a caravan of vehicles around the city on a joy ride.  The wedding car is decorated with flowers and lights, similar to Christmas lights, and lead a convoy of about a dozen vehicles through the streets at all hours of the nights while singing, clapping, and listening to music.  It's nice to see some customs evolving and flourishing, even in a country that's still gripped by war in its more remote areas.

In some areas of the city, it looks as if you're back in the 19th Century, while looking at others, you could be in present day with teenagers walking with their friends in the latest fashions and busy with their faces buried in personal electronics devices texting busily with other friends.  With the overthrow of the Taliban, the residents of Kabul are no longer required to conform to one group's concept of what is proper.  Welcome to freedom my friends.  Can you please tell the politicians back in the U.S. that completely different cultures can co-exist in harmony as well?

More to follow.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The smile game

One of the easiest ways to see how a person feels about you is to smile at them.  Those that like you will smile back.  Those that do not will not.  Being on the compound's guard towers during the daytime gives you the opportunity to interact with the locals, to some extent.

Several of our guard towers face a busy thoroughfare, basically a boulevard big enough for twelve lanes of traffic.  Along either side of this boulevard is a sidewalk, and the sidewalk on our side is just below the towers.  During all hours of daylight, Afghans walk up and down the sidewalk sometimes alone and sometimes in groups.  Sometimes they look up at us and other times they ignore us completely.  I've made a conscious effort to smile and/or give a small wave at anyone I catch who looking up at us.

A smile is a universal communication tool that doesn't require someone to speak the same language.  It conveys a greeting and general happiness.  Smiles are often infectious and easily spread.  Just try this simple exercise when at a crowded place like a mall or sporting event.  If you're passing someone and your eyes meet, just smile and see if they smile back.  Often they do, and that small feeling of happiness has been passed from person to person.  Occasionally people don't smile back, but at which point, you can never know what issues that person may be facing at the present.  This is such a powerful tool that you don't even need to see a person to know they're smiling.  For years, phone operators, tech support call centers, and telemarketers have known that smiling while talking on the phone is a great tool to convey a happy emotion through a voice-only medium.  Go on and try it the next time you're on the phone; the other party can tell if you're smiling or not.

A few years ago, a report was released by the Journal of the American Medical Association where Alzheimer's patients were used in a study on emotion and memory.  In the study, researchers worked with patients with severe cases of Alzheimer's and involved the patients in strong emotionally themed videos.  After the sessions were over, the patients were questioned a later about the sessions and none could remember the videos at all.  What they did relate though was that they overwhelmingly felt the emotional theme of the video they had watched.  The researchers concluded that the areas of the brain that process emotions are different than the cognitive memory centers.  Therefore, people are able to remember emotions much better than any other type of recollection.
http://www.alzheimersweekly.com/content/emotion-lasts-well-beyond-memory
http://www.bukisa.com/articles/435654_emotion-can-live-longer-than-memory
http://www.themedguru.com/node/34041

Back at my guard tower, I get all kinds of reactions.  I get the happy smile and returned wave.  I also get the surprised smile and returned wave.  Sometimes I get a smile or wave even before I can give out the greeting.  Other times I get nothing but a continued return glare.  Children and young adults always return a wave and a smile.  Older men will usually politely wave as well.  Afghan National Police and Military always return a wave, almost as if it's a professional courtesy where we both acknowledge our shared service to the people.  Individuals in Western clothing such as designer jeans, collared shirts, or business attire I can almost guarantee will be friendly.  Alternately, middle aged men in traditional dress are the ones who most often don't return the courtesy.

In an area of the world where our reputation here is shaky at best, I've found the best defense is a good smiling offense.  A smile helps people let their guard down and potentially trust us to help them.  There are a lot of hard feelings in this country for the treatment it has received from outsiders.  Memories of years of pain runs deep here, and a happy emotion or two definitely helps break the ice for a people who can recall little but misery over the majority of their lives.

An old proverb goes like this: "People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

More to follow.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Common ground

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

We may be from completely different cultures, but we still have the same needs and concerns.  I've been spending a lot of time on the base's guard towers lately and sharing that responsibility with the contracted security personnel.  A British firm has been contracted to provide security for us on our compound, and they hire both British ex-patriots and local Afghans as private security guards.

While there's a pretty big communication barrier between the U.S. Troops and the Afghan guards, the British guards who maintain the security camera system have a lot to talk about. (This isn't to say that some of the British don't have communication barriers as well. Have you ever tried conversing with a Scot and completely understand everything they have to say through their thick accent?)  They have many of the same major concerns as us in the U.S. They're concerned about their own economy and having to bail out the rest of the world.  They're angry about immigration and feel their country is being flooded with immigrants, both legal and illegal.  They don't like their social welfare monies going to foreigners who chose not to work then send it back home out of the country.  They're concerned about domestic terrorism spreading from corners of the world that have been left to rot for too long.  But they don't seem too concerned about gay marriage or gays in the military.  I suppose that's because my country was started by religious extremists who weren't really welcome in England due to their extreme prejudicial moralistic views.  Some things never change I guess.

Though most don't speak English well, and we don't speak much Dari, the Afghan guards still have a lot to say, if even with few words.  Through a series of just a few English words and a lot of gestures, we can actually hold somewhat of a conversation.  These are a few of our topics:

Politics.  They asked us what we thought about our last few U.S. presidents.  Using the thumbs up or down gesture, they really love President George Bush.  My guess is probably because he is seen as a liberator of their society from the Taliban.  President Clinton is also viewed favorably, although I wasn't able to figure out why.  However, they do respect him for his work with Monica Lewinsky.  (Don't ask, I don't know why...)  By contrast, President Obama is not viewed absolutely unfavorably, but he is not as popular.  My guess is that he appears to be focusing more on domestic issues and is not offering the support to the War on Terror as his predecessor.  As for foreign policy, they overwhelmingly do not like their geographical neighbors, namely Packistan and Iran.  They feel these two countries especially cause the instability in Afghanistan and want them to mind their own business.

Economics.  Residents of Kabul enjoy the U.S. and international presence. Not only do they like no longer being under the thumb on Taliban control, but the economic stimulation has helped this area tremendously.  We employ a lot of the local population and we also purchase locally when possible for construction and using the local bazaars.  A couple of the guards explained that they are working for us to save money because they are not married.  One has a woman (and living in sin with his family under the same roof) because he does not have the money to hold a proper wedding.  The other explained that he cannot find a wife because he doesn't have enough money to pay a prospective bride's parents for the hand in marriage.  He has no prospective bride yet, although he is partial to the Jennifer Lopez type of woman because he likes the "jiggy jiggy".  I explained that in English we call that "booty".

Religion.  I spent a couple hours one night in a tower with a guard angrily staring off into the darkness who did very little but to repeatedly utter the phrases "Fucking Taliban" and "Bad Islam" while he took long drags on his cigarette and spoke between exhales.  All the guards were quick to point out that the Taliban were "No Islam!".  I explained in English snippets they understood that [Drawing a large circle with my hands] this was Islam and "is good".  While this [drawing a small circle inside the larger] was Taliban and "bad Islam".  I then explained "in America same-same", that again [drawing a large circle] that Christianity "is good", and then [drawing a smaller circle] "some Christians, bad Christians.  No Christians"  They understood completely.  Too bad the "bad" Christians don't understand this concept.  We also came to the conclusion that we all believe in the same God that wants us to be kind to each other, but we just worship differently.

Morality and social responsibility.  We tossed bottles of water down to the poor and the police and military who were working checkpoints in the streets.  A form of social welfare I suppose to ensure that those who need help are given it by those who have the resources that can be spared.  We watched a cross section of society walk past our towers.  We decided that full burquas were not entirely bad.  We also saw women in the nun-like abaya and hejab head scarf.  It was good that all three options for covering were available and acceptable for wear that that it was up to the family and the individual to make that decision.  I suppose that if people in Afghanistan can rebel against a religiously motivated political group that tries to legislate morality, we in the U.S. should do the same.

This got me to thinking that these people have a lot of the same concerns as we do back home.  Granted that their requirements on the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs are much more basic that what we give focus, but the basic concepts are still the same.  All politics are local, and those views are based on their needs for survival.  The abstract concepts are the same for everyone in the world, irrespective of religion, political affiliation, or economic status.  We may not fully understand each other, but you are still my brother and we have the same concerns in life.

More to follow.

We now return you...

After a long week, I'm finally back at my normal job.  As time permits from work and rest, I'll be posting retroactively detailing the events of the week that can be released.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program already in progress...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

THREATCON Delta part 2

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

After my short nap, I reported back to the BDOC at midnight with energy drinks in hand to get me through the night.  My first post was at a back corner tower that overlooks the Afghan Military Hospital complex.  Little was stirring there except for the occasional dog, cat, and hired boy who took care of the grounds.  My fellow battle buddy guard and I took turns outside the tower while the other stayed inside and monitored the video camera system with the British ex-patriot contracted security guard.

After several hours, we were relieved and rotated to guard the inner perimeter of the compound.  We did this until dawn.  Fortunately the most action that we saw that evening was to usher anyone outside of a hardened building back inside while we were still in THREATCON Delta.

As the night wore on, we learned from intel updates that the insurgents were members of the Haqqani Network from Pakistan.  Apparently the Taliban were too weak to try an attack in the capital by themselves so they needed to outsource their dirty work.  Since Al Qaida had been effectively beheaded and neutered, the Haqqani Network had been contacted to step up.  Thanks for your stellar performance in quelling the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement of violence within your own boarders there Government of Pakistan... No wonder predator and covert strikes are necessary within your own borders since you are either incapable or unwilling to deal with your own problems.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-14/kabul-assault-tests-afghan-forces/2898964

We learned that the attack in Kabul was aimed at both the U.S. Embassy and ISAF (both in the Green Zone), across the street.  Apparently insurgents are afraid of attacking the the U.S. Forces' New Kabul Compound because they're afraid of what's inside it.  Since the word on the street is that this compound is a prison for "bad Soldiers", they probably believe that we would pour out in an attack column similar to beating a hornets nest and expecting to get instantly stung by an overwhelming force.  Smart move on their part.

With that lack of enemy contact aimed directly at our base, this gave our garrison commander the opportunity to do a little battlefield circulation yesterday.  I found out from multiple sources that he and his entourage of a senior staff officer, public affairs photographer, and personal security detachment took a brief opportunity to come out to the tower closest to the action during the height of the gun battle yesterday and get some time in on the crew served weapons mounted there.  In fact, so many people were there observing in the tower, the tower guards were asked to take a break and go to another tower.  After hearing all this from multiple people present, I didn't feel quite so alarmed about the severity of the attack.

By mid morning of the following day, all of the insurgent fighters had been cleared form their holdout in the hotel down the street that was under construction.  All throughout the night, there was limited sporadic gunfire and several explosions.  The Haqqani had booby trapped the hotel where they had planned their holdout, but the ANP (Afghan National Police), in a daring and heroic assault, competently cleared their makeshift fortress.  Since the International community has been training the ANPs, I expected nothing less from them.

By 0800hrs that next morning, we were relieved from our posts and the base had been taken down to THREATCON Charlie with the current threat neutralized.  This gave me the opportunity to get a little more sleep before my next shift that started in about eight hours.  Looking back over the last few days, I thought about how I had made a choice to stand up and assist just in case I was needed.  I realized then I had chosen wisely and was glad I had stepped up.

More to follow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THREATCON Delta

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operation and didn't have enough time to write and post.

Today began like any other work day.  Although I was still called for tower guard duty one more day longer than we had originally planned because a "credible threat" was still said to exist.  I was having lunch with some coworkers in between my shifts on the towers, and one of them began complaining that the travel lock down needed to be lifted because there hadn't been an attack on the days we anticipated.  As a side note, there had been an attack in the Wardak province with a car bomb on September 10th that injured 77 people.  It appeared that the Taliban weren't strong enough to mount an offensive in the Afghan capital.

After lunch, we went back to the office and sat down to catch up on a few emails before starting back my guard shift that afternoon.  At 1330 hours, the base alarm system went off warning everyone to take shelter as we upgraded our defensive posture to THREATCON Delta.  I grabbed my body armor, helmet, M-4 rifle, and bandoleer of ammo and ran down to the BDOC (Base Defense Operations Center).

A car bomb had exploded at the U.S. Embassy and it and ISAF were currently under attack from SAF (small arms fire) and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) from the area of Massoud Circle, just adjacent to our compound.  I went with a team to secure the inner perimeter of the compound and round up all stragglers to get them to a hardened shelter.  Once outside, the sound of automatic weapons fire in the close vicinity filled the air, and we were all directed to reinforce the compound guard towers.  I ran with another individual to the closest tower, which was on the opposite side from the Embassy and ISAF.

Across from our location and down the opposite side of the street, one insurgent had taken up refuge in a building under construction and was taking sniper shots. From our vantage points in the towers, none of us could see him.  In that same area, the Afghan National Police had identified a suicide bomber and surrounded him from a distance.  Knowing that he had failed, he walked behind a cluster of trees and self detonated rather than being captured.

On the other side of the compound, several towers were engaging targets with M240B and M249 machine guns on another building that was under construction and apparently a stronghold of the fighters.  They watched as they fired RPGs across the street into the Embassy compound and at ISAF.  Our compound apparently was never a real target.  After about an hour, my counterpart in the tower with me left to go see where else he was needed since he was one of the chiefs in charge of the BDOC.  The Sergeant Major of the MP detachment on base was driving around to all the towers bringing us Gatorade and fruit.  I've never been so happy to receive an apple in all my life.

After several hours of sporadic gunfire, things quited down, and at 1630hrs, I listened as the local mosques rang out with their call to afternoon prayer for the devout Muslims.  This was a very surreal moment as everything else in the city was dead silent except for the call to prayer.  By 1700hrs, two Russian made Afghanistan Army Mi-24/35 Hind helicopter gunships began circling the area and repeatedly engaged the building that was under construction near ISAF and then returned back to their base.  For the last couple hours, the skies had begun to darken and by 1800 hrs it poured down in a heavy rain for nearly an hour.

By 1930hrs, we were relived from our post as replacements took over for us to rest before we were to go back on at midnight.  I went back inside and called home to let everyone know I was ok, but no one even knew there had been an attack until I told them.  After assuring them I would be fine, I went in and took a couple hour nap before my midnight guard shift started.  Once the adrenaline had died down, I slept like a rock (until my alarm went off).

Not sure why but I wasn't scared.  I like to think it's the Saints charmes that I carry with me all the time.  The one with Saint Michael around my neck and the one with Saint Barbara in my wallet.  I guess Saint Michael may be protecting my heart, but Saint Barbara is covering my ass.

More to follow.

Please stand by

Thank you to everyone for your recent comments, inquiries, and wishes.  At present, base defense is taking precedence to writing and posting my blog.  Today, as we had expected, the Taliban attacked throughout the KBC (Kabul Base Cluster).

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/09/13/afghanistan.kabul.attack/index.html

I will begin posting blog entries retroactively daily when the threat has subsided.  Until then, I am on the guard towers protecting the base.  Thank you for your patience and understanding. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

BOLO

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

The ten year anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, and yet we are still on the guard towers augmenting the current force already there.  Our terrorist foes love the significance of anniversary dates and we have intelligence that there's still a possibility of insurgent activity.  What started as a three day voluntary assignment has turned into a continued presence based on a credible threat.  So we do our best and watch our surroundings keeping our general orders in mind. "I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved."

Before we report to our guard tower posts, we're briefed with the latest intelligence information.  This includes the most current BOLO (Be on he Lookout) information.  This is a common term to law enforcement agencies as well.  Typically the BOLO involves a vehicle of some sort.  The description is usually general enough to fin the sometimes shaky intelligence, and other times it can be accurate enough to spot in a crowded street.

The BOLOs we typically get are usally vague.  For example, be on the lookout for a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) aka car bomb that is carried on a white "bongo" truck.  This just described about half of all the rural/farm vehicles in the area.  Or even better, look for a beat up late model yellow taxi with the make of a toyota sedan type.  We're in a major urban area and I probably see several thousand cars fitting this description every shift.

In this land, we have to treat everyone as a friend, but we still keep in mind that they all could be an enemy.  It's a difficult job that we tackle with a clear head and an ever watchful eye on our surroundings.  Like an eagle atop its perch, we wait ever watching.

More to follow.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the day

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

It's funny how quickly ten years can go by.  I've deployed to the Middle East three times now.  I've changed civilian jobs three times and moved my home four times.  I'm now into my third long term relationship, the first two being miserable failures with miserable people.  All in all, I can say I'm in a much better place than I was ten years ago or anywhere during that time period.

Ten years ago when the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, and Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, I remember exactly where I was.  I first heard the news on the radio while I was driving to work at my first civilian job after I had left Active Duty the year prior.    By the time I had gotten to work, everyone was glued to the break room televisions or CNN live streams on our computers.  We were all in shock, disbelief, and very scared.

In the days following 11 Sept 2001, I remember how quiet the skies were with all air travel being suspended.  I remember sitting glued to my TV watching the news situation unfold as details of the attack emerged.  Even while driving, I listened to NPR so I wouldn't miss a single detail that unraveled from this mess.  All of the cable news stations had switched to a new format with multiple windows and several tickers with information running at once, which turned into information overload for many.

I was in continuous contact with my National Guard unit as we had been called to guard a regional airport near our armory.  In the weeks and months following the attacks, when I traveled in uniform to my Guard drills, I was greeted and thanked more often than I really felt I deserved.  I shared a feeling common to most Americans at that time that I wasn't doing enough to help, but at the same time I was as proud to be an American as I had ever been.

And now a decade has passed and we as a Nation and the world are still dealing with the fallout of that event.  I'm in a foreign country at the epicenter of the cause of the massacre.  I'm on a guard tower ensuring no more destruction can befall Americans under my watch.  I have literally given up years of my life in the aftermath of 9/11 and I'm still prepared to do whatever it takes to provide my country whatever it needs to live in safety and security.

My small base in Kabul held a ceremony to commemorate the passage of ten years which I didn't attend because I was pulling a guard shift.  How did I celebrate?  Besides sleeping in between my long shifts,  I bought several American flags from the PX and asked a coworker to fly them with the others that were being raised and lowered on our compound as patriotic mementos for the passage of this milestone.

To many this is now ancient history.  To many, this is not justification for a continued presence outside our own boarders.  To some, they are just too young to remember.

But I remember...

More to follow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

We all have a choice

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

A coworker of mine mentioned that he had volunteered to man a guard tower during the weekend's ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  I was intrigued and frankly wanted to do more than fight a war with a PowerPoint presentation or by attending meetings, so I asked how I could volunteer as well.  I was directed to speak with the chief of the BDOC (Base Defense Operations Center) that oversees the security of our compound.  I was given a walk through orientation and a briefing in the ROE (Rules of Engagement), and then assigned a shift during our heightened security phase.

I had been assigned to work the second shift for eight hours a night.  Before my first night out I spoke to my shop director and explained where I'd be for the next couple of days.  His response was to ask why I volunteered for this duty.  Keep in mind that Soldiers of my age and rank are above doing this sort of duty.  I explained that they needed volunteers to help keep the base safe, and that I felt an obligation since there weren't enough people who volunteered.  He almost looked ashamed for asking me and said that he thought it was a good idea.  Of course, it was my choice to help out, but I felt compelled to do more than what most of my counterparts were doing to feel safe and secure on what some of us like to call "Camp Cupcake".

Somewhere outside the walls of our compound, individuals are making a choice to attack targets, both those allied against them and others that completely innocent because of a self centered ideology of intolerance and selfishness.  They've chosen a path of evil based on the desire to control and cause destruction, sometimes because of a conscious decision to do harm and sometimes because of a complete ignorance of their misguided cause.  In either case, it was a personal choice to choose that path.  There is always a choice, and they have chose poorly.

Back in the United States, people align themselves with political ideologies based on what affects them the most.  As the saying goes, all politics is local, and people choose based on what has the greatest effect on them.  I like to ask people why they believe certain ideologies and profess them the way they do?  Is it out of a deep seated need or desire to help people, or is it because of a selfish motivation to control others and hoard resources?  I could go and list any political issue in play today and pick it apart using these criteria.  When everything is said and done, do you want your political opinions to be based on a selfish motivation and desire to control others or would you rather be known for advocating ideas that benefit society in general?  When put that way, a lot of individuals no longer like to share their political opinions.

Life in general is all about choices, and then face the repercussions of those choices.  I knew full well that this duty would interfere with not only by regular work, writing my nightly blog, and my workout time, but also my sleep schedule.  I also knew I'd be looked at oddly for volunteering since I was much older and outranked the majority of those pulling this guard duty.  However, something compelled me to assist, and at that point, I wasn't sure why I did it.  In retrospect, I believe it was a gentle nudge from a greater power asking me to step up for a short while and and assist where others either weren't able or weren't willing.

The next time you're faced with a situation or problem, ask yourself what choices do you have available.  Then ask yourself if your statements or actions will be viewed as selfish or will they be viewed in retrospect as the right thing to do for the better good of all.  Sometimes, the answer is clearer than it first appears to be.

More to follow.

Friday, September 9, 2011

We need a hero

NOTE: I am publishing this blog entry retroactively because during this time I was busy performing base defense operations and didn't have enough time to write and post.

Today marks the ten year anniversary of the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the United Islamic Front (AKA the Northern Alliance), and the last holdout to the Taliban's campaign to completely take over Afghanistan.  On the 9th of September 2001, terrorists posing  as a press crew went to interview Massoud and assassinated him with a bomb hidden in a video camera for the interview. The assassination was carried out by Al Qaeda, who performed this operation for the Taliban in order to gain asylum in Afghanistan for after their planned large scale attacks in the U.S., which were planned to occur in just two days.  Today in Kabul stands a large obelisk to the man considered a martyr to the fight for freedom, and this day is known as Masoud Day to commemorate their national hero.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmad_Shah_Massoud
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Alliance

This got me thinking, who do we consider a modern hero in the U.S.?   If you ask people today would they name a sports star?  Would they name a famous rapper?  Would they name a movie star?  What even makes a hero?  We aren't talking about a comic book super hero, but many of the same qualities could apply.  Traditionally, when we think of a hero, we think of a person who does extraordinary and selfless things at risk to themselves.  Does this fit our modern definition?  Let's look at some popular examples.

As often lauded by the media, children often consider sports stars as heroes.  Sports stars today no longer play for the fun of the game.  They play for money, and lots of it.  They live opulent and extravagant lifestyles that often involve brushes with the law.  Illegal drugs, rape, assault, larceny, and murder are just some of the crimes these "heroes" have been convicted of perpetrating.

Movie and music stars are often considered idols.  How about the socially conscious rapper?  Let's not discuss the rap sheet of the majority of these goons, when we can just discuss their glamorization of the "pimp/hoe" lifestyle.  And these are role models for children?  What about rapper "Soulja Boy" who thinks it's cool to disrespect the very Army who guarantees his Constitutional right to free speech and be an ignorant thug?  Disgusting is what I'd call him, but certainly not a hero or role model.

Heroes don't have to be perfect, but they do need to act with a certain level of selflessness.  We honor them because they put others before themselves and aspire to a greater good for the betterment of those around them.

I got to wondering about what qualities in Afghanistan make someone a hero today:  The man who turns in the suspected Taliban supporters who are planning an attack on a girl's school is putting himself at risk for retaliation, but believes that children should never be punished for the disagreements of their parents.  The Afghan National Police who put on a uniform and become targets every day just to provide for their families and help stabilize their country.  The Imam who denounces terrorism as un-Islamic and against the teachings of the Quran and praises those who strive for peace and tolerance among all peoples.  They all put themselves at risk to further the cause of justice and peace for their society.

Sometimes the civilized world can learn a lot from a third world country.  Heroes don't a always have to be super stars, just normal people who do super things.

More to follow.

A short break

I'm taking a short break from my blog for the next few days due to time requirements from this weekend's significance and the threats surrounding it.  After which, I'll begin postng again to catch up.  Thanks for understanding.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lost in translation

Language is a tricky thing. Spelling, grammar, syntax, conjugation, tense, person, etc etc etc. Mastering just one language is tricky enough, but trying to be fluent in two or more is a real accomplishment. I like to say that I know how to speak Spanish, but more accurately, the Spanish I learned in high school and have since retained is probably enough to get me through a vacation and shopping excursion in Mexico. I've tried to pick up Arabic, and from my several deployments to Iraq and Kuwait I've picked up enough to get a conversation going, but not nearly enough to carry it much further than pleasantries or commands in dangerous cases. I've not made much of a big effort to learn much Dari or Pushtu other than a few words here and there.  I know I'm remiss, but with my limited brain capacity, I'm afraid I might push out some knowledge I seriously need in the future, like calculus and advanced chemistry...

I remember back in the late 90's boarding an Asiana Airlines 767 to fly back from Korea to the U.S. and one incident sticks out clearly in my mind.  A large group of Sikhs boarded and decided that they all wanted to sit together instead of their assigned seat on their tickets.  The demure Korean flight attendants were not able to convince the group of Sikhs that they needed to return to their assigned seats because they were blocking all the other passengers from boarding and taking their own seats.  The plane's Captain was called back to handle the situation, and this is where it got interesting.  The Sikhs were speaking English in a very heavy Pakistani accent and the Captain was speaking English in a very heavy Korean accent.  The Sikh's group leader explained that he needed his people to sit together, and the Captain ordered the group to take their assigned seats or he would deplane them.  It was a surreal experience as only the Americans appeared to understand what was going on because we were the only group that spoke English as a primary language.  The other two groups both spoke English but couldn't understand each other at all.

Having used interpreters for both Middle Eastern languages and in working with the deaf, you realized that your message does not always get translated correctly 100% of the time. That's why they're called "interpreters". They use their best judgement to interpret their best guess from one language to another, where in some cases a word, concept, or idea has no real translation into another language or culture. As a simple test, try this for yourself sometime: Go to an online translation web site such as google or bablefish. Type in a complex sentence in one language then translate it several times in several languages from one to another. Then translate it back to English. Was it what you started with? Of course not, and that's my point.

Switching gears, if I can say anything about Muslims and their religion of Islam it would be that their holy book, the Koran/Quran is still in the same language of Arabic and unchanged since it was written in the early 7th century.  Hebrews can say the same thing with their Torah and Talmud, but Christians worship from a book that has been translated, transcribed, and rewritten countless times over the past two millennia.  Just like mutations in a genome line, the Bible has picked up plenty of errors over the many centuries since it was first cobbled together by the Nicene Conference between the second and fourth centuries CE.  They picked and chose the books of the New Testament Bible they would keep and leave out in order to create Christianity's first holy book.  Yes, it was a committee of men who decided what was to be included in the official Bible and what was to be left out.  And how many versions of the Bible exist today?  I'm not going to even try and list them, but sufficed to say that everyone with an agenda has written their own version complete with it's own slant.  This is not to say that the translation of original Hebrew, Koine Greek, or Aramaic manuscripts to Latin, German and other languages and then to English was accurate at all either.


The Bible as we have it today is not the "Word of God"; it's the translations of the transcribing of people who I believe spoke for God and founded my religion long ago.  The exact wording in the Bible is flawed and inaccurate, but the major concepts live on as the cornerstones of the faith.  Some people who claim to speak for my savior, Jesus Christ, use literal English translations from the Bible as law that should be set in stone, while completely ignoring the true tenants and abstract concepts of the faith.  A good Christian knows that in order to follow the Bible, they must interpret what they read and understand that the concepts and historical context are what is important and not the exact wording.  Following exactly word for word to a book that is several thousands of years old is neither practical or feasible.  And there's no Rosetta Stone to ensure you understand the human author's true intent unless you lived back then.  From my perspective, for many of the overtly religious Christians, the Bible has lost all meaning.

More to follow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The gift that keeps on giving

Like in any confined place, contagious illnesses pass quickly throughout the military.  Due to the close working and living conditions, Service Members are exposed to any number of germs.  That's why we take so many vaccinations.  I can't count the number of things I've been vaccinated against, and I've also lost count of the number of boosters for Anthrax I've had over the past two decades.  No deformities or Gulf War Syndrome; so far so good.

The first time I deployed to Iraq, we were in Kuwait consolidating before forward movement and sleeping in a Bedouin tent packed with about 50 cots all right next to each other.  Conventional Army medical wisdom states that Soldiers should be placed at least 5 feet apart and staggered head to toe to ensure that airborne illnesses are not spread in close quarters sleeping conditions.  Well, our command back then decided that we all just needed to suck it up, and as a consequence about a third of us got sick with bronchitis and strep throat.  So much for mission readiness.

Some things never change.  I've talked about our cramped quarters in my compound, and while we do have air conditioning, the filtration and circulation system is woefully inadequate.  End of last week, my roommate came back from a short trip to Kandahar Airbase, and brought back what I like to call "Kennel Cough".  In as much as I tried to stay away, we have to sleep in the same small room, so two days ago I was worried when I first started with the beginnings of a throat tickle and slight cough.  Needless to say that it developed into a full blown hack complete with mucus. (I hope I'm being descriptive enough)  By this morning, I had had enough and went to the TMC for some Chlorphenaramine and Pseudoepenefrine.  The good stuff...

We do what we can to protect ourselves from getting sick.  We're constantly reminded to wash our hands and to sneeze and cough into our sleeves.  We live in a toxic environment when compared to Western standards. The people in this area of the world, for the most part, don't have the proper education to understand good hygiene, and they are continuously stricken with ailments that are rare to us Westerners who understand good grooming and cleanliness.  It may sound bad, but I carry hand sanitizer in a pouch of my body armor to use often while I am outside the wire.  You never know when you're shaking hands with someone who doesn't use toilet paper or wash their hands, and you never know if the baby that some woman is handing you to show off is covered with ringworm or not. (Yes, this has happened)  Typically, when we disengage from our meetings and social engagements, out comes the Purell.

After a nap and a lot of drugs I'm feeling better.  Staying healthy is a constant battle that requires exercising, eating well, and ensuring proper hygienic practices.  It is also incumbent upon leaders to identify problem areas that lead to illnesses (stray cats for one, and poor building circulation for another), and make the necessary changes to protect the force.  New barracks are being built on my compound, but I doubt I'll get to see them finished before I leave.  It all comes down to prior planning, and this country is woefully inadequate in that department.  I'm looking on the bright side of it though.  It gives me a reason to stay away from work because I just have to use the excuse that by staying away, I'm protecting the force.  I'll take a little real sickness to sham any day as long as I can get some time off.

More to follow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Urban sprawl

I had the opportunity to fly back to Bagram Airbase yesterday and today to take care of a few errands.  We left our small compound in Kabul via Blackhawk and took a 15 minute flight to the airbase up north.  There I was able to exchange some uniforms that had been issued to me that I already knew were too big, but they didn't have my size at the time.  I also had to pick up my NBC gear that I had mentioned earlier last month that wasn't allowed to be shipped through the USPS.

The flight was good, as I always enjoy Blackhawk rides.  I'm not a fan of riding in Chinooks, and the latest deadly crash of that helicopter type just reinforced my desire not to ride in those lumbering school buses with rotors.  As we flew north, I saw a lot of terrain that was familiar to me.  Granted, Afghanistan is mountainous and Iraq is flat, but the village clusters of small walled compounds surrounded by irrigated and green desert was a familiar site even in a new land.  These people have lived this way for a long time.

By stark contrast, the city of Kabul is massive.  Not so much in land size, but suburban congestion.  The city of about four million was actually designed and planned to hold about 800K people by infrastructure standards.  Over the last four millennia, the city has been conquered and ruled by numerous nationalities and dynasties, each destroying and then rebuilding.  I'm here as the next chapter in this city's rebirth.  While flying out of the city I couldn’t help but to notice the thousands of slum areas in and around the mountains and hillside that the city has absorbed.  Buildings are built on every bit of flat ground and even into the mountainside where it would support structures.

As I arrive in Bagram Airbase, I'm struck by its massive size.  The last time I was here, I flew in on a fixed wing aircraft so I never saw any of the base from an aerial view.  In stark contrast, I had a very good view flying in on the Blackhawk.  Bagram is the largest coalition base by land size and number of personnel in Afghanistan.  Quoting the exact size and strength of the base would be an OPSEC violation, so I'll just say it's huge and leave it at that.  With the massive amount of real estate surrounding the air strip, they have room to spread out and expand.  Which they did...  Here people live in living quarter trailers, stackable dorm rooms, and plywood shacks.  Not everyone has their own room, but quite a few do.  The living areas are so large that they are organized into communities or villages.  Then each building is numbered to help cut down on confusion of the same buildings row after row.  Because of this large size, they are a bigger target for IDF, which they get hit with infrequently.  Passed by a rocket casing that was still stuck in a tree.  Very surreal...

There's a much better stocked PX and a huge number of concessionaires for food beverages, grooming services, and a whole host of retail shops.  This whole area becomes THE social hangout for everyone after dark.  The greatest thing about this place is you can walk from one end of the base to the other on the main drive, called "Disney", that runs the length of the airfield.  People here gripe about how big this place is, how congested and crowded it has become, and having to walk such far distances to get anywhere.  But I bring a different perspective to this place, not having the extra niceties, social hangouts, or even a nice length of ground just to stretch your legs.  This time I've walked a mile in their shoes and my judgment is to quit your complaining.
 
 
More to follow.

 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Special occasions

Being gone for so long at a time, service members miss a lot of special occasions. We miss holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, children's firsts, and sometimes births and deaths. We make this sacrifice willingly for the good of our country.

Sending letters home has been a staple for those in war for hundreds of years.  It still rings true today even with the advent of more high tech solutions.  One of the perks of being in a combat zone is using the Military's APO (Army Post Office) system.  All mail going home in a personal letter size is free, as well as all sized package going from APO to APO.  This is especially handy is you need to send something to a buddy who's at a small camp with few options to get items, and a friend can send from a camp with a well stocked PX.

As technology has increased, the options for keeping in contact with loved ones, especially over important personal dates has become much easier.  The telephone system has been available for emergency calls at the very least since WWII, and in recent decades, companies have provided commercial solutions for Service Members to reach out and touch someone far back home whever needed.  With the advent and proliferation of the Internet in the last two decades, every camp now has connectivity in some sort or another.  The military provides connectivity for work purposes which typically is allowed to be used for personal use after business hours.  Most bases also have commercial companies that provide private Internet connections for those who wish to stay connected with their own personal devices at a cost.  If this is not available, units often buy a commercial satellite dish in a cooperative type of system and stay connected to home that way.  A favorite tool for Internet communication is Skype for video chat.

Pictures are a great way to keep your Service Member feeling like they aren'tt disconnected entirely from their home life.  Printed pictures are great when sent through the mail, as they can be posted on a wall in the office or barracks room. The ability to email digital photos gives people an almost instantaneous link to marking events happening back home.  Although while not there,  all pictures serve as just a simple reminder of loved ones back home, and that goes a long way to ease the feelings of disconnection.

A personal coping mechanism I use is to buy greeting cards in bulk so that they can be sent out for special occasions. This requires one to plan ahead for events over the next year.  If you think of all the birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc that occur throughout the year, it becomes a daunting task to select and deploy with literally dozens of greeting cards to parcel out throughout the deployment.  It does make a difference to those back home as well too.  This being my fourth, I've got this down much more to a science now.


This year's Labor Day also marked my anniversary with the love of my life.  I hate that we have to be apart on our special day, but we both understand the requirements of my job, and we look forward to may more together when I return home.  For me, special times are meant to be spent with family and friends wherever possible.  I've missed a lot of events, both special and routine.  Each is a hole in the heart that needs to be filled, and keeping your Service Member in your heart and letting them know they are missed is the best thing you can do.  Nobody needs to feel like they aren't missed, and I'm lucky to have the friends and family who keep me connected while serving my country.  This is the best support to the troops you could ever provide.

More to follow.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

An ode to brunch

Though in combat zone am I,
My place is tranquil, I cannot lie.
To say it's harsh conditions here,
Would be a fib to tell I fear.

How to express my simple joy,
For what it takes to please this boy.
I wake on Sunday mornings late,
And talk of delicious things I ate.

Not quite breakfast and not quote lunch,
What the sophisticated love to call "brunch".
That magic point of morning time,
Not early or late, but just sublime.

No matter, mimosas, I have none,
It doesn't dampen one bit my fun.
And food while not a gourmet feast,
Is good enough to feed the beast.

Strawberry, how art thee divine,
Though not yet ripe you still are fine.
Pineapple sweet oh tropical fruit,
I load my plate with edible loot.

All the ingredients my bowl I fill,
Then take it to the omelet grill.
My order I give the foreign man,
Who works for us in Afghanistan.

Bacon, tomatoes, and mushrooms make,
A tasty omelet for me to partake.
I grab my cereal, some milk, and juice.
Too much of this and my pants aren't loose.

The Stars and Stripes I read all through,
Browsing the news, sports, and comics too.
Ann Landers great advice you give,
And horoscope, my life I live.

I sit and think my lot in life,
And how to fix this country's strife.
And how I'd like to sit and stay,
It's after noon; must start my day.

More to follow.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Potty training

Today I decided I'd talk about something on the lighter side of going to a foreign country.  So when deciding what to write about, I thought it should be something all inclusive.  And well, to quote an infamous children's book, everybody poops.

I suppose the first question I get about toilets here is, "Do the toilets flush backwards over there?"  The answer to that dumb question is no.  (Remember there are no stupid questions, just stupid people.)  According to science, the Coriolis effect has very little effect on draining water, so it could rotate either way depending on the force of the water.  However, toilets here don't flush like we're used to in the U.S.  Toilets in the Middle East come in two types.  The "sit down" type and the "squat" type.

The sit down type are similar to what you'd expect in the U.S., but the bowl is shaped more like a cone with a small reservoir with water in the center.  This is the standard European type of sit down toilet.  Critically speaking, this is a incredibly poor design because you need to scrub the bowl after every use since there is always something hitting the side.  Unless you're an expert at aiming and don't have any intestinal distress, you're gonna be cleaning.  What's gross is that most people don't clean it up afterwards.

The other type of toilet is what is commonly referred to as the "Asian" toilet or "the squatter" as I call it.  Imagine a flat wall mounted urinal that's been mounted into the floor with a drain hole at one end.  Hence the term "squat" since you straddle it.  These toilets are more common in the less Westernized areas.
http://www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Squat-Toilet
http://rudra.hubpages.com/hub/Indian-toilets
http://www.pbase.com/jtodhunter/indian_toilet

In some areas, the facilities are little more than a hole in the ground that looks like an elephant's guts exploded, dried, and hasn't been cleaned in years.  You normally find those in villages in the desert where indoor plumbing is uncommon.  Often you find a large drum or bucket with disgusting foul water in it to "clean up".  In Arab culture, but not so much in others is the belief that one hand is for eating with and the other hand is for "hygienic" purposes.  Let's just say that traditionally, they didn't wipe using toilet paper.
http://learnsomethingnewtoday.us/2008/06/30/they-use-their-hand-to-wipe/

The signs in bathrooms are probably some of the most entertaining.  There are signs to remind males of the urinal etiquette.  We also have signs reminding us not to discuss classified or sensitive information in the bathrooms, because you never know what Alie McBeall type could be lurking in the stall next to you.  We're admonished to always flush and then wash our hands afterwards, and in some cases, asked to make certain adjustments like putting a layer of toilet paper in the bowl as to not leave a stain on the sides.

Humorous, yes to the person who doesn't have to do a Number 2 over here.  Although I will have to say that in most of my blogs, I try to find common ground between cultures, this is one that is radically different.  So while it's true that everybody poops, what counts is when shit happens, how do we clean up the mess.

More to follow.