Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I’m a huge fan of Toshiro Mifune and the whole samurai movie genre. My travel DVD collection is packed with a few dozen films depicting ancient Japan and battles between tragic sword-welding heroes and villains. Mifune seems to always plays an out-of-work samurai, or ronin, looking get by however he can. The movie plots go to great lengths to describe Japanese society at the time, depicting the vast numbers of unemployed warriors roaming the streets in search of honorable employment.

Laying on my bunk the other night I was watching a particular scene in Samurai Banners, that depicted an unemployed Mifune plotting as to how he was going to secure a job with one of the local lords. I was immediately struck with the parallels between that scene and the direction that the current security contract business is heading.

Before long the entire security contracting business will undergo a sea change and tens of thousands of gun-slinging contractors are going to find themselves without work, ronin if you will. I’ve often wondered what will happen to them, where will they go? If you look at Japanese society after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 I think that you may find a lot of the answers to those questions. Some will always find work, others will turn to alternative professions and trades, and still others will use their skills for personal profit and crime as in Robert De Niro’s movie, Ronin. Interesting parallel I think.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Signs Of Progress?

I haven’t dug my camera out yet, so I still don’t have any photos to post. I hit the ground running here and haven’t had a moment to really settle in. Between the intense jet lag, a cold, and the pace of work, I'm pretty well 'knackered' (British term).

Iraq has become better, or so I’m told. The media is focused on how things are clearly improving, evident in almost every way. The stories coming out of Baghdad are “good news” stories highlighting the improving quality of life for this city’s citizens. I guess I don’t really see any dramatic difference from the last time that I was here two months ago. Police sirens still dominate the soundscape, PSDs and the Iraqi Army continue to insolently clog the roadways, and armored vests and AK’s are the dress du jour. Maybe I’m hoping for too much too fast.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Quick Stop In Dubai

I’m currently in Dubai, jet-lagged out of my mind, and just finishing up breakfast at 2:00 a.m. The flight from Atlanta was uneventful as always. I’m convinced that if you have to travel to the Middle East from Atlanta that the direct Delta flight to Dubai is the way to go. The 777-200’s are big and roomy and it’s about as comfortable as you’re going to get on a 13+ hour flight.

I only have a handful of hours in the hotel before I push on to Iraq; just enough time to grab a shower, a quick nap, and room service. It seems like such a waste of a very nice hotel room.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Now, Be Careful

A mother’s hands are full as her child runs to and fro at a children’s Christmas party.

Being a parent is difficult at times, almost unimaginably so. Caring for a toddler is like having a walking, talking example of Murphy’s Law 24/7. If it can be broken, marred or, destroyed, it will be. I watched my three year-old son explore a real jet airplane this afternoon, and in the back of my mind I heard myself saying, “now be careful, don’t break it”. Amazing.

I leave tonight for the Middle East. I'll miss my little jet fighter explorer.

Friday, December 7, 2007

MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart's Lament

One of the things that I do with my free time is play the Great Highland Bagpipe. I’m currently working on a classical tune, piobaireachd in bagpipe parlance, called MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart's Lament (No. 1). It’s a wonderfully haunting piece and infinitely complex. Like all piobaireachds, it starts off with a basic theme known as a 'ground' or urlar, and then progresses through several variations of the ground, with each becoming more complex than the last. The piper speeds up and slows down at will adding expression to the tune. In the end, the tune returns to the ground, completing the circle.

Ed Neigh plays the tune in the player below.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


A freshly planted Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys Nigra) backdropped by a reproduction of an ancient Japanese lantern

It’s a huge contrast, returning from the chaos of a conflict zone to our relatively serene home in Atlanta. Our house has several Japanese sukiya elements, which make it a particularly peaceful abode. We’ve installed straw tatami mats in one room, diffused the lighting, painted with a soft earth-tone, and made it into a quiet little getaway where you can sit and play a game of Go over flasks of sake or just stare at the wall for a bit.

This last trip home we planted two different bamboo groves in the backyard, which little by little is taking shape into a traditional Japanese garden. It’s an on-going project that we plan to work on over the years; a project without any end nor goal in mind. It gives my wife and I a chance to talk, plan, and work side-by-side on building something that we both deeply enjoy. What a great adventure life is!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Democracy Wins!

It was one of those times that I wish I had brought my camera and was free to take photos. We spent the night at the Opposition headquarters in Caracas awaiting the voting results from the referendum. Hundreds of students, press, and concerned others occupied a large, walled villa in a fashionable neighborhood. Outside the iron gates others waited in the streets, peering through the gates searching for some sign of how the vote is going.

As the night went on the crowds exponentially grew. The polls closed at 8:00 p.m. and in the subsequent hours more and more people occupied the streets surrounding the villa. We set our gear up in a darkened corner of the courtyard next to the Al Jeezera crew, sharing the same power outlet, and waited along with the rest.

By 1:00 a.m. optimism had grown along with the reveling crowds. The delay in the official announcement of the results was interpreted as good news for the pro-democracy students. Rumors abound of the military generals warning President Chavez to respect the results, and the police surrounding the neighborhood to protect the students from revenge-seeking Chavez supporters.

Finally at 1:15 a.m. the announcement came. The hushed crowds stacked in front of television sets, the world balancing on the head of a pin. All at once a thundering explosion of cheers rocked the night. The pro-democracy movement had defeated President Chavez’s sweeping constitutional reforms designed to move Venezuela to a full-totalitarian state.

The doors and the gates of the villa were thrown open and we were immediately swimming in a wave of screaming and crying people. We tried desperately to protect or delicate position with it’s crisscrossing net of cables precariously linking us to our satellite up-link as the people poured in around us.

The remainder of the night was spent doing chaotic interviews and 'live shots' from the middle of tens of thousands of celebrants. Screaming, crying, waving flags, hugs, fireworks, megaphones; all carrying on through out the remainder of the night. Democracy had won.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Marathon Press Confrence

We were invited to President Chavez’ press conference today. For those that have never been this is truly an event. We were told to be there at 11:00 a.m., Comandante Chavez didn’t show up until 2:15, and he didn’t stop speaking until over three hours later. The entire international press corps here in Caracas was completely wiped out as it dragged itself out of the Palace after the marathon session.

Chavez seems to have taken a page out of Fidel’s book with these long-winded speeches and press conferences. One of the CBC reporters commented, "He's been on the first question for an hour now, and has just now taken the second one".

During the “presser” President Chavez repeated his now-standard bashing of the United States and continued his specific criticism of CNN. In his speech yesterday President Chavez strongly threatened to kick us out of the country if CNN were seen to be trying to influence the vote in any way. We all agreed that it would be a very astute political move on his part if were to deport the “imperialist media” just prior to Sunday’s referendum vote.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Singing in Caracas

More of the same today; broadcasting from the patio of the hotel and staying away from the massive rallies downtown.

We watched President Chavez’ speech on Venezuelan television this evening. It was surreal in some respects. He spent the first fifteen minutes leading the crowd of tens of thousands of red-clad supporters in song, singing national songs as well as Christmas carols. It had to be one of the oddest things that I’ve ever seen.

The rest of the speech was spent bashing the United States, the King of Spain, Colombia's President Uribe, CNN, and other assorted interests. I fear that he has a sort of elevated idea of his country’s importance in the grand scheme of the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Room Service Please

Student protester getting ready for a confrontation with government security forces.

Today has been full of adventure. We were set to cover the massive opposition rally in downtown Caracas this morning but in the end we pulled back and chose not to broadcast from that location. Instead the day has been spent “shooting lives” from the roof of our hotel in an effort to remain impartial to the political fight that is bubbling around us. International media has been accused of taking sides and has come under some “scrutiny” from the Venezuelan government. We’re trying our best not to be culpable in any way.

I’m happy. I’m not getting gassed or shot with a water cannon, and we can get room service up here on the roof.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Protests 101

The first rule of covering any protest is that the security forces always win. At the end of the day you want to be on the winning side no matter whom you are cheering for. I failed to adhere to that rule and paid for it this afternoon.

We covered an illegal student protest just outside of the one of the major Caracas universities. Hundreds of students marched out from the campus gates and blocked a busy highway, all in full view of the awaiting and ultimately well prepared Venezuelan National Guard.

The security forces, after watching the students rant and rave for an hour or so, decided enough was enough and let fly several volleys of tear gas followed by blasts from a mobile water cannon. At that particular moment I was standing on the student side of the protest and got severely gassed and then hammered with stream of water.

I made my way back to the ranks of the police only then to be pelted by large rocks and bottles being thrown by the offended, albeit hastily retreating students. I’ve had better days.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Back To Venezuela

Heading back to Venezuela today to cover the country's referendum vote. This time I'll endeavor to bring all of the correct gear so that I can post photos.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Contemplating one-ness

We are all under this misconception that we are somehow separate from everything else. It’s something that's programmed into us from our very early days, and we continue on down this road for the rest of our lives. It’s a falsehood, and a mirage.

We are not separate from anything, quite the opposite. We all breathe the same air, drink from the same water, and enjoy the same sunshine. Our bodies take all of this in and then cast it off again for others to use in the same manner. The molecules that make up our bodies are traded by the hundreds millions every day, with everything in a constant state of change. We're never the same from moment to moment and we are sharing the entire universe with each other. How could it be any different, that we are not all joined together in this swirling mêlée of existence and non-existence?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Demonstrating For Democracy

We spent yesterday covering the student demonstrations taking place here in Caracas. These are marches that are considered illegal by the Venezuelan government because they do not have the necessary permissions, and subsequently are not tolerated very well by the security forces.

The students from one of the universities decided to march along (in) a major highway that cuts through the city. I stood there in horror witnessing these kids with hastily painted signs scurry about in four lanes of high-speed traffic yelling unfathomable slogans. The story here looked as if it was going to be the demonstrators getting flattened by speeding trucks.

We stood off to the side and filmed the students as they rallied support for their side of the upcoming referendum. Hundreds of these kids were marching for a pro-democracy movement, against a Socialist government that was demanding even greater Socialist reforms. How times change.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What's In A Name?

I spent yesterday walking around some of Caracas’ poorer neighborhoods shooting pictures and video with our cameraman. It was a great time working next to a professional and seeing what he’s looking at and how he frames his shots.

Later in the day he relayed a funny story to me about Venezuela’s President Chavez. Apparently El Comadante believes there are just too many peoples’ names in Venezuela and wants to pass a law (decree) that would make it illegal to name a child anything other than what is on his approved list of 200 or so names. I’m pretty sure “Hugo” made the list.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Welcome Back

I feel at home in Latin America, much more so than the Middle East. I think I’ve spent most of my adult life kicking around the countries down here, and when I arrived I felt a great sense of familiarity, almost a relief in a way.

Caracas is a city in turmoil right now. Both the city and the country of Venezuela as a whole are facing an election on a constitution amendment that would give current President Chavez almost unlimited powers. The streets are littered with “Si” or “No” propaganda as the people head towards the referendum. There have been marches both for and against, with more than just a little violence.

It will be interesting to see how this polemic comes out, but for the time being we’re covering various stories associated with the elections, and are getting plenty of opportunities to travel around the city to visit neighborhoods, both pro and anti- Chavez. The scenes are frantic with highly politically charged emotions that can only be experienced in Latin America. I had forgotten how passionate Latins are with their politics. Welcome back.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I’m currently in Caracas, Venezuela covering the opposition rallies to the Chavez-proposed constitutional amendments. We spent the morning filming from within one of the rallies, but I didn’t have the opportunity to take any photos because I was busy doing what I get hired to do. Thousands of people milling around, shouting, chanting, and just being generally chaotic. We got what we needed and called it a day once the rally broke up.

When I got back to the hotel room I realized that I had left Atlanta in such a rush that I didn’t pack the USB cable that I use to download pictures from my camera to the MacBook. As a result the blog will be photo-less for a couple of days until I can get back to Atlanta.

Friday, November 9, 2007

... A Warrior's Life For Me.

A wee warrior just back from a battle with a paint brush

I received an email from a friend of mine, who also grew up in the military special operations community. While no longer serving in the military he wrote that he still considers himself a “warrior”, and opined that one doesn’t need a weapon nor a war to carry that moniker. I couldn’t agree more.

Being a warrior is a state of mind; cliché, I know. It’s nonetheless having the courage to do what’s right in the world, making hard decisions, and tackling life’s obstacles with determination, humor, and honor. You don’t have to dress in a uniform everyday to meet that definition, and I can assure you that there are plenty in the military that don’t.

Things that I consider and feel free to add some of your own:

- Try to improve upon everything that you do. Seek perfection in even the smallest and mundane of tasks.

- Have patience and empathy for those around you and even yourself.

- Practice self-control and discipline. Listen to your inner-voice. It knows the difference between right and wrong even if your ego doesn’t

- Concern yourself with small matters. The large ones will take care of themselves.

- Treat everyone as if they are your mother, father, son or daughter. Give respect to everyone and don’t demand it in return.

- Live softly. Be gentle, graceful, and humble.

- Laugh at yourself. You are a constant source of great humor.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Replica of an ancient Japanese stone lantern stands against a backdrop of autumn leaves.

Everything that has a beginning has an end. Autumn is the perfect season to highlight this and that’s why I think that I really enjoy it so much. Much like the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, this time of year displays the impermanence of life and all things within it. Perfect.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

What's Dat For?

Today’s a banner day. My three year-old son just now entered into the “What’s dat?” stage. He’s discovered interrogatives, which is now driving him to ask about everything and anything, affording my wife and I the opportunity to explain the entire known universe to him. Joy!

I wonder what the world is like for him, existing without any of the baggage that comes along with learning definitions, purposes, names, etc… A three year-old is a blank slate and happily wonders through life knowing that an apple is good to eat, and that’s about it. He doesn’t care about photosynthesis, organic farming, supply and demand, or migrant labor. It’s just an apple, and he’s happy with that. What a great way to look at the world.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Art Of Youth

Aside from youth being wasted on the young, so is a lot of art. When I was young I endeavored to understand and appreciate art, literature, music but it wasn’t until I had learned a lot of life’s lessons that some of art’s emotions began to settle in.

Highland bagpipe music for example; the young are fascinated with rapid-fire jigs and hornpipes requiring lightning fast fingers. As I’ve gotten older I find myself emotionally drawn to Piobaireachd, the ancient, classical music of the bagpipes; a lone piper fingering a wailing lament to some fallen chief or loved one. I contend that this type of musical expression, like other similar arts, requires a certain amount of emotional scarring before it can be expressed or enjoyed fully. Maybe it's just that my fingers aren't as "lightening fast" as they used to be.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


One thing that ALL members of the military do when they hang the uniform up for good is to grow some sort of facial hair. After years of having to adhere to strict grooming standards it’s almost a rite of passage out of the military. If you ever see a forty-something year-old man with really bad facial hair, you can bet that he’s a recent military retiree.

I started a goatee the day I stepped away from the Army and have kept it ever since. When it first came in I was shocked to find that it was more grey than I had remembered from previous departures while on leave. I’m going with the “distinguished” description.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some Ghosts Are Better Left Alone

When I was a young Army Special Forces officer I was talking to my battalion commander over a beer in a dusty Panamanian bar. He was telling stories from his younger days, tales filled with intrigue and danger, tromping around South and Central America doing the bidding of the United States Government. I commented that he should write a book when he leaves the military. He smiled and replied, “I would, but I don’t think that I want my mother knowing what I’ve done”. I loved that answer and twenty years later I still do.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Not Something To Think About

Halloween mask at Knoxville's Boo At The Zoo

I was browsing the stacks at Barnes & Noble the other day while wearing a Scottish hat known as a ‘balmoral’, sort of a dark blue beret with a pewter cap badge attached to one side. As I was walking around a thirty-something African American man approached me and very nicely asked what the “medal was on the side of my hat”. I explained to him that it was my clan badge. At that point the man’s attitude changed dramatically and with an irritated look on his face he turned and abruptly walked away.

I was standing there dumbfounded, wondering why the sudden change of tone. I then realized that I had said, ‘clan’ but he had heard was ‘Klan’. Feeling badly and embarrassed I wanted to find him and explain the misunderstanding, but he was already gone.

I realized that I’m not very sensitive to race, if I even think of it at all. I find it all very archaic and boorish, which I’m quite happy with.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Old Soldiers

It’s been a year since I retired from the military, and I look back with little if no regret. There’s a good quote that I’ve always identified with that states, “Joining the military was the best thing that I ever did in my life, and leavening it was the second best”. There’s a lot of wisdom in those words.

I never wanted to be one of those guys that surrounded his retired life with the trappings of his former profession. They’re very common among military retirees; hats, license plates, flags in the front yard, a dog named 'Adjutant', sandbagged gun emplacements on the roof. It was a part of my life, but it wasn’t my entire life.

The day that I left the military I pushed away from my desk, patted a few friends on the shoulders, and quietly slipped out the side door. No muss, no fuss, just the way I came in. Walking to the car that day I reached for my green beret in my right cargo pocket and was cognizant that it was the last time that I will ever wear it.

At home the uniform came off and went into a trunk with the rest of them, neatly folded and tucked away for some future generation to find. And so end’th an era… or two.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Genealogist's Dream

When I was younger I dabbled in genealogy. I traced my family back to Prince Edward Island, Canada where I became lost in the rural, undocumented morass of the early nineteenth century. Since then my mother has taken up the challenge and met with great success. I firmly believe that given a few more months I will be able to trace my lineage back to Jesus.

If you go back through the family tree far enough all you generally encounter is a name, a couple of dates, and maybe a spouse; not a lot of information on the person that you are looking at. All of this makes me wonder what future generations of genealogists are going to see of us.

Today our lives are so thoroughly documented and recorded, a plethora of information for my great great great grandson. (If you’re reading this, nice to meet you). It wouldn’t take a skilled researcher hardly any effort at all to assemble a detailed biography of any one of us. What a great opportunity for future generations to see exactly where they came from. Like all genealogists however, they'll blow right past us and wallow in the masochistic muck of the nineteenth century with great delight. Lot’s of luck!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Choose Wisely

A young highland dancer gets ready to compete

Walking around the highland games over the weekend I couldn’t help but notice the vast amount of children participating in the various piping and dancing events. A common sight was a young, kilted kid blowing on a towering set of pipes while his or her father helped with the tuning of the instrument prior to the competition. I wondered how these kids became involved in such esoteric activities. Clearly the parents were pipers or dancers and passed those interests onto their children, who now play and compete right along side the older generations.

It makes me very aware of my day-to-day activities because little eyes are always watching. If I pipe or compete in triathlon my sons will likely do the same. If I sit around on the couch eating Ding Dongs and drinking Yahoo the same is also true. The choices that we make today will ripple across generations long, long after we’re gone. The responsibility is almost unfathomable.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Highland Games

One of the things that I was anxious to get home for was the spectacle of the Highland Games here in Atlanta. I spent one entire day at the games hanging out with my fellow pipers, and another day bringing my wife and son to the event. It was a great opportunity to listen to some quality piping as well as shoot some interesting photos.

The Games are always fun; a Highland Meets Halloween sort of thing. I’m always amazed at what people will wear to these, half-naked men wrapped in table cloths, others trotting around in tuxedo jackets and Nikes, and still more with every manner of medieval blade strapped to their bodies. Like I said, it’s a spectacle.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Through A Child's Eyes

A water taxi floats along in the early morning sunshine of the Dubai Creek.

Back home. I spent the day with my 3 year-old son yesterday, much to my sheer enjoyment. We ran some errands and I traded him a haircut for a piece of bubblegum out of the machine. I just sat back and watched him navigate the world. I couldn’t stop laughing and smiling as little guy jetted from one thing to the next, fascinated with everything he saw or could touch. At one point he came out with “I got me a haircut”. OK, I need to get THAT fixed, but it still made me laugh.

My son, like all children, takes so much pleasure in discovery. He sees things with a clean slate, no preconceptions, no prejudice, just unabashed interest and curiosity. Why do we ever loose that when we get older? Wouldn’t life be amazing if the mere act of watching a gumball roll out of the machine was the greatest thing in the whole world?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Foot In Each World

The Emirates now has one strike against it. The country with all of its progressiveness blocks certain websites, one of which is Flickr, my photo storage site. Flickr filters content on its own so I was surprised when I found out that it was on the Emirates’ restricted list.

I was speaking with several people last night and they were commenting about all of the rules that apparently exist here in the Emirates. Many of these limitations, like website filtering for instance, are based on religious and cultural beliefs founded in less progressive and developed times.

The Emirates on the surface looks to be the world’s model for development, but a closer look revels a country that is struggling with two different realities. Certainly the new infrastructure breathtaking but society remains hindered by a quiet cultural and religious authoritarianism that permeates everyday life. It’s a trade off I suppose. You can access the Net from just about anyplace in Dubai, but you’re limited as to what you can view.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Digg'n Dubai

An empty dhow makes it's way up the Dubai Creek. Vessels like this are loaded down with goods and make their way along the coast.

I spent the morning walking around the city of Dubai, or at least part of it. I walked along the Dubai Creek, which is really a river. I ended up taking an Arab coastal boat known as a dhow from the docks across to the other side, and then attempted to get lost in the city with my camera.

I wandered through some old markets and then to a more modern part of the city. The one thing that really sticks out is that Dubai is filled with Indians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, and various people from the Far East. I made an effort to stop and talk with as many people as I could, and they all appeared to be very friendly and welcoming. They happily let me photograph them and asked questions about where I was from. It was a stark contrast to other Arab countries that I have been. What an absolute fantastic city!

Sunday, October 14, 2007


The archway entrance to the Baghdad Zoo. It’s still open but it’s one of those places I think I’d rather not see.

Today is what we call my “out date”, the day when I beginning traveling homeward. It’s one of those days that's on a calendar but you try not to look at it fearing that it will never come.

I have 36 hours to spend in Dubai on my way home to Atlanta. I plan to get out and see as much of the city as I can. I really enjoyed Dubai the last visit, so I’m looking forward to taking some photos and traveling around a bit.

So here I am, on my way home. Oh yea, it’s my birthday too. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Here’s one for the books. At the end of the Festival of Eid all of the children receive presents, much like the Christmas tradition. You'll never guess what every little boy gets. TOY GUNS!!! This is wrong on so many levels. The streets are full of little kids pointing plastic AKs at everything and everyone. When I first witnessed this I was utterly mortified. Maybe next year they can all get little play suicide bomber vests.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eid ul-Fitr

Yesterday was Eid ul-Fitr here in Iraq, the day that marks the end of Ramadan, and a month of fasting. I’ve come to know it as “The Big Breakfast”.

The day starts with the normal prayers and then a small meal. People then gather in large congregational prayer sessions to greet each other in the spirit of peace and love. There are exchanges of gifts, hugs, and congratulations as Muslims emerge from a month of heavy effort and concentration on their faith.

Last night several large explosions around the city signified yet more senseless loss of life. Hand-made bombs designed to bring death and suffering killed someone’s son, daughter, father or mother; bombs made by Muslims to be used against their own. So much for the spirit of peace and love that Eid was supposed to evoke. I’ll never understand.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Laa atkallam ahrabee kateer

Iraqi woman with her granddaughter.

In years to come I’m going to have one regret from my time spent in the Middle East, and that will be not making more of an effort to learn Arabic. I can already see that I’m squandering a great opportunity.

I have some pat phrases down that the maids have taught me over the months, although I’m not sure that I’m pronouncing everything correctly. They laugh uproariously every time I ask if there’s any fresh bread for breakfast.

I’m terrible with languages. It took the Army over ten years to make me proficient at Spanish and I’ve been struggling with Japanese for twice that long. Now here I am with a perfect opportunity to learn Arabic and I’m not taking full advantage of it. Maybe I’ll start today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Monks Amok

Two little girls, I believe they’re cousins, provide a good contrast as they examine a cellular phone

I’ve watched Burma's Buddhist monks on the news for some time now. While I believe that I have some understanding of the issues surrounding the current situation, I also have misgivings about Buddhist monks involving themselves in the political process.

I realize that there is a long history of monks becoming embroiled in various social movements, but I’m still disturbed seeing the faces of young monks, wrapped in robes, in direct confrontation with security forces and am wrestling with myself trying to grasp the arguments for and against such overt participation in social unrest. I’m sure there are all sorts of scholarly reasons that could be proffered by learned “Buddhist authorities”, but for my own little mind I suspect that the solution begins with an examination of why I am disturbed about this in the first place.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Looking For A Few Good Men... Sort Of

Even though I work in the security industry I’ve never been a big fan of the PSDs (Personal Security Detachments) and how they go about their business. I understand their job and its requirements, but I’ve always held that many are way too aggressive simply because they believe they can be, and many of the contractors working on the roads have no place whatsoever being there.

There are very few requirements needed to become a security contractor. Granted many companies vet their people as best they can and have established a baseline of required training and experience. Given, however, the need to fill slots in order to remain contract compliant some firms are signing on people that have the barest of qualifications. In theory you can be a volunteer fireman with two years of Army National Guard experience playing in the band, working the gun counter at Wal-Mart, and the next week be manning an automatic weapon on a gun truck in downtown Baghdad.

Now, with the Blackwater incident, it is all coming to light here in Iraq and around the world. The media has turned its lens on the PSDs and is now scrutinizing every single incident. Where the media goes the U.S. Congress will soon follow, and there will be a dramatic change in how at least U.S. government contracts are let in the future.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Coffee Club

An old man that has probably seen too much in his life. I found out later that he was all but blind.

I’m a lazy coffee drinker, especially while in Baghdad. Black, unsweetened, instant coffee is the norm. Growing up in Maine that’s how my father drank his, so that’s all I ever knew until I reached college. It’s fine by me, fast, easy, no fuss, and no mess.

Living here in the bureau all of the Iraqis drink tea. I suppose it’s something that they picked up from the Brits during the days of the Empire. The tea is served piping hot in tiny, thin plastic cups. I don’t understand how they don’t burn their fingers.

The other option here is Arabic coffee; some strange witches brew prepared on the stove in an odd looking little pot. It reminds me of the small coffees in South America, very small, sweet, and incredibly potent. It defies my “fast and easy” rule so I don’t drink much of it.

The Brits vacillate between coffee and tea. It’s as if they can’t make up their minds. They’re culturally drawn towards tea, but enjoy the fast jolt of a good utilitarian cup of coffee. Black coffee, on the other hand, is taboo with the Brits, and they look at me like I’m some sort of heathen for drinking it. Ah, they’ll come around in a generation or two.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

World Sport

A woman hides her face behind a burka.

The Rugby World Cup is among us and the bureau is following it closely on satellite television. For a gringo, rugby is a tad confusing, but I can see where American football gets many of it’s aspects. I watch the players wrestle and tackle each other and can’t help but think that an NFL quality running back would wreck havoc with these guys. The brits and kiwis vehemently claim that’s not the case, but I see an awful lot of arm tackling going on.

Now if rugby wasn’t bad enough I’ve also watched baseball’s distant cousin as well, cricket. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I’m trying to picture Barry Bonds in a big floppy hat.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


A little boy fixes the chain on his bike amid the garbage-filled streets

We travel back and forth to the airport several times a week, dropping people off for flights out of the country and picking others up. If we get a chance we’ll normally stop at the military’s Post Exchange (PX) within one of the large camps and grab some Burger King, Subway, or Pizza Hut for lunch.

Every trip comes with a shopping list from both the media teams and the Iraqi staff. The westerners are pretty straight forward, cases of Red Bull, Starbucks, Oreos, Pop Tarts, etc… The Iraqis on the other hand only want one thing, socks.

We buy dozens upon dozens of pairs of white cotton athletic socks on every PX run and bring them back to the Iraqi staff. They’re $5.00 for a package of 6 so it’s no great effort. As soon as we get back they’re like baby birds in the nest, hovering around for their packet of socks.

On closer examination socks are an oddity here. The locals wear sandals everyday, no matter if they’re getting dressed up to go out someplace or just hanging around the house. I’ll stop here and not get into a vivid description of their feet, but you can only imagine what a lifetime of wearing sandals in the dessert is like. It’s not pretty.

At The Bakery

I young Iraqi girl with traditional Muslim headscarf peers out from behind a gate.

Yesterday we went to a local “bakery” to do a story. I brought my camera along to take a few shots and was asked to write a bit for a Fox News web story.

Here’s what I wrote:
At first glance the "bakery" was nothing more than a stone fire pit wedged up against a chain-link fence that separated the bare dirt lot from a trash heap, and it wasn't even doing a good job at that. My reaction was, "Oh, this is it?"

The family soon emerged from its home and began the bread making process. The "bakers" were two women dressed in traditional black burkas, a photographer's nightmare. Burkas are specifically designed to hide the wearer from curious eyes, or even more inquisitive cameras. Getting a clear shot of even one of the women was next to impossible while they continually adjusted their veils and averted their eyes. All I had were amorphous black shapes tending to a fire pit.

The children soon came to my rescue and insisted on being in every shot. The little girl with the bright blue headband and her more traditionally dressed cousin provided a good contrast. Soon the grandparents emerged and I turned the lens on them. I attempted to endear myself to the aged grandfather by showing him the shots that I had taken of him and his wife, but was soon told that he was blind. Probably better that way anyway.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Tea With Mickey Mouse

Yesterday, after the sun went down, we made an effort to visit some of the homes in the neighborhood as part of the Ramadan celebration. Enthusiastically welcomed by all of the families, we spent a few moments with each sharing tea and talking.

This was a unique event, giving me the opportunity to see the inside of several Iraqi homes. We sat within ornately formal living rooms and drank tea from Mickey Mouse shot glasses or sipped super sweet bubble gum flavored soda.

Over the course of the evening this is what we heard:

- 99% of Iraqis are profoundly grateful for what America has done for them.
- Sadam had brutalized this country and had crippled its development for years to come.
- In the past people did what they were told or their families were thrown in jail.
- There is a massive brain drain flowing from Iraq to neighboring countries.
- Other Arab countries like the Emirates or Jordan have developed nicely while Iraq has gone in the opposite direction.
- There is hope now for the younger generation.
- All children are now going to school from 8:30 in the morning to 12:30 in the afternoon.
- They accept the violence as an aberration and go about their daily lives trusting everything to God.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


A car bomb went off about 300 meters from the villa last night, rattling windows and shaking the walls. Nighttime explosions are a rarity with most coming in the early morning during rush hour.

The explosion was abruptly followed by the Minister of Interior’s militia firing its weapons, at what I have no idea. This is the biggest threat in one of these incidents, catching a stray round from some idiot with an AK. The shooting went on for about five minutes and it’s not hard to imagine that they were firing at themselves in the darkened, smoke filled streets.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Treating Iraq

Water bottle filled with oil balancing on a post in the car park

With a background in Emergency Medicine I’m the de facto medic in the Bureau. I get called on a lot to treat the local guard force as well as our Iraqi staff. It’s usually fairly benign stuff like heat exhaustion, or minor lacerations. Every once in a while I get some interesting trauma like the 2000 lbs cement block crushing the guard’s toe. On other occasions I get medical issues, like today when I was asked about someone’s wife’s hair abruptly falling out.

If left to their own devices you get some pretty interesting situations. My favorite has to be the guard that received first and second degree burns to his face while trying to light a stove burner from a cigarette. His friends smeared his face with toothpaste in an effort to alleviate the burn. It’s never dull.

The truth of the matter is that according to the locals, all of the good physicians are either dead or have fled the country. The result is a pretty poor level of care for the average Iraqi.

All Things Are Thus

I love this photo of an old set of scales caught between the shadow and the light. It looks as if the light is pushing down on one end of the scales.

Baghdad is a wonderful place for old things; things that have been used for decades but are still functional. After the first Gulf War it became difficult to purchase many items, so the Iraqis made use of what they already had. Objects are worn with age and use, gritty from endless exposure to dust and sun. The imperfections of age are everywhere highlighting each object’s unique identity, marked by use and time. All things everywhere I like this, it’s just so stark here.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Change of Seasons

Yesterday was the first cloudy day of the season. It was wonderful to look up and see the thin layer of brown tinged clouds, blocking out the morning sun; a welcome change from the searing temperatures and intensely bright sunlight. People tell me that in mid-December it's absolutely dreary here, bone chillingly cold and grey for days on end. It’s almost impossible to imagine right now.

The changing seasons illustrate one of the most basic principles of Zen Buddhism, at least within me. I never seem to be content with the days just the way they are. I’m always looking forward to the coming crispness of winter or the impending penetrating warmth of summer. Change will eventually come, it always does. In the meantime each day, like all things, should be savored on it’s own merits, not compared to some ideal that really doesn’t exist anyway.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

No 911

Neighborhood kids eager to have their photo taken.

There is no 911 service here. No fire, police nor ambulance. If you have an emergency outside of the Green Zone, you're own your own. The other day we had a guard run his exposed toe over with a 2000 lbs cement barrier mounted on small iron railroad wheels. Needless to say there wasn’t a whole lot left of his toe. I cleaned and splinted what was left, but the guy needed a surgeon, if only to save a part of the crushed appendage.

The Guard Commander had to run the kid into the hospital, which in Baghdad is no small feat. It probably took several hours before he was seen by quasi-definitive care. During that time his toe had most likely necrotized to the point where it would have to be completely removed.

Friday, September 28, 2007

In The Store

Some photos that I took of a neighborhood shop are being used for a web piece on the Fox News site. I was asked by the correspondent to write a couple of lines about the experience of shooting the store. Here’s what I said:

"Shooting photographs in the small roadside shop was a challenge. Everything was so tight and cramped that it was difficult to capture an overall feeling of the store. The adults nervously shied away from the camera while the children leapt to be in every shot. In the rear of the store was a doorway that lead to an open air storage area filled with all sorts of interesting subjects, antique scales, a corrosion-covered air conditioner, old tools spilling out of a dented and rusted toolbox. It became a study of gritty, age-worn objects still being used because nothing else was available."

It's Pretty Damn Good

Dozens of different spices adorn a store’s rack.

I remember years ago one night deep in the Panamanian jungle finding my Special Forces Communications Sergeant talking on the radio to his wife back in North Carolina. I was amazed at this and had him explain to me the alchemy of phone patches, amateur radio operators, and HF signals that enabled him to do this. Wow, talking to your family while on deployment!

Fifteen years later I have daily running conversations with my wife, 8,000 miles away. Granted she’s a bit of a techy-geek and is armed with several bright and shiny communication devices at any given time, but the fact remains that it’s not much different than being home and at the office all day. We chat about the normal things that married people talk about, make plans, ask about the day, how are the kids, vent about issues at work. It’s all very normal, but at the same time quite remarkable.

Certainly none of this is a substitute for being there. I know some guys, however, that hook up their web cams every night and chat with their families. Others, me included, send pictures and other multimedia of their day, maintain blogs, make Internet calls, or trade video clips or text messages. You’re limited only by your own lack of effort or knowledge. It’s clearly not a way to run a marriage or raise your children, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Morning Fire

I awoke this morning to calls on the radio that the house next to our two villas was on fire. This would not be a good thing as all of the houses here are only feet apart from one another, with some of them sharing the same exterior wall.

Once on the roof we could see that it was one of the gasoline storage tanks from a nearby house that was ablaze and posed no danger to us. We have no idea how it started, but the smoke was pretty dramatic.

Nothing will get you out of bed faster than a house fire. All night long you can lie there and listen to gunfire and explosions, but a house fire … It’s amazing what you get used to.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shooting The Neighborhood

When I get time I enjoy venturing out into the neighborhood on my own little photowalks. I’m always shadowed by a couple security guards supposedly protecting my hide while I’m searching for things to shoot. The guards are fun and love to strike armed, manly poses in front of everything that I look at.

Some days I find a lot of inanimate objects and really get into shooting these, trying to somehow capture the imperfections caused by age and wear. Many, many things here in the neighborhood are old and well worn, and it’s always a challenge to portray the feeling that the Japanese call wabi sabi.

Other days there are plenty of living subjects, but I’m not that good with people. I never have been. I end up getting a lot of stiff, smiling poses. I need to talk to the media cameramen and ask them how they get their impromptu, natural shots. I guess like anything else, practice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Little Blurry

Sometimes even bad shots look kind of neat. I tried to shoot a palm tree at night but the long exposure time picked up too much camera shake. The result was a blurry shot but is sort of interesting nonetheless. I wish I could say that it was by design.

Like almost every other organization in Iraq we employ a certain number of Iraqi guards to man static positions around the clock, keeping vigil on the streets and grounds surrounding the villa. While it’s not glamorous work it’s unspeakably vital to the overall security of the compound.

This morning I caught one of the guards fast asleep at his post, endangering everyone in the villa. I went through our established procedures when this happens, but what struck me was how unremorseful the guard was. It was as if in his eyes he did nothing wrong. This is an aspect of the Arab culture that I will never understand, and it drives some westerners absolutely insane, a complete lack of personal responsibility for anything.

One colleague of mine observed that nothing every gets done here because there is no initiative to succeed. All responsibility for a project’s success or failure is taken away from the individual; hence it is better to do nothing at all than to show initiative. Try wrapping your head around that.

Monday, September 24, 2007

International Villa

I’m the only American in the villa. We are truly an international crew comprised of Brits, Germans, Scots, Serbs, Jordanians, Poles, and of course Iraqis. My counterpart is a Scot, and makes me laugh on a daily basis with some of the things that he says. I’ll preface this by saying that Scots by reputation are very tight with their money.

Last night the Scottish contingent was commenting on what a useless gift flowers are. “They’re so expensive”. One of the Brits was laughed and retorted, “They’re only $3.00 at the local gas station” in the UK. The Scot was aghast and went on about the environmental cost of shipping them all the way from Colombia.

It’s a great educational opportunity to live in such an international environment. I spend a lot of time asking people about their native land or their culture. Being associated with the media have taken most of them around the world a few times so there are not many places that at least someone has not been. The stories flow freely at night sitting around the living room after the newsroom has been closed down. It’s always great fun.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fake Crystal And Cement Ponds

Plaque adorning the front gate of an Iraqi villa. It translates to “From My God”, sort of the Arabic version of “Bless This House”.

I’m not enamored with the architecture of the Iraqi homes. I’ve been in several villas and a few palaces and they’re all almost identical in design and construction. What initially jumps out is thier ostentatiousness. There seems to be a glut in Iraq of intricate carvings, gilded everything, fake crystal, marble, and gold leaf. It all contributes to an overly formal feeling, palace-like, cold and unemotional, shrieking of “wealth on display”. For some reason it reminds me of the Beverly Hillbillies, right down to the tiny “cement ponds” in the back.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Welcome To Iraq

CNN’s Aneesh Raman working on a “stand up”.

The airport road, otherwise known as Route Irish was once the most dangerous road in the world, and in some ways it still is. Suicide car bombs and insurgent attacks on convoys were a normal occurrence several times a day. Insurgents would lie in wait, like a line of taxis at the airport, looking for a convoy to come past so they could drive into it exploding the car in a suicidal blast. It’s only a handful of miles from the relative safety of the Green Zone to the airport, but in the day it was a gauntlet of violence and carnage.

Today the government is working on a beautification project along the road. It’s employing hundreds of workers to plant palm trees and other vegetation in the dusty brown median that divides the twin two-lane roads. Huge, brightly colored billboards are going up welcoming visitors to Iraq. It’s all rather surreal in a way. The pavement is still heavily pockmarked from bomb blasts, military armored vehicles sit in over-watch alongside the road, heavily armed PSDs fly up and down at arrogant, breakneck speeds. All the while the new palm trees sway in the breeze giving shade to the carcasses of burnt-out cars lying in the sand.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Closer To God?

Old bicycle outside a roadside shop.

Several near-by explosions, car bombs detonating, ruptured this morning’s calm. We were warned about an increased level of violence during the month of Ramadan. It seems odd doesn’t it, the more revered the holiday the more violence it begets? I will never understand how someone can deeply believe that by killing and maiming innocents that he is somehow becoming closer to his god.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Now And Then

I was speaking with a New Zealand colleague of mine this morning about the attitude in States towards members of the armed services. He observed that there seems to be a steady outpouring of support for the individual solders, sailors, airmen and marines, while still being plenty of disagreement over the war in general. It’s seems to be politically correct to protest the war and it’s strategic protagonists, yet crosses a line when the young service members are being maligned. The Kiwi ended the conversation by making comparisons to the 1970s and America’s soldiers returning from Vietnam. It looks as if the America’s anti-war movement has matured in the last thirty years.