Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Right Action

Latrodectus mactans (Black Widow). I found this little one playing among the rocks in our front yard.

My wife and I are at odds over this one. As a Buddhist I’ve taken a vow to follow what is known as the Eight-Fold Path, sort of like eights steps to enlightenment. One of those steps is referred to by practicing Buddhists as, Right Action. Within this step is the practice of cherishing all life and thus not killing. This is where my wife and I diverge. She’ll squish, smash, squash, and gas an offending bug in a heartbeat. I’ve resigned myself to redirecting the wayward creature from inside the house to a more suitable environment.

It’s difficult to go through life cherishing all other life, while at the same time not cherishing any life at all. Buddhism is funny like that. Ha!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Week of Woes

Some yahoo who thinks that he looks good in Oakleys and DeSoto tri-shorts.

One of my great passions in life is triathlon. I spend an obscene amount of time and effort at it. If you ask my wife, she’ll lump “money” into that last statement as well. Nevertheless, it’s been a week of training woes. The following is an except from an email I wrote a friend of mine in Miami.

Went for my weekly long run; 10 miles up the parkway against morning commuting traffic. Some fat guy gave me the finger from his speeding mini-van because I guess he thought that running five feet off the side of the road was impinging on his right to the road.

I was sporting a new pair of DeSoto running shorts that started to chafe at about mile 3. By the time I got back home my new Asics were bright pink from sweat and blood, and I had streams of blood running down both of my legs. Michelle looked at me like I was a blooming idiot. Can you blame her?

Now I'm limping around with what is effectively road-rash between my legs. There is NOTHING more painful than road-rash in the shower.

I've decided to stick with the DeSoto compression tri-shorts for long runs. These have been stand-bys for years.

I went for a long bike ride through the hills of southern Atlanta the other day. I got hopelessly lost, and kept passing the same dead dog lying on the side of the road. I took that as a bad omen and called Michelle for directions. Ended up doing an ass-load of “bonus miles”.

Also went to the tri-store yesterday to stock up on Accelerade (“Biker Crack”). The guy looked at me like I was crazy. I'm getting a lot of that lately. He told me the stuff was junk and the latest version of "go-faster" drink was something called Perpetium (orange-vanilla). I tried it yesterday. I'm not sure if it helped at all, but it tasted great.

The Speedo polyester swimsuits are great. Good advice there. They don't come in leopard pattern though.

I was in the pool the other day swimming an unbroken 1600 and the guy next to me was floating 25 yd intervals on his back. He saw me in the shower and commented, "you're a beast in the water". I'm thinking, "Yea, you should see me bench press 80 lbs!!"

All from my tales of woe. How's it with you?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Euclidean Geometry and Thomas the Train

Little girl stuck in the fountain at Atlanta's Centennial Park

The most stressful place for the parents of a toddler; the Thomas the Train table in the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble. Kids go there and have a great time playing with the trains, while their parents hover near-by and reprimand their child for even the slightest error in social etiquette. Parents are constantly repeating the mantra, “share, share, say thank you, be nice, say thank you in Urdu". The entertainment is not in watching the kids, but keeping an eye on the parents.

Parents are way too wrapped up in raising the perfect miniature adult, and not so much the best well-rounded child. How many parents do you know that love to show off their child’s latest party-trick? “Bobby can count to a hundred”. “That’s nice, but Sally is mastering Euclidean Geometry”. It’s as if they’re raising game show contestants. I have a three year-old son, and sure I want him to do well in life. To me, that starts with being a good three year old, and not a miniaturized thirty year-old.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Secret Lives

Sukiya-style rock garden adorning a portion of my front yard.

Almost every security guy that I've ever worked with has had some sort of secret life, an existence to where they retreat in order to unwind after long or arduous deployments. Most are quiet about it, and don't share these odd interests with their team mates. I've seen some of the most hardened Special Forces guys you can possibly imagine heading off to cooking school during their down-time. Others pursue photography, gardening, modeling, fishing, etc... All of these outlets seem to be creative, maybe fostering some need to control another reality, or to redirect their attention.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Training for Close Protection

The one thing that sets military special operations forces apart from conventional forces is training. Special Forces personnel are constantly training and learning new tasks while continuing to hone old skills. This is the one great lesson I learned while serving as a Special Forces officer in the Army; that the training and preparation never end.

With several weeks off before I travel again for my next security assignment I'm taking advantage of the time to continue my personal training program. Here is a list of things that security professionals can do to increase or augment their skills while they are between jobs.

- Learn a new language. You don't have to become fluent, but try to learn some useful phrases. There are plenty of Internet sites dedicated to teaching various languages. I'm currently using JapanesePod101.

- Augment your medical skills. If you have the three weeks, get your Basic EMT certification. At a minimum get certified in CPR and AED.

- Stay on top of you physical workouts. You should endeavor to do something every day. That doesn't mean you have to thrash yourself into oblivion day-in and day-out. Be sensible and have a plan. Incorporate the basics of strength, flexibility and endurance. For me it's triathlon training coupled with yoga.

- Combatives. Try to learn the basics of a martial art that appeals to you. A lot of security professionals are practicing mixed martial arts, taking techniques from various arts that make sense and have applicability. I've been a bit of a traditionalist here and have focused on Aikido; so much so that I married my Aikido instructor. Now that's dedication!

- Shoot. Way too many close protection guys get wrapped around this. It's fun, and people tend to practice those skills that are fun. Don't just go to the range and blast away. Have a program that works on specific skills. Make every shot count and have a purpose. Practice with a variety of different weapons, not just your favorites. Dry fire... a lot.

- Hang out in Barnes and Noble and browse books on business dress and etiquette, foreign cultures, the world's religions, geography, and photography.

- Stay on top of technical skills. Understand the basics or wireless communication, radio theory, multimedia presentations. Become familiar with emerging technologies and applications.

In short, take an inventory of yourself. Identify those areas that you are weak in and develop a training plan for those. Don't just head off to the range a few times a week and blast away, thinking that you're now a well-trained, close protection agent. Balance in all things.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Children playing in the Centennial Park fountain.

I made it home last week, and have been so caught up with reacquainting myself with my family that I've neglected to post anything since I returned. I suppose that it's a matter of priorities, at least that's what I've been telling myself. I've been spending time with my three year-old, doing yard work, and trying to help my wife with mundane tasks around the house. Long, slow sigh. Nirvana.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ham and Eggs

Elderly Iraqi woman. I can’t begin to imagine what her eyes have seen.

Heading home soon. I’m looking forward to traveling back to Atlanta and reacquainting myself with my wife and sons. I began to think about this the other day and came to the realization that for the Iraqi people this is home. They have no place to go to; no refuge to retreat to. In Iraq, they’re “all in”.

Foreigners speak of how many days, weeks, months they have left “in-country”. They all know that if they just stick it out and do their jobs that time will pass and they can hopefully return home to their wives, children, girlfriends… Iraqis don’t have this luxury. This is it for them; this is their home. They can’t afford to have the emotional distance that the foreign soldiers and workers enjoy. It’s sort of like the old joke about ham and eggs for breakfast; the chicken’s involved, but the pig’s committed.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Not Here

A third staffer for Reuters was killed this week. According to The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York an estimated 149 reporters and media assistants have been killed since 2003.

Conflict journalism has become a dangerous occupation. Media no longer enjoy the battlefield immunity that protected it in the past. Western journalists are not considered “journalists” by the insurgents, but rather as high profile westerners who are lucrative and often easy targets for kidnapping and assassination. Freelance journalists need to consider this before venturing into a combat zone such as Iraq without extensive support.

A media friend of mine spoke to me about an email that he received the other day from an aspiring journalist who wishes to come to Iraq to cover the conflict. My friend told me that this was often typical of young journalists that believe they need to cover a conflict zone in order to build up their personal media credentials. This particular young guy intended on arriving in Iraq with no support at all; just show up and figure it out.

Even the most austere journalists here work with support. They hire local fixers, translators, and drivers. Most have their own bodyarmor, medical kit, communications, and move around secretly in armored vehicles. They hire stringers to shoot in places that they cannot get to, and live in secure areas often under the security of a hosting organization.

Iraq is a dangerous place, much more so than it used to be. Everyone’s movements are highly restricted. You can’t just jump in a cab or hire a car to take you up to Tikrit or down to Basrah. Journalists have to understand that there are large groups of people out there that are literally hunting them, and they are very good at it.

Blogging Ethics

A man sits in his courtyard, his back turned on the street.

We interviewed Nuri al-Maliki last night in the Iraqi Prime Minister's first interview since President Bush’s press conference of the progress in Iraq. I’m struggling with the ethics of documenting my personal observations. While I was part of the interview team my responsibilities were not those of news gathering, hence I feel as if I would be under-cutting the media organization that I work for by taking advantage of it’s exclusive opportunity to publish my own, independent thoughts.

I have a rule when it comes to ethics; if it feels wrong it is. I don’t know enough about the ethics of journalism to make a sound judgment, so I think it best just to keep my opinions to myself, at least for the time being.

Are bloggers journalists? Should they receive the same constitutional protections that traditional journalists have enjoyed? This is a debate that is raging in the blogsphere right now, and I haven’t quite resolved it for myself. I believe that low-level bloggers like myself document what they see for their own enjoyment, and are held to no ethical yardstick other than their own personal standards. Other bloggers, who have audiences in the tens of thousands, are de facto journalists and owe it to the people who read their work to adhere to some sort of defined ethical code.

It’s an interesting debate, and one, which the journalism and blogging communities will have to wrestle with. Until then, I think its best to listen to your little guiding voice and apply your own personal code of ethics.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Think Long And Hard

Muslim prayer rug hung up in concertina wire

I listened carefully to President Bush’s speech yesterday, as did everyone else in the bureau. While he mentioned it several times I don’t think that the President communicated very well the foreseen results of the inevitable U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

When the United States soon leaves Iraq this country will cease to exist. The government will fold almost immediately and a sectarian war will ignite claiming hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives over the next decade. This is something that almost everyone that I’ve met in Iraq agrees upon wholeheartedly regardless of where they stand on the current struggle.

Sectarian warlords sponsored by Iraq’s so-called neighbors will carve up Iraq and biblical scale genocide will ensue. The West will have squandered its last, best hope of achieving some modicum of stability in the region.

At home thhe American public will politically bury its head in the sands of isolationism and pray to God that the violence does not come to the United States. It will come; and come and come and there will be nothing that any government agency can do about it. Jack Bauer does not exist, and the septic violence will spill out from the Middle East and flow right into the heart of the United States and its allies.

To return to the Middle East and aggressively root out the cancer of radical Islam e.g., terrorism will take an exponentially larger military force a much, much longer time and cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of U.S. lives.

Americans might want to think long and hard about banging the politically popular tambourine of “withdrawal at all cost”. There will be a cost; and it will be globally catastrophic.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

About A Week

Sun setting behind the neighborhood skyline.

Q: What’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?

A: About a week.

Five weeks is about my “culture shock limit”. Prior to that I can take just about anything that foreign travel can dish out. At the five-week point, however, I feel myself becoming short with people, intolerant, and very sarcastic; all classic signs and symptoms of culture shock. That’s when I know that it’s time for a break; time to go home.

Culture shock is a very real phenomenon that causes stress in people that are exposed for very long periods of time to different cultural environments. It happens to everyone, regardless of how much they travel. I’ve seen the most enlightened, well-traveled, tolerant people turn vicious and hateful after a month of foreign cultural immersion.

Over time it passes, but it’s a stage that everyone will go through while living or traveling extensively overseas. For me, I recognize the signs and can rationalize what is happening to me based on having lived through it countless times before. Nonetheless, the rage, frustration, and stress are all very real, and without fail occur to me at the five-week point of my travels.

Heading home soon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mañana vs. Inshala

Many, many westerners get frustrated here when dealing directly with Iraqis. Westerners most often complain that there is no sense of urgency or personal responsibility within the local culture. It seems that everything can wait to be done at a later time, and if something ever goes wrong, well it’s God’s will that it did. No one is ever at fault and almost nothing ever gets done without prompting. It drives westerners mad. I can easily see why Iraq is doomed to failure without serious outside intervention.

A small handful of us sat around the newsroom last night discussing this phenomenon. Most believed that the Iraqi people are hamstrung by religion. They point to India and Pakistan; ethnically almost identical people divided only by religion. India seems to “get it” while Pakistan is all-but doomed to failure.

This raises the question, what are the effects of radical Islam on development? How prosperous are cultures that won’t allow half of their populations to be educated, that beat, maim, or murder their people for the most minor grievances such as their manner of dress? No one can make a decision or take any action or fear or personal retribution, so in the end it’s better to do nothing. Is this the makings of a developed civilization? It would be a good graduate-level thesis project.

A few of us that had experience in Latin America made comparisons between Inshala and a prevalent Latin attitude known as Mañana, where there is little sense of urgency and things are put off until tomorrow. While the results are largely the same, Inshala is based in the Muslim religion while Mañana is soley cultural. Nevertheless, both are retarding the development of their respective practitioners. This is not to say that Muslim countries and Latin countries cannot develop, but it appears that those countries that have done so have embraced moderate Islam or neo-liberal economics and capitalism.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Not Quite The Shopping Mecca

I’m close to the end of this trip and, as always, I’m looking around for things to bring back home with me. The first thing that comes to mind is kittens, we have plenty of them; no one knows for sure but I’m guessing there are over twenty of them on the villa grounds. They might be hard to slide past US Customs and my animal-loving son has enough pets as it is.

There are no tourist shops here in Iraq, which I guess makes sense since Baghdad is not high on The Lonely Planet’s “Must See” list. The few small shops there are sell subsistence items such as soap and potato chips. I found a couple of rug merchants, but I don’t know enough about oriental rugs to make a smart purchase. For all I know they were made in Arkansas.

So what to bring home? My son wants some Iraqi money, but to be honest I’ve never seen any. The good ole fashion green-back is the currency here. I suppose I could take a page out of Angelina Jolie’s book and bring an orphan home, there seem to be plenty of those here.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

When The Music Stops

Satellite dishes peeking through strands of concertina wire.

I read a statement on the news the other day that claimed there are more private security contractors in Iraq right now than there are US troops. I’ll say right now that no one has any idea how many contractors are currently here because there’s no overseeing governing body that is tracking that number. I’ve seen estimates as low as 20,000 and as high as 50,000 plus. Nevertheless, there are a lot of them.

Question: What is going to happen when the U.S. military eventually pulls out and Congress turns off or limits funding for reconstruction? The “bubble bursts”, “the music stops” whatever metaphor you want to use, most of those 20-50,000 security contractors are going to be scrambling for a job. After running around in Iraq for a year are they going to happily go back to working the gun counter at Wal-mart? Sure there’s security work in the United States, but the U.S. domestic security industry is a finite beast and has much different rules and regulations than Iraq. Ex-contractors from Iraq and Afghanistan will not be easily absorbed into the U.S. or international security market, so what will become of them?

Some things to keep in mind if you’re a security contractor:

The security for Iraq, one way or another, will be turned over to the Iraqis. Someone has to manage and train that industry. There’s opportunity there.

Sure there will be other conflicts around the world that will require security contractors, but the United States won’t be involved for a long time to come. That’s the coming political reality. That means no large U.S. Government contracts to pay your salary.

Working domestic security in the United States requires a whole different set of skills, experience, and licenses. If that’s the direction that you want to go in, better start the ball rolling now.

You can always teach what you learned in Iraq to people that want to learn those skills. The security training market is already saturated beyond belief. All of the operators that initially went over to Iraq are now running and teaching courses in the U.S. That boat has sailed already.

Loads of military guys will be leaving the service and will now be competing directly with you for security jobs. They have the same skills as you do and will want in on the industry as well.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Five Miles, Uphill Each Way

Iraqi boy working his way down the dusty road past the blast walls.

Kids are resilient; Baghdad’s maybe more than most. They continue on with their childhood as if nothing in particular is happening around them. Every evening there’s a soccer game in the dirt lot down the street from the villa. Kids of all ages run back and forth in the brown dust kicking at what may have been a soccer ball a decade ago. Gunfire can be heard in the distance; police cars wail, security teams pass by in heavily armored cars. The game goes on. It’s all so very normal.

In the mornings children walk hand-in-hand to school, book bags slung over their shoulders, laughing with their friends. It’s surreal in a way. Children move off to the side as a heavily armed police convoy crashes down the road, machine guns and assault rifles protruding in every direction. The kids are unfazed, and continue on their daily journey.

I wonder how many American families would allow their children to walk to school each morning, picking their way through a war zone. I remember my father telling me how he used to walked to school, five miles, up hill each way, through the New England snow. I gotta tell you Dad, I’ll pick snow any day over mortars and sniper fire.

Friday, July 6, 2007

No Tanning

I had thought that having spent any time here in Iraq that one would soon be sporting a deep mahogany tan. This simply isn't the case, as most westerners are as alabaster a month into a deployment as the day they arrived. Today I realized the cause of this. It’s just too damn hot to sit in the sun.

I tried to sit outside beside the pool and begin working on a tan, but after about five minutes my book, my iPod, and me were covered in flowing sweat. I could feel my body literately baking in the 120-degree sun like a big cupcake. Nope that’s too much. I’m retreating back into my air-conditioned room with my industrial-strength fan. How has humanity survived here for thousands of years? I think that I would have packed up belongings and moved to foothills of the Himalayas about a century ago.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Street Incident

Iraqi father and daughter standing atop their roof overlooking the neighborhood street below.

As we were driving out of the villa yesterday morning we passed a group of road workers standing around waiting to begin their work; shovels, rakes, dusty clothing, nothing out of the ordinary. In less than a second one of the workers raised a camera phone and snapped a picture as we went by. The world changed at that moment.

Our cars stopped in a storm of dust and one of our Iraqi security guys leapt from his car towards the guy with the phone. Heated words in Arabic were exchanged; we were stopped in the middle of the road, exposed, outside of our profile. In a flash escape routes were calculated, hands rested on readied weapons, clients were given orders, it became very tense and uncomfortable.

The Iraqi police rushed from down the street and grabbed the guy with the phone. We sped away in the dust, breathing deeply.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Walking along the dusty neighborhood streets.

There's wreckage everywhere you look in Baghdad, mostly buildings that have been destroyed by blast or fire. In the famed Green Zone several ornate palaces that have been destroyed by U.S. precision munitions can be seen; exterior walls ripped open allowing pedestrians to peer into the collapsed ruble of history.

Cars are the only rarity among the street wreckage. If the wheels will still turn an Iraqi will find a way to utilize an abandoned automobile. I’ve seen gutted cars converted into horse-drawn carts, made into houses, and of course used to conceal bombs. The only cars that are of no use to Iraqis are the remains of car bombs, those that have been pushed off the side of the road. They are, however, of use to me. Every time I pass one of the blackened skeletons I'm reminded to me to be wary of it’s still concealed brother.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Clowns To The Left Of Me, Jokers To The Right...

We had the Iraqi Foreign Minister show up yesterday to do a live shot at the villa. I made my way down to the front gates in order to observe his arrival into our compound. I get a kick out of watching other security teams work, and since the Foreign Minister is a pretty highly placed in the Iraqi Government I assumed that he would have a very well-trained team looking him. This was not the case.

His advance team arrived ten minutes prior in an SUV, and did absolutely nothing other than stand at the front gate; one guy in an ill-fitting suit and three semi-uniformed thugs with dusty AKs. No coordination with us; where to park the cars, how many people will be allowed in the villa, routes in and out of the villa, our security posture, nothing, nada, zip. I was almost embarrassed for them.

The Minister showed up and came through the gate. This went smoothly, simply because that’s where his entire advance team was stacked up like baby birds waiting to be fed. After that, his arrival went south. His SUV tried to force it’s way into our driveway but was block by our parked vehicles. Someone “told” us to move them. No, that’s not going to happen. The Minister got out of his SUV and was immediately surrounded by 12 thugs with guns. They had no earthly idea what they were doing. Allah forbid that there was an incident; surely these clowns would have opened up on everything that moved, including their Minister.

I watched in absolute awe. One of these AK-toting pirates walked past me and inadvertently ran the muzzle of his AK across my chest, something that we call “flagging”. A fast check as to where his finger was and I grabbed the muzzle with my hand, jerking it away from my chest, and sent it and him into the concrete wall. He looked up at me in complete shock while I mumbled something unpleasant under my breath. I'm still not sure he knew what he did wrong.

There are hundreds of security details in country right now; some are good, and others are just a bunch of clowns. The Minister’s was the latter. It’s not because they were Iraqis, because I’ve seen plenty of western teams that were just as bad. When it comes to security, caveat emptor.