Monday, April 30, 2007

Amman, Jordan

Sitting in a very nice hotel lobby in Amman enjoying my first Corona in six weeks, and listening to a lady in a leopard skin gown play some recognizable tunes on the piano.

Amman is a progressive and cosmopolitan city compared to Baghdad right now. Driving the 40 minutes from the airport and passing the clean, elegant buildings, and freely moving people I couldn’t help but imagine that this is what Baghdad may become one day. A picture of the beaten and battered city 20 years from now, transformed into a modern Islamic capital city tickled my mind; it seems so far away, almost unachievable.

Things that you notice in Amman are the streets, packed with people and cars, are very clean. Many of the women are dressed in the traditional black hijab, which looks to me to be very hot in the Middle Eastern sun. Those that are not dressed head to toe in black at least wear a muted head scarf in accordance with their beliefs. The architecture is amazing, both modern steel and glass next to castle-like structures made of white, sun-baked stone.

I only have a handful of hours to spend here before I fly out tonight for Paris and then Atlanta. I really wanted to rent a car and drive to the Dead Sea, but I don’t have the time on this trip. The next time through I’m going to take a day and see what’s outside the city.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Life's Experiences

I’m often reminded of the scene in John Wayne’s The Green Berets where our hero is confronted by a very opinionated news reporter about why we are fighting in Vietnam. The Duke stops, looks the reporter dead in the eye and asks, “Have you ever been to Vietnam”? The reporter looks down and sheepishly says. “Well, no”, Wayne just lets out a grunt and walks by.

That one moment has stuck with me my entire life. Later, I went on to become a Green Beret (Special Forces officer) and spent the better part of my adult existence traveling to various troubled spots around the world, but I often ask, for what reason? I’ve struggled for an answer for as long as I’ve been doing this, and truly believe that it’s the need to experience first-hand the realities of our world. I want to taste the smell of the streets of La Paz, or feel the thump of a distant Baghdad car bomb in my chest, or listen to the morning call to pray in an Islamabad mosque. These are things that you cannot read in a magazine or watch on a 2:30 minute news broadcast. You have to be there, you have to embrace the moment and live it. I will not have my life be a regurgitation of someone else’s reality brought to me in a podcast, a book or a TV show.

My one great terror has always been sitting alone in a nursing home, knowing that this wonderful gift of a single life will soon expire, and looking back to the sudden realization that I wasted that gift; that I squandered the opportunity of...‘a lifetime’.

Over the past few years I’ve been to New Orleans, Tijuana, Sa’na, Islamabad, Baghdad, Amman It’s been utterly fascinating, every step of the way. What a great life!!

So Far, So Good

I’m leaving Baghdad in a couple of days and heading back to the States. On the way I have a short stay in Amman and then home to Atlanta. For my next trip, in a couple of weeks, I plan to pack some additional gear so that I can start adding more multimedia content to the posts.

I want to create some simple slideshows with audio tracks; starting off by using a software package called Soundslides, and later replicating the effort using either customized Flash or Final Cut Pro. More to follow.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mayhem - No Photos

Today was high adventure. We were coming through a very heavily armed check point leading into the Green Zone; me and a local driver leading in our Mercedes, and my Scottish partner, Sean, following in a problematic Chevrolet. Exiting the checkpoint we got out ahead of Sean a little too far when I heard him yelling on the radio to come back quickly and to bring a fire extinguisher.

We spun the car around and ran back to him, all the while digging the fire extinguisher out from under the seat. I found him stopped in the middle of the road, directly in front of the British Embassy with smoke pouring out from the car. The 5-6 ex-Gurkha embassy guards were in a mad panic because they thought that it was a failed car bomb about to suddenly right itself. Sean was desperately trying to reach me on his car radio, but that was dead due to the power failure of the stalled car. At the same time he was trying to get to a fire extinguisher, but it was locked in the trunk that had an electric latch as well. Half of the Gurhkas were running and diving for any available cover, the other half had sighted their weapons on Sean. Other cars coming through the checkpoint were reversing out at full speed back toward the heavily armed US military guards, who were now deeply concerned as well. Sean was trying to tell the Gurhkas that he wasn’t a Scottish Jihadist and not to shoot as the electrical fire in the Chevrolet continued to smoke and burn. It was fucking mayhem!!

Finally everyone calmed down, and we arrived to tow the car from in front of the Embassy to the garage. It’s funny now, but at the time it was fairly stressful.


Life in Baghdad is not all armored HUMMVs, car bombs, and concrete barriers. During the day people go about their business. Little school children, with book bags slung over their shoulders, walk to school. Mothers are out taking their infants for strolls down the sidewalk. Cars, buses, trucks and even horse-drawn carts move through the congested streets. This is what struck me the most when I first arrived. It all appears very normal, like any city in the world.

In the pursuit of normalcy, our neighbor has a coop full of carrier pigeons that he lets out and exercises everyday. He stands on the roof and waves a bright red cloth around his head while the dozen or so pigeons swirl around his house several times in a mad sprint before coming to rest on the roof near the coop. It’s great fun to watch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Long Way To Go Yet

Saddam Hussein’s official parade field is nicknamed “Crossed Swords” by Baghdad’s current security community because it’s most prominent feature is two pair of towering swords. The swords are purportedly held in cast replicas of Saddam’s own hands, and crossed at either end of the parade grounds. Of note, the rumor is that both the hands and swords were made in France, the same place that the Statue of Liberty was constructed.

At the base of each of the swords Saddam had built a cascade of helmets; Iranian army helmets taken off dead soldiers during the Iraq-Iran conflict. Each of the helmets has a hole, supposedly from an Iraqi bullet slaying it’s owner.

It’s very grim and somber looking at the thousands of green helmets. It reminds me of the feelings that I had standing next to a mass gravesite at a Nazi concentration camp some years ago. You walk away questioning humanity and wondering exactly how far we have really come as a species.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Private Security in Baghdad

One of the most common sights on the streets of Baghdad is the private security companies. These are normally western firms that are contracted to provide security to the reconstruction effort; often guarding fixed sites or more commonly providing protection for people and things as they move along the Iraqi roadways.

Some firms adopt a “high profile” approach to security; utilizing heavily armored vehicles outfitted with enough weaponry and technology to impress even the US military. They move massively and quickly along the highways counting on brut force and overwhelming firepower to protect their clients. Machine guns swivel and lock onto any suspected person or vehicle, and signs posted in the rear warning other vehicles to stay well-back or risk “authorized deadly force”.

Other security companies utilize the “low profile” approach to security; non-descript cars blending into the normal daily traffic flow in Iraq. They hide among the masses using deception and finesse to safeguard their client’s movements. Inside the cars are covert radio kits, hidden weapons, and medical bags. Windows are slightly tinted as to make it hard for the passerby to peer in, but not so dark that they stand out. They dissolve into traffic and are gone before anyone cans suspect who or what they are.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Plastic Altars and Roses

I put together a small altar of my room. It consists of half of a milk crate, a plastic bowel filled with dirt and a Turkish incense stick, and a used water bottle half filled with water and a cutting of a flower.

My Iraqi maid is puzzled by my little set-up, but has taken to cutting fresh flowers for the water bottle. I came back from a run to the airport this morning to find a handful of white, baby roses protruding from the bottle. I smiled.

Japanese Death Poem:

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

- Kozan Ichikyo
Zen Monk

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Call to Prayer

I woke up early this morning and went up onto the roof of the villa. I had a chance to talk with one of the Iraqi security guards that was just about to come off his night shift. We stood there in the dark and listened to the haunting calls to prayer coming from the nearby mosques. The guard told me that the first of the morning calls come from the Sunni Muslim mosques, and then about ten minutes later the Shias join in. I asked why, and he explained to me that the calls are timed to be one and half hours prior to sunrise; the time needed for morning prayer. The Sunni believe that sunrise occurs when the horizon begins to glow red. The Shia, on the other hand, say that sunrise occurs when the actual sun peaks above the horizon.

I wonder, if these two groups can’t agree or at least compromise on when the sun comes up, how are they going to come together on more urgent issues?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Incident on Irish

I got shot at today. We got a little too close to an Iraqi army patrol along the airport road, also known as Route Irish, and one of the soldiers put a round into the dirt next to our car warning us off. I let loose with a very un-Zen, “Dickhead!”

One of the biggest threats to the average Iraqi is not aways the insurgents. The Iraqi army and the plethora of private security companies have been known to be pretty judicious with their weapons fire. It’s best to just give these guys a wide berth and let them go about whatever nonsense they are doing at the moment. I’ve found it a good exercise in “ego management”.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Yesterday was relatively quiet in the newsroom, despite being one of the bloodiest days on recent record here in Baghdad. Almost 200 people violently lost their lives in and around the city while the US mainstream media continued to cover the events at Virginia Tech. During the day I watched the aftermath reporting coming out of Blacksburg, all the while casualty reports came into the bureau almost faster than they could be attended to.

There is debate here among the journalists as to how long the Virginia Tech events will continue to dominate the news. No one denies that the shootings were horrific, but it has sparked some healthy conversations within the bureau as to the proportionalities of coverage.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

One Does Not Equal the Other

We spent most of the day yesterday watching the Virginia Tech coverage. One of the reporters in our newsroom said, “33 dead…that’s a Tuesday in Iraq”. I had to stop for a moments and think about that. Yes it was true, but it seemed incongruous in some way. No one heads off to college expecting to become that type of statistic, yet soldiers, everyday Iraqis, and by now the world realize that it’s just a fact of life here.

The media likes to draw statistical similarities between losses of life; combat deaths versus road traffic accidents, deaths from heart disease versus global starvation. I think that it serves little purpose to view death in those terms. A child too weak from starvation to even swallow has very little to do with a life-style that lead to high cholesterol and eventually heart disease.

Broken Beyond Repair?

It’s complicated. I asked a very well educated Iraqi this morning, “Who is eventually going to win”? His reply was that no one will ever win in Iraq without the assistance of outside forces. In other words, Iraq is so factionalized that it will never be able to have a functioning government and law abiding, peaceful society without the intervention of other countries or powerful political entities.

“If you break it, you own it”, Colin Powell once said to NPR’s Robert Seigel. Well, we broke it, and are refusing to fix it. We’re about to run out of the shop leaving the beleaguered owner to clean up our mess.

Iran? Saudi Arabia? Who will exercise influence in Iraq once the United States retreats into a decade or so of intense isolationism?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Back From the Convention Center

The gardener at the villa. He comes everyday to water the roses in the small courtyard. I often wonder what he thinks about what is going on around him. I’ve nicknamed him Mr. Miyagi.

I went to the Convention Center today where three days ago a suicide vest was detonated in the cafeteria. Getting to the building was the first great challenge. I was reminded of the saying that mentions closing the barn doors after the horses have fled. There are security check points every 50 meters, most of the time within clear sight of each other. It was akin to going through airport security in the US fifteen times in a row.

At each check point your ID was checked, as if it had somehow changed during the 50 meter walk from the last time it was inspected; then you were patted down very thoroughly, and any suspicious item was confiscated. I had something taken off of me at every point. First it was two magazines of 9mm ammunition, and then my Leatherman. OK, that’s reasonable. Towards the end they were eyeing my mala beads on my wrist, wondering I guess if they could possibly explode. I had to make an effort to remember where each piece of equipment was on the way out so that I could collect it all back up.

Once inside the first sound that you heard was the sweeping of broken glass. It echoed throughout the dark, cavernous building. You could almost feel the thunderclap of the explosion. Looking up from the atrium I could see the entire bank of cafeteria windows blown out as well as similar windows on the other side of the huge, open space. The glass was no where to be seen but the metal framing was hanging down, twisted and black. The destruction was far greater than I had thought that I would be, leaving me amazed that only two people were killed. I thought about snapping some pictures but The Iraqi Police didn’t seem too happy with the whole situation, and looked as if they were just waiting for an excuse to give someone a hard time.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Zen Moment

When it’s quiet, normally in the mornings and mid-afternoons, I sit in zazen a couple of times a day on a makeshift zafu and zabaton, while using an online "meditation timer" with my laptop.

I’m currently reading Guido Nishijima’s translation of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1. It’s become a very slow read for me, normally only a couple of pages at a time, because there is just so much to consider. I wonder if I’ll ever see the subsequent volumes.

Nishijima is Brad Warner’s current teacher. Brad is a pretty colorful guy, and maintains a great blog of his own, Hardcore Zen.

Friday, April 13, 2007

City Sounds

Mornings are by far my favorite moments in Baghdad. The birds start to stir at about 5:30, along with the first hint of a glow on the eastern horizon. By this time I’m normally on the roof of the villa checking on the Iraqi guards; cup of coffee in hand and armed with a couple of Arabic good morning phrases.

The sun comes up and the birds increase their chorus. Behind the villa is a parrot, escaped from the Zoo and has nested in the trees. The escapee’s morning conversation is unmistakable, but clearly out of place for Baghdad.

All of this continues until the first sirens of the day. The Iraqi police don’t go anywhere without running full lights and sirens, and if this fails to part the traffic to their liking the subsequent gunfire up into the morning air certainly will. I was struck the first time that I saw this: gunfire being used as a method of crowd control.

Once the sirens and gunfire take over the soundscape the birds retreat into the background. From the villa you can hear several sirens fighting through traffic all coming from different directions in the city, the occasional 2-3 cracks of rifle fire, and the arguing of car horns. Before long the sudden bass of an exploding car bomb somewhere in the city adds to the cacophony. This only brings more sirens and gunfire. Helicopters leaving or arriving at LZ Washington, Baghdad’s military heliport, occasionally cross over the villa adding their unique sounds to the mix as well. Day after day, this is the rhythm of Baghdad.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Bad Day in Baghdad

Today was not a good day here in Baghdad. The morning began with a massive truck bomb on the al-Sarafia Bridge, a steel structure built by the British 75 years ago. The bomb dropped the center span of the bridge into the Tigris killing ten Iraqis and injuring 26 more. The blast was so massive that it violently shook our villa, five miles away. I can’t imagine how big this bomb must have been. It is all but impossible to destroy a bridge from above with a car or truck bomb, as the vast majority of the blast wave is directed upward away from the bridge.

The second incident came as a vest bomb exploded at a cafĂ© in the Iraqi Parliament Building killing at least three people. The Parliament Building is located in the International Zone, or as the media like to say, “the heavily fortified Green Zone”.

How can these incidents happen, especially during the “Surge”? The simple, unspoken truth is that the insurgents can reach anywhere and at any time, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Thousands of vehicles and people transit the International Zone every day, moving through a myriad of check points during their journey. Cars are searched, metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs are in place, ID cards are checked and rechecked. It will not stop a determined and crafty adversary, and these attacks will continue until the political need for them is no longer present.

In short, the insurgents are reading the writing on the wall. They know that it is only a matter of time before coalition forces will be politically forced to leave Iraq. The US Congress is seeing to that. The insurgents are now playing for global public perception. They want show the world that the Coalition is being forced out at gun point; head down in a humiliating defeat. The media will show the troops leaving and all the while the insurgency will continue to attack, keeping the pressure on.

The other choice that the insurgency leadership has is to simply do nothing and the Coalition will still leave. Troops will board planes or trucks and head out of the country. The difference is that it will be obvious to the world that the United States simply gave up, pick up its ball and went home. It will not be viewed by the world as a great defeat at the hands of the Jihadists, but rather an abandonment of course and purpose.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Media and the Military

One of the great advantages to working within a media outlet is access to the news. One of my favorite daily activities is to rise early in the morning, prepare a cup of coffee, and head off to the newsroom and watch the bank of televisions. The newsroom receives 6-8 media broadcasts at any one time, and one can sit there and watch what all of the major outlets are reporting simultaneously, and the amount and type of coverage that each story is being given. It’s a news junkie’s version of 72 virgins.

Aside from watching news, working around the newsroom affords me the opportunity to watch the people reporting the news as well. One of the most striking things that I’ve witnessed is a lack of understanding of the military, but even more importantly an absence of any effort to seek a better sense of the armed forces. I had believed that journalists always strove to achieve a better understand and perception of key events and situations around them. Is that really the case? In Iraq we are always surrounded by the military, and interact with it almost daily. Selected media often live with the military units for days or weeks during “embed” assignments. How is it possible that journalists can walk away from that experience still not knowing the difference between a platoon and a division, or a corporal and a captain?

Every soldier, sailor or marine that may potentially come in contact with the media is given extensive classes on how to interact with the media. These are not courses that teach members how to say, “no comment”, or “I can’t talk about that”, but rather how to be open and honest with he media and to better understand the world in which journalists live. I wonder if there is a similar course for journalists?

First Post

A vicious storm blew in over the Baghdad Zoo this morning. I stood on the roof of the villa and snapped a couple of shots as the sky became night again, and the wind tore at the satellite dishes.

This first post comes from Baghdad, where I’m working as a security consultant for one of the major US media outlets. It’s been a wonderful experience so far as I’ve gotten an up close view of how the news is gathered, compiled, and broadcast around the world.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll put up some of the photos that I’ve taken over the previous month or so, along with some of my experiences that I’ve had. My intent is to eventually post more in-depth multi-media pieces using Flash video, slideshows, audio clips, and text.