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.

It's Not What You Think

I walked into the villa’s dining room the other day at lunchtime and was surprised to see three of our Iraqi security people sitting there finishing up lunch during what is supposed to be the fasting period of Ramadan. I asked one of them why he was eating lunch during Ramadan, and he explained it like this; there are pious, deeply religious, people out there that adhere to all of the customs and traditions required by the religious holiday. Those are the radical Muslims/insurgents. The rest of us are human and get hungry. We're the other 98% of Iraq.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Blackwater Incident

Little 4 year-old girl smiles for the camera

Yesterday the Iraqi Minister of Interior revoked Blackwater’s license to operate as a security company within the country of Iraq. I only have a vague understanding of the incident that precipitated the revocation by the government, but I have my suspicions.

Reports indicate that a Blackwater PSD came under fire, disabling one of the armored SUVs in a Baghdad neighborhood. The PSD returned fire while trying to extricate the crippled SUV from the ambush site. A twenty-minute gun battle ensued resulting in injury and the loss of life of several bystanders.

Blackwater was hit because it was an easily recognizable PSD. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify 4-5 identical SUVs traveling in a convoy as a PSD protecting some high-value target. Knowing, however, how the PSDs operate once the shooting began I suspect that the Blackwater boys returned a very judicious amount of fire, thusly injuring and killing several people that were just trying to get out of the way. On one hand I can fault the PSD for not controlling it’s fires better, but on the other I understand about the stresses of the moment.

The Minister of Interior is simply doing what is politically expedient. PSDs are not well liked on the streets of Baghdad, and honestly have been responsible for several needless deaths and injuries in the past. The Government of Iraq must be seen as attempting to stem the violence and mayhem caused by the PSDs, so hence the license revocation. Ironically the same government officials that are crying for action against Blackwater and the PSDs rely on those security companies to safely shuttle them back and forth everyday through the streets of the city.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Interview At The Palace, The Aftermath

I learned something about the media today. During the interview with PM Maliki two days ago the Prime Minister’s press team also set up a couple of cameras and microphones. Our producer initially protested but was told that the Prime Minister’s people always record the interviews for their own archives. I asked the producer why this was such a big deal, and he replied, “just watch”.

The next morning the entire footage of the interview with the Fox News correspondent was run on Al-Iraqia TV news, one of Iraq’s national media outlets. The Iraqi media team was either from Al-Iraqia or the Prime Minister’s office gave them the footage. Either way, it was extremely underhanded.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Interview At The Palace

Fox News correspondent David Mac Dougall sits down with Iraqi’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

We interviewed Prime Minister Maliki yesterday morning at the Presidential Palace. He appeared much more at ease than the previous interview; hands calmly placed in his lap, the occasional smile. I walked away with the impression that he was a man who believed that the worst was over and that brighter days were ahead. Maybe it was that the “Patraeus/Crocker Report” was over and done with, or possibly the calmness that comes with Ramadan. Whatever the reason the Prime Minister was a different man than two months before.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Photo Essay

I was honored to see that Fox News used some of my photographs in a photo essay to support of a story by correspondent David Mac Dougall.

I feel very much out of my league having my work up on a major media outlet site. In part, it causes me to wrestle with my ego, which is always a good exercise.


We are at the beginning of the Muslim observance of Ramadan, which takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The most prominent event during the month is the practice of daytime fasting or sawm. Practitioners rise before dawn eat and perform their first prayer of the day. The fast is broken after the fourth pray at sunset is due.

Baghdad is silent, absent helicopters, police sirens, and horns. It’s eerie, I suppose in the same way that Christmas day must be. All of the shops closed, very little traffic, and people remain indoors with family. Adding to the effect is that it’s Friday, and the government imposes the normal curfew against movement.

We’ve been asked by our local staff to refrain from smoking, eating and drinking openly. Life in the Bureau goes on, albeit slightly muted.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Peter Pan, Where Are You?

Iraq’s children I guess are like all children in that they are amazingly resilient. For many, war is all they have ever known; it’s a state of normalcy for them. Their parents and relatives tell them stories of times of peace and tranquility but for most they’re simply fairy tales that they go to bed with. Peace is as unimaginable as Never Never Land.

The children go about their business of growing up. They ride their bikes between the concrete blast walls, if they’re lucky enough they walk to and from school, and the evenings are passed with soccer games played in the dirt lot. Their eyes are bright and they smile and shout; heroes are made during the dusty games; prized team shirts are thread-worn from use. It is all so normal for them.

The children carry their own peace with them. Their worlds are small; maybe they’re kept that way so that they cannot be invaded by the violence that surrounds them. I cringe at the fact that one day, no matter how isolated, their childhood will crumble, likely in a most painful and vicious way.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Wax On, Wax Off

This shot reminds me of Prime Minister Maliki

Yesterday was “Paint The Car Day” here at the villa. We habitually re-paint the cars different colors so to break up any routine or profile that we may be setting. We had the painters come to the villa to do it in the driveway. Yup, that’s right, in the driveway!

Two guys spent a couple of hours hand-sanding the car and then they taped everything and sprayed it with an air-gun. In a couple of hours we had a freshly painted car. No need for paint rooms, heat lamps, or masks; not here. I didn’t take any pictures for obvious reasons, but the whole process was fascinating to watch.

Lunch With The Neighbors

Young Iraqi girl shying aware from the camera

We had lunch with an Iraqi family yesterday as part of a media report profiling the lives of average Iraqis. The family was hired as caretakers for a new and very palatial home not far from the Green Zone. The father, mother and four children survive on $100 a month while living in and looking after the home.

The visit was intriguing, and the correspondent got an opportunity to ask some very personal questions of the family. What struck me the most was that the father had watched General Patraeus’ testimony to the U.S. House on TV, and had some very informed opinions as to what he had seen.

The four children were great. The oldest daughter was not very keen on having her photo taken so I had to be a little sneaky. The two you boys couldn’t get enough of the cameras and begged to have their pictures taken at every opportunity.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Cool Breezes And Scorpions

Antenna in the morning light

They said that it comes on quickly, the coolness that marks the change of seasons here in Iraq. I woke up this morning to a pleasant dawn breeze, and temps in the mid-seventies. It was wonderful, and hopeful thoughts of sweaters and fleece paraded through my mind.

I returned to my ground-floor room and threw open the window leading out to the villa's courtyard, hoping to cool my room down with fresh, morning air instead of the incessant roar of the air-conditioner. I looked down on the sill and there was a two-inch, grey scorpion merrily making his way towards my now open window. Close it. Atlanta’s only five weeks away.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Not A Good Travel Day

There was some sort of multi-country talks going on today in Baghdad so the roads were clogged with security teams, police and the Iraqi army; all of which are a huge, dangerous, pain in the ass. It was obvious that they were there solely to give the impression of security to the delegates, nothing more. There was absolutely no coordination between the different elements.

It got more than a little tense out on the road as we're trying to make our way to the airport. At one checkpoint one armed guy is telling us to drive forward into the checkpoint while another AK-toting guy, standing right beside him, is motioning for us to immediately stay where we were. Both were getting very nervous with our apparent non-compliance. My partner and I were really confused as to what they wanted us to do. We looked at each other and agreed that if the shooting started we were going to hunker down in the armored car because these morons were going to be spraying everything, including themselves. Not a fun time.

At the underground parking garage the SUV-mounted PSDs were screaming up and down the narrow passageways doing about 50 mph with, horns blaring, lights flashing, and guns hanging out the windows.
They were not about to slow down or yield to anything or anyone regardless of who or what they had to run over. I can see why the average Iraqi hates them so much.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Surreal Mornings

Mornings are by far the best time not only here in Iraq, but also the Middle East. I love to stand outside before dawn and listen to the calls to prayer echo through the still darkness. It’s an eerie wailing sound and would be slightly unnerving if you weren’t aware of what it was.

The air is filled with thick dust this time of year; the result of dust storms being blown in off the desert. Sunrise becomes a deep reddish-brown adding to the dream-like atmosphere. It reminds me of several of the background scenes in Blackhawk Down.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Triathlon Challenges In A War Zone

The villa’s communication mast looking skyward in the morning light

Up at 5:30 this morning for a 6-mile hill workout on the treadmill. It’s the definition of boring; no TV, no iPod, no distractions, just the whir of the belt and the sound of foot strikes.

Working out in Baghdad has always been a challenge. It’s not like you can head out on a 10-mile run around the city or go biking on the outskirts of town. You have to be inventive with what you have available, which isn't much.

The villa has a tiny 15’x15’ pool, not much bigger than a hot tub. I have a tether that I can swim with that holds me in-place stroke after stroke. It’s sort of like the swimmer’s version of a treadmill. The problem is that the tethered belt around my waist dramatically changes my center of gravity and completely alters my technique. I’m not sure that I want to practice bad swimming technique, so I’ve resigned myself to using stretch cords anchored on my bedroom door.

Biking; forget it. I’m doing strength and muscular endurance work with weights and isometrics trying to keep my biking muscles in some semblance of condition. We have a stationary recumbent bike here, but it’s pretty beat on and not of much use. I’ve found that walking backwards on a heavily inclined treadmill will give the quads a pretty good endurance stressing. It looks funny, but seems to work.

The goal is to maintain condition until I can get back to Atlanta in five weeks and continue a normal training regime. My 10 year-old son is getting pretty fast, so I better keep to it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A Long And Winding Road

“Heiwa” – Peace and Tranquility

The last two days have been brutal. We’ve been out of the villa running around the city doing the Bureau’s bidding while the temperatures have been well up over 115 degrees. Thirty-five pounds of body armor and a like amount of weapons and gear are stuffed into a car on which the air conditioning your life depends. After several hours of this you’re pretty well beat up and ready for a cold shower and a big, fluffy chair.

Iraq, or at least Baghdad, seems to be a bit calmer. The police still run everywhere with full lights and sirens, and the PSDs still think that they own the road, especially the wrong side of it. Nonetheless, the people are moving around going about their normal lives; kids walk to and from school, soccer games in the dirt lot in the evening, shop owners sell goods on the streets. It’s getting there.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Quiet For Now

Dramatic looking house fire not far from the Al Rashid hotel.

A lot going on in Iraq this week; President Bush’s visit, the British “over-watch” of Anbar Palace, the re-convening of Parliament, and preparations for General Patraeus’ report. The media is gearing up for Patraeus’ report, however it will be more of a Washington story and less of one from Iraq

On a more personal note, I noticed this morning that Baghdad is much more calmer than it was during my previous two visits. While there are still PSDs and military convoys moving round the city creating chaotic traffic conditions, I’ve heard far, far less gunfire and explosions than in the past. I’m not reading too much into this, but there is a stark difference.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Life-Giving Sword

I have a small cushion in my room here in Baghdad that I sit zazen on several times a day. During the Zen Buddhist practice I quietly follow my breath, watching my thoughts come and go as if viewing a movie at the theatre. A gentle chime on my laptop the marks the end of the session; a slight bow to those who have gone before me, and I rise from the indigo cushion. The first thing I find myself reaching for is my Sig Sauer P226 9mm handgun resting not far away.

I was struck by this contradiction not long ago. Oddly it took me a while to even recognize it simply because the handgun is just a tool for my job, much like my radio, a Leatherman, and set of white Chuck Taylor high-tops. Once I did recognize the apparent contradiction I felt guilty, as if I was somehow being hypercritical with my practice. I remembered a story.

While I have the historical facts screwed up, the gist of it is a Samurai by the name of Yagyu Munenori was both a renowned swordsman in ancient Japan as well as an equally accomplished Zen Buddhist. He had to deal with the same contradictions. He wrote a book, and in it he told of his “life-giving sword”. Any fool can kill with a sword, but it takes real skill to give life with one. More contradictions.

What ole Yagyu is saying here is that by polishing his skills to such a high degree that he doesn’t ever have to use his weapon, hence “giving the life” that a lesser swordsman would have taken. This according to Yagyu is the real art of swordsmanship. Works for me.

The P226 goes wherever I go. It’s clean and checked several times a day to make sure that it’s in the proper state of readiness. The same goes for my skills with it. I hope that I never have to use the Sig, but if I do I know that it will be in defense of those in danger; “giving a life” where one may have been lost.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Bear

The jetlag coming from the US to the Middle East is a bear. It takes me almost a week to work through it, which is obviously something that I don’t do well. Baghdad is 8 hours ahead of Atlanta, so here I am wide awake at 4:00 in the a.m., but I’ll get groggy later in the morning and end up taking an early afternoon nap if we’re not in the middle of something.

A friend of mine recommends taking a Viagra right before you board the plane if you’re flying west to east. He claims that it doesn’t work if you’re going the other way. Swears by it. While I haven’t tried this unique remedy, I confess that I’m puzzled by the science of it. The obvious answer is, yea…you’re not getting a whole lot of sleep on the plane.