Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Recommended Read

I’m re-reading one of my favorite books, Lama Surya Das’ Awakening The Buddha Within. This was the book that originally grabbed my attention many years ago and made me look deeply at Buddhism as a path for life. While Surya Das writes from a Tibetan point of view the concepts that he discusses hold true for any spiritual path whether it be Buddhism, or religions such as Islam, or Christianity. I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone that is interested in deepening their spirituality. I think that I’ve read it five times already and have loved it each time.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shrinking Universe

Paddlers move a boat up the Dubai Creek. In the background is the Burj Dubai, what will be the world’s tallest tower.

I saw something interesting yesterday while walking the stacks at an Atlanta Barnes and Noble, two saffron-robed Asian Buddhist monks, each with a cup of Starbucks coffee in-hand. This is not something that you see every day in this mostly African American part of the city. I watched them with great fascination as they calmly walked through the store, also observing the reaction of the other patrons. It struck me as a huge contrast of cultures, incongruent pieces of different worlds. I wondered if you would get the same reaction at a Thailand monastery if, for example, one of the younger hip-hop dressed customers arrived with a cup of tea in his hand. The universe is truly becoming a smaller place.

Friday, April 25, 2008

New Pipes!

I just received my new set of highland bagpipes today. They're a set of David Naills and are truly breath-taking, made of deep rich African Blackwood, imitation aged ivory, and engraved silver. Now begins the unending process of tuning and tinkering, which is either the joy or the bane any piper. It's said that the bagpipes were the result of an unhappy marriage between a plumber and a watch maker.

My old set of pipes, also Naills, that I've had for over twenty years will go back to Scotland for some re-fitting. I hope to give them to my son, Connor for Christmas, as he's just started to pipe on his own.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Doing What It Takes

Cameraman working hard to get "the shot", I think :)

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is still working as a contractor on a PSD. He was recently involved in a major contact that killed one of his team and wounded several others. As the medic on the scene, he worked on the causalities for 90 minutes until a MEDEVAC finally arrived. In the end, he wondered what more he could have done. During the course of the discussion my friend lamented to me that many in this industry are under-trained, over-egoed, and far more concerned about looking like a miniaturized action figure than actually doing what it takes to become one.

The only thing that separates the real cool guys from the Wal-Mart ninjas of this world is.... training. There is nothing special about the SPECAT, "been-there-done-that", real-deal other than the fact that he's trained his ass off and continues to do so. It's like a professional athlete; those are the guys in the gym or on the field, all by themselves after the crowds have gone home and the lights have been extinguished, working over and over on basic skills. Do you think Tiger Woods got to where he is by putting on a Nike cap and and picking up the latest in carbon-fiber, high-tech clubs? Hell, Tiger could wipe the course with most people with just a Wal-Mart putter and a Putt-Putt golf ball. He's not on-line shopping for the latest cool sunglasses, or hanging out in the club house telling "there I was" stories, he's off by himself on the driving range hitting balls by the tens of thousands... boring stuff, but that's what it takes.

I'm sorry if I sound too critical of security contractors, but the fact is that the vast majority of them working around the world are criminally under-trained, if at all. They spend their efforts trying to look and speak the part, and hoping like hell that nothing happens to them. Clients, for the most part can't tell the difference. In the end, it's the clients that pay the price for ignorance, putting their faith and safety in the hands of some kid that looks like a Blackhawk poster boy, but has no idea of the vehicle dynamics of the multi-ton SUV that he's driving.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Applause Of A Nation

A protective tarp lay over a weight-bench, both covered in Baghdad's dust.

“Announcing the arrival of a military flight from the middle east with 263 of America’s finest men and women on board”. These were the words that came across Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s public address system, the busiest airport in the world, while I waited in baggage claim. Down the escalator emerged a snaking line of tired looking uniformed soldiers and Marines, daypacks slung over their shoulders, smiles on their faces, all happy to be back home to the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. The applause started as a ripple and grew to a sustained, heavy crescendo as the hundreds of passengers in the terminal, US Customs agents, flight crews, and airport personnel recognized the job that these men and women had done for the past 15 or so months of their lives.

I was happy and deeply touched to witness the welcoming that this country, or at least the Atlanta airport, gave to its returning heroes. I know from experience that this was one of those moments that will fondly reside in the memories of all 263 of those servicemen and women for the rest of their lives.

I too was arriving from Iraq, but my commitment paled when compared to the long, arduous ordeal that these heroes were emerging from. My applause, however, waited outside the North Terminal ,sitting behind the wheel of a white Toyota SUV and also strapped into a carseat in the back.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Blue Skies And Following Winds

I finally made it out of Baghdad this morning after much waiting in lines and dealing with a mixture of impatient or uncaring people. Nevertheless, the airplane took off and landed safely in Dubai two hours and ten minutes later.

I woke up this morning and was astounded by the change in weather. The biblical sandstorm had left, leaving behind blue skies and a slight breeze. The world remained covered with a fine, brown powder, something that reminded me of a light snow storm. The dust was everywhere, both inside and out. It's amazing how it permeates everything; there is no defense, and no hiding from it. I can't imagine what chronic exposure does to people's respiratory systems.

Tonight, onward to Atlanta.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Perfect Sandstorm

Baghdad airport's empty tarmac.

I’m currently stuck in the Baghdad airport riding out what appears to the Perfect Sandstorm. All flights are canceled and it looks like I’ll be spending the night at one of the security compounds near the airport. No hopping across the street to the Marriott here. Airlines are very hesitant to cancel flights until the last moment because it means lost revenue for them, so passengers wait, hoping against all hope that the storm will clear.

Epic sandstorms pop up indiscriminately and the really bad ones can hang around for days on end. You know it’s bad when the visibility ‘inside’ the buildings is dropping to mere yards, which is about where I am today. Dust permeates everything. Sitting at the airport restaurant, plates and silverware are coated with fine brown dust in just a few minutes, and you can taste the grime in your mouth with every dry breath you take.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Baghdad Ballet School

We went to a ballet school in central Baghdad today and did a story on the school and its students. It was a fun time and I took over 200 shots. Below are a few of them.

The senior students

Boys too, but they appeared less enthusiastic

Senior students with their teacher

Monday, April 14, 2008

Chasing Rain Drops

I generally don't like shooting flowers because I think that they're over-done. It was raining here in Baghdad and I was looking for something that would capture the event. I was really chasing the rain drops, not the flower.

I'm leaving in a couple of days, heading back home to my family in Atlanta. I expect to be back in Iraq sometime around the end of May for another stint with the media. Often while I'm home in the States I get the opportunity to travel to other places for the odd job. While that's all fine, I'm really looking forward to enjoying my time off.

Iraq will still be here when I get back, and no one really foresees any great change on the immediate horizon. I believe that the Sadr-ists will continue to fractionalize, and the violence will ebb and flow based on those relationships. Iraqi's will begin to maneuver in preparation for the upcoming Fall elections in this country. The U.S. military will begin it's downsizing as it redeploys units that were part of the initial surge, and will also draw up plans in preparation for the various outcomes of the U.S. presidential elections. The press will continue to hang in there, and as the security situation improves (or not) teams will get out more and the coverage will expand beyond what it is now. Embed opportunities will still exist but other interesting stories will become more accessible. Overall though, Iraq will be pushed to the back of the collective U.S. psyche as the nation gears up for the elections. The war will only be an issue insofar as it highlights the political differences of the candidates.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Same Thing, Different Day

Wall of sandbags surrounded by water, the same technology that fortified the trenches of World War I almost one hundred years ago.

I was watching Joan of Arc on the television this morning; scenes of siege warfare with men running about the castle walls wearing heavy protective armor. I was struck by the fact that here we are 577 years later and we're still scurrying about in body-armor and hiding behind huge walls of concrete. Mortars are being lobbed over the walls indiscriminately killing or maiming those inside. We're still firing weapons propelled by the expanding gases of exploding gunpowder, an ancient Chinese invention. How far have we really advanced in 500 plus years? Is the fact that we can now do it from insanely long distances away with extreme accuracy considered 'advancement'? To me, 'advancement' is simply just not doing it at all.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday In Baghdad

Towards the end of a trip blogging always becomes difficult. It's as if you've seen it all before and there's really nothing new or noteworthy that you want to take the time and write about. There are moments when I just want to count the days down and not really observe or interact with my surroundings. It's a little selfish, but it's true, and especially poignant on this trip because it's been longer than normal.

Iraq continues to slog onward. The current Iraq news story, the aftermath of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, is being covered from New York and Washington. Muqtada al-Sadr is being quiet for the time being, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq is on its heels. Violence continues to be sporadic as the fight ebbs and flows between insurgent groups and the Coalition-backed Iraqi security forces. It's another Friday in Baghdad.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Long Live The King

David Mac Dougall holding court at the local soccer pitch.

One of the things that both the Latin American and Arab culture have in common is their appreciation for a single, authoritarian figure as a head of state. Political scientists use the term "authoritarian democracies" to describe those heads of state that are nominally elected, but run the county from a position for great individual power and influence. Oddly, if the election process is too far skewed or unfavorable to western political ideals than 'authoritarian democracies' are become 'dictatorships', i.e. Chavez, Castro, et. al.

Of course Iraq had a strong head of state, a dictator, one who ran almost every aspect of his country. He was disposed of and a more palatable form of government was put in-place, one which is more familiar to Americans. Americans love Jeffersonian democracy and cannot bear the free choice of something else, but in truth it will not work in this part of the world. Iraqis need a strong figurehead to direct the country, and right now a prime minister is not going to cut it. Iraq is wrought with too many political, cultural, ethnic and religious factions to reasonably expect a Jeffersonian democracy to even provide the basics of governance. Many have suggested that Iraq revert back to a monarchy, as Jordan has done, and frankly that system seems to be working for Jordan. Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates are further examples of developed countries with strong heads of state. It just seems to me that the current form of government in Iraq is a seriously square peg being forced into a very round hole. All that it's going to take is some serious hammering and shaving of the peg.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

More On Executive Protection Training

I’m involved in another email correspondence with a guy that is looking to get into the executive protection field. He asked me about the various courses and companies out there, and I responded with the email below, which has been slightly edited for privacy purposes


Any company that named itself "Special Operations Protection Services Ltd." is already suspect in my book. A word or caution of the “Special Operations Protection Services Ltd.” of the world. The U.S. is flooded with guys that signed on to one of the PSDs in Iraq or Afghanistan after an illustrious career at the county volunteer fire department or working the gun-counter at WalMart. They did one or two tours, had they pictures taken under Baghdad's Crossed Swords decked out in the best Gucci kit that money could buy, and then went home to open up Special Operations Bodyguard, Rendition, and Ninja Training. The United States does not regulate EP courses, so anyone with some cool pictures and an Iraq or Afghanistan stamp in their passport can open one. Caveat emptor.

In terms of course costs, I'll grant you that executive protection training is not cheap. I was lucky enough to get the Army to pick up the tab for a lot of the EP training I did. A lot of guys will tell you that it's an "investment" into your new career, and I guess that's true to an extent, but it's still expensive and hard to swallow. Having said that, it makes it all the more vital that you get the most for the money that you're laying down. I can assure you that “Special Operations Protection Services and Ninja Training Ltd.” would not be on that list.

One way to get the most from you money is to attend a course that has all of the facets of protection rolled into it, i.e. driving, combatives, medical, etc... One such course is given by the International Training Group, out of, I believe, California. This was my first EP course, and some of the best training I've ever gone through, even in the military.

Another thought on courses is that you're looking for name recognition. If you slap "Special Operations Bodyguard Services - Ninja-Bodyguard Course on your resume, no one is going to recognize it, and will pass right over it as if you never attended anything. You have to find courses that people in the industry are familiar with and that have a lot of alumni (networking opportunities). Since you asked about driving, I'll tell you that BSR and Tony Scotti are two of the industry standards. Anyone that is seriously doing this job has gone to one or both of these schools, and most active instructors can trace their linage back to them as well. Granted there are a ton of driving schools out there offering decent training, but again, it's about name recognition on your resume.

Driving schools. Lot's of schools will teach you how to spin a car around, but that's not protective driving. Look for schools that work in multi-car formations, so you know what a lead car does, or how to drive the client car, or how hectic life is in the follow-car. All of these are different and have different roles and responsibilities. Can you coordinate a four-car Reverse 180 on a narrow street in the dark under pressure? That's what you're looking for.

Finally, you need to decide on what type of protection you want to do. Many will tell you that the principles are the same for all threat levels, and that's true to an extent. However, if you know that you want to do corporate protection, there are courses that specialize in those skills (R L Oatman & Associates). If you know that you're more inclined to do high-risk PSD work than look to Blackwater-type courses. As an example, Bob Oatman, doesn't even use the word firearm in his entire one-week course, but has a couple blocks of instruction on dress and business etiquette. Blackwater USA, on the other hand, has you on the range within the first hour of the course working on shooting. Keep in mind that the vast majority of all Stateside details are unarmed. Get my point?

Anyway, that's probably more that you needed, but it will move you in the right direction.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

When It's Time To Go Home

The littlest soccer player; retreats from the pitch dominated by bigger kids and heads alone towards the empty playground. This is a very sad photo for me, maybe because he's about the same age as my son.

Late morning, much of the bureau is still in bed having stayed up late keeping with the U.S. news cycle. KaaaWhomp! The windows of the villa shake within their frames, one of my indicators that the explosion was either very large or sufficiently close enough to be of interest. Within moments the radio comes alive with the heavily accented voice of the guard supervisor trying to tell us what he can see or what the guards on their posts have observed. Back and forth, Arabic-English-Arabic, reports and speculation come across the airwave.

Once on the roof I squint my eyes trying to adjust to the intense light, scanning the cityscape for smoke. Guards continue to speculate in adrenaline-fuled Arabic as one of the others attempts to translate. The recruiting station for the Iraqi National Guard was just hit with a car bomb, less than a half of a mile away. Undoubtedly people are dead and injured, screaming in the streets for help, shocked that this has happened to them. Children are maimed, torn from their parents, lives have been taken or altered forever.

Returning to the kitchen to grab another cup of coffee, my attention turns to what's on TV in the living room. Strange place this is.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Baghdad Tea Party

This guy made me laugh. I'm not sure if he doesn't have both dinner and a date all in one package there.

We did the Tour de Tea, Part Deux last night and visited a couple more of our neighbors' homes. One of the questions that came up was how we, as westerners, find Iraqi society? The answer that one of the guys gave was that the sense of family seemed to be stronger in Iraq than in the United States. At first I agreed with that, and then, walking home, I began to thing about it more deeply.

What gives us the impression of the exaggerated "sense of family" is that several generations of Iraqis often live under a single roof, not wholly unlike my experiences in Latin America. I can't comment if this is a recent phenomenon due to the war and the economic/security situation or not, or if it is how Iraqi society has always been. Sadly my knowledge of the cultural history of this part of the world is only superficial. Nevertheless, it's not uncommon to see four generations living in a large house, but unlike the Latin culture, the Iraqis' is truly a patriarchal one. The heart, soul, and head of the household belongs to the eldest male. Women, regardless of their age or stature, remain in a seperate room, away from any gathering and discussion between men. It's too bad, because I believe that Iraqi's are missing out on much of their collective wisdom and experience because of this cultural division.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Baghdad Reality

We did a quick piece today of the neighborhood soccer matches. Families come out on Thursday nights and watch the kids run back and forth for hours on the dusty pitch.

The other night we went around visiting the neighbors that surround our villa. I've done this before and have nicked named it the 'Tour de Tea' as every house that we stop at serves scalding hot tea in tiny shot glasses. Somehow the Iraqis can drink the tea without burning their fingers, and take great amusement in watching westerners try to do the same. I believe that it's a sort of cultural conspiracy and their tea isn't nearly as hot as ours'.

During the visits we heard some interesting stories such as the school teacher that was beat up by her students for banning smoking in school. The students claimed that under a 'democracy ' they had the right to do whatever they pleased, which apparently included assaulting their teacher.

One of the neighbors informed us of two neighborhood children that were run over by speeding SUVs belonging to an Iraqi PSD. Words can't describe my absolute abhorrence for the PSDs that thoughtlessly scream around, loaded with guns, testosterone and arrogance.

I saw a puppy on the side of the road today that had been killed by a passing vehicle. Its mother laid next to the body licking her puppy's face trying to keep the flies off it. From the looks of it, both had been there for quite some time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Getting Caught

I love watching my ego, it's so much like playing with my for year-old son. It jumps from one thing to the next, ambivalent to what's going on around it. When things are going well ego is happy and gleeful, and when it doesn't get its way it acts out in an almost infantile manner.

Living in close quarters with a lot of people, some under a a great deal of stress for weeks on end, affords me a unique opportunity to deepen my practice. Moments arise when my ego just wants to lash out at someone or something because it had it's feelings hurt. After a bit of contemplation things calm down and quickly fall back into perspective. The trick for me has been to recognize these moments as they occur and be able to defuse them quickly before my ego runs amok and I do or say something that I will deeply regret later. As soon as the truth of the situation is recognized, all of the pain seems to simply drop away. My ego hates being caught red-handed like that.