Monday, September 29, 2008


One of the many street dogs that roam the neighborhood. They're all harmless and spend their days lounging around in the sand or in the shade not bothering anyone.

Driving out of the compound yesterday I watched in horror as a young Iraqi man raised a 2-foot piece of black rubber hose above his head and violently brought it down onto one the the street dogs that populate the neighborhood. If the dog hadn't leaped out of the way he certainly would have hit the dog. The man stood there and laughed as he raised the hose again for another try.

I was greatly tempted to halt the car, get out, and give the man a bit of his own medicine. In retrospect I wish that I had, but we kept moving as we had a client in the car with us. I bit my lip knowing that I had made the best decision for the client in the back of the car, and fought back my rage against the bully with the hose. The next time I'm not so sure that I can be as controlled.

I used the incident as a teaching point to one of our Iraqi counterparts, explaining to him how Americans, and other westerns, hate injustice and loath bullies. It's in our nature to stick up for the down-trodden, and oppressed. I went so far as to use the Special Forces motto De Oppresso Liber as an example. All of this was new to him and I think difficult to understand, as the Arab mentality is to loath weakness of any kind. This is what allowed the man to mistreat the complacent dog sleeping in the street; it made him feel strong to pick on the weak. I wonder how strong he would have felt if I had stopped and "had a chat" with him?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On Display At BIAP

An old man ambles along the platform at the Baghdad railway station

Standing around the arrivals terminal at BIAP yesterday one thing stood out among everything else; a blond girl, twenty-something, wearing Lara Croft-like khaki shorts, a sheer white linen shirt and not much else. She was standing there talking to her PSD as if nothing were out of the ordinary. The entire terminal, all 60+ guys stood there eying her, some out of lechery of course, but most out of amazement at her complete lack of knowledge and understanding of where she was.

I looked at her PSD and thought, "You guys have screwed up already, and you haven't even left the airport yet". I'm sorry but I viewed this as a security failure. Maybe the PSD didn't get chance to brief her as to what was acceptable attire in Baghdad, but once she showed up she should have been whisked away and changed into something a little less "provocative". Instead she remained on display for the entire terminal, drawing much unwanted attention to herself and her detail.

Women arrive in Baghdad airport all of the time albeit most of them are muslim. I'm not advocating that western women wear hijabs, but I do think that some degree of cultural sensitivity is called for. At least have the wherewithal to cover your legs and arms. The less attention you draw the better for everyone.

Counter-Insurgency 101

I was asked yesterday what I thought was the greatest factor reducing the violence in Iraq over the last several months. The question caught me off guard a bit because I have never really given it any thought.

After a pause I reverted back to Counter-Insurgency 101 and gave my answer. The U.S surge made it clear to the radical Islamists that victory would not be forthcoming anytime soon. The Coalition applied a full-court press with great adeptness utilizing it's advantages and minimizing those of its enemy. It became clear that an insurgent victory was a long way off and it's ranks began to fraction under the steady pressure of the Coalition's war fighting and intelligence operations.

The Coalition sent a tacit or otherwise message to the insurgency that it was not going to be allowed to win, no matter what; it had hit its high-water mark and will be continually pushed back and marginalized if the insurgents continued to violently struggle. The best course of action, like in countless insurgencies before it, would be to sue for peace and consolidate what gains it had made before those too were whittled away. This, in my opinion, is what has lead to the marked drop in violence over the past several months.

Certainly the violence continues, but for the most part, they are outliers; uncoordinated attacks against targets of opportunity by small groups of fighters that didn't get the memo. It will soon be the Iraqi's sole job to mop up these factions and hold onto the gains. The Coalition will remain in the background to ensure that the homeostasis remains. Should the Coalition draw down too quickly, however, then the insurgency may see an opportunity for victory after all and press the fight anew.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thoughts On Hotel Selection

This is what 1300 lbs of explosives packed into a truck will do to a building even with considerable stand-off. The photograph lends perspective when you're doing your next hotel advance.

If the truth be known, there are only one or two hotels in every third-world city where westerners and high-value locals stay or do business in. Clients prefer to stay in the nicest hotel that the city offers and often wrongly assume that because it's relatively luxurious or a known U.S. chain that it must be secure. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Hey, this is the hotel that the U.S. Embassy uses for its guests, so it has to be safe". This is faulty logic and lazy protection in my view.

Some consideration should be given to staying in second tier establishments and remaining relatively hidden and low-key. All of these hotels have some semblance of security and the adroit protector can vastly augment that with a little planning and preparation. I contend that there is great security in staying away from the one or two fat, obvious targets in the city and keeping a low-profile. Sure the spa might not be state-of-the-art, but what are you really there for anyway?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Like Coming Home

The human condition has the same smell no matter where you go in the world. This is something that amazed me when I first realized it, but the barrio of La Paz, Bolivia smells just the same as the back alleys of Baghdad or the projects of Atlanta. It's the stench of human waste, diesel fumes, urine, unwashed people in greasy clothing, automobile exhaust, rotting garbage, and food cooking in some nearby kitchen. It's an odor that flashes back memories of other similar locations, places where humans struggle day-to-day for food and means; dirt-crusted, sunburnt children play amid the pot holes and blowing trash; and the old simply sit in the shadows, waiting and staring.

The smell of abject poverty, that which covers the vast majority of this planet, is similar to the odor of human death. It's one that will linger with you forever, one that you will never quite be able to wash out of your senses no matter how hard you scrub. Over time it becomes familiar, almost comforting, like coming home again.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Moths To A Flame

A favorite tactic of bombers is to detonate one device, wait for a crowd to gather, along with security personnel, and then detonate a larger device, killing and maiming scores of curious on-lookers. Arab countries appear to be particularly susceptible to this ploy because there is something within the culture that attracts people to dangerous or spectacular events like moths to a flame. Time and time again I've watched footage of Iraqi, Pakistani, or Afghan citizens rushing towards an explosion or gunshots motivated only by their curiosity, whereas a westerner's first reaction would be to flee in the opposite direction.

The above footage of the truck bomb at the Islamabad Marriott serves as an example of this phenomenon. It's clear that a large truck is trying to forcibly gain entrance to the hotel. Once it is stopped by the metal gate the security guards rush towards it to investigate, one even attempted to put out the small engine fire. What were they thinking? I have to tell you that my first instinct would be to warn the hotel while I'm legging it in the opposite direction. The Pakistanis didn't and paid for their curiosity with their lives.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Way Ahead In Executive Protection

An Iraqi physician peeks out from a treatment room. I've used this photo before so I apologize for my self-plagiarism.

If I had a dollar to spend on executive protection training, where would I spend it? There are a bevy of EP and EP-related schools and course out there, all vying for your hard-earned money, all promising to impart the skills necessary to become a world-class protector.

Let's assume for a moment that you've been to one of the more "legitimate" course and have learned a bit about surveillance detection, advance work, and maybe walking formations. Now what; a driving course, shooting school, how about Thai knife fighting? This is where many people get confused and often go astray.

If you didn't get any driving in your EP course than I contend that you went to the wrong course. That's a must have skill. Other than that, for most mere mortals, the next step should be medical certifications. You are much more likely to apply medical treatment than say the Woo Tan Dragon Tail technique. I know, Woo Tan can be a lot of fun, especially when compared to memorizing the bones in the hand, but for practicality purposes in EP there's no comparison.

Many perspective employers have under-lying medical issues, and often look for medical skills in their protectors. It gives them peace of mind, and when it gets right down to it, that's what we do for a living. The medical world is stratified, thus making it very easy for an informed employer to ascertain exactly what your medical qualifications are. Sometimes the military medical qualifications trip them up a bit, but for the most part anyone hiring an EMT-B qualified protector knows what he or she's getting.

I contend that anyone seriously working as an EP agent should have an EMT certification as a minimum. In the United States Fire and Police normally have this, so why shouldn't it be expected from a close protection agent? For you military guys and gals out there, Combat Lifesaver doesn't cut it. Why? Because it's just that, combat oriented. Someone with chronic asthma or COPD isn't going to need a tourniquet or a splint, they're going to need someone familiar with their affliction and to be able to assist with their medications.

So if you're if you're a protector and you're looking for some way to distinguish yourself from the heard, getting your EMT or foreign equivalent is, in my opinion the best way to do that. Gunslingers and Woo Tan knife fighters are a dime a dozen right now, qualified medics are rare and highly sought after by many companies employing protectors. This is the way ahead.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Welcome To Democracy

Venezuelan student yells at an anti-Chavez rally in Caracas.

Today was a first. I witnessed a non-violent protest outside one of the Iraqi ministries; eighty or so people with signs and banners in Arabic protesting the forced eviction from "their" homes. Well, they're really not "their" homes, but more accurately the homes that these people are squatting in, the owners having been displaced, are now returning and want their houses back. The government is forcibly evicting the squatters.

The point is that this is the first open, non-violent protest that I've seen here. Welcome to democracy! It won't be long before we start seeing heavy-handed police tactics complete with gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Then you know you've really arrived on the democratic stage.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

An ancient tree stands next to the Alamo. If trees could speak...

Lately I've been doing memory sprints; learning Japanese words, hundreds of complex kanji symbols, 15-minute classical bagpipe tunes (piobaireachd), and committing the dosages and characteristics of 80 some-odd pre-hospital drugs. At almost 45-years old this is not as easy as it used to be, but age and wisdom have made me crafty. Instead of the brute force and ignorance of youth I find myself using mnemonics, flash cards, rhymes, stories, pattern review, disciplined repetition, constant review, anything that will help embed the needed information into my brain cells for later recall.

As humans age the adage, "If you don't use it you'll loose it', holds true for both mental and physical capacities. I've seen 80-year old Ironman triathletes, musicians that can play several hundred complex tunes, and people that easily speak 8 or 9 different languages. Seemingly there is no limit to the human capacity, only those that are self-imposed through doubt, neglect, or resignation.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One Stop On The Orient Express

We visited the Baghdad railway station yesterday, which as my history buff partner pointed out was on the old Orient Express line at one time. I was trying to picture Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery (1974 film) rolling into the dusty and neglected station. I don't think they would have been all that pleased.

We spent an few hours walking around the rail yards looking at the various trains and cars. Some of the locomotives were Chinese-made, the passenger cars were Turkish, and Sadam's personal car was French-made, complete with kitchen, conference room and bedroom. Everything was coated in dust and stifling hot inside as the air conditioning wasn't functioning. The correspondent doing the story had to flee from inside the car at one point to change his shirt as he was covered in sweat.

My father is a model railroad enthusiast and I wished that he could have walked around with me, feeling certain that he would have seen things of great interest that I had missed. Even my partner, who is something of a train buff as well, was impressed by the historical significance of the station and the yard.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Death and Ear Wax

Potted rose bushes stand ready to be planted in the garden

Working alongside our Iraqi counterparts close bonds of friendship and trust are formed over time. On a daily basis we place our very lives in their hands, trusting in their judgment. I spend countless hours with our Iraqi counterparts and questions are asked about each others lives and culture. Above all else the Iraqis are deeply interested in our relationships with our wives and families.

I've come to learn that there is a sort of morbid humor that exists between Iraqi husbands and wives. One of my friends here regularly jokes with his wife, who he loves very much, about killing her. He finds this vane of humor hilarious, although I'm not sure how his wife feels about it. He told me that he and his wife had a big celebration the other day because they flipped a coin to see which of them would die first. The result was that she was fated to die before him, so hence the cause for celebration.

Another odd story has to do with one of our Iraqi staff having a massive plug of ear wax removed that had been apparently building up for years. The Iraqi exclaimed to the western medical technician that he was confused because he has his wife cleans his ears on a regular basis. My wife and I do a lot of things for each other, but ear cleaning is not on the list.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Expiration Dates

Colored cloth hangs in a marketplace

One of life's lessons that has taken me 44+ years to learn is to stay on top of expirations dates. Things like insurance where the company reminds you fifteen times that your policy is about to lapse, those are easy. It's certifications and licenses that cause me the greatest heartburn as no one really cares if you let it lapse so no one reminds you of the coming deadline.

Through my own neglect I've let all of my medical certifications lapse, not bothering to keep track of "re-certs", or CEUs. Now I have to start all over again, and what a painfully long road this is going to be. In the coming weeks and months I will begin with basic First Responder CPR and work all the way up through Paramedic and beyond. Needless to say this blog will take on a decidedly medical bent in the future :)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Empathy For The Poor

We have three weeks of Ramadan left. I was speaking with one of our Muslim cohorts last night about the reason for the tradition of fasting during the holy season. He explained that it is to help people empathize with the plight of the poor; to understand what it was like to have little and to eat only once a day if that.

On the surface this whole concept of empathy for the impoverished is laudable, and truly more people in the world need to embrace it. I wondered what do the poor people, for whom everyone else is empathizing with, do during Ramadan? Do they also restrict their diets, or do they get to gorge themselves on a high fat and cholesterol diet to empathize with the plight of the rich, and if so where is the line drawn between poor and rich?

In the evenings the fasting practitioners, those that are seeking to feel the experience of the poor, feast on vast amounts of food and drink. I'm not sure how this is in keeping with the spirit of empathy. In my rather dim view, I would suggest that they take the food and give it to the very people that are suffering. Then we have true empathy. Without that, fasting appears to be more of an inconvenience than anything else.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Paging Mr. Trump

Driving through the "heavily fortified Green Zone", aka International Zone, today you can see where the Government of Iraq has begun clearing a massive lot near the British Embassy. The wooden sign at the entrance to the bulldozed lot depicts a picture of a palatial building, ostensibly the one to be constructed, and words stating that this is the future home of the Prime Minister's Guest House. Aren't there enough palaces here already? Why is anyone wasting money, (American tax payers' money?) on yet another palace?!

What Iraq needs is commercial not government infrastructure. Why an international hotel chain doesn't come in and build a Hyatt or Radisson within the Green Zone or the airport facility is beyond me. Even with the SOFA people are going to be coming in and out of Iraq for decades to come, and right now there's no place to house them aside from a handful of double-wides on a dusty lot near the airport.

The same could be said for Baghdad's international airport. Some bright investment company should purchase, and completely renovate it. Right now it's a dusty, dark shell that is being utilized at about 20% of it's full capacity. A renovation would be easy at this point. Again, there will be plenty of traffic through there in the next 20-30 years to make it well worth someone's effort and investment.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ramadan Restrictions; "Don't Feed The Bears"

Old ornate gate separates a Baghdad villa from the street

We're in the month of Ramadan now and its interesting to watch the Iraqis as they struggle with the various restrictions, most notably the practice of fasting. While observing the holy month Muslims are not permitted to eat during the daylight hours. They wake before dawn, eat, pray and then thats it for food until evening prayers. Honestly, very few of the people that I work with faithfully keep to the strict regime throughout the entire month, but they all give it a good try.

One of the guys that I was speaking to yesterday told me that he had never fasted for Ramadan before, but thought that he would give it a try this year. He said, "It's hard and I did it for one day. That's all I'm doing. One day of fasting and I will be in Paradise for one day. That's good enough for me."

Knowing that evening prayers for Sunni and Shi'a come at different times I asked my friend, which one comes first? He told me with a big grin, "I don't care. The first one to prayer, and I'm eating with them". He makes me laugh.

Here's another little oddity, water counts as food. They can't drink water! Keep in mind it's 115 degrees outside and they're running around in 20 lbs of body armor all day long. Normally they're drinking gallons of the stuff. I asked my friend if (when) he collapses from heat exhaustion if giving him an IV will violate the Ramadan restrictions. He told me, "Yes, it does". "No medicine either". I've already decided that if he goes down he's getting fluids. He can bring it up with God later and blame me if he wants to.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Diesel Jeans, iPhones, and Radical Islam

No, this shot wasn't taken in Iraq. We're not that far along yet!

I was involved in conversation with a friend of mine about Iraq's youth, specifically it's adolescent population. I've noticed that many kids are becoming becoming designer clothes-wearing, cell phone wielding, American culture clones. I attribute this to the obvious increased exposure to American and western pop culture via movies, the Internet, but mostly by the large western presence here. Iraqi adolescents are becoming culturally comfortable with the west, enthralled by what they see, and are moving away from radical, fundamental Islam, seeking a more reasonable middle way. This may be evidenced by the 15-year old female suicide bomber that recently "just said no". It was her pimping middle-aged husband, who was a radical jihadist, that insisted that she give her life for Allah, and her "oppressive" mother that forced her to follow her husband's wishes. I suppose that if you're a 15 year-old girl and have a choice between wearing a burkha all your life, never going to school, marrying a 30-something year old, chain smoking, overweight husband, versus having an iPod, a cool boyfriend with a car, and wondering what pair of designer jeans to wear today that the path is going to be obvious. For all of it's faults, that's the great thing about western culture, in the eyes of the world's youth it will trump radical Islam, Communism, and any other oppressive system that comes its way.