Thursday, October 30, 2008

Out Of Synch

Sarong-clad Malaysians in a workers camp in Iraq

I spent my formative years as a basketball player, a single sport guy, playing "ball" almost year around. Every year the season started for me generally in mid-October, and I normally entered the season in dismal physical shape and endured the pain of conditioning as best as I could. The result of that experience has been to imprint on my psyche a yearly physical conditioning clock.

I stopped playing basketball after college but every year from about late July through August I sub-consciously suspend or drastically curtail my physical conditioning program. By about mid-October my conditioning clock kicks in and I'm back at it again, albeit in pretty sad shape. Each year the slide is more and more dramatic.

I can't seem to adjust this imprinted pattern and the result has been that I'm in fantastic shape by January or February, about three months early for triathlon season. It drives me nuts and I can't seem to push the pattern to the right a couple of months. While the rest of the triathlon world is eating sugar cookies at Christmas I'm in the pool or on my bike, peaking way to early. Maybe I should move to the southern hemisphere.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

21st Century Library

The Maine coast in Autumn

I love coffee shops. One of my great pleasures in life is to spend the day in a shop or bookstore with my laptop and a stack of books and just read. I once did an entire 18-month MBA degree from a table in a Miami Starbucks.

Currently I'm preparing for an upcoming paramedic course; reading up on EKG rhythms, drug dosages, and anatomy/physiology. It's the perfect environment to study, the 21st century library.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Going Home

When I was younger I realized the meaning of the phrase, "You can never go home". In other words, things continue to change even while you're away and will never truly be the same again. It saddened me greatly as a young adolescent to come to that realization because I considered my "home" to be a rather magical place.

This past week I traveled back to Maine and spent time with both my family and a the myriad of memories that I still have. I was assaulted with smells, sights and sounds, rushing the past to the very forefront of my mind; piles of Autumn leaves, cool breezes through the birch trees, my mother's apple dumplings, each triggering a flood of memories that were like old friends who have not changed at all.

All of this made me re-think my paradigm of never going home, and I came to the comforting realization that you never really leave.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


In my final days in Baghdad I came up with a test, one that determines the civility of a country or culture. It's the Four-Way Intersection test. If the country you are driving in can successfully manage a four-way intersection without lights, traffic cops, automatic weapons, or armored vehicles; relying solely on stop signs and the drivers' sense of fair play, than you can rest assured that it is a civilized nation.

Clearly this is a bit tongue and cheek, but I've found that there are very few societies that can do this well. It depends on a certain level of politeness, empathy, sense of fair play, law abidedness; all attributes of "advanced" cultures and societies. Give it a whirl and let me know what you come up with.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Comedy at Dubai's International Airport

A dust-covered sun. My last day in Baghdad, waiting for the weather to clear.

Dubai's international airport is a collection point for security contractors traveling back to the UK or the States, and as such it's always great fun watching these guys pose for their fellow travelers. The terminal is replete with contractors swaggering around adorned in the latest Gucci tactical clothing, and weaving tales of danger and intrigue while waiting in line to board the plane back to the "Land of the Big PX". Just a five minute, unsolicited conversation with one of these guys and I've heard ever military acronym ever conceived, and some which I think he's making up on the fly. At this point I'm praying that I'm not talking to my future seat-mate for the 15-hour flight ahead of me. I don't think I could tolerate another "There I was, in the shit" story.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fleeing Baghdad

I got stuck in yet another sandstorm while leaving Baghdad and had to spend the night at a logistics base near the airport terminal. The camp was populated by hundreds of sarong-wearing Malaysians, all squatting in small groups and offering a polite "hello sir" as the big, tall gringo passed by. For some reason the term "refugee camp" stuck in my head and and it made me laugh as the workers cooked their food, did their laundry and went about the myriad of daily tasks. Of course this wasn't a true refugee camp, but rather a workers' camp, but the similarities were not lost on me.

The weather cleared the next morning and I considered myself lucky to leave Baghdad on a beat-up 737 that was running, "inexplicably" four hours late. Tip from the top: don't even think about asking either the airport information desk or the airline personnel why the flight is delayed. To them it's not delayed if it takes off on the same day that it's scheduled to.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Babylon Buddhist

I had a run-in with one of our Iraqi staff yesterday. He lied to me. It wasn't even a good lie, and when I called him on it, he made up another one on the spot. I was furious and chose to walk away, informing his supervisor along the way.

I'm at the very end of my deployment and have no patience for this cultural tendency towards lying. I understand that the anger and rage that I felt was mine, and mine alone. I had to deal with it, accept it, chide my ego for entertaining it, and then just let it go. At times Iraq and the Arab culture can be a wonderful place for a Buddhist :)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Iraq Security- The Inverse Relationship

A camera and tripod stand ready for work

There is a misconception here in Iraq among both security operators and clients alike that as the security situation improves that less security is needed. In actuality it's the exact opposite. In the past mobility around the country for many clients has been severely limited or curtailed due to the overwhelming threat of kidnapping, IEDs, VBIEDs, etc.. Unless clients were accompanied by the U.S. military or a small armada of gunned-up PSDs they were not inclined to venture too far for too often.

Now the security environment in Iraq is better, the threat has diminished a bit, albeit there are still bad people doing bad things to clients and their friends. Mobility has increased and as a result clients want to get out of the confines of the safe areas and venture forth to explore and do their jobs. The result is that the security elements are now busier than ever, ensuring the safety and well-being of the clients, coordinating movements, planning logistics, training, and providing close protection. In military parlance, the OPTEMPO has increased dramatically taxing the capabilities of many security details. To evidence this, quality armored cars are nearly impossible to lease in Baghdad right now as they have been snatched up by details that are suddenly far more busy than before moving clients here, there, and everywhere. Some companies are adding several security teams to cover new clients that have suddenly emerged from the ashes and want to move around the country. As this inverse relationship continues it's a busy time for the working security details, much more so than most have anticipated.

Conspiracy Theorists

The most recognizable landmark in Baghdad, the famous "Crossed Swords". People come from all over to be photographed under the swords.

Explaining the American presidential election process to our Iraqi staff is always an entertaining challenge. They cannot accept the fact that everyone gets only one vote. Iraqis understand that Americans go to the polls and vote, but they have it in their collective head that in the end, a "group of powerful Israel-supporting senators" will have the ultimate say and choose the candidate that it wants; in this case John McCain. It's telling of their culture and political process.

There is no greater conspiracy theorist than the Iraqi man on the street. Over the years I've heard some outlandish claims such as Iraqi dust storms are purposely caused by nuclear explosions somewhere in the world, or the American tethered radio antennae balloons that dot the Baghdad horizon are armed with powerful cameras and Hellfire missiles constantly searching for miscreants. Iraqis love to believe the outrageous; the bigger the story the more conviction they have that it's true. Weaving some tale that would even make Hollywood blush makes an Iraqi appear powerful and knowledgeable to his family and friends. No one ever calls "bullshit' as that would be a slap in the face, so the stories just keep getting bigger and better.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Red Flags

If you work in security long enough with various clients and other operators you will inevitably hear the two phrases that cause me the greatest grief; "We've done it before", and "That's the way we've always done it". Whenever I hear one or both of those my bullshit meter begins to peg and I know that there is something wrong. Let me be perfectly clear, just because you've "done it before" and no one had gotten killed, maimed, or kidnapped does not make it safe, in fact it's probably just the opposite. Repeatedly doing something that is intrinsically wrong does not make it right. If as a security provider you accept those statements as valid arguments than you are negligent at a minimum or probably worse. As an example, just because you had a few drinks at a party and somehow managed to drive yourself home once or twice, does that make it right? Does that somehow make it safe to do in the future?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Early Morning Baghdad

Baghdad is having a bad morning today. As I sit here watching the sun rise in the eastern sky working on my first cup of coffee there have been several near-by explosions, punctuating the post-dawn stillness. Smoke rises in the distance somewhere between the buildings, marking the location of the carnage. Out there amid the cityscape someone has lost a husband or a daughter, a young girl walking to school or a man heading out to work. They will not be coming home tonight; all that knew them, their lives have been violently changed forever. I continue to work on my coffee pretending to be stoic, part of me trying in vain to empathize, another part thankful that I cannot.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Foreign Frustrations

An Iraqi worker rolls an electrical wire at the rail yard

My limit is about eight weeks. That's when the phenomenon of culture shock sets in and I notice changes in my personality. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a foreign culture knows the feeling; you become short tempered, easily irritated by the "foreign-ness" around you, some may become vindictive or even lean toward outright racism. It's not a pleasant feeling but one of reality that many including myself often have to deal with.

I'm always amused by the tourists of the world who show up, take some pictures, have a ethnic meal or two, and begin to rave about how sweet and kind the local people are. "Why can't we all be so kind, loving, and helpful?" Yea? Spend eight weeks living among your kind and loving new friends and we'll see what you think then! I guarantee that you'll be restraining yourself daily from violence.

If forced to remain in the culture this "shock" eventually dissipates and is replaced by acceptance. That is if you're not in a local jail for running over a little old lady with an SUV.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Which Language To Speak?

I'm terrible with languages. It took the military over a year to pound Spanish into my head at the Defense Language Institute, and I've been working diligently on Japanese for many years as well. I barely have a grasp of English. Yesterday I was confronted with the question of which is the best language for a international bodyguard/executive protection agent/security consultant to learn. I believe the answer to be, none of them, and all of them. How's that for a zen koan?

I contend that it would be best to learn a smattering of several different languages instead of trying to wrap your head around just one. When you consider it, how much of your native language do you really use on a day-to-day basis? Studies have shown that people rarely use more than 3000 words, and generally could get by with as little as 500 or so. Thus my advice would be to take five or six languages and work on them simultaneously. I realize that this is heresy to some, but for someone that is going to travel extensively I believe that it has great utility. Things to work on would be:
  • Key phrases
  • Interrogatives (Who, What, Where, When, How)
  • 10-15 verbs with a basic understanding of tenses
  • Courtesies (Please, Thank you, Excuse me, I'm sorry...)
  • 500+ word vocabulary
Having said that, what would be the languages of choice? Although they are highly debatable, my list would be:
  • English
  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • German
  • Russian
  • Japanese or Chinese
Spanish will get you close to French, Italian and Portuguese. I believe Arabic has more utility than Farsi. Japanese and Chinese are a toss up, but I don't know many guys doing security work for the Chinese, while there is a lot of work for Japanese clients.

Once you have an understanding of 5-6 languages at an extremely basic level then adding additional languages is fairly straight forward, as is augmenting any one of them with greater skills and capabilities.

Pay It Forward- Karma

A rusted chain sits in an open Iraqi railway car

I often receive emails from guys that are looking to begin working as protectors, or others that are curious about Zen, or if they should join Special Forces or not. I make an honest and dedicated effort to answer all of their questions and concerns from my little point of view. I caution them that their mileage may vary, and ask them to one day pass the favor on to someone else.

After I hit the "send" button I find myself crafting emails to others, people that I have great respect for and are at the peak of the mountain that I wish to climb. Most of these lately are accomplished physicians who unselfishly impart their wit, wisdom and experience onto me, guiding my decisions, answering my questions, giving me opinions from their points of view. They also caution me about my mileage and I promise them that I will pass on the favor to others. It's karma. That's how it works.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Head Hurts

I treat a lot of headaches. That seems to be the chief complaint of our local Iraqi staff, but they describe it in such debilitating terms that it often makes me suspicious. A a single aspirin or Tylenol later and they're good as new, generally within ten minutes, which is surprising as the absorption rate is closer to fifteen minutes.

Today was a sprained knee, so bad that the staff member said, wincing and moaning, that he couldn't walk. I told him to ice it; a half an hour later he's running around with no signs of injury. It's a miracle!!

The truth is that I found many Iraqis to be attention seeking. All they want is someone to listen to their near-death complaint, give them something that looks like medicine and they're merrily on their way. I'm not sure what the cultural reason is for this. If it were my 4-year old I'd say that he's trying to get out of school. At least it worked for me a time or two when I was younger. I don't believe the staff is trying to dodge work, because they're happily back at it again once they've been pulled back from the bright light and resuscitated. I think that I'm going to teach my Iraqi security operators how to initiate IV therapy. Ya got a headache? Ya need an IV!! At least my guys can get some good training out of it.