Rolling Down Perdition Highway

No real  road connects the border forts along the berm that separates Iraq from Syria and Jordan.  There is a sort of track, which in its better sections resembles a bad dirt road, but sometimes you cannot tell where the “road” starts and the flat desert floor ends.  Fortunately, the desert is naturally hard and more or less paved with gravel.  The bad news is that it is full of axle-busting ruts and tire piecing rocks. 

As we rolled down the perdition highway between the border crossings at Trabil & Waleed, one of our Humvees got a flat tire.  I was impressed at how fast the Marines deployed into defensive positions and got to the job of fixing the tire and moving along.  Colonel Malay pitched in and helped with some of the heavy work. I took advantage of the unscheduled stop to make a head call.  I took a canine-like pride in marking this section of featureless desert.  

We stopped at a border fort commanded by an enlisted man.  He took justifiable pride in how well his men cared for their weapons and generally maintained operations, but he was in a tight spot.  He had not been receiving sufficient supplies of fuel, so he could not patrol as much as he might have wished.   His diesel generator was turned off to save power, so there was no electricity.  They were taking advantage of the weak sunlight and you could still see within the fort, but as shadows of evening spread over the place, it was getting harder. 

His vehicles are in terrible shape.  I remember as a kid watching the Baja Challenge, where off the road driver raced across the that rugged desert in a vehicle survival contest. The winner was not the fastest, but the one that made it to the finish line.   This is what our Iraqi allies face every day and you can see from their vehicles that they are not always making it to the finish.  The best thing anybody could do to make life better for these guys guarding the border would be to pave a road along the berm.  This is their lifeline.  (The Syrians have a asphalt track on their side of the berm.)  It would probably pay for itself on saved vehicles and fuel within a short time.

Below is the berm taken from the window of the Humvee.   It is certainly not Hadrian’s Wall or even Offa’s Dike, but it does deter anybody who wants to drive over the border and inspections can reveal breaches where people have crossed.

Morale at the fort we visited was surprisingly high.  I just don’t think I would take such conditions so kindly, especially because many of the troops are evidently from Baghdad where it doesn’t get so cold.  The sharp breeze blowing across the desert reminded anybody who needed the hint that we were not in Baghdad anymore.  They seem to have decent food.  We saw a goat carcass (at least the lower half) being readied for supper and rice was boiling in a big pot.  I suppose good chow is helpful. 

One of the Marines was telling me that when they go out on a joint operation with the Iraqis, our guys report that they have whatever day’s worth of MREs, water etc.  The Iraqis report that they have enough of that flat bread they eat and Pepsi-Cola, the drink of choice among the Iraqi forces – after tea, of course.  I suppose you can always count on finding a goat if you really need one.

The picture is me on the roof of the fort.  Off to the distance on my left is Syria; off to the right is Jordan.  You have to wonder why anybody would even bother to set up a border on a place like this, but I suppose you have to have some demarcation.

Dogs of War 2: Man’s Best Friend

Man did not tame dogs; dogs tamed men.  I saw the ancient drama played out again just the other day.  Marine foot patrols come in with a couple of dogs at their sides.  The dogs look very official, very proud.  With their heads held high, they are guard dogs or at least guard dog wannabees.  They take the point; they secure the flanks; they bark at anybody or anything that seems to be a threat to “their” Marines.

When I asked the Marines about the dogs, they told me that these were not their dogs.  The dogs just showed up and attached themselves to particular patrols.  There is some kind of pack order among the dogs.  The Marines said that certain dogs follow certain patrols.  The dogs spread out or pack in close depending on the situation.  When they cross the territories of other, hostile, dog packs, they come in closer to Marines.  In open country the range out further.  When the Marines come home, the dogs sit outside the gates and bark at any intruders.   They recognize the uniforms, the smells, sounds or something else.  I don’t know, but they have assigned the security and accompanying job to themselves and in some situations they provide a useful service.  They make it much harder for the bad guys to sneak up, if any bad guys would be stupid enough to try. 

So what do the dogs get out of this?

The Marines didn’t seem to know the answer.  Maybe the dogs just like to be around people.  Maybe it is a mutual protection racket. All these things are probably true, but one of the Marines inadvertently hit on one of the big reasons.  He said, “I don’t know what they want.  We didn’t even feed them AT FIRST.”  Even Colonel Malay, who told me the story of the Ahab dogs in my earlier dogs of war post, admitted that he gave them a few scraps from the chow hall.  I did too.  Everybody does and thinks he is the only one, or it is only this one time.  The dogs know better.  They have learned a body language that gets us to give them what they want.  We humans cannot resist the cute dog.  We are conditioned to support and reward the dogs, just as the dogs are conditioned to guard us.  It is primeval.  Something in our Pleistocene genes compels the partnership. 

No dogs in the above picture, BTW, just an ordinary foot patrol picture.

I felt more secure with these unknown dogs trotting along at my sides.  Of course my furry new buddies would have been absolutely no use against the dangers likely to beset me on an Iraqi street.  My civilized intellect understands this, but my Cro-Magnon core still ain’t got the news.  

Let Slip the Dogs of War

As the Colonel and I discussed the ubiquitous packs of wild dogs that roam Al Anbar, he explained  why he doesn’t see dogs the way he used to or at least that these dogs are different from those back home that we know and love.  During the 2nd Battle of Fallujah he said he saw one of these dogs carrying a leg, severed below the knee, still wearing the Adidas running shoe the late owner had worn that morning.  The dog kind of growled and ran off with its prize.   I have heard similar stories from others and they are as old as war.  I have read about in the epics, but looking at the faces of the men telling the stories of what they have seen themselves makes it a lot more real.

“Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feast for the dogs and birds…”

(That is the beginning of the Iliad, BTW.  When I studied Greek in college we had to recite it.  I forgot all my Greek, but I recall the story…and the cadence.  It can actually make your heart beat faster.  The Iliad is meant to be spoken and heard, and read silently.)

War has always been a part of human society and always will be.  We make a mistake to think that peace is natural.  Soon after a lot of people start thinking that way, we get a war.  Peace can be maintained only with effort, wisdom and proper institutions.  A lot of it involves heading off troubles before they become threatening because once the situation starts rolling down hill and develops a momentum of its own, it is hard to stop.  It is much easier to identify threats and propose solutions AFTER the fact and that is one of the tragedies.  If you effectively avoid a threat, nobody believes it was serious.   If you are successful enough for a long enough time, everybody becomes complacent.

The Romans used to say, “se vis pacem para bellum” which is a peace through strength saying.  For all their faults and bloody-minded aggressiveness (I heard someone characterize the Roman success as the extraordinary ability to insert sharp metal objects into the bodies of their enemies), the Romans managed to establish a general peace over Europe, n. Africa & w. Asia that lasted 200 years, something never achieved before or since.  Maybe they were on to something.  The Romans not only pursued war with remarkable determination, but also built the infrastructure of peace maintenance wherever they went.  Even here in Iraq, there are vestiges of Roman aqueducts and roads and it has been a while since the legions departed.

Some years ago I read “On the Origins of War & the Preservation of Peace”.  It is a good book and I recommend it. At Fletcher I attended a similarly themed course by Professor Richard Schultz.  I took good notes and I still have them. I have thought about the ideas presented a lot and I think about them even more now. 

War is a very complex and a very human activity.  Attempts to explain outbreaks of war by political, economic or technological means are always incomplete because war in not fully rational.  It is emotional and human.  We cannot prevent all wars and we cannot completely predict the outcomes of any of them because of the human factor.  Adversaries learn and adapt to each other in a dynamic way.  Neither our side, nor the enemy is ever the same.  The whole idea is to gain advantage by developing something new and unexpected, so being unpredictable is in the nature of war.  Nevertheless, although not all conflicts can be avoided, some can and others can be mitigated by continually working at the problem and paying attention to what is going on. 

When William T Sherman said “War is all Hell”, this was a admonition, not the words of a war monger.  Sherman introduced the concept of total war to the South in the hopes of ending the war sooner and preventing its recurrence.  When the war was over, he was generous to his defeated enemies, the idea being break your enemy’s ability to fight and then remove their incentive to resort to arms again.  I think that simple formulation is a good one.  Of course, it is simple, but not easy to carry out.  It is always tempting to take the easier course and not finish the job.  I hope we don’t do that here in Iraq – and I have reasonable confidence that we won’t – because I don’t want us to have to be back later. 

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Sanded Down by Red Sky.

“Red sky” just means you are not supposed to fly.  There is red, yellow and green like stoplights. In this case, the sky was a little pink.  The picture above is from my window.  It was taken around noon.  By 2 pm, I had to turn on my lights.  Beautiful backyard I have, don’t you think?

Yesterday was a down day.   Sandstorms grounded our helicopters aborting our visit to Al Qaim.  I was looking forward to the trip.   We were planning some battlefield circulation as well as appointments at the vocational school and microfinance office.  I have heard a lot about these things, but never actually seen them.  I almost got to the microfinance center, once, but some clowns starting shooting in the air (celebratory fire) and we had to flee, as I wrote in an earlier post.

So I went back to my office to find my computer had crashed.  (It is fixed and mostly restored today, BTW.)  There is not much I can do w/o a computer, no email, no files no nothing – go home.  Most days I could have taken advantage of this breakdown to either run or work from my home computer.  But I hit the breakdown trifecta.   My home computer didn’t work because we lost electrical power to the cans.  I can run the computer on the battery, but not for very long and the electrical breakdown stops the Internet connection.  What about running?  I would like to take a long run, but not today.   The same red sky sandstorm that grounded by helicopters made me unenthusiastic about running.  Actually it may not have been possible.  It was hard to breathe and the dust stung my eyes.  I think that if I tried to run I might well have filled my lungs with concrete and more of less turned to stone.   Not willing to risk the Medusa syndrome, I searched for  non-electrical, non-physical alternatives. 

I ended up cleaning up my desk and reading a book.  The desk cleaning was an exercise in futility.  I cleaned it really well & good last night.  This morning it was dusty enough again to qualify as Addams family office furniture.   

The reading was good.  I have a book called “1453” about the fall of Constantinople.  Alex gave me the book for Christmas.  It is a good complement to another book I just finished reading called “Sea of Faith” re Muslim & Christian interactions in the Mediterranean. 

The lost world of the Byzantines interests me. I have been to Istanbul twice and I would gladly spend a month there.  I think it is one of the most interesting cities in the world.   Edward Gibbon short changed the Byzantines and largely thanks to the two-century success of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the English speaking world thinks of the Byzantine Empire as merely a thousand-year decadent & effeminate postscript to the virility of the Romans.   (Of course the caveats that Gibbon never used the specific word Byzantine to refer to the Eastern Empire and to the extent that anybody thinks about it at all.  Kids these days don’t know nothin’ about the Byzantines.) 

Gibbon is beautiful as literature; less attractive as history.  I think it is fascinating how his formulations and prejudices shaped historical views even among people who never heard his name or know that Constantinople was the capital of the Roman world for a thousand years.  Gibbon’s assessment of the effect of Christianity and his obvious admiration for pagan philosophers like Julian the Apostate has crept into our comparisons of our own society to that of the late Roman Empire.  It demonstrates the power and persistence of “spin”. You don’t have to know the source to be in its power.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you are sanded down, your computer is crashed & your can is electricity free.


In oak trees the wind rustles.  It whispers in the pines and it murmurs in the cottonwoods and aspens.  It murmurs in tulip poplars too, but more emphatically.  After all, those are big trees.  The wind whistles around corners; through rocks it howls and down canyons it roars.  In palms it sort of rattles … at least that is my observation from the date palms.  As I recall, in palmettos it kind of swooshes.   

It is windy in Al Asad, but the wind doesn’t speak in any of the tones I mentioned above.  I only really noticed that when I heard the wind in the palms a little outside the main camp and realized that I had not heard much from the wind recently.  I think the reason is the nature of both our geography and our structures.   Most of the terrain is flat, providing the wind with nothing to strike to make sound.  What hills we do have are made of soft and blowing dirt.  Their yielding surfaces muffle and confuse the wind.  The edges become rounded and pliable.  There is not much sound.  Trees are so few and far between that the rustle, rattle or murmur is lost in the vast emptiness.  Even our man-made materials tend to be soft and curved Hesco barriers or dull and rounded Jersey barriers.  These things acquiesce to the wind and don’t create the resistance or movements that generate sound.

The final factor is competition.  It is hard to listen to the sounds of the wind, or any natural sound, when generators, heavy trucks and helicopters demand to be heard.  I miss the silent sounds and the rattling of the palms reminded that I also miss the sounds of the wind in my home woods.

One of my favorite places is Old Rag in the Shenandoah.  I have been up there dozens of times in various seasons and weather.  My first visit was 24 years ago.  There have been changes.  The hemlocks have been largely wiped out by the hemlock woolly adelgid.  It makes me sad every time I pass the places they used to be.  They are almost completely gone & I don’t think they will ever return, but they still have a place in my landscape of memory.  Hemlocks make a sweet, soft sound, a little dark and melancholy, but beautiful, or maybe that is just the way I remember the doomed forest because I know what happened to it.  The rest of the forest is sturdy and healthy.   

You have to go during the week, since weekends and holidays bring crowds.  Weekdays are good because you can have some time to yourself, especially if you get there early enough, but there are still enough people around that in the unlikely event you get snake-bit or fall off a cliff there will be someone around to help. 

The folds of the mountains isolate the sound & virtually eliminate man-made noise in some spots. It can seem preternaturally quiet up there to someone used to the sounds of civilization.   You can hear the sound of the wind in the rocks, in the pines, in the oaks.   And if you sit and listen long enough, you can hear the sounds of individual animals & birds, even the sound of particular leaves as they drift down. I have “my” ledge where I like to sit and listen.  It faces sound and east, so if I get there around 10, I can sit in the warm sun if the day is clear and look out over the valley.   I will go back to Virginia this spring for R&R and I will be up on the hill again with renewed appreciation for those sounds and those feelings … and for things that are green instead of dusty brown.  

Iraq Perceptions Out of Date

This is a post I wrote for the State Department blog (  It is a little more policy/pr than many of my posts, but I include it FYI.

Public perceptions of Iraq are not wrong; they are just out of date. Media coverage of Iraq has dropped in almost perfect correlation with progress made toward peace and stability. As a result, the picture persists from pre-surge 2006 but it is not 2006 anymore. It is post-surge in Anbar Province where a significantly more secure Iraq exists rebuilding, learning, governing, producing and starting to make huge strides along the road to prosperity.

Members of my ePRT recently made a visit to Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and this provides a good example of what I am talking about. Back in 2006, Al Qaim was a bloody battleground, with AQI cutting off heads and hands while insurgents moved around the province with near impunity. This is the picture we all saw in 2006 of Marines fighting building to building and making gains street by street is the one unfortunately far too many of us still recall. The picture in 2008 shows an area of growing prosperity, with markets full of people and things to buy, homes and businesses being rebuilt and people looking to and planning for their future.

During the visit, ePRT affiliated trainers were just finishing up a course for city managers and local officials on project development and anti-corruption efforts. About forty officials attended the four-day program and even on the last day of the training they were involved, excited and animated. A four-day course will not solve Iraq’s governance problems, but at least these officials had the ability to imagine and work toward a future better than the past.

Not far away is a vocational training center, run by a USAID contractor. It is graduating its second class of students since it was founded just over a year ago and a third class is already oversubscribed. Young Iraqis are learning all sorts of useful basic skills, such as electrical work, heating and air conditioning, appliance repair, auto mechanics and many construction trades. Students are enthusiastic and are already giving back to the community. For example, in the wood working classes they are assembling desks and bookcases for local elementary school rooms. Graduates are hired by local firms eager for employees with proven basic skills. They are offered good wages, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Demand for graduates far exceeded supply in the first two classes and there are plans to expand the program and make it self- sustaining by getting the businesses that benefit from the program to help fund it.

Iraq’s various wars and the late insurgency took a heavy toll on the men of Al Anbar leaving many widows and orphans. One of the ways we are helping address their situation was by opening women’s sewing centers, where they are offered training in sewing and tailoring. This is not a temporary fix. These skills can provide basic income and the chance to start a small home business. Graduates get a sewing machine and some basic materials upon graduation to get them started. Empowering women even in a small way that enable them to prosper in specially heartening given the plight of so many widows and orphans across Western Anbar.

A proven way to jump start small businesses is with small loans (microfinance). The microfinance program in Al Anbar made its first loans last November. The number now has reached 211, totaling almost $500,000 and 100% of the payments have so far been made in full and on time. Our team met the owner of a small tire repair shop who benefited from the loan program. He bought a computerized tire balancing system, which increased his customer numbers several fold while saving him time and allowing him to do a better job faster. We talked to another small merchant/manufacturer who creates custom steel rebar and angle iron for construction. When we asked him how his business would have been w/o the small loan program, he told us that he would clearly and simply not have a business at all without the program.

Iraq is certainly no paradise and but what is important here is that it shows what has been done, what can be done and what continues to need to be done here in Iraq. Behind the thriving shops and busy markets are wrecked buildings and damaged lives. Terrorists continue to lurk in the shadows looking for weak spots and openings. But Iraq today shows an unquestionably brighter picture than in 2006 or even back when I arrived just a few months ago in September 2007. The Iraqi people are proving resilient in the face of enormous challenges and demonstrating every day and many ways that if given a chance to improve their lives, they will take it and they will grasp at this new life with a vigor that we often do not see in even more developed situations. The people of western Anbar risked their lives to break free of the grip of AQI and the insurgency. Now they are building the lives they fought for. In our small way, we are helping.

Iraqis in Charge

A few short months ago, Hit on the Euphrates was one of the “most dangerous” places.  But the Marines and the Iraqis fought the insurgents and AQI and killed some, reconciled others and drove most of the rest out of town.  Yesterday Hit returned to the care of Iraqi police, army and security forces.

I could tell the Iraqis were proud.  The Marines told me that they had been practicing all week to make sure everything went as planned.  I attended the ceremonies and watched members of Iraqi IP, Army and special units march by and then raise the Iraqi flag.  People have to respect themselves before they can give respect to others.  The Iraqis in Hit had won back their self respect.  I think they lost it for a while, first when coalition forces so rapidly defeated the Iraqi army and then when insurgents and AQI were able to push around local people and leaders.  But now that they have pushed back, now that they have won their victory fighting side by side with our Marines, they have earned the right to feel good about themselves again.

The governor of Al Anbar came and gave the usual speeches as did Mayor Hikmat.   He is the cousin of Hatem, the Albu Nimr sheik at whose home I have had many good meals.  I am getting to like these guys and as I learn more about what they went through, my respect for them grows.

Events like this indicate confidence in the Iraqi forces to take increasing responsibility for their security.  Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry wrote this article describing the transfer.  Some of the Marines told me that it was significant that we could attend such a large and public event w/o body armor.   They know about such things. 

As is increasingly becoming common, we drove to the event.  When I flew over the place, I thought that, except for the areas right near the Euphrates, the land below was just featureless desert.  Now that I have driven over it, I understand that I was … right.  This is the most barren place I have ever seen.  When I drove through Nevada and Arizona I though I saw barren, but I was mistaken.  At least those places have tumble weeds, cactus and cool rock formations.  In the Iraqi desert, even the wind doesn’t make much noise because it blows across soft dirt and surfaces with rounded edges.  There are occasional breaks, oases with date palms and citrus, but they are few & far between.  The incongruous thing is that I see sheep & goats.  I know that the sheep must be eating something, but I really cannot figure out what that could be.

Lizards, Serpents, Sand & Scorpions

We convoyed out to the desert… well since we are always in the desert, I just mean a different and less occupied part of it.   Humvees are not comfortable and there really isn’t much to see along the roads of western Anbar.  This is tough duty for the Marines, but they seem to enjoy it more than I would.  It is sort of like a road trip with some camping, but camping is not so much fun if you can’t drink beer and make campfires.

This terrain is almost completely flat and seems to consist of a base of marble with a thin layer of yellow, dusty soil on top.  When I say marble, I mean marble.  The rock layer right below is shinny and smooth.  It looks almost like a floor covered with dirt.  The parent rock of marble is limestone, so I guess there must be a lot of limestone or at least there was.

The only incident occurred when our helicopter landed a little too close to the portable latrine and pushed them over.  Nobody was inside.  Consider what would have happened, however – some poor guy covered in blue crappy water and then dusted with the grit thrown up by the helicopter, sort of like a sugar donut but less pleasant.

One of the Marines told me that he had been on this same terrain a couple years ago, only that time they didn’t even have the modest tents you see in the pictures.  These poor guys were out here for around five months sleeping in their trucks.  The Marines explained to me how easy life was on a forward operating base (FOB) like Al Asad.  He said that it was comfortable being a “fobbit.”   I didn’t have to stay out there with them for five months or even a day.  I did get to eat my MRE (see below) and I can imagine what it would be like to be here longer.  He was right.  Fobbits rule.

We didn’t have to stay in the desert overnight because we went to the big K3 refinery and spent the night there.  That helicopter that blew down the latrines picked us up. The governor of Al Anbar, other dignitaries and generals came down K3 to check on progress.   It is coming along okay, as I mentioned in an earlier posting.  Not much will come out for the time being, but it is working and that is big progress.

You can see the discussions in the picture.  The British general pictured is the one in charge of infrastructure.   The big guy is the governor.

Leaving the Asad Archipelago

We fly everyplace we go, at least we did.  My mental model of Al Anbar was that of islands, such as Haditha, Hit, Rutbah or Al Qaim,  isolated in a sea of sand.   Recently, we have begun to go overland in convoys.  It seems strange that you can actually drive to Haditha.  I realized that I had never actually passed through the gates and beyond the wire of Al Asad until just about a week ago.  I always flew.  I feel like a guy who has come to the end of the world … and then stepped off and found the world did not end.

Al Asad has reasonably good chow.  This is not the case everyplace I go.  Below is my lunch from a couple of days ago.  Notice the basic food groups.  I have the fried cheese group, the fried chicken group, the cake group and the potato chips group.  I think the cookie falls into the cake group.

It REALLY is the best I could do.

A Variety of Things


I noticed the bird sitting on that structure in the evening.  In the morning, they were still there.  Then I saw why.  They fish and evidently fishing is good.  If you look down in the water, so see loons (or whatever the local equivalent is).   They are fun to watch.  They dive deep and come up fifty meters away.


A company of soldiers from Azerbaijan guards Haditha Dam.   It is good duty for them.  They get good chow and the Marines give them goretex coats.  They take their job very seriously. 

Although they are fellow Muslims from a country very near Iraq, they have a lot more of the Eastern European look.  The Soviet Union was not good at doing very much, but they did manage to impose a certain uniformity that survives after it.   

Perpetual Garbage Fires

Western Iraq has its own versions of the eternal flame.  I noticed this garbage fire when I arrived in Iraq four months ago.  It never is allowed to go out and continues to burn in perpetuity and new garbage replaces the old.  Sunrise over the garbage pile is almost pretty.   Doesn’t smell good, however.

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Until June

I want to grow some marigolds and sunflowers outside my door.  I figure I can keep them growing at least until June.   Then my guess is the extreme heat will wilt them no matter how much water I provide.

Marines walking by were amused by my efforts.  Some of them thought it was not a completely masculine pursuit.  They actually used somewhat different words, ones that in earlier versions of the English language meant “happy” & “unusual”.   But everyone was interested and I expect they will come to appreciate the brief flowering of color in this bleak place.

My New Rug

I just got a new rug for my office.  Nice.  See, work conditions are not so bad.  That thing with the helmet, BTW, is the armor holder.