Meeting with Rutbah Police Chief

The Police Chief says that he tells everybody about his problems in hopes that the weight of his persistence will convince someone to solve them.

The Rutbah region that is his area of responsibly is vast and thinly populated.   It includes the Syrian and Jordanian border areas and the POEs at Waleed and Trabil, the village of Akashat, Nukhayb as well as the Saudi border region and POE Ar-Ar. It takes a lot of police officers, vehicles and fuel to patrol a place like this.  Unfortunately, Iraqi government resource allocation decisions are based on population w/o sufficient concern for area.

The chief says he has only 280 IP out of authorized strength of 620.  He doesn’t expect to see more any time soon. His patrol fleet consists of sixty-one pickup trucks of various sizes, Chevys and Fords.  Even when there is fuel to keep the trucks rolling, they are often inoperable.  This is a land of axel-busting roads, when you are lucky enough to find a road.  He says that he has people trained to fix the vehicles, but they lack parts and tools to do the job.  They used to have their vehicles fixed at Al Asad, but that service recently stopped.


The Hammurabi Academy, located on Camp Ripper, has trained around 400 Iraqi police from Western Al Anbar since it was founded in July of last year.  Classes are small, with a student/instructor ratio of around 7/1.  Only leaders are trained.  They are supposed to go back and pass their information to the ordinary police, so it is a train the trainers proposition.  They learn a variety of tasks such as basic investigation, logistics, administration and evidence gathering techniques.   It is not exactly CSI-Iraq, but it is a start.

Colonel Stacy Clardy of RCT 2 set up the academy to produce a leadership core for the Iraqi Police (IP) of our district.  It is important to recall that back in July 2007 Al Anbar was just coming out of the terror of the insurgency and significant fighting still raged.  My first helicopter landing in Al Anbar was on a soccer field, where I was informed insurgents had rounded up and murdered the local police some months before. These kinds of things were still fresh in the memories of recruits back then.  It took courage to volunteer to be an Iraqi cop and I suppose that they must have felt a little relieved to get some training on Camp Ripper, protected by U.S Marines.   Now they talk about moving the academy off the base and that will probably happen by next year.

The Marines host the venue, provide some logistics and act as advisors.   Most of the funding comes from the government of Iraq and gradually, as equipment is replaced, the Hammurabi Academy is evolved into an almost wholly Iraqi institution.

My impression was that we had U.S. instructors teaching classes with interpreter.  I was wrong, or at least out of date.  Most instructors today are Iraqis who speak directly to the classes in Arabic.  One of the successes of the last year is precisely the development of the human capital to make this work.  Iraqi police of the past were often good at being cops in many ways, but not so good at following the rule of law & evidence.  Now they are becoming a modern police force.

Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Pipe to Link

Below are solar street lights in Rutbah, a CF project.  They work okay, but are not, IMO, aesthetically pleasing.

The Regional Engineer of Rutbah is a modern man with little patience for religious extremists or excessive tribalism.   He hates what Saddam Hussein did to his country.  He told me that in some towns essentially no new schools were built between the end of the 1970s and the liberation, despite big population growth.  As an engineer, he decries the general lack of maintenance.  Instead of building infrastructure, Saddam bought expensive weapons systems from the Soviets, French & Chinese (the U.S. supplied only 0.47% of Saddam’s stuff). The fruits of big buying spree litter the deserts around here, MiGs that never fired a shot in anger, tanks that never went anywhere.  They decided it was better to abandon them than to fight a real enemy.

It was worst during the sanctions.  When Saddam had less money, he spent what he had on palaces, but enough of the past.

Rutbah’s future depends on water.  As I mentioned earlier, water is in short supply in the region.  There have been some grandiose plans occasionally touted to pipe water over the desert from the Euphrates.   It is a long way to pump water and it is all up hill.  Beyond that, the Euphrates has been running lower because of dams in Syria and Turkey.   In The long pipeline solution is proposed by people who do not understand geography, hydrology, gravity or politics.   Besides those things, it is okay.

Below – They have more success with sunflowers than I did.

Fortunately, according to the engineer, the solution to Rutbah’s water woes lies only eighteen kilometers away in Al Dhabaa wadi.  He says that twelve wells already exist and that hydrologists have mapped out the groundwater.  There is more than enough for a city twice the size of Rutbah.  Eighteen kilometers is only around 11 miles.  Why, I asked, were people complaining about water when water was so easy to get?

Some of it goes back again to the lost decades of the Saddam tyranny.  There are no reliable pipes to bring from the wells across those eighteen kilometers to thirsty Rutbah and much of Rutbah just doesn’t have access to water pipes period.   They were never built.  Our friends says that Rutbah had good zoning laws, but they were enforced sporadically so that there are some pretty big buildings sitting on some pretty dry land.  Well, it is not completely dry.  There are no sewage lines either, but what is soaking into the ground is not something anybody wants to drink.  Retrofitting whole neighborhoods is extremely costly and time consuming.   It may be years and it may be forever before these things are done.  Given the ramshackle quality of these buildings, it is probably a better idea to start again from the ground up, but people already occupying these places are less enthusiastic about this sort of solution. 

The other reason for the water shortage involved the great bane of Western Iraq – fuel.  In this, perhaps the world’s greatest repository of liquid hydrocarbons, fuel for pumps and/or electricity to run them is inconsistent.   When the pump goes on and off, it begins to lose siphoning pressure.  After a while it is sucking up air or mud.  Steady and predicable is what is needed.   I don’t know that much about pumps.  It doesn’t seem to me that should be such a problem, but the engineer tells me that indeed it is and he seems to know about these things.

In any case, on the one hand, Rutbah’s water problem is solvable and solvable soon in the general case of water for the city.  On the other hand, it may be solvable never in the specific situation of some construction that went on w/o the benefit of zoning.   Life is tough all over, tougher for some.  It is mostly a matter of organization and choices.  Most of the choices are simple; some are not easy.  

Above is our ride home.  Ospreys are good for longer trips. It is still a thrill to ride, but the joy wears off when you hit some turbulence, which always seems to happen on the way to and from Rutbah.


I don’t know why anybody likes soccer.   It is about as exciting, IMO, as watching grass grow.  But Iraqis like the game a lot and we get some significant public relations mileage out of building and/or rebuilding soccer fields.

The soccer field is in back of the kids.  In Iraq, you don’t even get to watch the grass grow on the soccer fields.  All they do is smooth out that dirt and put in a kind of a sub base.  We are going to fix this soccer field up.  The local kids are excited about it.  When we got out of our cars, they all came running over.

The kids in Rutbah are a little less spoiled than some others.   They were friendly w/o expecting too much candy.  It is funny because kids are similar all over the place.  We asked them if they got to use the field very often.  They said it depended on whether bigger kids came along to run them off.  I remember exactly the same experience.  We used to play football in Humboldt Park.  We got to use the flat, good places to play until some bigger kids came and ran us off.  On the other hand, we would run off any groups who were smaller than ours.

Now that I think about it, the big kids never actually had to run us off and we never actually had to run off any littler kids.  You would see the group coming and make a general estimate of their total mass.   If their total mass was greater than ours, we would pick up our ball and run away.   Kind of an interesting system.  Prepares you well for adult life.

In any case, we have done soccer fields before and will do this one in Rutbah.  I told my guys that I want to see it done before I leave and that I want a few drought tolerant trees nearby, so that people can sit in the shade and not only have to watch soccer.  The kids will  be happy.

Hazardous Work Sometimes

Recent deadly bombings around Iraq, one involving State colleagues, reminded us that this is still a dangerous place, despite the astonishing progress Iraq has made over recent months.  I was reminded on a local level during a foot patrol. 

The crowd in general was okay, but one guy (he is not in my picture, BTW) was obviously none too happy.  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say he was supposed to get compensation for a mistake but when he went to the local authorities to get it they ripped him off, he says. In these situations all you can do is smile and keep in talking/letting them talk, while trying to figure out how to get away.  My colleague, Sam, is an excellent interpreter and was able to keep the guy from going too crazy.  I am glad the guy had a chance to seek justice and it will probably be good public relations, especially if he is treated fairly.  It does, however, point up the dangers inherent in our work and why we must not become complacent.   I always worry about some weirdo in the crowd or a guy with a PBIED. 

It is very important to go among the Iraqi people to show them we know they are not the enemy, that we are not afraid and that we want to hear what they have to say, sweet and bitter. I bet they will be talking about this particular engagement for a long time to come.  The Iraqis present were also surprised and concerned over this man’s anger. I believe our interpreter Sam and I did our duty representing our country in a favorable light and the Marines calmly addressed the situation.  Nevertheless, this was a wake-up call about how fast a situation can deteriorate. We have reviewed our security procedures and our team members and I will be much more circumspect in the future.

Nobody is afraid to complain to us. They are usually reasonably happy with Marines and somewhat unhappy with local authorities.  While we take some pleasure in being popular, we have to avoid the impression that we are the problem solvers in contrast to local authorities.  We will be gone soon.  The local authorities will abide and the people have to learn to abide with them. In many ways, they are asking too much too soon from their governments, most of which are newly established after the defeat of the insurgency, but the people are generally on the right track and their requests are legitimate.  People always ask about fuel and electricity.   They want their streets to be clean and their homes to be secure.  Most of all, they want no longer to live in fear.  They are also concerned re water.  It is a desert, after all.

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

The picture below is a fort built by the British in sometime around 1927.  The British ran Iraq as a League of Nations Mandate until 1932, when Iraq became an independent monarchy under King Faisal, of Lawrence of Arabia fame. Even after independence, the British maintained bases here.   I don’t know if this was among them.  In fact, most people don’t think much re this fort, but it is still in use as a police HQ.  The British built to last.

When the fort was built there was nothing around it but desert.  Rutbah’s claim to significance is that it is a “wet spot”  that gets around 4.5 inches of rain a year, and it had a well. The Fort guarded the road that connected Amman with Baghdad and the oil pipeline.   If you didn’t have to stop for borders or checkpoints, you could drive from Amman to Baghdad in around 16 hours.  Rutbah and the fort are around the half way point.  It goes to show how much has changed.  Back in 1927 the fort was in the middle of nowhere.  It is still in the middle of nowhere today, but around 50,000 people live in and around Rutbah.  

I can only imagine how isolated it must have been in the 1920s.  I can picture those Brits with their khaki and pith helmets.  My friend Tim R bought me a pith helmet as a joke.  Of course I cannot wear it here, but I wish I could.  They are really good for keeping you cool.   Air moves easily inside and if you soak them in water the evaporation over a couple hours really helps lower the temperature inside.  They are very good for hot and dry places, which is probably why they were so popular.  But they have the unmistakable connotation of old-fashioned empires.  Both pith helmets and old fashioned empires are out of style these days.

When I was trying to confirm that date of the fort, I ran across this interesting article about Rutbah a few years ago.   It sounds familiar.  Above is a new mural on the police station wall.  Our ePRT helped pay for it.  I read in this article that this once had a Saddam mural.  We painted over it.  All these murals kind of look alike.  I don’t like them, but I suppose the blank wall bothers people.

We’re Gonna do What They Said Can’t Be Done

You don’t learn from experience unless you pay close attention.  Failure focuses the mind.   We ask what went wrong and identify improvements.  As often, however, we don’t fix the problem but try to fix the blame. This absolves everybody else and lets us all continue business as usual.  We can find individuals who made poor decision, but the only way to systematically improve is to look at the whole system and analyze the interactions.  If you have a dysfunctional system, changing the players doesn’t help.

There is a currently popular saying that “doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” This is simplistic.  It is possible to flip a coin ten times in a row and get all heads, but still expect the probability of the next toss to be even, at least after checking the coin.  A good system with good people may produce poor results. That is why you study the processes. If you can identify the factors the led to the result and they are not likely to recur wholesale changes are unjustified.Success brings less soul searching than failure. We point to good results and are unenthusiastic about checking to see if they were deserved.   But just as it is possible to fail for reasons beyond our control or factors unlikely to recur, we can succeed for the same bad reasons, so success should be as closely scrutinized as failure.  There is no shortage of talk about failures in Iraq, although much of it is designed to fix the blame not the problem.  As it becomes clearer that we are succeeding, we should learn from what went right and how it might be transferred elsewhere. I have a couple ideas from my own point of view.  Keep in mind that I have personal knowledge only of events in Western Anbar and so I emphasize factors and people acting here.  My list is not comprehensive.  


Had Abraham Lincoln had stuck with General George McClellan, or the American people elected “Little Mac president in 1864, we might well need a passport to cross the Potomac. Leadership changes the course of human events and a change in leadership was essential to the turn around in Iraq.

It does not follow, BTW, that previous leadership was incompetent (remember fix the problem, not the blame), just not appropriate.  McClellan was a superb general.  In a defensive posture, he was great.  He just didn’t grasp what he had to do to win and didn’t have the temperament to do implement it.  That task eventually fell to Ulysses S. Grant.  Lincoln found his general in a man who had been unsuccessful in his earlier endeavors but had the appropriate skills, talents and temperament to handle this job.

General David Petraeus was the right man for the new strategy in Iraq in 2007.  He wrote the book on counter insurgency and recruited a first class-team to help him with the changes.  He also had the support the new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, to make the needed adjustments.BTW – the COIN Manual is itself a great example of the flexible strategy it advocates.  It is a living document, almost a wiki. As new experience is analyzed and digested, it changes and evolves. 

The right leadership with the right strategy was essential to success, but causality is never so uncomplicated. 


The USMC was employing the “new paradigm”  in Al Anbar before it became part of a new strategy. Marine commanders were well familiar with the theory and practice of counter insurgency, but as importantly the Marines in Al Anbar constituted a learning organization.  As experience about what worked and what didn’t passed through the organization, Marines adapted and improved their responses.  The Marines have a long history with counter insurgency and working with indigenous forces going back at least to Presley O’Bannon on the shores of Tripoli, where they earned the Mameluke sword Marine officers still carry.  And they have been a learning organization all that time.   

Another advantage is the Marine’s rotation system.  Marines tend to come back to places near their last deployment bringing with them their experience enhanced by the perspective of their time away. Beyond that, when Marines go back they share their experience with their colleagues coming out, both formally and informally.  It is hard to envision a better system for learning and adapting. Many of the Marines in Anbar today were in Fallujah or Hadithah during the bad times a couple years ago.  More than others, they see the progress and understand what still needs to be done.  Those who are here for the first time have heard and internalized the stories.  

Beyond that, Marines in Anbar did what they do well: eliminating bad guys & breaking their stuff; making friends in that unique Marine Corps way; adapting & overcoming.  When the surge came, the Marines were ready with a receptive environment they helped create. 

A Time for Peace

“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven … a time for war and a time for peace.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).  Early in the conflict, proud and martial Anbaris allied with Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces to fight against the American invaders.  It was an understandable, if mistaken response, but by the close of 2006, they were tired of war; they had come to understand the folly of working with retrogrades such as Al Qaeda and their sense of honor was satisfied and slaked by the casualties they had suffered and those they had inflicted.  Al Qaeda told them that the Americans would cut and run.  Marines don’t.   Anbaris learned to respect CF forces.  As importantly, they came to understand that CF forces had come to respect them and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

PersistenceYou cannot achieve success if you do not stick around long enough to achieve it.  Difficult and unexpected circumstances in Iraq provided many excuses to give up.   Leading experts, pundits and even members of the U.S. Congress told it straight-out that the U.S. was defeated.  They were wrong, but they could have been right if we had acted on their advice.  In other words, a lack of resolve on our part would have made their prophecies self-fulfilling.  In the event, the U.S. stayed for the turn around.


Risk can be controlled but never eliminated and pure uncertainty lurks beyond all the risks we can calculate.   Even the most exquisite plans must run the gauntlet of random chance that can devastate a perfect plan or vindicate a dreadful one, which is why we have to analyze the process and not judge strictly by results, as I said above.  

Early in the conflict, many things turned out worse than we reasonably anticipated.  Now things have changed.  Our enemies turned out to be poorly organized.  Often incompetently led and ideologically myopic, they made stupid mistakes that turned local populations against them.  Fighting an insurgent enemy can be like playing whack-a-mole.  It is a frustrating game, but it is easier if the moles are not very clever.  I don’t want to take this too far.  Many of our opponents are committed, deadly and dangerous and even in small numbers a ruthless adversary can inflict severe suffering, especially if their goal is to attack civilian populations.  But these very tactics erode their support.The big piece of good luck is the flip side of some very bad luck for the rest of the world – soaring oil prices.  Iraq recovered its previous ability to produce oil almost at exactly the time world oil prices spiked.  During Saddam’s time, Iraq earned oil revenues of around $20 billion a year.  Experts anticipated revenues at this time of around $35 billion.   Last time I heard, they were looking at $80 billion and the number keeps on growing.  Oil money lubricates and more and more often Iraqi funds can pay for the needed infrastructure upgrades and improvements in Iraq. 

PRTs, ePRTs and the Holistic Approach

Of course I have to talk about my own stuff.  You cannot win a modern war by military means alone.  COIN Manual says that some of the best weapons do not shoot.  Military units have long had Civil Affairs (CA) teams and Commanders’ Emergency Response Funds CERP.  These improved conditions for Iraqis and certainly saved many lives.  Building on this success and experience in Afghanistan, in November 2005, Secretary of State Rice established Provincial Reconstruction Teams  (PRTs) in Iraq.  In January 2007, President Bush announced the establishment of embedded PRTs, who work directly with military units such as Regimental Combat Teams.

These were civil-military teams of experts who engaged provincial and local Iraqi officials as well as ordinary Iraqi citizens.  Some of their work was old fashioned diplomacy, meeting people, talking to them and listening to concerns.  But unlike diplomats in many other contexts, PRT members have access to concrete resources.  This development aspect, helping rebuild or in many cases just build for the first time is not entirely new, but putting it together with the interagency team of experts that made up a PRT is breaking some new ground.  

PRTs are led by a senior State Foreign Service Officer with a deputy from USAID or a military colonel often as an executive officer.   Included on the team are experts on budgeting, industry, law and agriculture, among others.   

In rebuilding Iraq, damage from the 2003 invasion is often the least of our problems.  Iraq has been in a state of war and/or sanctions for nearly thirty years.  Many things decayed during that time and other things that could have been done never were.  The Saddam Hussein regime did minimal or no maintenance on the plant & equipment.  The whole country suffered the kind of socialist mismanagement seen in former communist regimes, but with an additional layer of sanctions and war. It might have been better if some of the facilities had been destroyed by CF bombs and could be rebuilt from scratch.The physical damage can be repaired more easily than the damage to human capital.  The late despotism actively destroyed most aspects of civil society, anything that might insulate the people from the dictates of the state.  In former communist Europe, it was possible to find functioning civil organizations, as the fiercest aspects of Stalinism were generations in the past.  In Iraq, the destruction was more recent and in some ways more though going.  Ironically, sanctions and isolation helped finish the demolition Saddam started.  The only viable non-governmental structure left were family/tribes and religion.

Iraq has a significant, if now distant, tradition of reasonably competent officials.  PRT experts work to revive this and build on it.  Iraqis are responding very quickly, considering the conditions.The most popular expert in Western Al Anbar is our agricultural advisor.  Iraq was once a bread basket and still has wonderful soils, available water and a skilled population.   Unfortunately, some of the best agricultural lands has been abused for thousands of years.   Saddam’s mismanagement exacerbated it, but I digress.

COIN talks about the need to clear, hold & build.   CA, CERT & PRTs have helped build physical infrastructure as well as relations.  The Iraqi people increasingly have a commitment to their own future and freedom.  They will not easily give it up when terrorists come calling.

What They Said Can’t be Done

The U.S., CF and Iraqi accomplishment is astonishing, especially when you consider the near-death experiences of 2006.  The Middle East is more secure w/o the murderous Saddam Hussein in power and it is immensely better off than it would have been had we failed in 2006.  I believe this will be seen by future historians as a paradigm shifting event.  For awhile many people feared that the initiative had passed to the bad guys or at least to the forces of chaos.   The apparent disintegration of our position in 2005/6 seemed to confirm that impression.  It was never as bad as it seemed or as bad as it was portrayed in the media, but the trend was unmistakable. Today we have come out of the darkness into a new morning. It is still a little too dark to see clearly all the features and it is still full of challenge and fraught with dangers but also full of opportunities. For the last generation and arguably since the end of World War I or the Sykes-Picot accord, this region has been unstable and dangerous.   Maybe we can help make the future better than the past. 

Our Iraqi friends deserve it. 

America Supports Us

Below is one of our local friends.  The big black ones are not as dangerous as the little yellow ones.  I didn’t check closely, but it looks like this one is harmless because the stinger is broken.

We don’t have to buy coffee and there is no shortage of cookies and other sorts of treats.  Generous Americans send piles of these things.   Sometimes they go through organized groups; others just send things on their own.

I especially like the Duncan Donuts coffee.  The guys at the Civil Affairs unit have a big coffee making machine.  They fill it every morning with the Duncan Donuts brew and let me have some.   The only thing I have to do in return is be nice to them.  There is lots of sharing around here.  I will not miss the dust and heat when I leave Iraq, but I will miss the friendliness and feeling of shared mission.

Of course there are limits to generosity.   Our ePRT has a couple of non-tactical vehicles, which we use not too often.  We let others use them when they are needed.  When word got around that there were “free cars” available, the situation got a little out of hand.  We still let people use our vehicles, but now we keep the keys in the desk drawer and require that they ask. 

Success in Iraq: Thinking about our Team

Below is our team member Allen Gifford meeting with farmers in the Rawah area north of the Euphrates

Sometimes they expect more than we can give.  Usually we can do something. 

Our ePRT was part of the diplomatic surge that went in soon after the change in strategy that produced the military surge in early 2007.  The initial team was hastily assembled with short term contractors. My predecessor was a senior State Department officer, but he staying in country only six months.  The last of the original crew is set to leave in a couple of weeks, which made me think about how much had changed in the last year.

I didn’t get to Iraq until September 2007, so I rely on what others have told me and what I could see when I arrived.  It was a lot harder back then, much more constrained and a lot more dangerous.  The team could not move as safely as we can now.  They could not talk to ordinary Iraqis on the street, as we now can do routinely.   They did not have access to the quick reaction funds we now enjoy.   In short, their job was to “hold the fort” and prepare the base on which others (i.e. we) could build.   I have to give them a lot of credit, as I sit in relative comfort and safety. 

It is also easier to work in general.  When the ePRT was established it was sort of accreted onto a Marine regiment.  Nobody really knew what sort of role the ePRT should play.  I think there was a little hostility among the fighting Marines to a group of know-it-all civilians.   This was exacerbated by the restrictions in team activities and movement I mentioned above.  I felt overwhelmed when I arrived by the uncertainty.  How could our ePRT add value?    I can only imagine how the first team members must have felt, landing on what was then considered the dark and bloody ground of the Sunni Triangle.  What a difference a year makes!

I had a real running start, provided both by the team members that smoothed the way for me and by the foresight of the Marines of RCT5.  I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but Colonel Malay sent his executive officer and some of his key officers to the Foreign Service Institute to train with us.  This helped them understand us and gave us an insight and relationship into the Marines.

We now enjoy a seamless relationship with the Marines.  My office is on the command deck, across for Colonel Malay’s and next door to the executive officer.  My team sits with the Marine civil affairs team and it is hard to tell where my team ends and theirs begins. I am very lucky in that my team is largely self managing.   We form ad-hoc groups to address particular issues and each team member feels free to call on the help of other team members and Marines who can contribute.  The task groups are led by whoever is most appropriate at the time and much of the decision making is collaborative.  I think it was Henry Ford who said that asking who should be in charge is like asking who should sing tenor in the choir.  I find that works in my group, with particular team members talking the lead when their talents and expertise are foremost.   Our team and our groups have fuzzy fringes.  It is not clear where our team or the subgroups begin and end.  Maybe I violate some management precepts about clear hierarchy, but I figure in a group the size of ours with the necessity to form fuzzy teams with people I do not control, including Marines and our Iraqi friends, there is not much option.   It seems to work.  We get a lot done and morale is high.   I think that is an achievement in an environment as challenging and tough as ours.

That point about not controlling is important.  I influence. The authority to write those performance reviews is the source of most power in government bureaucracies.   I don’t have that, so I have had to pay more attention to other elements of influence.  This job has tested my belief that the boss cannot expect to be GIVEN respect but has the responsibility to earn it.   I still believe it, but I appreciate more the other side of that equation – the team.  It is much easier to win the respect of those who respect themselves and my team members do.  

Of course, things are not always so gloriously uncomplicated.  We have our difficult personalities and difficult moments, but I think the challenge of being here and the responsibility of doing something important tends to concentrate people’s minds.  Maybe teams like ours run on adrenaline.  Maybe that is why people tend not to be able to keep it up too long.  Maybe these sorts of teams are not appropriate in the more settled environments where a machine bureaucracy can perform at its best.  I don’t know.  I have only a few months left here, so I probably will not understand it.  The team is so fluid in terms of membership and our tasks are so protean that it is hard to hold it down long enough even to get a good look.  It works now and that is good for now.   Next month I will figure it out again for then. 

Management experts will study PRTs.  Some have started already. They may even study ours and our contribution to a better Al Anbar.  I think they will determine that the concept worked and that we did what we were supposed to do.  We didn’t always go in a straight line, but we helped consolidate success in Iraq.  If they are really smart, maybe they will figure out how.   I want to read the report.

Above is a field of sunflowers near Rawah. They are better at growing the things than I am.

Change: Real & Imaginary

We have had sandy skies that stop us from traveling and make it unpleasant to run.  In general, there is not much to do around here, so I have had time on my hands to think.  I have been thinking about change 

I think it is important to think about these sorts of “irrelevant things”.  It makes for better decisions if you have already thought through some of the boundry conditions.  Anyway, below are some thoughts.  Read them if you like.  They are not particularly about Iraq.

Below – Separating the wheat from the chaff the old fashioned way near Rawah on the Euphrates.  Some things change faster than others.

Change: Real & Imaginary

Change is constant and inevitable. Being “for change” is meaningless and childish w/o explaining what change you want & exactly how you hope to achieve it. Some people don’t understand that society is a complex system. Disturbing one thing, even a bad thing, will have unexpected consequences throughout the system.

Take a concrete example of a man dying of thirst. If you just give him as much water as he wants to drink, you probably will kill him. His body can process about a liter, maybe little more, every hour, no more. You can make changes but not on your timetable. And the most direct and “obvious” action may not be the most appropriate.

The general rules are that abrupt changes create strong reactions. There are many things you cannot have, at least at the same time, and the time lags are important in any decision.
Good leaders in our modern complex systems are catalysts for change.  I say catalysts because that is often the best way for government to effect change. It allows the people themselves to decide the details and do the actual innovating. The nation and the state are not the same things. Conservatives recognize that most effective and constructive change comes from citizens, scientists and entrepreneurs, less often from command and control of politicians and bureaucrats (like me – good cautionary tale).

Politicians outline tidy programs that purport to create comprehensive and well-planned solutions. The untidy fact that they often choose to ignore is that when people are free to pursue happiness the usually do not want the same things the planners think they should.

The private sector is the source of almost all innovations. Here I have to point to the difference between innovation and basic research which often depends on government resources and rightfully so. Basic research creates options. Innovation involves taking those options and packaging or developing them into something people want. The process is not automatic. There are many examples of societies possessing some great knowledge and never creating the innovations that put it to practical use.

(Of course government can innovate within government when there is a similar competitive environment for those sorts of ideas. In the ancient world, we had Greek city states, with their various mixes of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy and tyranny. In our times, U.S. states are good examples.The ancient Romans had the basics of things like steam engines, engineering skills and water power networks, but never made the jump to the industrialization. In the late 18th Century, the Chinese had the requisite skills to make intricate machines, but used those skills to make mechanical novelties for the Mandarins.  Whole books have been written about why the Middle East just stopped innovating about 400 years ago, after making a real promising start.  Getting innovation out of the lab, into the workshop and out in the market is not easy and it is not been the most common thing in world history.

What often seems to be the common denominator is that a powerful centralized state, w/o significant competitors, stifles innovation. Conversely, messy, contentious and competitive systems with loose connections produce innovation.

The United States has been extraordinarily innovative following this general pattern. Our states have been the laboratories of democracy. Good innovations are copied; bad ones are limited. Our free market welcomes ideas, and for most of our history people, from around the world. Foreigners often brag that their particular former citizens create so much innovation in the U.S. The interesting question is why they had to come to the U.S. to do that.

We have enjoyed this wonderful system for a long time now. Nevertheless, it is possible mess it up.

So when some politician promises change, it might be a good idea to inquire re the type of change he is proposing AND the mechanism he plans to use to achieve it. Emperors in Rome and China (as well as lots of other places) were confident in their ability to order change. As a result, not much changed in these places over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. If you were the emperor, life was okay. The guy covered in sh*t using the same basic technologies for a thousand years was probably less enthusiastic.

Change directed from the top was not the change they could believe in.

Adam Smith published the “Wealth of Nations”  in 1776. He was not so much advocating an ideal system as describing the one that was emerging in the Atlantic world. It was the beginning of the market system where diverse communities were linked by an emerging world market, where governments did believe they had the right to regulate every aspect of life and the economy, as they had in most places whenever they could since the dawn of history. For the first time in history, a large number of people came to believe that THEY owned the government rather than the other way around and an autonomous private sector was developing. It was a new paradigm, which conveniently coincided with the birth of the novus ordo seclorum that same year.

Even after 233 years, the old paradigm dies hard. It is very difficult for most people to think systemically. We are accustomed to hierarchy where somebody is in charge. In a market economy, lots of people have influence, in a state of constant change, but nobody is in charge.

We perhaps can understand it better now that we have things like Internet and Wikis. Who commands those things? I read an interesting book “The Starfish and the Spider” here the author talked about investors demanding to see the “President of the Internet”

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites used to say that everything flows (πάντα ρει) and graphically illustrated his point by explaining that nobody could step twice into the same river. Flowing water is an excellent way to understand change, the time it takes and the unexpected consequences of making changes. You shore up one bank with rocks, only to find that the current undercuts someplace else. You clear a channel and find two weeks later that you have changed the course of the stream a half mile UPstream. How can that happen? The simple direct solution is usually wrong and often the person who seems most in charge isn’t. He just talks the loudest – a good lesson for those who want to mess with markets.

You CAN make changes to a system like a market, just like you can to a stream. The trick is to make haste slowly. It is usually better to remove obstacles than to try to push more of your own energy into the system with direct solutions. With this approach, you often do not get what you expected. Usually it is better.

The Study of History

I didn’t have a picture to go with this post, so I fished this out of the files.  It is from Milwaukee near the lake.  On top of the old building is the Schlitz globe.  This is an interesting historical study.  Schlitz was once the world’s biggest brewer, but it declined and disappeared in the course of around ten years.  I used to think it was because my father, a big beer drinker, switched from Schlitz to Pabst and ultimately to Bud (which is not really beer, since it is made from rice) but I suppose there were other reasons too. 

Its former headquarters are now yuppie condos. I think they call them “Brewer Hill.”  Milwaukee no longer gets that sweet smell of fermentation I recall riding my bike past the place in the early mornings on my way to a job at Mellowes Lockwasher factory on the north side.  

Schlitz became famous and “made Milwaukee famous” in 1871, when Joseph Schlitz sent wagon loads of beer as a relief measure to the victims of the great Chicago fire, better than the usual donations, IMO.  The other historical curiosity involved in this is that most people have heard of the Chicago fire.  Fewer know anything about the great Peshtigo fire, which happened about the same time.   The Peshtigo fire was the largest fire in North America.  It destroyed thousands of acres and didn’t stop until it hit Lake Michigan.  These guys didn’t get any beer. 

I have not been to Peshtigo in more than thirty years, but I still remember that you could see the mark on the ecology even a century later, with the relatively even aged old growth.

The Study of History

When I talked about big Arnold in college I meant Toynbee, not Schwarzenegger.  Arnold Toynbee started off as a classical historian and developed a comprehensive theory of history.   I think he was the last serious historians to try such a thing.  Nobody dares do that today.  Any comprehensive theory will be wrong in some specifics.  Legions of grad students and professors will find and amplify those errors until they are like a festering bucket of puss on an otherwise glittering career.   Today they will be joined by an even larger group of internet searchers who like nothing better than to enhance their nerdy little status by pulling down somebody big.

Professional historians today study esoteric fields where nobody has bothered to go before (often for good reason), preferably ones dominated by obscure sources or oral histories (which are usually protean and riddled with error but impossible to debunk).   Today’s great historians, such as David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Victor Davis Hansen or the late Stephen Ambrose, are often derided by the cognoscenti as popularizers.    It is too bad.  People, ordinary people, are hungry for the sweep of narrative history.  That is why “The History Channel” is so popular, why “Band of Brothers” sells so well on DVD or why even semi-historical series such as “Rome” are watched by millions.

I am not arguing against being correct and careful.  I am the first, as many know, to complain about mistakes in historical detail. The trick is to know that something is not perfect and know that it is still useful and good at the same time, and not just throw the babies out with the bathwaters.  “Rome”, for example, is wrong on many (most) details, but it is still worth watching for some insight into an ancient world.  It makes you think and that is worth the effort.Victor Davis Hanson commented on “the 300”, which was literally a comic book version of that great confrontation at Thermopylae.  Sure, he said, it was wrong in details, but the idea of it was right (I paraphrase).  But it was better to get history into popular culture than to leave it completely out.  Serious people will check the facts and it might be the start of a life-long interest.

I fear this malaise has spread through the general culture.  We check, recheck and second guess every statement and decision, so that nobody can any longer be bold. Even if you are not wrong, the constant investigation will take its toll.  The Lilliputians will pull down any Gulliver; the hammer of public opinion will pound down anybody who dares stick up for any reason beyond mere vacuous celebrity, which ironically seems exempt probably because it doesn’t smack of true effort and is therefore non-threatening to the indolent.Any comprehensive theory of history must be wrong because such a complicated system is unknowable by mortal man in all its details.  That does not mean the effort of finding one is frivolous.  W/o some kind of mental model, history is just a meaningless jumble of one darn thing after another.    We all understand the world through mental models that are simplification of reality, maps of territory.  You need the map, but you know it does not include all the details.  Everybody has and uses mental models.  Most of them are unconscious.   Just because you do not study history or think through a model does not mean you don’t have one.  It is just that you picked it up inadvertently and you have not thought about it. For example, most Americans have a mental model of Roman history based on Edward Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.”  Most people have never heard the book and almost nobody has actually read it, but this is the model they have unconsciously accepted for Rome and to some extent erroneously extrapolated to the modern United States.   Gibbon was not right in many respects and it is better to make a conscious choice. In the metaphysical sense, no model is complete or right, but some are useful and some are more useful than others.  We should not stop striving for the useful truth even as we understand that the ultimate truth is beyond our beyond our capacity to understand.  It is best to use a kind of scientific method, constantly testing and refining our ideas and adapting them to changing circumstances.  One more thing re the Lilliputians who refuse to allow greatness, no individual is consistently great or great in all aspect of his life.  Close scrutiny will reveal the flaws and the small minded take significant pleasure in pulling down those who boldly try to stand tall.  Internet makes this easier. 

I was thinking re one of the greatest men in history, George Washington.   Today he would be out of luck fast.  The incident at Jomonville Glen (when he failed to stop his Indian ally Half King from bashing the brains out the French commander) would have ended the career and probably the freedom of anybody today.   Washington was not a great man his entire life, in everything or to everyone.  He was great during several key times, sometimes key MOMENTS, such as putting on his reading glasses and stopping the Newburgh conspiracy from subverting our Republic.   Those couple of seconds were enough. I don’t have my own theory of history.  I have cribbed from Toynbee and accreted lots of modern management and decision theory.   I don’t know if I would be bold enough to assert my own comprehensive theory; I am reasonably certain that I am not smart enough to develop one, so I am stuck with my hybrids.

I do worry that we, as a society are often mired in minutia and not seeing the big picture and we have to criticize everything about our most prominent members.  It is hazardous.