A Brave Man Murdered in Iraq

I heard this morning that one of our friends and allies in Iraq was murdered execution style by Al-Qaeda gunmen in Haditha. I recall visiting his home, watching his little kids play in the garden. I also remember that the people of Haditha could live and work in relative safety because of him.  

Muhammed Hussein Shafir was a tough man and a warrior. His attackers knew that so they rolled in on him at his home with overwhelming force. Everybody knew who he was and everybody where he lived. There could be no isolation in a town the size of Haditha. This was the first violence in about a year in Haditha, but it was big. Twenty-seven police officers were killed in coordinated attacks around town. I am sure that I met some of them, but I don’t have details.

I did not suffer in Iraq. You get used to the dust and heat and there is beauty in Anbar. I especially like the turquoise colored Euphrates. Most important, Anbar province became relatively peaceful soon after I got there. I was lucky. But I knew people who were killed and more importantly I knew the danger threatening, not so much me – I had absolute confidence in the Marines – but our Iraqi allies. Something else I knew was that I was involved but our Iraqi friends were committed. My family was not at risk. Theirs were. After my year in Iraq, I knew I would go back to my country. They would stay in theirs. Twinges of fear and uncertainty that I felt sometimes wondering what was around a corner or hidden in a pile of trash up ahead, they felt always and everywhere. It would never be over for them.   

Their courage was fantastic, sometimes the courage just to open a shop or carry on ordinary activities. Al Qaeda could be unbelievably cruel and their violence could be up close and personal. I recall an incident when Al-Qaeda beheaded a man and his eleven-year-old son for the “crime” of selling rice. With his courage in standing up to Al-Qaeda, Muhammed Hussein Shafir helped make ordinary acts by ordinary people require less courage. He knew he was making himself a target for their hatred and vengeance and accepted the burden.

I was glad to get out of Iraq. I told myself that my job was done and I had nothing more to contribute. Others could carry on. I think I was correct in this, but I still felt guilty. Was I leaving too soon? Before the job was done? Anbar was becoming peaceful and prosperous in 2008 thanks to Coalition forces. The Marines had done good work. Of course, this kind of work is never done.

I no longer have ties with Iraq. It was one year of my life, an anomaly in my career, which otherwise concentrated on Europe and the Americas, places where I knew the languages and understood more of the culture and history. I didn’t want to continue in the Middle East & didn’t want to be involved very much in any sorts of security activities, in general. I still don’t. I am unsuited to them. You should do things you do well and security operations is not my strength. It was important work; I worried that the job I did in Iraq was inadequate but it was the best I could do. I don’t think I could have done better. Maybe others could.

I knew two Hadithas. The first is the one I saw the day I arrived in Anbar. It was dirty and dangerous, still burning from the recent war. Then there was the one I saw in my last visit, full of life, activity and color. I told myself and I believed that this was “true” Haditha. I hoped that I had helped bring that about at least in a small way. What now?

I didn’t know Muhammed well, but I knew him well enough and I knew Iraq well enough to mourn the passing of a courageous man and fear for the passing of a fragile peace for people I learned to respect. I really don’t know what more to write.

Turning, Turning We Come Round Right

“Vice President Joe Biden told POLITICO after a three-day trip to Baghdad that the American people will see President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy as a success when the “combat mission” ends on schedule on Aug. 31. Biden said the administration “will be able to point to it and say, ‘We told you what we’re going to do, and we did it.’”  Yes. That is pretty much what we wrote about such things more than two years ago, when it was a little less fashionable. 

I like what the VP said. He is right. I think the title of my article two years ago could have had the same title, “We told you what we were going to do, and we did it.”

I also wrote about two years ago, “The proper answer for the erstwhile surge opponents is to say that they were seriously wrong last year, but that they see the error in light of events and will work with conditions to take advantage of the success brought about by policies they opposed. “

Iraq in the Fullness of Time

Memory is never finally fixed. We are constantly editing our memories in the light of subsequent events. Sometimes meaningless event are explained in the fullness of time. Sometimes those events really were meaningless and they take on meaning only because we have jammed them into our narrative of memory.

That is why oral histories are unreliable and even things that are written down are subject to continual revision.Telling any story is always an act of choosing and even if we are being fair and thoughtful, our choices will always be subject to revision. We probably cannot arrive at THE truth, but we usually can come up with something useful or at least something that makes sense to us.

I have been thinking about these things as I prepare to address a class in public diplomacy at USC. They want to know about strategic communications at a PRT in Iraq. Lucky for me my blog provides a lot of contemporary impressions and pictures. I can see the evolution of my own thinking and my blog entries remind me of lots of things I would have forgotten. It seems like I am reading the experiences of someone else, but I know it was me because I can see the pictures.

My time in Iraq was the most meaningful work I have ever done. I am not saying that it was the most enjoyable or even that it was the best work I have ever done, but my job made a difference and my actions made a difference in a way they had not before. I am convinced that my activity saved lives. My PRT contributed to our success in Iraq and that is a world changing accomplishment. America and the coalition beat back terror and chaos, when many in the world and even in our own country had written us off. The alternative would have been horrible.

I don’t think we have told the story very well. Most people I talk to and read about in the papers have it wrong. They think that our success was based on good luck or that it would have happened anyway. This is very ironic, given the fact that back in 2007 most of these same people were convinced that we were so far down that road to perdition that we could never recover.

There is definitely a political dimension to this. Some people are knee jerk anti-war. They don’t want to believe that anything good can come from something is bad as the Iraq conflict. They dislike words like victory or even success. I don’t think anything can be done to change their minds, short of them experiencing what I did. Forget about them. But the broad American public should understand because there are lessons to be learned. We learned how to counter an insurgency. We beat an Islamist terror group right in the heart of their own region, on a battlefield of their choosing. Their growing power is not inevitable. History is not on their side. The future belongs to us, not them.

Iraq is a success story. I read an interesting headline in the paper the other day. It said that the Iraqi election was too close to call right away. When you have an election like that, it means there are actual alternatives. Saddam always got nearly 100% of the vote.

Second Draft of History

If journalism is the first draft of history, some of the stuff that appears on the new media is like notes jotted on the back of a napkin.   How can anybody make sense of this cacophony of contradiction?   You can’t, actually.  Events don’t make sense until they are put into a narrative.   It is true that journalists usually get the first shot at constructing the narrative, but their perspective is limited because they don’t know how the story will end.    They usually don’t even have all the current parts and don’t understand the interrelationships.   But you have to start someplace.

The first ones to get the story out often have an advantage in shaping narratives because once you have heard a story with facts arranged in particular ways it is hard to see it any other way.   And sometimes the facts can be influenced by an information cascade, where each subsequent person is influenced  with the one before until everybody thinks everybody else agrees on a formulation that might not be true in detail and sometimes not even true in general.   That is why pressure groups and politicians are so enthusiastic about getting their talking points accepted early.

But it doesn’t end there.   Subsequent events often change the interpretation of earlier ones.   Time may be linear, where causes must precede effects, but memory is not and so perception is not and history is not.   Beyond that, truth matters and investigations and comparisons help find more truth (although I don’t think we ever arrive at THE truth, we can get closer if we work at it.)

So what is the second draft of history?  It traditionally consisted of memoirs & the results of academic seminars.  Henry Kissinger’s “White House Years” or the various Bob Woodward books are other examples.  I think what we are seeing more and more today are television documentaries setting at least the intermediate narratives.   Programs like PBS Frontline are the obvious example, but lately more pervasive are the kinds of things you see on “History Channel” or “The Military Channel.”  These are often appreciated by specialists of those really interested in the facts in question, so they have greater staying power than things aimed at more general audiences.

I have been watching what I think is a rewrite of the Iraq war narrative.   The “first draft” featured U.S. troops suffering confused in a confusing environment in a war they couldn’t win.   The truer narrative that I see coming out in specialty publications and some military documentary programs is that the Iraq experience was difficult but ultimately successful counter insurgency campaign.  It doesn’t discount or overlook the mistakes, but accounts for them in context.  My guess is that MOST people still believe the old narrative, but most people really don’t care that much.  The people who really care enough to find out are the ones that understand the revised one and ultimately, that revised narrative is the one that will stick after the ephemera is passed.

So in the end it is not only numbers or precedence that counts but also intensity of interest or maybe demonstrated accuracy and consistency with other contemporary and subsequent events. When we want to find out about past events, few of us go to old newspapers. We look for near contemporary analysis and this second draft of history becomes what we (a little loosely) call primary sources. And those sources shape the narrative … usually.

Around 1274 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II fought a battle with the Hittites at Kadesh, which is in what is now Syria.  The Egyptians wrote the history and Ramses left an impressive monument to his victory.   It is the earliest example we know of an attempt to set a narrative.   Most historians don’t believe Ramses, but archeological evidence is inconclusive.   The Egyptians subsequently pulled back from the region.   So even more than 3000 years after the event, the precise narrative is still in dispute. The bottom line is that no matter who won that day, the Hittites got to keep the region.   Of course, you don’t find many Hittites around anymore.  There are still Egyptians, but they have little in common with the Ramses variety.  Astonishingly, some of us still care.

Unlearned Lessons

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left

How Strategic Communication Helped the Surge Succeed in Iraq

Colonel Patrick Malay, my friend and colleague from Iraq, is coming to Washington and together we will make a presentation at the Strategic Communication Network (formerly known as Fusion Team) on May 29 about the importance of strategic communication in Iraq and how the Marines and the ePRT worked with the people and leaders of Anbar to help create stability and relative prosperity.  Below is more or less what I plan to say.

Every move you make conveys a message and actions often speak louder than words.   This is especially important in a disrupted and dangerous place like Anbar province was in 2007-8.   But the words and how you express them are also important.   You need a combination of talking and doing and that is what we were lucky enough to have in Western Anbar when the Marines, the State Department and other parts of the USG worked productively with the Iraqis to make the place safer and more prosperous.

I thought and wrote a lot about it at the time and I recommend you look at my webpage from the time.   The passage of time has strengthened my conviction that we achieved something special.   But I don’t think it was something unique and I do believe that the lessons of Western Anbar have meaning in other places and times. 

All Necessary; None by itself Sufficient

As with many successes and most failures, it seems easier to see the causes when you look back than it was at the time of the events.   We had a fortunate combination of factors.  None of them alone would have been sufficient to achieve success, but each of them was necessary.  

The most obvious is that the people turned against the insurgents and the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The insurgents and AQl, it turned out, really were bad.  When their promises were replaced by the reality of murder, mutilation, rape & destruction, the people of Anbar realized that letting them get established had been a mistake.  Unfortunately, standing up to the terrorists was dangerous and often fatal, not only for the brave individuals involved, but also for their family and friends. Early opposition ended up headless in roadside ditches.  AQI would often even go after anybody who tried to remove the bodies. This was an example of AQI’s strategic communication. A headless body makes one hell of an impression, especially if you think you might be next. 

Terrorism indeed created terror that paralyzed opposition.  So the second part of the puzzle was needed – the surge.

The surge was more than just an increase in coalition troop numbers.   It also coincided with a change in strategy.   In Anbar, it meant that Marines protected the people locally and went to live in Iraqi communities among the people they were supposed to protect.  They trained police & security forces and held the ground, but their most important strategic communication message was just being there.    For civilian populations in war zones, the perception of safety is crucial.  The perception of safety creates real safety as more people go onto the streets, interact with each other and begin to get the confidence to stand up to the bad guys or at least help others do so.

The supporting strategic communication message the Marines sent was consistency.    The people needed to know that the Marines would be there for a long time. If the population suspects that coalition forces will leave and the bad guys will be able to return to chopping heads, nobody will cooperate.  The only way you can create the perception that you are there for a long time is to be there for a long time and have the reputation for keeping your word.  Marines stayed and established a reputation for honesty and persistence.  

So we have two necessary parts of the puzzle.   The people have turned against AQI and the greater numbers of coalition forces are making it to be both openly against the terrorists and alive at the same time.  Both these things are necessary and probably in that order. But we still need something more.  

Although basic stability always precedes prosperity, stability cannot be long maintained if the people are miserable and have no meaningful economic activity. Stability and prosperity are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing.  This is where our ePRT came in.  A PRT certainly cannot create prosperity, but we could help create conditions where the Iraqis could build, or rebuild, their own prosperous community.   

We did this by emphasizing the structure of a civil society. These are the things that are so ubiquitous in our own society that we rarely even notice them anymore, things like a functioning court system, protections for private property, transportation, clean water, distribution of goods and a reasonable functioning financial system.

Let me say again that we did not, we could not, create this kind of thing.   We could, however, help the Iraqis do it for themselves.   We could and did make grants of money.  We sponsored training.   We (and even more the military) physically built things like schools, roads and bridges, but I content that the thing that made all these activities into a successful whole was strategic communications.   There is really not much we did for the Iraqis that they could not have done for themselves.  But the fact that we were out there encouraged them and paved the way for progress.

It is Better to Light a Single Candle than to Curse the Darkness

Let me give one example.  It is not the most important example, but it is the one I like the best.   I called it the “String or Emeralds”.  You can see more about it at the String of Emeralds Link.

Iraq is an arid country, plagued by dust storms and drought. But the dust storms and drought are not completely natural.   Some is caused by humans and livestock destroying the natural vegetation cover by bad farming methods and overgrazing.   This has been a problem for 4000 years and our PRT could not solve it.    But after 4000 years, we have learned something about soils.   Our PRT’s agricultural attaché was an expert on rehabilitating irrigated dry soils damaged by salinization (salts deposit is a big problem in dry Iraq). We also took the lessons from our own dust bowl of the 1930s.  Planting trees serves to slow the wind and catch some of the blowing dirt.   I looked for opportunities to help and I found some.  The Iraqis understood the need for this too, but the effort had been neglected under Saddam Hussein and collapsed utterly during the war. 

We went to some of the oases and raised the profile and that encouraged the Iraqis to think more about it too.    The strategic communications lesson is that when someone in authority just shows interest, things can happen. There is no real magic to it. It just takes effort. The trees will grow and the future will be better than the past.

This is my Western Anbar progress report from about the time I left. You can get a better idea if you look at the sections.

When does strategic communication work?  The short answer is when it is embedded in other things that are working. All the talking in the world could not have made Western Anbar safe if not for the Marines & our brave Iraqi friends.   But communications enhanced and spread the good news.  And by spreading it and making it believable the perception of security started to become more real.   Telling the right stories creates a reinforcing loop, a virtuous circle or just plain success.

Getting the Moving Finger

Nobody really cares about Iraq anymore.  A couple of colleagues and I did a “brown bag” seminar on our experiences there.  The few people who showed up did so mostly out of sympathy for me. It was nice of them and I appreciate the support, but Iraq is the past.  Media coverage mostly disappeared last year, just about the time things started to improve. Even I have trouble remembering that it was such a big deal not so long ago.

Iraq is no big deal and that is a big deal. It might be useful to consider how that happened.   It did not happen because the problem just went away.  It happened because we solved it.  In a less timid age, we might have said that we won a victory there.

Only a couple years ago, most experts were predicting defeat and not just a little one. The view was that Iraq would collapse into chaos and civil war and that it would take most of the Middle East with it.  In fact, the more “realistic” pundits claimed that had happened already.  Their sage advice was to get out as quick as possible and leave the place to its unavoidable violent tendencies.

Fortunately, some of us didn’t listen to these hollow men and despite their heckling went on to victory.  I feel a little shy about using that term “we,” but I stepped up to do my part too and together we – Coalition forces, brave Iraqis and sometimes even hapless civilians like me – did it. 

But is important not to waste what we have accomplished.  Given Iraq’s strategic significance, the mission ceased to be a “war of choice” the moment American forces crossed the border in March 2003. Now we have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability.

Many of the same people who called for us to give up a couple of years ago, now feel vindicated that we can withdraw.   The logic goes something like this:  “Three years ago, we said the U.S. should get out.  Now the U.S. is going to get out (mostly).  See, we were right.”   This is indeed logical – if you ignore the events of the past three years and you forget the effects of time.

Let’s do a historical thought experiment.  WWII ended in 1945.  Count back three years and you are in 1942.   Now imagine a peace activist in 1942 saying that this Hitler guy and the Imperial Japanese Navy are not really very dangerous and we are just making them mad by standing up to them.  Three years later he says, “See, I told you so.  You didn’t have to waste all that time with D-Day or Iwo Jima.”

I am belaboring this point because I have seen this kind of historical credulity before.   The Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1989.   No matter how hard you look, you cannot find any expert who unambiguously predicted this outcome even two years in advance.  In fact, intellectuals had great fun ridiculing Ronald Reagan for thinking that bringing down the communist empires was possible or even desirable.   Many were shocked into humility by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they quickly recovered their composure.  Now it is hard to find anyone who will admit that he did not see it coming.   In fact, the new intellectual fashion seems to be that the fall of communism was inevitable and they have gone back to ridiculing Ronald Reagan, calling him a mere bystander at best and perhaps even an impediment.   (“We whisper together; are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”) 

George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.   I don’t know if that all that’s true.  What is true is that those who don’t remember history are doomed to be tricked again in similar ways. 

There are large forces at work in history and everything that happens has multiple causes.  Our choices are bounded.  Timing is important.   The strategy that achieves wonderful success in one situation may be an ignominious failure in another.   But the choices we make DO make a different.  The choices we make change the shape of the future.   We choose.  This is the lesson of history we should never forget. 

Looking down from the high summit of time, it seems like events are determined.   The more comprehensive a change, the more it seems inevitable.  But this is an illusion. 

We achieved a victory in Iraq. We stared down a radical insurgency in the heart of the Middle East and beat it back.   This is something they said could not be done.  We did it. Iraq, despite all its flaws, is now the most democratic country in the Arab world.  Someday soon – not today, not tomorrow, but soon – historians will see the spring of 2007 as an inflection point in Middle Eastern history.   It will be seen as the time when the old barriers to freedom and development were breached and a new freedom was painfully born and began to grow, fitfully at first, but inexorably   They will see it as inevitable and our choices that made it possible will be forgotten.  

“The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on.  Not all your piety nor all your wit can coax it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash away one word of it.”

Another Victory in Iraq

See also Victory in Iraq 

A purple finger in the terrorist eye.  

Elections went well in Iraq.   It looks like turnout was high. The Sunnis and Shia voted in large numbers.   The day was peaceful.   Iraq is the most democratic country in the Arab world today, thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people and the strength & perseverance of America and our allies. We didn’t give up; we outlasted them.  Saddam didn’t go quietly into that good night, but he is gone.  The terrorists did not give up easily, but they were defeated. 

When I volunteered to go to Iraq things were not so good. Most of the experts predicted defeat for us, chaos for Iraq and despair for the people of the Middle East. They were wrong.  

How far we have come!   

I know the pseudo intellectuals will solemnly ask “what does victory mean?”   I am kind of a simple guy, so let me explain it in simple terms I can understand.  It seems to me that overthrowing one of the world’s worst tyrants, helping create a democracy where none existed before, defeating an extremist terrorist group in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of THEIR choosing, sowing confusion among our enemies and just doing what they (the defeatists around the world and the terrorists themselves) said couldn’t be done – this is victory. 

Emerson said that people’s view of the world is a confession of their characters. Some people can never be happy.  If their team wins in the Superbowl tomorrow, they will just complain that it may be harder next year.  It is their character flaw, their misfortune and none of my own.  I pity them, but I cannot persuade them and I don’t need to let them pull me down.  Today is a good day for democracy, peace and good people around the world. Despots and dictators are feeling less secure.  Al Qaida and their retrograde buddies are crying in their caves. That doesn’t mean that problems have disappeared.  That doesn’t mean that we have achieved an ultimate utopia, but let’s celebrate this big step in the right directions; let’s celebrate a victory.

The Iraqi people have stuck their purple fingers in the eyes of the terrorists.  They are riding down to road to democracy with all its joys and challenges.   Hurray for free Iraq.  I congratulate all the brave Iraqis I met during my time. You did good guys and it was a privilege to be among you.

On the left are USMC shirts on sale in Iraqi shops.  The US Marines were popular in Anbar by the summer of 2008 because they protected the people.  I saw these in the marketplace in Hit. You would not have seen this picture in the mainstream media.  Of course, with only a couple of exceptions, they were not with us walking around in the markets so they didn’t see this stuff. 

Follow this link to earlier stories and pictures on Iraq.

PTSD, Iraq & the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Most of the time when the shooting starts, State Department evacuates Embassies and gets its people out of harm’s way.  We were sent to Iraq in the opposite direction with the risks well-known and acknowledged.   This represents a big change that State is still trying to understand.   They are trying to find out more about how such an assignment affects the people involved, so the high stress out briefing I went to today at FSI has a double purpose: to help us reintegrate and to get some ideas on what happened to us over there.

They told us that employees often have more trouble coming home than they did going over.   Life is the war zone is exciting or at least active.   You feel like you are doing something special and that you are a big deal.  At home, you are just an ordinary guy.   You must also reintegrate the people you love.  Things have changed.    Experts identify a whole range of situations ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to more mild forms of just feeling a little strange.    PTSD, BTW, is not rare even among people who have not been to war zones.  We were told that 5% of men and 10% of women NOT deployed in overtly traumatic conditions will still suffer from the symptoms. 

I was lucky.  I experienced few traumatic events and I think I have reintegrated fairly well.   I do feel some of the things they mention in the course.   I have a little trouble focusing and I lose track of the things I am doing more than I remember doing before.    But I think that is also the simple result of the ordinary changes I am going through.   I am still waiting for some of my clearances; I still don’t have my remote access and I am still not settled into my new job.  More precisely, I am kind of between jobs since I have the CENTCOM assessment taking most of my time when I am trying to check into my new job.   I will spend the next couple of weeks in Doha, which postpones the real start of my new job.   Anyway, whenever compare the first weeks of a new job to the last weeks of a past successful one, it will inevitably seem more confused and chaotic. Presumably you get better at your job so the end is better organized than the start.

An experience like Iraq reveals (if not builds) character. We all agreed that some people should not be allowed to come to Iraq and that our eagerness to get willing people at the posts lets some of them through the filter.   Some people are not emotionally robust enough for the stress and many are not physically fit enough.  You don’t have to be Arnold Swartzenegger, but you do have to wear body armor, carry your own gear, and jump out of helicopters & into MRAPS.  You also have to be able to take the temperatures and the pounding that comes from ordinary life and travel in Iraq.

The experts say that people returning from posts such as Iraq are sometimes crabbier, less engaged and they think life is less colorful or interesting.   This passes in normal cases.   I also don’t think this is a problem for me (although maybe I don’t notice my crabbiness.)    My time in Iraq made me appreciate more the things I had here in America.  I had a network of support in the family and I did a few things right, w/o even planning it.   My forestry interest tied me to something long term and rooted (literally) and the blogging was an excellent outlet.   The experts say that telling your story helps calm and put your mind straight.  I guess it is like the old man in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who periodically feels the need to share (inflict) his experience with somebody else.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

As a career FSO, I have come home several times.   I was happy to get out of Iraq.  I loved the job and worked with great people on an important job.  I regret leaving them and the sense of duty, but Iraq as a place holds no attraction for me.  Forget the war.  I like living trees and verdant hills.  I just don’t like barren deserts and I don’t like that extreme heat.  I felt no sadness leaving Iraq.  I really liked Norway and Poland and was sad to leave those places.  The hardest homecoming for me and the family was when we left Krakow.   That was an important job too AND I felt at home in Poland.   Beyond that, I came back to a job (in the ops center) that I didn’t like and beyond all those things, the family had some adjustment issues at the same time.   Even I could tell that I was crabby, troubled and troublesome back then.  I do agree with the general proposition that coming back is often harder than going over, probably because you think it should just be a piece of cake.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

(Maybe those who read Coleridge don’t really need the course.  He seems to have figured it out and expressed it better.)

Stability Operations

I got stuck in back of an old fashioned at-grade crossing on the road to Quantico.  This is not something you see too much anymore.    I didn’t like the wait, but there is something cool about watching the freight train roll by.   I watched dozens of truck trailers go by loaded on flat cars, as well as the usual box cars and containers.   Rail is a more efficient way to move freight.   It saves energy and gets lots of trucks off the road.

I went down there again to take part in a stability workshop to help the next group of Marines prepare for their time in Anbar.   I told them what I could, but my Anbar is not the Anbar they will face.   There will also be a lot fewer Marines.  We have been drawing down over the past year and will continue to do this, so one of the big questions was what will happen when the Marines are gone or mostly gone.   I don’t know how much of my experience on the ePRT will transfer in this specific situation, but I shared what I could. 

We were successful over the past year.   I think the key to success was the close cooperation between the Marines and our ePRT members.   I couldn’t explain formal reasons for that.  I think a lot  of it was the serendipity of personalities that meshed well.   I also had the advantage of having an office across from the Colonel on the command deck.  We had plenty of opportunities to run into each other and talk informally.   We agreed that ePRT members must be full members of the team.  That meany going out with the Marines and among the Iraqis.   We are not fighters and we should not take unnecessary chances, but it is our job too to be out there, not hunkered down behind the wire.   

We, Marines & ePRT members, also developed good relations with the Iraqis because we got there at the right time and I think we genuinely got to like at empathize with them.   Most at least.  I told the group that I don’t know how to make that happen, but some attitudes help.

Sometimes perception is reality.   When ePRT civilians were seen in talking to people in marketplaces or on the streets, it gave the Iraqis a feeling that things were getting safer.    Sometimes just being there is the accomplishment.   If you hang around long enough and behave well, people just get used to you.   There is no magic, just persistence.

Iraqis in general are not hostile to us, but it is a hard situation when foreign troops are hanging around your country.   We need to show respect for the Iraqis and demand respect from them.  Failure on either side of this equation is a mistake.   We have to recognize that Iraq was once better than it is today.  That was a long time ago, but people appreciate it if you recall it to put the current situation in context.  It also gives hope for the future.   Eye contact is very important.  A simple think like taking off your sun glasses goes a long way.    I shared these and other little insights.   None of them is very profound, but taken together they form a decent tool set.

Partnership is the key: partnership of the ePRT with the Marines and partnership with the Iraqis.  Nobody accomplishes anything alone.    If you work with others in this kind of way, you usually don’t get exactly what you planned, but what you get is usually better.    Anyway, that’s the gist.

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One more thing, somebody used an analogy of taking Lipitor to describe a quick fix solution, i.e. somebody takes Lipitor for cholesterol w/o addressing the root causes.   I disagree with the analogy.  I started taking Lipitor a few years ago and it did a good job of lowering my cholesterol.   I think of it as a ham sandwich surcharge.  For pennies a day, I get to eat many of those foods I like.  I see it as a sustainable solution.     I requested a different analogy.