Thursday, February 26, 2009

Babagurgur and the Turkomen

Welcome to Kirkuk, Iraq's melting pot! Several ethnic varieties call Kirkuk home, including Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and Turkomen (remnants of the Turkish Empire).

And I do mean *melting* - The crude petroleum bubbling up in the tribal areas is of such a high grade that the villagers refine it into diesel with the help of home-made stills. Standing vents of natural gas shoot 20-ft flames into the sky around our Army base. The most famous of these is called "Babagurgur", aka the Eternal Flame. Written about in ancient Egyptian carvings, these ground-flames probably pre-date human civilization.

These spouts of natural gas are not unlike the Earth farting. And those farts have been lit for 5000+ years! Magnificent!

I've been on a couple missions, standard PSYOP stuff, even sat in on the Kirkuk Provincial Council meeting. My favorite character so far has to be our new interpreter, Lahib. (God's Poetry aside: "Lahib" means "Flame" in Arabic.)

Lahib (aka "Larry") is one of the Chaldean Christians, remnants of the earliest Mesopotamian tribes who converted to Christianity in the Common Era. The Chaldeans speak a modern version of Aramaic, Jesus' native tongue. Larry claims he could understand Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" without subtitles!

At 6'0" and a jovial 260 lbs, Lahib left Iraq in the early 90's to settle in Dearborn, Michigan, where he has a wife and daughter today. Lahib also holds an engineering degree (Civil), so we discuss the finer points of soil drainage and cement composition while waiting for patrols.

Lahib is new to the interpreter racket but eager to please - his first real mission came when I took him out for man-on-the-street interviews in western Kirkuk. He performed admirably, helping me to build rapport with the Kurds, Turkomen, and Arabs who crossed our path. He also managed to score us some rather sophisticated lamb-kebabs.

The unit I'm supporting is called the 3-82 Field Artillery "Red Dragons", a battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, out of Ft. Hood, Texas. "Mortarmen" they like to be called, but the Iraqi conflict has little need for traditional artillery (cannons and such), so the mortarmen were given rifles and humvees and sent out on patrols just like regular infantry.

The Red Dragons are new to Kirkuk just as I am, and we're all trying to get our footing and figure out our mission. With the SOFA deadline looming overhead we all have an eye to the future - will we be confined to the bases soon? Will the interminable patrols finally come to an end?

(The Status of Forces Agreement calls for American troops to be pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns by June 2009)

Stay tuned!

(Wanna trip out? Open the photo below to its full size and peruse all the US military bases currently operating in Iraq.)

The Debt Disease

We collectively, as Americans, have the Debt Disease. From the government on down to the individual - the willingness to spend what we don't have is a cancer that has infected every cell of the American body. The body is still breathing, but it's already a corpse. Recently we have seen the disease shutting down major organs - massive layoffs, neighborhoods ruined, corporations toppled. The debt disease just kept on marching, all the way to Washington, D.C., where it finally metastisized into the 787 billion dollar deficit spending "Stimulus" bill, recently signed by the President.

This bill tries to fix the problem of our nation's Visa being overdrawn, by opening another Visa card, and maxing it out. It wouldn't make sense for an individual, and it doesn't make sense for a government.

The Debt Disease has turned what should have been a normal, periodic retraction of the economy, into a death blow to our institutions.

But 'death blow' how? People don't drop dead from debt!

Allow me to illustrate...

When an individual goes broke, what can they do? File for bankruptcy! They get to keep their assets, but they lose all credit.

When a corporation goes broke, what does it do? It borrows money until the banks won't lend it anymore. Then, the stock drops to zero (shafting the investors), the executives get golden parachutes, and the assets go to auction.

When the US government goes broke, what does it do? It borrows money until no one will lend to it anymore.

At that point, our government has an Ace-in-the-hole. They're just dollars, after all - a currency floated on the world market, with no hard commodity to back it up. Who owns the printing presses for the US dollar? The government!

When the government needs more money, they can just print it.

(It's more complicated than that, involving the Federal Reserve and bonds and interest rates, but at the end of the day, they essentially just print it.)

Flood the market with dollars, and their value becomes diluted. This causes inflation, wiping out the value of savings accounts and screwing pensioners and retirees. HOWEVER, it also makes it really easy to pay off debt! $53 trillion suddenly isn't such a big number. ($53 trillion = the current US government deficit according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles).

Our government's only way out of debt is to keep printing money until the debt is paid off.

When will this happen? Hard to say. As of this writing, the "Stimulus Package" hasn't come out yet.

To summarize, holding on to dollars seems to be a sucker's bet, to me. I'm opening bank accounts overseas.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Day in the Life at JSS Sadr City

(Glossary of acronyms located at the bottom of this post)

0430H A runner from the TOC knocks on the door of the PSYOP billets. The Iraqi Army 44th Brigade is mounting an enormous, unannounced cordon/search in nearby Tharwa neighborhood in 2 hours. The S3 wants PSYOP loudspeaker support with counter-EFP messages.

0450H Hastily dressed in flame-retardant ACU's, I don my pistol and run to the TOC to confirm with the Battle Captain that PSYOP will support this mission. I provide the S3 with the wording of our loudspeaker broadcast and find out which line Company will be escorting us. It's Renegade Company, 3rd Platoon, 1/6th Infantry - the guys who live just down the hall.

0510H I hunt down the PL of Renegade 3rd Platoon to determine the SP time for the patrol. SP time is 0630H at the main ECP.

0520H I notify my two teammates and interpreter of the mission: the start time, task, and purpose. My guys get dressed and head to the MRAP to prep for the mission. They will make sure everything runs smoothly on the truck - machine gun is mounted and armed, secure radios are up and functional, loudspeaker system is working, cooler is stocked with water and snacks.

0545H Grab cereal and milk from the always-open dining tent for a hasty breakfast.

0600H Patrol-briefing at the motor pool, given by the 3rd Platoon PL. The PL outlines such details as the "order of march" - which vehicles will sit where in the patrol, "actions on contact" - how we will respond to varying levels of enemy fire, and other items such as medic location, current threat-level in the OE, and call-signs & radio frequencies in use.

0630H After completing radio checks with 3rd Platoon and test-firing the loudspeaker, we don our body armor, load weapons, and head out the gate to link up with the Iraqi Army, already in place for the cordon/search in Thawra neighborhood.

0645-0845H Nothing too exciting happening on the ground. Competent Iraqi Army platoons, dressed in the mish-mash of different camouflage colors and patterns that characterizes their uniforms, go house-to-house in this Sadr City suburb, searching for wanted fugitives and unauthorized weapons. PSYOP team makes several counter-EFP broadcasts and stays with 3rd Platoon in an "overwatch" position, providing a security perimeter for the Iraqi troops on the ground.

0900H The Iraqis finish their search early, allowing 3rd Platoon to return to base.

0930-1030H While the rest of PSYOP team showers and grabs hot food from the dining tent, I head to the S3/Plans office for the weekly 9:30am planning meeting. Several staff officers are present to discuss missions coming up in the next few days, track progress on reconstruction projects, and work out logistical details of supply and maintenance for our little JSS. I give an update on new PSYOP handbills and posters being created for the OE, and the S3 provides me with an updated tracking spreadsheet for the dozens of PSYOP billboards in Sadr City.

1045H An explosion is heard nearby. Not one of ours.

1100H A patrol of MRAPs belonging to a nearby MP unit pulls into the JSS. The lead vehicle got hit by an EFP - an Iranian-manufactured, shaped-charge explosive deployed by local Sadrist cells against the Americans. This particular EFP was aimed up at the turret-gunner, where the armor is thinnest. Copper spalling accelerated to 8000 feet per second effectively cut the gunner in half. I run outside to help with the stretcher detail that is rushing the wounded to our aid station. One soldier is DOA on the stretcher, blood everywhere. I can't tell which end is his head and which is his feet. Two more soldiers on stretchers follow. They are torn up pretty badly, but still breathing and conscious. Our medics will prep them for a life-flight helicopter to the military hospital at nearby Camp Liberty. The one soldier's death will be counted among 6 others for this month, the lowest military death rate in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

1200H Lunch! The cooks at the field kitchen put out a meal of chicken tenders, ravioli, onion rings, hamburgers, and mixed vegetables. SPC Ward, the head cook, blasts rap music while he works. The dining hall features fresh fruit, a variety of dessert cakes, and soda & juice. US soldiers, interpreters, Iraqi soldiers, sanitation workers, and contractors all share the small dining room. A flat-screen TV on the wall plays the AFN station, an Air Force-sponsored amalgam of US news, movies, and sitcoms.

1300H PSYOP smoke break!

1330H Wander over to the local Haji-Mart (small concessionary run by a local Iraqi), purchase some Toblerone, check out the selection of pirated DVD's.

1400H PSYOP team loads up the product box with comic books, flags, PSYOP hats, handbills, school supplies, tip cards, and hard candies. We have a 1430H mission with Warlord company, another cordon/seach in Tharwa II.

1430-1830H PSYOP team is on the ground with 2nd Platoon, Warlord company, along with two squads of Iraqi Stryker Platoon soldiers. We make sure the Iraqi soldiers have plenty of tip-cards to pass out (with the hotline phone number to report bad guys). As the families invite us in to talk, we distribute other PSYOP promotional items, mostly to children: "I love Iraq" hats, flags, school supplies, comic books, and handbills. Using our interpreter we hold several discussions with the adults. Today's talking points include: attitudes regarding the Status of Forces agreement, visibility of local reconstruction projects, levels of trust in the provincial government, and awareness concerning upcoming elections. All the info we gather will be condensed into a report sent up our chain of command via secure internet later this evening.

1900H Driving back to the JSS, an Iraqi boy urgently flags down the lead MRAP and points hysterically to a pile of rubble at the foot of an upcoming concrete barrier, making explosive gestures with his hands. The PL halts the patrol and dismounts with an interpreter to speak to the boy. Turns out the boy saw two men hiding an EFP there earlier that day. The PL calls up to headquarters for an EOD team.

1920H The EOD team arrives on site in a batch of custom MRAPs. They deploy a remote-controlled robot to roll up and investigate the EFP from a close distance. This particular EFP had been encased in foam and painted light-blue to match the color of the concrete walls in front of which it was placed. The aim-point of the EFP was upward, at such an angle so as to hit the turret gunner of an MRAP.

1945H The EOD robot handily deposits a charge of C-4 explosive adjacent to the EFP, then backs up to the trucks. PSYOP team makes a loudspeaker broadcast to the neighboring houses, telling them that foreign-backed criminals were at it again, trying to disrupt progress in their neighborhood with their EFPs, and that we would be blowing it up soon, so please don't be alarmed.

2000H -BOOM-

2030H Back on the JSS, we refuel the MRAP, shed our protective gear, and head to dinner. Since it is Friday night, steaks (thin, gristly, & overcooked, but who's complaining?) and breaded shrimp are on the menu.

2100H I head up to the S3 office, where our Panasonic Toughbook laptop is plugged into the Army's secure internet, and start composing today's SITREP. While we were away, PSYOP headquarters sent us a new RFI survey along with a broadcast message for the small radio station we run out of our room. The RFI is a Request For Information, with questions regarding new PSYOP product ideas, that local Iraqis are supposed to answer. The radio station is a limited-range (1-2km) "Radio-in-a-Box" setup provided by the American embassy. A mast antenna on the roof of our barracks broadcasts a steady program of Arabic pop music mixed with PSYOP messages and Public Safety Announcements into Sadr City.

2200H The SITREP has been sent to my boss at nearby FOB War Eagle. Free at last, I run by the satellite phone bank, eager to call my wife (11 hour time difference) and ask her how her morning is going. Afterwards I retire to my bunk where I watch "Family Guy" reruns with the rest of the team, then drift off to sleep.

0300H Ali & Muhammad are wiring up their EFP's. See you tomorrow, Ali & Muhammad!

TOC = Tactical Operations Center, i.e. the Battalion's command center on the JSS. Picture lots of video feeds, radio chatter, and clocks on the wall.

S3 = The Operations Officer on a Battalion Staff. S1 = Human resources, S2 = Intel, S3 = Operations, S4 = Supply & Logistics, S5 = Public Affairs, S6 = Communications

EFP = Explosively Formed Projectile, a coffee can-sized bomb with precisely formed copper plate topping it. Upon detonation, the copper plate forms into a high-speed slug capable of penetrating most armored vehicles in the US arsenal.

ACU = Advanced Combat Uniform, the new digital-pattern blue/green camouflage worn by the American Army.

PL = Platoon Leader, the officer in charge of an infantry platoon. Usually a young first- or second-lieutenant.

SP time = Starting Point, departure time of a patrol

ECP = Entry Control Point: a manned, defended gate restricting entry into an Army Base. ECP's may have an interpreter, explosives-sniffing dog, metal detector, and special search area as well as armed fortifications.

MRAP = Mine-Resistant Armored Personnel vehicle: one of the new generation of heavily-armored trucks used to protect soldiers from roadside bombs. Characterized by a V-shaped hull and extra reactive armor, these trucks are 2-3 times bigger, heavier, and more expensive than humvees.

OE = Operational Environment, i.e. the area in which an army element operates, such as a certain neighborhood, village, or building, depending on the operation.

MP = Military Police

JSS = Joint Security Station: a small-ish army base, usually located in an urban neighborhood, where both American and Iraqi forces reside

EOD = Explosive Ordnance Disposal, aka the Bomb Squad. A specilized unit of soldiers with robots and bomb suits who disarm and detonate bombs.

SITREP = Situation Report. For a PSYOP team, a formalized report format that must be submitted every night, detailing the day's missions, PSYOP product dissemination, and passive intelligence gathered.

Friday, February 13, 2009


We can't do our job without interpreters ("terps"). I've learned enough Arabic for quotidian pleasantries, but there is no substitute for a native speaker who can translate nuance and idiom.

As a Tactical PSYOP Team (TPT), we are assigned an Arab linguist who lives and works with us on a day-to-day basis. If we're lucky, we'll get a "Category II" terp: an Iraqi-born, US citizen working as a contractor to the Department of Defense. The infantry platoons generally get a Category I terp: a local-national who lives nearby and has learned English by watching cartoons and subtitled Hollywood movies. The Battalion Commander, who meets with local sheikhs and oversees millions of dollars of reconstruction projects, gets one of the few Category III terps: An Iraqi-born US citizen, but with a security clearance.

Headquarters sent us to Sadr City with Azaz Hamoudi, a.k.a. "Joy". (Most Iraqi interpreters assume an American nickname to fit in with their unit. I've seen "Matrix", "Aladdin", "Wolf", "Fox", "West", "Billy", "Joseph", "John", etc.)

Joy had a wife and son in Dearborn, Michigan, but was born and raised in southern Iraq. The prospect of $90K/year tax-free and the opportunity to help his motherland brought him back to Babylon in 2007. Joy was good at ordering us sumptuous feasts from local Iraqi restaurants. He introduced me to BBQ fish, a Baghdad specialty. Joy also had a knack for getting the locals to invite us in for tea while on patrol. In the end, Joy's dependence on over-the-counter allergy drugs got him replaced.

Next came Ahmed, nicknamed "T". T was a younger guy, our age, with an American wife and daughter in Tennessee. T spoke English extremely well - he could copy regional American accents and throw slang around like Jay-Z. He also had an uncanny rapport with almost everyone he met. Other terps at Sadr City each considered him their best friend, and with a few words he could put an Iraqi family at ease as an infantry squad searched their house. T had high blood pressure though and only lasted a few weeks with us before moving out.

Next, my NCOIC sent us "Jay". Believe it or not, you have all met Jay - or someone just like him. You know the tallish guy who favors ripped jeans and Vans sneakers, has a little bit of a mullet going on, sells used cars and has a way with the ladies?

That's Jay, Iraqi-style. Jay had an American wife and 3 kids, but would sneak out of the army base on weekends to see his local girlfriend. He would buy used cars on eBay and ship them here to sell in Baghdad, making a tidy profit. Jay's command of English was superb, and he was always quick with a pot of Chai tea or a hooka of fresh capuccino tobacco during off-hours. We left Jay behind in Sadr City when we got our orders to move north.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Talking the Walk

Greetings from Camp Taji, Iraq. After a blogging hiatus of 3 months, I'm at it again - no longer under the jurisdiction which forbid my efforts previously. Below is an entry from early November 2008, with pictures. Don't try and mail me stuff. I don't have my new address yet.

(Written November 1st, 2008)

I'm on the ground in Sadr City, and what can I say - it's not pretty. I literally had to pick my way across a street flowing with shit several inches deep, all the time surrounded by happy Iraqis going about their bustling lives, apparently immune to the smell that made my stomach protest like a Klan member during Obama's Inauguration.

But seriously, conditions here have improved drastically for everyone in the last 7 months. Nary a sniper shot nor an artillery round has been heard at the US Army base recently, and reconstruction efforts are visible everywhere around town. Outside of The Wall, that is.

Have you heard about The Wall? It's big news here. I'll explain it in another post.

For now, PLEASE SEND ME STUFF! I finally have a working mailing address, and I need stuff. There is no PX here, no 7-11, no WalMart, and very few supplies for the soldiers. Even though we are in a big city, we live as if we were the last outpost south of Timbuktu. No running water, cold showers a couple times a week, porta-johns, flooded muddy grounds, and a tiny chow hall (but kudos to the Army cooks who still manage 3 hot meals a day).

[address ommitted as it is no longer relevant -ed.]

I need:

- Windex in a small bottle
- Antibacterial wipes in a small pocket-sized pack
- Cigars (for bribing the staff officers more than for personal usage)
- Facial scrub
- Plax
- Oral-B floss
- Candy: starburst, Jujyfruits, Mike & Ikes, Dots, Reese's PB Cups
- Beef jerky

The cool thing about my job is that I am one of the few Americans who get to go out on the streets of Iraq and talk to average people. It definitely takes patience and the gift of gab, not to mention the ability to finesse an Arabic interpreter and find rapport with a bizarre cross-section of society. I'm not claiming to possess these skills. The pictures show me and Joy, my interpreter, engaging locals in the Jamilla neighborhood recently.