Monday, December 29, 2008

art of the mundane...

I wake up earlier than my soldiers, who tend to stay awake entirely too long watching bad British action movies. I prefer to work when others are eating breakfast and lunch and dinner...the office is less crowded, the Internet is faster and there's no wait for the phone.The added bonus is, when I eat, I can then eat quickly and alone instead of making small talk with people. When you live with people and work with people, eating with them becomes an awkward exercise in pretending there's something to talk about other than work, or just an extention of work. So, I eat alone, and try to avoid rolling my eye sat what is showing on television (which has, lately, been a TV show about a tattoo parlor. Who knew how emotional getting a tattoo of a dog in a lotus blossom could be if played over the right soundtrack?)

Soldiers, when they eat, tend to talk about sex, or work or call each other gay. In fact, that's what most of them talk about most of the time. When they work out, or eat, or work...but I guess that's all there really is when you're living in an area the size of a football field for 15 months surrounded by walls so high you can't see over them...when the horizon is the same color as the floor, and often the sky, there's not much to think about or enjoy.

Working out has become my solitary high point in life. Who would have guessed? Sometimes I even go twice, because there's not much else to do. The Filipinos who work in the messhall made Ponset the other day...mine is better.

We were working the other night, comparing mustaches and laughing when the big screen in front told us that there had been an IED. A soldier had been killed. There was a pause...a stunned silence...while we waited to see which unit it was. Everyone in the building had soldiers who it could have been and the initial reaction, despite what one would hope the reaction would be, was "I hope it's not one of mine..."

Phones began to ring, soldiers started moving and running...a lot of orders, "call him" "find out" "go see..." and a lot of questions...Who? Where? When? Why? and more orders...find out....
My guys were safe, I quickly found out, and the unit goes into blackout. No phone calls, no contact. The army wants to ensure that the first person to tell the soldier's family is the Army and not a wall post on myspace or a rumor that got home faster than official channels. My guys and I waited, and worked out. What does one do?

I didn't know the soldier. I still don't know who he was, where he was from and, sadly, my life goes on as it did before. Somehow,however, his life has not. His mother (father? sister? I don't know)is crying and wondering why...wanting answers to the questions we all asked in the moments immediately afterwards.

Last night, there was an explosion. After the soldier had died, I was on higher alert than I usually am (as Vivian said, complacency is the biggest enemy sometimes). It was close, and most of my guys seemed rattled. I got my weapon and ran to where my female soldiers lived to ensure they were OK. One of them answered the door, hair in her face and sleep in her eyes, seemingly unfazed...She told me it was a controlled detonation, an explosion that our unit caused to demolish something or another, but that I hadn't heard the announcement. I felt a little foolish, but at least I knew I was safer than I thought I had been...

Today, I met with some Iraqis to talk about how we would all work together. We drank Chai, we laughed, we got angry...

I found my guys...we worked out...we ate...such is life.

The title of this post comes from what my Commander wrote me when I asked permission to post this...she said I had "made art of the mundane." It's a strange world where this is the mundane, but it's the world most soldiers live in. I wonder what I'd think of that were I not a soldier.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Not many people associate Christmas with rocks, but I do.

Growing up, every year was a Christmas tree fiasco between my dad, the Christmas tree, and the stand. We had an old cast iron stand, red and intricately carved at the base, with three large, tough screws on the bottom to secure the tree to the stand. Every year, we would go out, pick the perfect tree (I don't remember the name of the tree my mom liked, but I never did...I now realize she liked it because the branches didn't droop when you put ornaments on it).

We'd bring the tree home and my dad would pull out the stand and then cut a little off the bottom of the tree. At this point, normally the first fight would break out. I always wanted a tree that looked like the ones in the know, the presents all looked the same, the ornaments looked the same etc. But, my sisters always wanted to put every ornament we had on the tree, regardless. Imagine, if you will, decades worth of ornaments...ratty old mice in thimbles, plaster ornaments that my Aunt Connie had given us for our births that were forgotten about until unpacked every year when we'd argue about whose was whose, plastic apples with handwritten notes, construction paper ornaments made in kintergarten all intermixed with shiney bulbs and colored (always colored, against my own asthetic preference for white) lights. The boxes of ornaments were endless and after the first few were on the tree, the fun was over and it normally ended up being my mom who finished putting them on....but I've gotten ahead of

My dad would, after cutting the bottom off the tree, bring it in to place in the stand. He would put some rocks under the trunk, and then screw in the stabilizing screws. The tree would never stand quite straight and he would ask me to go More rocks would be placed between the tree and the screws in order to "straighten" the tree out and the cycle would continue. One of us would hold the perilously perched tree while the other would run outside to get more rocks. It was no easy task...the rocks had to be large enough to hold up a tree, but small enough to fit between the base and the screws.

There is a photograph floating around somewhere of me and my sisters after our tree had been placed upright in the living room. The of placing it upright had somehow failed to take into account that trees can slant in any direction for 360 degrees. Viewed from the front, the tree was upright, but from the side, it was nearly 30 degrees off. My sisters and I, to my dad's dismay, were standing next to it, arms around one another, tilted enough that the tree appeared straight while the walls and windows were askew.

One year, I believe it was the Christmas I came home from basic training, my dad went out to get rocks. I took the tree, placed it in its base, and screwed it in. It stood up--straight. My dad came in, ready for his annual battle with the tree, and was dumbfounded at how I could have gotten the tree to stand up without rocks. Ha ha...I guess it was one of those growing up moments between the two of us, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for rocks around Christmas.

Christmas in Iraq has a lot of the strange nostalgic-only-to-a-Harmon-child aspects actually. The ground is strewn with rocks where there is not dirt, much like the yard I grew up in (and, needless to say, the rocks remind me of home). The walls and floors of my 'chu' (trailer) are plywood, like the home we built in Fallbrook. The weather is not at all a "white Christmas" heard about so often in songs, but reminds me of a mild Southern California night.

Obviously I miss my family, and my dad as always, but I'll see you all soon. I wish I could be there with you all, but until then, remember our slanted tree and our rocks, and be thankful, because this year, we have a new one to share it all with in Juliete!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

reading and thinking...

I've been reading a biography of Eisenhower, not just a President or a 5 Star General, but also the man after whom the barracks I lived in was named after. What struck me about his story is, even up until the day the Germans surrendered, 90% of the decisions he made were about troop movements and grand strategy. General Marshall came up with the Marshall Plan, which was about reconstruction and dealt more with politics than military strategy.

Today, fighting the war, we have Second Lieutenants who are talking about warrants and Iraqi legal systems. We have Captains whose job is to ensure that clean water gets around and that voter registration is fair and widespread. We have MAJ's who are working on infrastructure and medical treatments...

Education, Electricity, Economics, Politics, Social Justice...along with troop movements, battling IED's, weapons profliferation, training of Iraqi Police and Army...these are now the purview not of Five Star Generals, but of basic Officers and NCOs.

What we expect of those who serve today has changed drastically and it's amazing to watch it all work. It does make one wonder, however, if West Point will begin to offer Public Policy or Urban Planning as Majors. It seems those would be wise and huge for a young Lieutenant to learn before going out to fight/build wherever it is the US Army goes next. I'm sure we could work those into the curriculem along with everything else and still have people who can move tanks around an open field in case we ever fight a "regular" war again.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Army Energy...

I was reading in the Early Bird an opinion piece about how the Pentegon should have a vice chair for energy. At first it seemed like a silly liberal idea, and then I was a good liberal idea. Why? Well, if you think about it, military posts are, by necessity, planned communities. The problem is, they are currently very poorly planned when it comes to energy efficiency. It seems as though they are most often designed with simplicity and necessity in mind instead of the long term.

What if, instead, planners for military bases had, on each post, someone to advise the Corps of Engineers on energy efficiency. Barracks could utilize passive heating and cooling, be appropriately situated to the site to minimize seasonal impact, use grey-water recycling to water the grounds and even use alternative energy such as solar or wind.

Unlike society in general where implementing a smart grid or alternative fuel sources would be impractical, the military is already designed for it. We have no choice but to refuel our vehicles on post, where they tell us. Simply rebuild those to use alternative fuels (mantaining some petrolieum stations for tactical vehicles) and retrofit the current fleet of non-tactical vehicles and the Pentagon would, with a small amount of upfront cash, save in the long run while also reducing its carbon footprint. Or think about how much waste would be saved if, instead of plastic plates and forks and knives used by the millions in Iraq, we used the corn or soy based ones that eventually decompose*.

Really, the changes that could be made are limitless and there are some people who are forward thinking. I remember when I was at West Point, there was talk of purchasing a massive composter to help bring the waste from the Cadet Mess and Barracks area down to zero. They could even use the effluent from the sewage treatment plant, the waste from the Mess Hall and Cadet waste to create compost for the grounds.

By implementing such changes, the military would save money in the long run, create jobs, reduce its environmental impact and have a beneficial impact on civil society. So now, someone (a policy maker it seems) needs to implement the change.

*As a side note, I realize that would have an impact on poor commercial farming I've written before, everything is a trade off and nothing is a silver it's all a matter of priorities and weighing your options. I'm just recomending we finally weigh those options, instead of taking the quick, easy route.

Kevin Anderson

I don't know much about College sports other than I like to watch. And, over the years, I've been following Army, of course. Today, I was wondering though...why hasn't anyone called for Kevin Anderson's head? He's a great guy, and has one of the nicest wives I've ever met at West Point. I was able to be their escort for one of our class dinners years ago (I think it was my Sophomore year, but I'm not sure). But still, Army hasn't had a winning season over Navy across the board since he's been Athletic Director. Army Football has gone through more coaches than players and the final bad decision (at least in my eyes) was those damn stupid "Enforcer" Jerseys that Army was able to play to the first shutout in thirty years wearing.

I like Kevin Anderson...I'd love to sit and have a barbecue with the guy again...but maybe, as we all learned in school...

There is no substitute for Victory

Friday, December 19, 2008

I am an Uncle

I am an Uncle!! My Niece was born this morning and I am now Tio Nino! Oh man...this is so goddamned cool!

My interpreter

I have an interpreter. The day we met, our team was discussing what we'd imagine our perfect interpreter being...he'd have to fit in with our group, and thus probably be young, or be an older grandmother type who could keep us in check. When I went to pick him up, he opened the door revealing a man who seemed to be pushing seventy with the same look Grandpa Simpson has in the cartoon every time he thinks Homer is coming to visit. He stood there, not saying anything, and we looked at one another awkwardly until he finally said, "Hello! I am in-ter-pret-er." He slowly said the word in syllables.

On the way home, my driver, who has already deployed, wanted to test his boundaries and tells the interpreter, in Arabic, "Man, you have a nice ass." There was an awkward pause, until the grandpa laughed and replied, "Yes! Yes I do! By the way, do you all like to play poker? I do...but it's not as fun when there's no beer."

He has since become a part of our team. He is very good natured and reminds me of my old Arabic teacher who always responded with, "mmm...OK." It seems as though nothing bothers him and he's been translating in Iraq for longer than most soldiers have been here over multiple deployments.

When people "support our troops" I wonder if they think of people like my interpreter. An American, who spends his years here helping soldiers communicate. I will from now on, because he's done more than I have over the last few years, and I never would have known about him, or others like him, had I not come here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

the nature of the beast...

I'm learning slowly to play army politics. What I mean by that is, I am coming to the realization that everyone has different problem sets, and while each furthers the same goal (winning the war) sometimes they are at odds. For example, a unit you're with may want capability X. If you are capable of providing capability X then they might want you to perform that mission. But, what if you're like me--a leatherman of tools which can provide capability X poorly, but capabilities Y and Z extraordinarily well? Do you give up Y and Z to do X, or do you try and find a place where you can do Y and Z and thus, fully leverage your capabilities to fit the wider goal of winning the war?

That is the situation I find myself in now, working for a unit that seems very well run, and has some really good Officers and NCO's working for them. Their problem set requires capability X, which I can provide, but which is not my primary capability. Doing so would render my other capabilities useless. Now, that puts me (proponent of capabilities Y and Z) at odds with another Officer (who I consider a good Officer who is only trying the best to solve his problem set) who wants capability X. And thus, politics.

When I was in school, we jokingly used to have to tell upperclassmen when they were wrong in answering a question, "That is correct Sir, however, there is a better answer." I thought it had no training value, until now. Telling someone senior to you that he is correct, but that there is a better way to do it is a skill that I am not very good at...but will soon become well trained in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

dispatch from the north...

This is a little story from a friend of mine in northern Iraq I thought I'd share:

Dec 08 - 11 was the Muslim holiday of Eid, where they traditionally take 4 days to visit family, wish people well, and, I think, exchange some small gifts. As this time approached, our interpretters and even local nationals who are regulars at the JSS enjoyed talking to us about it, especially if we asked. Many are eager to share the pieces of Islam that are different from my world, to include holidays, language, body language, and even the date conversions. On the morning of the first day, one of the CLC leaders showed up to the JSS with about 5 bags, one for each of the officers at the JSS that he deals with a regular basis. He handed me the bag, wished me a happy Eid, shook my hand, and wished me traditional "Salaam," meaning "peace," before he left. I don't know what his deep hearted leanings on politics are, and I do not pretend to be knowledgeable enough to comment on what this means on a large scale, but in my life it was a crystal clear example of basic human kindness and goodwill. I am proud to have been a part of it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

what I'm reading.

A brief re-cap of what I've been reading:
  1. IKE a biography of Eisenhower
  2. This article which seems to admit, for once, that conservative justices on the Supreme Court are guided not by some definitive doctrine, but by social conservativism dressed as such. Here is a quote:
    Most originalists would vigorously dispute the suggestion that constitutional or statutory provisions are so ambiguous that their original meanings cannot be given effect. (Judge Robert Bork once created controversy by suggesting that the Ninth Amendment, which alludes to unenumerated rights "retained by the people," was an unenforceable "ink blot"; few have embraced his argument.) But in the past, conservatives have been more receptive to the notion that legal texts often incorporate ambiguity, either by accident or by design, and that nontextual considerations must guide the judge's application of those laws in particular cases.
  3. This article, which seems to have the author confused. Are gay rights rights granted by God, and if not, then why should Iran be ashamed to not grant them?

Of course, I am working also, but I cannot, at this time, write about that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Army Football...

Another coaching change. Because...that's what will help us win. There is some good and some bad to this. The Good:

At least the Superintendent isn't blaming the cadets any longer as was the case when I was there. Back then, we weren't supportive enough, we weren't loud enough, we weren't "12th man" enough. But now, this is what he has to say
“This was not a hasty or emotional decision, and Stan has been a great member of our community, but winning is particularly important to the military academy and to an Army at war. There is no substitute for victory.”

Which brings me to my second point, which I've said before, and which often gets me angry responses. Yes, the whole military is at War, but no, it has not affected recruiting at USAFA and USNA as it has at West Point. Why? Well...simply put, there are far more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than Marines, Navy or Air Force (we're talking officers here, not soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines). If you were a 16 or 17 yr old and wanted to go to a service academy, would you want to go to the one where you're (currently) guaranteed to spend every other year in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the one where you can fly over it every few months?

Professional football. Simply put, Army wont allow it (again). There was a brief experimentation, but we no longer allow it. I don't know if Navy and Air Force do, but if they do, and Army doesn't, then it seems pretty simple that we wont recruit the same caliber of athlete.

Training schedules. Again, my friend on the track team once told me, "People shouldn't be surprised we lose, they should be surprised we occasionally win." Why? Because Army athletes do the same summer training the rest of us do. So, before the season, they have maybe three or four weeks to build before competing. Unless things have changed, Navy and AF allow their athletes to miss out on training and build for longer before the season starts.

Those are all, however, excuses. And there is no substitute for victory. A new coach, a new season. We'll see how Army does next year, when I'll be back in the states and drunk in the stands at the Army/Navy game 2009.

he gets it

Finally someone who gets it. And, for doing so, he was fired.

The ex-head of the National Evangelical Association had this to say about gay marraige:
"I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think. We have this tension going on in the movement between what is church-building and what is nation-building, and I lean in this spectrum at times maybe we should concentrate on building our values in our own movement. We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and theats to marriage itself — heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to re-evaluate this, look at it a bit differently. I'm always looking for ways to reframe issues, give the biblical point of view a diffferent slant, if you will. And look at, we have to."

You see...the problem with protecting marraige is focusing not on the marraiges they want to protect, but on the marraiges they don't. It's like trying to keep your kids safe by telling other parents how to raise their kids instead of telling your own children how to live.

Let's hope more people follow his lead.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gonna be an Uncle...

I think my sister is going into labor right now! Sweet! By the time I next hear from people, it should be to say, "Congratulations Uncle Adam!" Oh man...I can't wait to see Juliette!

Friday, December 05, 2008


Oh man, I can't wait to get back to California. About the time the Governator was elected, I began to focus a little more closely on California politics. I had grown up there, obviously, but didn't have a firm grasp on much of what was going on. I watched as Grey Davis and Pete Wilson had their chance at the helm and now the Governator and find myself more and more interested. If anyone knows of good California political blogs I can read to keep up with what's going on, I'd love to know them.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Go Army...

Lest anyone thinks I forgot, Army/Navy game is this weekend. I thought, in preparation, I'd post about some other Army/Navy wins this year that have gone less noticed, but are equally as awesome. First, Army Men's Rugby beat Navy mantaining their undefeated streak. You can see the photo below a sad dejected middie sulking away.
Women's Volleyball also won, you can see below a Black Knight about to stuff the Mid in her face.
And here, Army Men's Soccer beats Navy as well. A lot of beating of Navy this year, in fact, so much so we currently lead the series 5-4-1. This weekend, we should bring it up to 6-4-1 and give the Cadets the wins they deserve.


So I got promoted a few days ago and this is the first picture I've had time to upload. Sorry it took so long. There are better ones, but I can't upload them. Also, that's the perfume palace in the background.