Showing posts tagged mywriting

In Search of Meaning: Hitchens, Whitman & War

Yesterday was a heavy day.

I was saddened to learn this morning that Christopher Hitchens died last night. Hitch was my first interview at Al Jazeera for a pilot show that never aired. I was nervous, he was buzzed. I was earnest, overly so; he was generous, predictably so. I was naive, but trying to hide it; he was erudite, and couldn’t hide it if he tried. Thankfully, he didn’t. The interview went swimmingly and became the launch point for my career at Al Jazeera. Over time I was lucky enough to get to know Hitch socially—mid-day drinks, visits to his apartment, discussions of Jefferson and God. History and civilization were his passion and what he loved to write about—but provoking people with the denial of God paid the bills, he told me, and allowed him to write the more important stuff.

Adding to the literary hole left in Hitchens’ wake is the passing of George Whitman. Whitman owned Shakepeare & Company on the Left Bank in Paris. The American lived in the small apartment above his iconic book store for nearly 60 years. Writers from Henry Miller to Samuel Beckett have spent time in the store. A previous iteration of the store, owned by Sylvia Beach, acted as a literary center for the expat writers of the 1920s like Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. was more than a book store, it was a beacon, the north star for romantic literary artists. Whitman would allow sojourning writers to sleep in the store while they worked on their would-be masterpieces. A sign posted inside reads, “Give what you can. Take what you need. George”.

One other momentous event occurred yesterday: the Iraq War officially came to a close. The night before I left for the war in early 2003, as a young US Marine, I remember lying awake in bed, unable to sleep, wondering how war would change me. I can’t say those thoughts were untouched by all the Hemingway I had read over the years—the idea that a man is irrevocably created and shaped by certain events in history—and I wondered if Iraq would be my Spanish Civil War.

I’ve been back to Iraq many times now and each time I’ve charted the changes in the war with the changes in my own life. Since the invasion I have three more children, a stronger relationship with my wife, a less naive view of the world, a more focused moral and ethical structure, and a very rewarding job—all the result in some way or other of events that were set in motion during the war. Yet for all of my blessings, if I’m honest, I have to admit the journey hasn’t been all rose gardens. I feel the years that have passed; I feel much older. My beard (which could be added to the list of what’s new since the start of the war) is greying at a disproportionate rate to the wisdom gained, which it’s supposed to represent. The pain of friends buried over these years accumulates in a well of sorrow somewhere in the back forty of my psyche.

With the foggy notion of these thoughts lingering on my mind this morning, I awoke to learn of the loss of these two stars in my literary universe. It seems like the confluence of these events should mean something, even if only a subtle shift in the intellectual tectonic plates that buttress my worldview. Trying to find meaning in the stream of events that shapes one’s life is certainly a precipitous path. Is there significance in the fact that Hitchens died on the last day of the war he was so vilified for supporting? Is there a metaphorical link between two people, who loved and valued writing as much as anyone on the planet, dying on the same day? Both certainly represented something to the aging romantic in my soul. Even if no greater connections can be made, I can say for certain, the world is a different place today than it was yesterday and one thing these years have taught me is that the change alone is worth noting.

Funny thing happened on the way to an embed…

From July 2009…

Embedding clearly has its challenges. I have done it a number of times, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. You only see what the military allows you to see and if things get difficult - and they usually do - you depend on those you are covering to provide for your safety and well-being. That dynamic creates something similar to the Stockholm syndrome. In other words, it may be hard to report critically on the guys that may have to save your life and who are providing you food and water.

And yet, I still believe embedding is worthwhile. Without embedding one part of the story would not be told, it is as simple as that. Living up to Al Jazeera’s brand of “Every angle, every side” would be impossible without showing the perspective of the troops, conquerors, defenders or occupiers, whatever one chooses to call them.

One of the rules of embedding prohibits the gathering of footage while in transit to meet up with your assigned unit. This is unfortunate, since some of the most interesting things often happen on the way to the embed. In order to get to units on the front lines you first have to pass through massive bases that offer a keen insight into the US war machine.

Trip to Kandahar

Such was the case on my last trip to Afghanistan. The following is a clumsy, but true, travelogue of my journey from Washington DC, to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

Five hours after interviewing Admiral Michael Mullen, the senior military man in the US, in his office at the Pentagon, I find myself on a flight bound for Afghanistan to test his answers against the reality on the ground. Roughly 17 hours later I’m in one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, the Dubai International Airport.

My connecting flight leaves from Dubai’s infamous terminal two. Its departures read like a Central Command hit list: non-stops to Baghdad, Kabul, Islamabad, Peshawar and Kandahar - and yet, it has a Starbucks.

On the flight to Kandahar, my seat is 6b, but the sixth row says ‘17d’.  Apparently, this row has been ripped from another plane without bothering to change the seat number. I sit down, strap in and notice another disconcerting detail. On the buckle is the emblem for Pan Am - the iconic international airline that went out of business some time last century.

Afghans - women completely covered; men with turbans, some with beards died red - eye us suspiciously. This must be what they would feel like on a flight out of JFK. They sit in a traditional Afghan style, crouched, feet in the seat, knees near their ears. I guess leg room on planes isn’t a big deal here.

Kandahar airport has a groovy mid-century-modern design, in an ageing but New York City-trendy-again turquoise. I wonder if it is a hangover from Kandahar’s pre-Taliban, hippie-haven, drug-denizen days.

The immigration line stagnates. The heat melts my mind, crushes my morale. A female Canadian soldier approaches me twice to ask if I am Jeff. If she asks again, I’ll say yes, I think. A panicking bird trapped in the airport bangs against the windows, clearly regretting its entry into this sweat box. It wants out - it seeks fresh air, a slight breeze and a cold, cold drink. Or maybe I’m projecting. In front of us in the line stand women covered completely from head to toe in burkas, with even their fingers hidden in gloves. They give their passports to security without lifting their veils; I wonder if their passport photo is of a veil.

Last word from our military point of contact tells us to find our way on to the military base side of the airport. There is no mention of how we should do this. What seems like a minor detail in Washington, DC, feels much more significant as we exit the airport into Kandahar proper.

I’m with my friends and crew: Snorre Wik, on camera, and Sebastian Walker, producing. Snorre and I sit with the equipment in a pavilion that looks like it is straight out of an amusement park. Concrete benches, light posts, and a gazebo are fabricated to look as if they have been carved out of trees, like it is a magic forest oasis in the middle of this desert. Seb leaves to “go find the military”. It all feels a little surreal. Minutes pass. I negotiate a currency exchange of US dollars for Pakistani rupees to pay the porter, who looks 100 and is probably 80. I pass him a handful of foreign bills. I guess it is not enough as he pushes the money back on me. I give him more. He seems content but less than happy. As the heat soars past 120 degrees, so does our concern for Seb and ourselves. The longer we sit here with hundreds of thousands of dollars of television equipment, the more enticing we must look to would-be captors, like chicken slow-roasting before hungry eyes.

Finally, Seb returns with a couple of US Air Force guys who were beyond the wire inspecting a crater from a rocket attack of the previous evening. They’re worried about us hanging out in front of the terminal in Kandahar and agree to take us on base. They search our 14 bags, help us load up and take us to their building on the tarmac. We drive past ageing civilian airliners and even older, Soviet-era helicopters. The driver points out where a helicopter recently crashed into a hangar, and where the rotor had slashed through the walls and the roof.

Shops and eateries

We enter a wooden building semi-officially known as the “yellow barn on ramp juillet”. It is a ready room, a green room equivalent for military pilots. This one hosts US Air Force pilots who fly helicopters with Afghan crews and which have control panels in Russian. Inside, a baby-faced blond major plays ‘Tiger Woods Golf’ on a Nintendo Wii. He’s on hole five of a course in Banff, Canada. It couldn’t look more different than our present location. He promptly asks me to join in. I do. Next hole is a par 5. He’s on the green in two. I’m in trouble. Until he 7 putts for a 9. I par. Nothing is turning out as I expected, but things are looking up.

Before long, another officer joins the round, as does my crew, but now we are playing the sport of hippie champions - frisbee golf. We each flick our controllers at the screen, with virtual disks spinning through the thin mountain air of Banff. Meanwhile, the pilot is telling me how he wants to retire somewhere in Colorado. I mention Boulder, but he says it’s “too hippie for him”. Just as the friendly game of frisbee golf is turning competitive, our US Marine escort arrives.

A captain with a shaved head takes us to the chow hall for chilli mac on rice, something of a staple meal. We find out we are scheduled to depart on a military flight in the middle of the night. They need something to do with us for the next 10 hours. A master sergeant offers to take us to the social area of base. As we are driving across the enormous base, he gives us directions on how to get back to the dining facility for our evening rendezvous. We round a corner and he says, “Just remember when you get to the French cafe, take a left”. Clearly they don’t fight wars like they use to.

We drive past a coffee and doughnut shop, a Canadian hockey rink (sans ice) and a gym. Sand like talcum powder fills the air as does the sharp odour of boiling urine and baking faeces from ubiquitous port-o-johns. Inside one such plastic stall, graffiti refers to the smell as “the persistent poop aroma”.

We go into the base store to pick up local SIM cards for our cell phones. Inside, soldiers in various uniforms from different Nato member countries shop for their war-time essentials, which by the look of the merchandise includes plenty of body building supplements and teddy bears, knives and flat-screen televisions.

Virtual reality

We need to escape the heat, so we head to the computer lounge. They will not allow us in because we have bags. There is a rule, which we find out is another thing this base has plenty of, that says “no bags”. We go to an entertainment and recreation building. We hear it is air conditioned.  This time it is a double whammy, another rule - “no open-toe shoes”. I am in flip flops, my other shoes are in a bag the Marines stored for us. Our cell phones do not work, although it matters little because the number we are given for the Marines can only be dialled from another military phone. Finally we find such a phone and eventually our contact comes for us. We put our bags in his room and he gives me his running shoes to wear for the day.

So far the “hell” part of  “War is hell” seems completely self-imposed by uniformed bureaucrats, adult-hall monitors intent on ensuring soldiers wear ridiculous glow-in-the-dark belts as they walk around base and wash their hands before every meal. Perhaps, “War is kindergarten,” would be a more appropriate cliché, on this base at least.

In the MWR tent I sit on a leather couch that is so hot it puts the seat heaters in my car to shame. We have escaped the sun, but not the heat. I sweat profusely while writing “I sweat profusely”. Hundreds of soldiers watch TV, play pool and ping pong. A special area is set aside for what seems to be the most popular pastime. Two dozen black leather couches lie end-to-end facing flat screen TVs each hooked to a video gaming system. With real machine guns resting at their boots they play first-person shooter games. While not on real patrols they are on virtual patrols killing countless virtual bad guys and winning in contests where the idea of victory is clear and where there are no consequences for losing.

Afternoon comes. Jet lag hits like an Ambian freight train. We sleep on a couch in a Green Beans coffee shop, the Starbucks of forward bases. Its motto is “honour first, coffee second”.  I’m not sure what that means, but for Snorre and I, the afternoon hours turn into sleep first, coffee second as we doze on the hot leather couch.

As the day dims to dusk we stroll along a boardwalk in the middle of base. It’s not unlike the boardwalk in any beach city, expect there is no water. Inside a wooden walkway boxing in an area large enough for a couple of soccer pitches, soldiers compete in a sand volleyball tournament next to a heated, tennis shoe-enabled hockey match. Country karaoke blares over loudspeakers. Shops like the French pastaria, German base store and Habib’s Gems surround the walkway.

As the sun sinks slowly, soldiers play basketball to a background soundtrack featuring the roar and whip of Harrier jets and Black Hawk helicopters.

This does not feel like war. It feels like a big base from the Bush years, when the US began deploying entire cities with its troops, thanks to enormous contracts with companies like Halliburton and KBR. This feels like a gaudy relic of the past, opulent by war standards.

A central theme in US counter-insurgency doctrine: big bases may be safer for the troops, but they undermine the mission; soldiers must live and operate within the civilian population. A lesson learned from too many bloody years in Iraq; a lesson that was at the heart of the Iraq surge strategy and supposedly of the new Afghan strategy as well.

If we want to see this lesson in action, we need to push deeper into Afghanistan and hopefully deeper into Obama’s war strategy.

Afghanistan 10 Years On… Anyone care any more than they did last year?

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. To mark the occasion I’ll be releasing photos and other Afghan-related tidbits here for the next 24 hours or so. First up…

Last year around this time I covered a protest march by veterans from Walter Reed to the US Capitol. I was pretty shocked at what I saw…

The invasion of Afghanistan’s ninth anniversary passed in DC this week with hardly a notice. 

Media desperate to illustrate the story flocked to a small demonstration of less than two dozen veterans of the so-called global wars on terror.  A rag-tag group of angry, disillusioned and, most of all, disappointed vets gathered in front of Walter Reed Army Medical Center where thousands upon thousands of service members have returned from war to treat their wounds.

The veterans there for the demonstration held a ceremony at the gates of the iconic hospital and placed nine yellow roses - one for each year of the war in Afghanistan - with almost military precision, the occasional salute replaced with a peace sign, before setting off on a six-mile march to Capitol Hill. 

The occasion marked the first salvo in Operation Recovery, an effort by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War to urge the United States to stop redeploying soldiers who have been identified as suffering trauma - either post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, or others.

It’s a sensitive topic for the military these days as five soldiers are on trial at Fort Lewis, Washington, for being part of what many are calling a hit squad that killed Afghans for sport. One of the soldiers, whose confession tape was leaked to the media, was prescribed and presumably taking a cocktail of psychotropic drugs for repeated concussions at the time of the alleged murders.

Said Ethan McCord, who served in Iraq in 2007:

“This is what happens to the traumatised soldiers that have gone on multiple deployments and we send them to Afghanistan into the same environment that traumatised them to begin with and you place them on psychotropic drugs and then you hand a weapon to them and turn them loose on the streets. What do you expect?”

McCord was famously captured in a video released by Wikileaks earlier this year trying to rescue two children from a van which had been struck by a missile from a US helicopter. Also during his tour, his spine was shattered by an IED. 

He bears the physical and emotional scars of the war with metal rods in his back and a sorrowful gaze in his eyes. He was discharged from the military without benefits because they determined his medical condition was pre-existing. In other words, the military’s official position is that he somehow went to bootcamp and made it through infantry school with a shattered lower spine.

It’s a jaw-dropping declaration for which, as McCord explained, there is no appeals process. So McCord receives no medical coverage from the military for the injuries that rendered him unable to walk with others to the Capitol.  

While it was disheartening to hear McCord’s story, and those of his comrades, saddest of all is that no one, save the handful of reporters looking for a story on the anniversary of the war, was there to listen. That is, except for the Capitol Police who threatened to arrest the veterans as they stood on the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building. Not that any senators were present as congress is in recess. 

As a female marine stepped to the mic and began a slow and painful account of how the military treated her after she was raped by a fellow marine in Iraq, Officer Dan Turner of the Capitol Police was busy threatening representatives from the group that he was about to arrest everyone, including the media.

Turner, who refused to comment for this piece, told organisers that a gathering of more than 20 people on Capitol grounds constitutes a demonstration and the group lacked the proper permit to demonstrate. Pleas from the veterans that their gathering consisted of a mere 15 members on the steps did little to change Turner’s mind as a police paddy wagon pulled up to the sidewalk.

It seems he considered media part of the demonstration. This inclusion was surprising and went a long way toward explaining why he was so hostile to my request for a statement. Turner’s threats to arrest reporters for standing on a public sidewalk observing and recording the incident felt like a shortsighted attempt to halt coverage of an unsightly event for the US. 

I contacted the US Capitol Police in an effort to seek clarity on their demonstration policy. Turner was correct, a permit is required for groups of 20 or more. However, the woman I spoke with explained that reporters are not included in the headcount unless they become actively involved in the event. I would love to share her name with you as a source, but she refused to give it.

The disappointing dissolution of this gathering of veterans seemed almost fated. No one really wanted to hear what they had to say. Their proclamations were meant for a crowd that wasn’t there.

The enormous throng of the fed-up and angry that filled the National Mall to hear Glen Beck was missing on this occasion. Passersby kept passing by, no one lingered. And all too quietly, Capitol Police marked the solemn anniversary by shoeing the vets from the very steps of government they volunteered to serve. 

Everyone’s A Critic

I knew helping to start Al Jazeera English would draw criticism. And it has.

I have been:

My latest surprise critic came courtesy of Wikileaks. A leaked diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Doha, Qatar, describes an early pilot of an interview show I shot for Al Jazeera International (before we changed our name to Al Jazeera English) on September 2, 2005. The unnamed author writes, “Hassan and Josh are clearly still amateur anchors and will need considerable practice to present a more professional and engaging program.” Um, ouch.

Setting aside the commentary’s sting and my bruised—though still breathing—ego for a moment, I must admit the show was bad. Exercising good wisdom, Al Jazeera management chose to go a different direction, canceling the show years before the network launched—a decision I supported fully. With the program’s early demise, I thought I had escaped what were sure to be genuinely rough reviews, but thanks to inept security, Wikileaks and living in a time when every blemish has the potential to exist forever on the Internet; I’ve been forced to face the US State Department’s critically acclaimed television standards. I’d love to know what they thought of Arrested Development

Now I’m left to wait, should I be so lucky, until the next iteration of leaked documents opining my career to find out what the TV critics at the State Department think of my most recent work on Fault Lines. Oh with bated breath….