Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Fistful of Dust

Another amazing piece from my more or less permanent guest blogger, Paul Berg:

Dear Friends:

My thoughts tonight are not worth a whole formal piece for lots of people, I guess, but it’s Thursday; tomorrow most people here sleep in for the Friday holy day (returning to work after lunch; Paul, of course, will be at the office early) and I feel like writing to a few very close friends like you to relax before I turn in. S’il vous plait...

Some years back, read that badly-written book on a fascinating subject, Jonathan Pieslak’s Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in Iraq. He wrote about the kinds of music our troops like to listen to going into combat, heavy metal, hip hop and C&W. He ignored C&W but went into some detail about which particular heavy metal and hip hop groups and albums our guys used to get “cranked up” for battle. Thanks to Pieslak, I discovered that Slayer and Lil Wayne are pretty good background for a morning workout, too, closest I’m ever likely to come to going into battle.

Pieslak actually only managed to talk to a handful of men, and, as mentioned, his book is disappointing. I wanted to ask his subjects a lot more questions than he apparently did; music is a powerful hypnotic drug, one reason Ayatollah Khomeini banned it during the first years after the Revolution, and there’s a lot of research that’s never been done on how to use it more methodically to cure the mentally and physically ailing, to discipline, to motivate and encourage, to restore order. So when I meet fighting men these days, I do my own research.

On the other side of our plywood-walled Regional Platform (RP) suite lies the C-9, U.S. Marine and British Army Civilian Affairs Office. At the far end of C-9 from the RP sits Gunny Kerr, a Marine of modest rank who nevertheless holds enormous importance for me personally because he arranges air mobility for my office. He’s a softspoken, handsome young Tennessee man who, though courteous, has always been taciturn, even dour, with us, no doubt because he must often postpone or turn down our constant air mobility requests.

He was sitting alone at supper tonight, so I invited myself to the other side of the table. Tennessee? Which part, Memphis, Nashvillle or Knoxville? (By the way, every other U.S. Marine here seems to be from Tennessee; I’m polling Memphis guys I meet on where to find the best dry ribs; so far, the intel tells me it’s Rendezvous for atmosphere, Neely’s for flavor.) Kerr is from Knoxville. City or country? “Knoxville’s just a little place, only about 106,000, so everybody’s from the country even though a lot of people don’t want to admit it. And I don’t think of Memphis as even being a part of Tennessee,” he snorted into his non-alcoholic Cafeteria drink. Too close to the Mississippi. He misses his girlfriend and his 8 year old daughter Rebecca, but not his ex-wife. Still, “I’d even take her back again if it meant I could have my daughter.” He’s a mechanic who can even fix motorcycles, but tries to avoid them because of the debilitating accident his father suffered in 1972 and the fact that he, too, likes to ride fast and irresponsible when he gets going.

Gunny Kerr insists he has every kind of music on his iPod, but when he’s going into combat, he “still likes AC-DC best.” He also likes to play Johnny Cash and some of the old Nashville and bluegrass. Sentimental fellow. Shrugged indifferent when I mentioned my own C&W favorites, Toby Keith and Jason Aldean, but perked up as we walked out into the dusky, dusty, permanently beige Camp Leatherneck night and I talked about how I chose Indian classical music based on Indian friends’ recommendations during my tour in Bombay. And even got him to smile an appreciative smile when I told him I had finally figured out how to deal with my fellow Foreign Service Officers by telling them I’m just not very smart; since all Foreign Service Officers think they are brilliant but are insecure about it, conceding your own low IQ means you’re not a competitor and so you can get them to do what you want. That seemed to get through to him (he’s been dealing with my office for seven months already) and I need the air mobility.

I’ve taken to thinking of Pedro Gomez as my personal little intellectual in a bottle. Pedro is a Puerto Rican, Sagittarius, married to a Russian, who lives near Memphis (naturally, where else?) Former Marine, older guy, stout, muscular, congenial as they come, he now serves as a contract security guard at Leatherneck. He speaks fluent Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, various dialects of English (including Australian), French and German. His late father was some sort of gifted intellectual, and, actually, so is Pedro. When we first talked about Mexico he urged me to read de Madariaga’s Corazon de Piedra Verde, which Amazon just confirmed is in my coming shipment, and this afternoon at lunch we got onto Shostakovich, his personal favorite composer. I parried with an appreciation of the String Quartet Number 3 (which I personally subtitle “Stalin Is A Bastard”), but he thrusted with the waltzes. Another advantage of working on a U.S. Marine base is that your Spanish quickly improves. (Although the guys I overheard this morning at breakfast watching the American Libya reaction on Fox, speaking low and formal, seemed to be mostly rehashing the coverage, nothing out of the ordinary; more notable was an African-American Marine passing by plate in hand complaining to no one in particular that “they’re already talking about another war! Another war! One war closer to making America a third world country! Doesn’t anybody care?”)

Dust everywhere. Beige. Everywhere.

One of the many congenial aspects of living on a Marine base with combat troops is that, like me, they take a lot of stimulants; our PX sells just about every licit form of powerful stimulant available. Long Interstate drives got me into power drinks (there’s a case of Absolutely Zero Monster in my hooch next to the mini-fridge), but what the hell is this stuff I picked up at the PX tonight? “Power Edge; on-the-go energy mix. Just add to bottled water. Guarana support for vitality, Taurine support for stamina, Ginseng support for mental clarity. (I chose one each, wild berry and tangerine strawberry flavor.) Ingredients: Citric Acid, Maltodextrin, Sodium Citrate, Caffeine, Aspartame (Phenylketuronics: contains phenylalanine), Salt, Taurine, Potassium Citrate, Ascorbic Acid, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Acesulfame Potassium, Calcium Silicate, Magnesium Oxide, Niacinamide, Pantothenic Acid, Panax Ginseng, Guarana, Vitamin B6, Red 40, Vitamjn B12, Blue 1.” Sounds like I’ll be in roid rage tomorrow.

Alarmed over my rapid loss of Pashto vocabulary after taking the test mid-July, reached out to General Garganus’s Cultural Advisor Qamar (an Afghan American who once, it is said, headed the Pashto and Dari faculty at the Foreign Service Institute) who led me to one of his people, Abdul, who begins regular half hours of conversation with me tomorrow. But then this afternoon, courtesy calling on the Lieutenant Colonel who heads C-2, the intel wing, found out that there are several U.S. Marines who are native Pashto speakers he can introduce me to. And what about Nimruz and the Baluchis? The American military divide Afghanistan into five regional commands beyond Kabul: North (Mazar-e-Sharif), South (Kandahar), East (Jalalabad) and West (Herat), plus our command, Southwest. The reason there’s a Southwest regional command is, of course, because of the strategic importance of Helmand. But our Command also includes the province of Nimruz, which could not be more dissimilar from Helmand. Helmand is the heart of Pushtun Afghanistan, but Nimruz borders Iran and is Dari speaking, closer to Herat than to Lashkar Gah. Main thing is that Afghanistan’s major concentration of Baluchis lives in Nimruz; like Kurds and Hmong, Baluchis are an aggrieved ethnic minority that desires its own country but, like the Kurds and Hmong, will never get that country because they are scattered over several countries’ borders. The Baluch live in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I’m in charge of Nimruz at the RP (hoping to go meet the Governor), and eager to learn more about the Baluchis. And it turns out that we’ve now got native Baluch-speaking Marines around as well! This should be fun.

These hooches have pretty good acoustics, but that damn Helmand dust...late at night I hear my “VIP” neighbors getting up and coughing, coughing, coughing it out of their lungs. Me, too.

Would bore you to rehash the headlines on Afghanistan; you already know how to read. (By the way, when you get to be the boss and you don’t want to fall asleep over a lot of forbidding, impenetrable reports from all sides, just do what I do and tell your staff you’re illiterate and can only understand oral briefings, because then you can ask stupid questions.) But here are some analytical thoughts from an illiterate that might guide your understanding. (1) Although most but not all U.S. troops are subject to be withdrawn by 2014, as are many other countries‘ troops, this does not mean that there will be no foreign troops here after 2014. NATO still has an ironclad troop commitment after 2014. (2) The more superficial media analysts are hooked on this notion of the Taliban overrunning inept and incompetent Afghan forces in 2014. Actually, Afghan forces are getting better with more independent will every day. But more importantly (3) why do people think morale is so great among the Taliban? Has anyone ever taken a look? They are not monolithic, united, or particularly motivated. What makes brilliant media analysts assume that the Taliban are not demoralized, caught up in intertribal rivalries, alienated against their Quetta-based leadership and incapable of a nationwide challenge to Afghan forces? And (4) Karzai cannot succeed himself in 2014 (or, with luck, sooner) elections. If you ponder these four thoughts a bit, you will be many steps ahead of most of the smartest of the smart in the media and academia.

You walk on rocks or dust everywhere at Camp Leatherneck, and my VIP neighbors’ hooches are identical to mine on the outside, with a small slab of concrete in front of the door opening onto a sea of stones. So every day I’ve been picking up a few smooth or unusual or colored stones and dropping them outside my door to eventually create a rock garden. I wash them off before I throw them onto the rockpile, and damned if after a day they turn beige again from all that dust.