Thursday, September 6, 2012

Notes From Helmand: Interactive Art, God in a Table, A Troubled Meal

Another great blog by my friend, Paul Berg.  I'm signing this guy up as a permanent guest blogger.
Dear Friends:

Some notes on Helmand Province and Camp Leatherneck.

1.) The Helmand Desert as Interactive Art

It’s been de rigueur at MoMA and the avant garde galleries for years: the very hippest contemporary art must be “interactive,” meaning we don’t just look at a motionless canvas from a distance, we get physically and emotionally engaged with the work. Spectators enter it, they put on 3-D glasses or take off their shoes, or they are invited to write down or scratch or hit or throw something.

Helmand Province is about 7,000 miles from the SoHo galleries, but a trip across the desert from Camp Leatherneck to the villages of Musa Qala and Now Zad in an open-sided Huey I is, among other things, a chance to engage a vast piece of interactive art. Before you enter, you put on body armor, ear plugs and a helmet; communications and locator devices and an emergency tourniquet are hooked onto your vest. Then, at one of Leatherneck’s helicopter takeoff points, a young Marine guides you and the other passengers from a crude waiting area through dust devils swirling across the landing pad towards a waiting Huey, rotors in motion; you navigate a pounding but invisible wall of hot exhaust that constantly threatens to knock you off balance and, once inside, fasten a three-strap seat belt; short wait after everyone is strapped in, then a thumbs up signal.

From the open side of the ascending Huey, you watch Leatherneck turn from ten miles of dusty gridiron streets, gaping horizons, and primitive temporary one-story buildings with barren spaces adjoining, into a toy town, aerial geometry, a five-year old’s Lego blocks tossed about in a dirty sandbox then arranged in patterns and mixed with sacksful of plastic helicopters and airplanes he got for Christmas, some lined up neatly, some dropped here and there at whim.

Just outside the barbed wire of Leatherneck begins a dark, dry brown nothing; a minute more of flight and it’s all you can see, endless brown, shades of brown, only brown. Now and then a dry brown wadi with even drier brown gullies laid out flat, hypothermic, dehydrated, waits for the tiniest bit of water to bring it back to consciousness. But the relentless sun steals away even the tiniest drops of moisture and the wadi remains empty and dry. More brown. Baked potato brown. Here the experienced gallery goer recognizes the hand of an abstract expressionist stressing just one color to the point of evoking tedium in the spectator, perhaps Rothko from the period he was painting the walls of his Chapel in Houston, those famous rectangles of just one color each. And indeed, as with Rothko, this big expanse of one color without variation, with no representational figures, no visual relief at all, baked, bleached and blinded by a relentless sun, begins to oppress.

I told you this was interactive art, not just an abstract expressionist canvas viewed from a distance. And sure enough, roaring rotors barely muffled by your earplugs, one of the crew members silently motions you to prepare for something...loud. Then he and his colleague reach across to the anti rocket guns which protrude from the Huey’s open sides. Then suddenly zeeesh-tatatatatatata! Test shots, warning shots; this is Taliban country, and the Taliban here definitely have surface-to-air missiles. First the gunner on the left side, then, a few minutes later, the gunner on the right, different gun, different sound, gaaaanghaaaanghaaaangh! Good place for a test shoot; no one is visible in the brown waste beneath us.

Did I say Rothko? But then you begin to see narrow dark lines on the brown, lines etched into the dirt that sometimes wander, sometimes make a straight line, sometimes curve. Paths? As if Rothko’s mentor Arshile Gorky had decided to paint some of his gentle, meandering lines onto the canvas to decrease the tedium of his student’s orgy of monocolor. The further we go the more lines we see, and then, following the lines, you make out a shepherd leading flocks of sheep. Dark little spots begin to show up on the brown and, sure enough, you crane your neck and make out that these are scrawny, half-dead trees. And then alongside the dry wadis you begin to see rows of holes where rural people have tried to dig holes down to a receding water level.

And then square mud-walled farm compounds and villages begin to appear in the midst of the brown, a few at a time. The first ones are just mud brown from end to end, but then the some appear which have some dots of green, a sort of dark bluish Cezanne green; eventually larger farm compounds show up with orchards and gardens, and then the brown begins to give way to whole fields of green.

Dry brown Helmand became the agricultural center of Afghanistan during the Sixties, when the U.S. built dams, a vast irrigation system, hydroelectric systems, roads and provincial capital Lashkar Gah itself to illustrate for the Afghan people what capitalism could do for them at a time when the Soviet Union was manipulating their politics to its own advantage. The Soviets eventually won, setting off a cycle of violence and instability that continues to this day, but our projects made large parts of dry Helmand province into the agricultural heartland of Afghanistan, which it remains to this day. (Eventually it became the world’s major producer of opium, but it still also continues to produce wheat, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios and other crops for export.) Means there’s a legacy for the U.S. to defend and cultivate here. Musa Qala and Now Zad are among the many villages surrounded by green fields irrigated to this day by water systems that we built.

Leading to our final engagement with this piece of interactive art, a landing in a cleared space in the middle of Musa Qala and a meeting with the District Governor at his home, one of those mud rectangles surrounded by Cezanne green trees that we saw from the air.

2.) The Words of the Lord Are Written On The End Table in My Hooch.

This morning, a friendly OMS who has worked in our office for some time mentioned that departing Seabees had thrown a lot of wooden furniture they'd made by hand onto the pick-it-up-if-you-want-it place not far from our office and from my VIP hooch (“VIP” means a TV that works and bathrooms out back!). It's a lot of very sturdy stuff made of plywood and construction 2x4 castoff pieces the Seabees made during their long down times, primitive but very sturdy. I picked up a lot of simple shelves and such, all powerfully made but none of them worth keeping once I depart in twelve months.

Except for one piece, which is museum-quality American craft. It's a simple, solidly built, unfinished and unvarnished end table. Solid and simple, true, but across the top from side to side are Bible passages etched in pen. Well-known passages, mostly New Testament, and most about peace or about the power of the Lord. Thoughtful passages, however famous they are, and not the Holy Scripture's more popular sound bytes, either. At the center is John 14.27, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful." You can understand why this passage would speak with power and authority and reassurance to a soldier daily facing death or injury. In fact, it is speaking to me, too, in my comfortable dry hooch where I contemplate it as I write.

3.) Culinary Notes From A Troubled Place

One of my responsibilities over the next twelve months will be regular visits to our Helmand DSTs (essentially civilian-run project coordination centers and listening posts in key villages run by State, USAID and USDA staff, in some cases joined by representatives of our national partners in Helmand, the British, all protected by a U.S. Marine unit) to enhance communication and raise morale. Spent yesterday with British military colleagues at our DST in Kajaki, perhaps our most important in Helmand since it overlooks a dam we half-built during the Little America period in the 1960s and, along with an extensive electrical transmission system (the site and the dam look like a sort of primitive, small scale Hoover Dam, same dry mountains as Nevada), are in the process of completing. Helmand is the heartland of the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as the world’s opium capital, and some of the nearby villages remain under the Taliban’s control.

Stands to reason, but our main talks at Kajaki were about security. We had some very frank discussions with the District Governor and his security chief; afterwards, they presided over a security shura with local village chiefs in one of the Quonset-hut type temporary buildings of our DST while we Americans and Brits discussed the same subject separately with our DST people. Then on to lunch hosted by the District Governor.

We all sat on the floor, Afghans on one side, foreigners on the other, while the District Governor served the special guest meal. It was simple and, I’m told, typical of what Afghan local leaders serve at these events, but, between us, one of the best meals I’ve ever had. First, everyone got a big, fresh piece of naan. Then we were each served a dish of lamb ribs in a savory red sauce. Plus a simple pulao and a side of lentils. Dessert was a big plate of the tiny local green grapes, a little tart with concentrated flavor but very fresh and sweet.

After the meal, with lots of security and wearing our body armor and helmets, we walked over the village’s rickety log-floored high bridge that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is about to rebuild and on to the virtually abandoned squat mud stores of the village market, which USAID is about to rebuild.

During the talks and the meal, two military helicopters briefly landed, then departed. Taliban had been firing on four or five of the district’s outlying areas, the closest one about a mile and a half from where we sat (a daily occurrence, according to our colleagues at the DST.) The helicopters had taken two wounded Afghan soldiers to one of our military hospitals.

According to my end table, “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1.9”