Thursday, December 29, 2011

Iraq: Hot News and History

Crisis plagues Iraq as U.S. troops depart -- As the last U.S. soldiers exited Iraq Sunday and debate was raging about the nation's future, political crisis erupted in Baghdad that raised fears of more sectarian strife to come. Iraqiya, a powerful political bloc that draws support largely from Sunni and more secular Iraqis, said it was boycotting parliament, a move that threatens to shatter Iraq's fragile power-sharing government.” – CNN 12/18/11 
 “As US troops exit Iraq, Maliki moves against Sunni rivals -- Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, briefly arrested the Sunni vice president yesterday and has urged a vote of no confidence against the Sunni deputy premier.” – McClatchy Newspapers/Christian Science Monitor 12/19/11
 “Iraqi Kurds maneuver in political minefield -- Iraqi Kurds, at odds with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over oil and power, have thrown down another challenge to the Shi'ite-led central government by giving refuge to Iraq's Sunni Muslim vice-president, despite a Baghdad warrant for his arrest.” – Reuters/Chicago Tribune 12/29/11

Long before the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was set up in the Pentagon to establish democracy in Baghdad, on just eight weeks notice before President Bush’s “shock and awe” invasion was launched, the British empire had a plan to make Iraq the very model of a modern democratic state.

The failure of British colonial administrators to plant a viable parliament in the Cradle of Civilization in a tumultuous 12-year effort (1920-32) should have been a sobering lesson to those running the American campaign, British historian Toby Dodge warned in a book published amid American self-congratulations on quickly overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. In his timely book on the origins of Iraq—Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (Columbia University Press, 2003)—published amid daily news bulletins of violent attacks on “postwar” U.S. military patrols, Dodge shows how terribly relevant history can be.

Carved out of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Iraq was a British invention, a cobbling together of disparate desert tribes who were to be molded into a “modern” state. When the natives resisted, the reformers dispatched by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and other leading lights in London unleashed a deadly new device and bombed rural villages. “The British in Iraq in the 1920s, because of a lack of finance and soldiers, came to rely heavily on the coercive power of airplanes. Governance was delivered from two hundred feet, in the shape of regular bombing and machine-gun fire,” Dodge notes.

Now here’s the capsule lesson for Americans too busy reforming Iraq to read a history book:

 “The Iraqis of the 1920s were deeply suspicious of British motives. Through violence and political mobilization, they forced the colonial power to leave much sooner than they had anticipated,” Dodge writes. “Ultimately, however, it was the way the British understood Iraqi society that came to undermine their attempt to build a stable state. British colonial administrators…set about devolving power to indigenous Iraqis they believed had social influence. Resources were channeled through those individuals in the hope that they could guarantee social order at the lowest possible cost. The resulting state was built on extremely shallow social foundations. The governments that inherited the state after independence had, like the British before them, to resort to high levels of violence and patronage to keep the population from rising up and unseating them.”

The ink on Dodge’s book was barely dry and The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Nov. 2, 2003 titled “Who Botched the Occupation?” Journalist David Rieff noted: “What went wrong is that the voices of Iraq experts, of the State Department almost in its entirety and, indeed, of important segments of the uniformed military were ignored.”

In Toby Dodge’s view, the parallels between British and American occupations of Iraq are hauntingly similar in their hubris. “The British did not mean to undermine the nascent Iraqi state. But, hobbled by an ideologically distorted view of Iraqi society and facing financial and political limits, they did,” he writes. “The United States in Iraq today must understand that it is both living with the consequences of that failure and is in danger of repeating it.”

As the US military ceremoniously hauled down its flags and staged its last conveys from its last base in Iraq, American historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel whose son died in the fighting in Iraq, summed up the dissenting view on the war that the vast majority of the American people came to embrace, despite the still simmering bout of war fever in Washington:

“Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage—or is it simple decency—to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam's removal,” Bacevich wrote in an essay posted recently on the CNN World website. “That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended—probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Writing the Way Home

Across America, a special gift is arriving at numerous homes this week. This gift is a new book by Warrior Writers titled After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror.

What makes this book decidedly different from so many other gifts this holiday season is three-fold: its handcrafted artistry by young men and women who turned sleepless nights and troubled days into making art with hands that for too long held war weapons; its funding by dozens of supporters who collectively chipped in thousands of dollars to pay for the printing and postage; and its timing—published just as the war in Iraq was officially declared over and the last US military units departed that war-savaged land.

Here at home, a great many veterans of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are trying to turn off unrelenting war memories. Some try chasing off nightmares with hard drinking, drugs, death-defying lifestyles. Some find nothing seems to work. As Zach LaPorte, a former Army Ranger who served twice in Iraq, writes in a poem titled “Spliced”:

My life is like a slide show, spliced with images of the desert.
Mom asks me if I like the potatoes,
     A woman shrieks from a bloodied mouth.
My Professor hands me an exam paper,
     I’m riding in the door of a Blackhawk.
I walk alone at night past neon signs,
     Crimson tracers snap so close you could touch.
I sit in my air-conditioned cubicle,
     The blood in my brain boils.
The scars run deeper than they appear.

LaPorte’s poem is a troubling, yet heartening example of what the Warriors Writers project and this anthology are about: writing war images and injuries out, releasing them to the light of day, shared with those who care, aired to help heal hidden torments that long ago were called “soldier’s heart.”

"It's hard to overestimate how writing can heal long scarred over wounds that every veteran inevitably has,” Josiah White, a former Marine who was wounded by a suicide bomber, writes in a quote displayed on the back cover. “These stories and poems also have the power of communicating a near impossible message to non-veterans, those hurt by war, those hurt by tragedy, anyone who has ever suffered and asked the question ‘why?’ No one will read this book and come away unchanged."

With the 10-year war in Afghanistan still raging and flailing dangerously into Pakistan, this book raises veterans’ concerns that extend far beyond the mission in Iraq that just ended. In the Foreword, Brian Turner—author of one of the first poetry books to come out of the war in Iraq, Here, Bullet—writes that the works in this anthology “seem to suggest that we would be wise to take stock of where we are now, as a country.”

Many of the pieces in this collection by more than 60 contributors focus on an incident that triggered disconcerting change in perspective in the midst of military life. In a poem titled “Happy Birthday,” Zachariah Dean writes about suddenly realizing he just turned 26 as death whizzes by in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan in which his rifle is jammed by a defective bullet. Scrambling to fix the rifle, it hits him how carelessly he’s led his life to end up in such a desperate jam. "I wrote this in a hurry in a machine gun turret several nights later,” he notes in the poem, stunned by the surreal experience. “Try to burn it out of memory by putting it on paper…"

Others focus on trying to find a thread that may bring deeply sought change for the better in a veteran’s life. In a sardonic welcome home for himself and other veterans, Garett Reppenhagen wrote in a poem titled “Black Out Drive”:

Heeeey, welcome home brother.”
Just grip that wheel hero.
Stay alert, stay alive.
The real war has just started,
Your fight to survive.

Jacob George, who served three tours in Afghanistan with the Army, reaches out to fellow Americans in a poem titled “Support the Troops”:

don’t thank me for what I’ve done

give me a big hug
and let me know
we’re not going to let this happen again
because we support the troops
and we’re gonna bring these wars to an end 

Unlike collections of writings by warriors of previous wars, women veterans take a prominent role in this anthology. Air Force veteran Kristina Vogt captures the bizarre military bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that she describes as, from a female perspective, creating “the womb of the WoMD” (weapons of mass destruction)—the official reason for invading Iraq, which became as illusive as a desert mirage.

“I am the savage,” writes Emily Yates, who served two combat tours in Iraq, describing bursting into “proud homes” looking for elusive enemies, where women and children “stand in the doorway with fearful faces,” while she the armed American soldier wields “the weapon of ignorance … the shield of arrogance,” speaking with “the voice of entitlement….”

Former Army sergeant Robynn Murray, in a poem titled “Eviscerated,” throws the disillusionment of serving in terrorizing raids on Iraqi civilians directly at war supporters back home:

I am your walking wounded broken toy soldier,
and your flag is burning and all your yellow ribbons have fallen down.
I cut open these festers to force your eyes to see the truth so damn it, LOOK!
Look at what has become of me, of us.

I will gladly reopen these wounds if there is change that will come of it.
So that no one else receives these scars. …

Woven throughout the poetry and essays in this collection is an arresting gallery of often startling artwork. These include an American flag made of bullet casings (“Bullet Flag” by Lars Ekstrom); a toy soldier inside a prescription bottle (“Trapped” by Malachi Muncy); and a drawing of a walking skeleton with flaming oil derricks crowning the skull (“Greed Walks” by Eric Estenzo).

Many of the works in this book address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chantelle Bateman, a Marine veteran of Iraq, writes about “anger is the color I sometimes paint the town with … louder than incoming and the sirens they play when I hit the deck … I’m just a pile of tears needing to punch you”. Another former Marine, Jon Turner, punches at everything in sight in Iraq and back home in a string of explosive, insightful, drunken, cold sober images of human encounters, rejections, attempts at reaching out that ends with these lines:

In the unwritten letters and poems—
are the hidden faces of war

Several pieces reach breathtakingly out of inner turmoil to find an uplifting path. “I desire to trust life,” writes former Marine Liam Madden, “to cultivate my unique and needed gifts/Loving with abandon/ I intend to weave a web of gratitude into my community.” His poem “Intention” is the first in the book, followed by a wide array of perspectives drawn from a decade of war. The last poem is called “Brio,” in which Army veteran Maggie Martin, who served twice in Iraq, joins others in various civic actions:

I sow community in re-acquisitioned places,
Crowded city street, marching orders, protest song,
Our hands and mouths’ unsinkable strength.

Old constructs crumble and blow away,
new consciousness takes root.

The concluding section showcases photos of veterans at Warrior Writers workshops in cities around the country, accompanied by a quote by Eli Wright, a former Army combat medic: "I used to write before I went to Iraq, but when I got over there, I wasn't able to write. So through Warrior Writers I have been able to slowly begin to find my words again and share my experiences and what happened over there. It's been a healing experience."

The nearly 200-page anthology was compiled and edited by Lovella Calica, the director of Warrior Writers, which is based in Philadelphia, PA, with the assistance of a number of contributors and supporters. I aided the project as an advisor and copy editor. The book was artfully designed by Rachel McNeill, an Army veteran who included thought-provoking photos shot on patrols in Iraq by herself and others. A series of drawings and paintings titled “Dust Works” by Army National Guard veteran Aaron Hughes provides a visual theme of roads through war on the cover and throughout the book.

After Action Review (paperback, $20) is the third in a series of anthologies of writing and art by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans published by Warrior Writers, and is available at

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Holidays


Artwork on this greeting card was designed by Walt Nygard, a fellow Vietnam veteran; typesetting on the back is by Eli Wright, an Iraq war vet. 
The cards were handmade and printed by Walt, Eli and me at the Printmaking Center 
of New Jersey as part of a Combat Paper workshop.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Commitment to Uncovering Local Environmental Issues

toxic sites map/North

The headlines in a recent newspaper series unveiled a shocking story: “DEP let poison flow for decades” … “North Jersey riddled with failed cleanups” … “Desperate to move, but bound to stay; Residents say homes in Superfund site are worthless.”

Got your attention? That’s the intent of the “Toxic Landscape” series that The Record, a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, has instituted as an on-going investigative look at industrial contamination lingering in local communities in its coverage area. Here’s the opening salvo in a three-part expose by Record environmental writer Scott Fallon that burst from the front pages recently:

A highly toxic industrial chemical has been spreading under a Garfield neighborhood for almost three decades, slowly seeping into homes and threatening the health of thousands.

Residents live in fear that hexavalent chromium is infiltrating their basements, that their families could get cancer and that their property values have been destroyed.

And state officials allowed it all to happen.

What occurred in Garfield over the course of 28 years is a story of an environmental oversight system that failed the people it was supposed to protect. In instance after instance, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed poor judgment, lax enforcement and bureaucratic indifference to an emerging public health threat…

After detailing the spreading contamination through groundwater under an urban neighborhood and the startling lack of government action even after a city firehouse was closed in 1993 due to the hazardous substance seeping into the basement, Fallon’s report widened the scope of the problem to encompass many more communities:

“Garfield is one of the more egregious examples of failed environmental oversight. But all over North Jersey there are botched cleanups caused by questionable decisions, bureaucratic indifference or both,” Fallon wrote. "’There are Garfields in literally every corner of this state,’ said Robert Spiegel, head of Edison Wetlands, an environmental advocacy group. ‘The system for cleaning thousands of sites has been dysfunctional, chaotic, and it just doesn’t work,’" Fallon’s report added, after listing a number of failed, incomplete or barely ever started contamination investigations and cleanups in North Jersey towns that have been periodically in and out of the news.

The back story behind this unusual newspaper series—which began last year with a detailed examination of unfinished cleanups at several federal Superfund sites across the region—is a recognition by The Record’s editors and publisher that hazardous waste cleanups habitually stall when there’s no on-going, in depth news coverage.

That realization was crystallized by a previous investigative series in 2005 called “Toxic Legacy,” which showed how the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed Ford Motor Company to claim it had cleaned up a toxic waste dump in the late 1980s in Ringwood, NJ. The newspaper investigation, which I participated in as a reporter, uncovered the fact that the officially approved cleanup barely scratched the surface of buried mounds of lead-based paint sludge and other potentially cancer-causing contamination that local residents, environmental groups and newspaper reporters found and made public.

A far more substantial cleanup has taken place since that investigative series, with every step reported by local newspapers, sometimes bird-dogged by national news organizations and further exposed to a wide television audience by a documentary shown on HBO titled “Mann v. Ford,” after the name of a lawsuit by residents of the affected residential area.

Yet, despite the residents’ lawsuit, the renewed cleanup in Ringwood stalled once the initial flurry of news coverage subsided. Record editors then expanded the “Toxic Legacy” coverage into on-going, frequent update reports published under the same label.

“The [initial] story was about the government’s failure to live up to its promise,” Tim Nostrand, The Record’s editor for investigative projects, told a gathering in September at Columbia University’s Journalism School that honored new and past winners of the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. The “Toxic Legacy” investigative team led by Nostrand won the 2006 Grantham Prize, among a number of other national journalism awards.

Once congratulations on winning major awards are collected, news organizations usually ease off covering that topic and move on. But Record editors found their readers appreciated the “Toxic Legacy” coverage. And they found that government officials slipped back into old habits once that coverage eased off. “We did a five-year look back and found history repeating itself. We’re now staying on top of that,” Nostrand added in his account of how one investigative project morphed into a long-term commitment.

On top of reporting every new twist and turn in the Ringwood Superfund site case, six years after publishing a series that shook up the EPA, Record editors have assigned municipal reporters to dig into environmental contamination issues in the towns they cover, Nostrand told the audience of award-winning journalists, journalism professors and students at Columbia. Previously, as was my experience during a more than 20-year career at The Record, municipal reporters often ignored environmental issues unless they were prepared to wrangle with editors to provide time from the relentless pressure to file daily news stories in order to dig into often complex, hidden contamination problems.

The latest in The Record’s remarkable “Toxic Landscape” local reports rolled out this week. The first day’s headline conveyed a double drum-roll: “DPW cleanup tab put at $200,000; Decades-old pollution ‘ignored’ mayor says.” And thus residents of Dumont, NJ were told about the mounting costs of inaction by local officials and the state environmental protection agency in dealing with contamination from leaking gasoline storage tanks at the municipal Department of Public Works property dating back to the 1980s.

A Dumont Borough Council subcommittee trying to get to the bottom of why nothing was done, despite a DEP order in 1992 to do a cleanup, got some astounding responses, Record reporter Rebecca D. O’Brien found. A former councilman who served in 2004-2009 said “We never discussed any issues of any gasoline spills or any contamination down at that site,” O’Brien reported in her second-day article.

Another former councilman who served in 2003-2008 put this kind of investigative story into glaring perspective, when he testified that “he didn’t even know about the DPW contamination until he read about it in the newspaper,” O’Brien added.

So that readers can follow the newspaper’s probing into the tangled, toxic mess underlying much of the Garden State, The Record offers on its web site a special projects section titled “Toxic Landscape: Tracking contaminated sites in North Jersey,” which provides interactive maps and hotlinks to an extensive list of investigative articles on local contamination sites.

For more information:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Would Woody Say?

Sharleen Leahey (center) in concert

“Woody Guthrie spoke plain
About deportees and dust bowl days…

So what would Woody write?
Right now in these hard times”

That’s the sobering, yet enticing question that activist-songwriter Sharleen Leahey raises in her new CD collection, entitled “Rumors of Peace.” What would the “Poet of the People” who sang about plain folks’ hard lives during the Great Depression make of America today? With dobro, fiddle and guitar pickin’, reelin’ and strummin’ bluegrass, folk, country and gospel airs, Leahey offers her take on the times in a foot-thumping tribute to Guthrie.

“Now it’s time to speak plain
 About bailed-out bankers having their way
While families are forced to move
People sick and tired of being attacked
Are standing up trying to fight back…
But the boss is getting richer as we go broke
They’re taking our jobs and our homes and our hope
Say Woody…has that much really changed?”

In a song titled “Corporate News,” she lambasts “CNN & Fox – talking heads who shock/ Fair & balanced they declare/ Dissenting voices kicked off the air.” Leahey lets loose, knowing she won’t be invited to appear on any mainstream television talk show any time soon. And neither will anyone else who doesn’t improve the corporate bottom line. Her chorus line to that damning fact goes: “And you know the rich men break the rules/ And oooh how they pull the wool/ And they think we’re fools/ Democracy is what we lack/ Free speech has been hijacked.”

So like Woody Guthrie, she takes what she’s got to say to people at the grassroots, singing at peace demonstrations, teach-ins, conferences, fairs, coffeehouses, bookstores, libraries, museums, churches. Sharleen Leahey, who grew up in New York City and now lives in suburban New Jersey, gets around with her guitar and her protest songs to places where the corporate-branded and approved entertainers on TV talk and squawk shows haven’t a clue as to what’s going on.  

Here’s how she prefaced a recent performance at a small-town event: “Before singing ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ she said Mr. Guthrie wrote the song as an ‘anti-God Bless America’ song because he didn’t like how ‘God Bless America’ says God blesses the United States, but not other countries,” noted a news story in The Cranbury (NJ) Press in August. “‘Woody was defined by the Great Depression,’ she said. ‘He was one of us, a hard worker. He was an activist.’”

Other songs on her new CD address a vision for peace in the Middle East (Jerusalem – a cover written by Steve Earle), embracing the wonders of Nature (Wonder) and opening to personal and planetary change (Direction). A photo caption for her receiving, in July, a Peace Patriot Award from the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, NJ succinctly captured her song writing spirit: “For many years Sharleen has organized and performed at countless rallies, vigils and events to call attention to our urgent need to end our nation’s wars and occupations overseas and address our crises here at home.”

A couple of generations back, that kind of talk would have gotten a songwriter summoned to a grilling by the House Un-American Activities Committee. These days, it’s an invitation to join a picket line at the White House—as Leahey did at a recent Occupy Washington protest march.

For more information: