Monday, April 30, 2012

Time to take off the rose-colored glasses

Marines hunt Taliban hiding in tunnels

By Dan Lamothe --
Posted : Sunday Apr 29, 2012 15:54:10 EDT

OBSERVATION POST SHRINE, Afghanistan — Under cover of darkness, the Marines stalked their enemy, looking to pick a fight.

From this small hilltop outpost in Helmand province’s Kajaki district, infantrymen with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., peered at the network of fields, dusty roads and deserted buildings composing Zamindawar, a hostile region home to an elaborate network of irrigation tunnels connected by deep holes known as karezes.

“The Shrine,” as this outpost is known, has seen more firefights than any Marine position in Kajaki over the past few months, but there would be no trading lead with insurgents the night of April 13. Instead, the Marines watched and waited, tracking anyone and anything that looked suspicious.

“I guess I can say that now I know what a cop feels like on a stakeout,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Hutchenson, platoon sergeant for 1/8’s 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company. “You wait, and wait, and wait — and then you get what you need and move on them.”

Outposts like The Shrine have assumed an increasingly prominent role in the war in Afghanistan this year. After more than 10 years of combat, Marine grunts are patrolling less and closing bases and outposts across the province as part of a planned drawdown of U.S. forces. At the same time, they have used information gathered through observation and surveillance to launch bold raids in parts of Helmand where they don’t have a full-time coalition presence, seizing or destroying drugs, weapons and materials used to make improvised explosive devices.

Above all, they keep the Taliban guessing — and limit the insurgents’ ability to launch attacks on the security bubble Marines and the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces protect, Marines here said.

At The Shrine, that has meant watching insurgents at a distance and pushing them back when they attack. The austere outpost has limited electricity and no plumbing, and is manned by elements of 1/8’s 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, and the Afghan National Army. They consider the outpost a “static ambush” position, meaning nearby insurgents observed carrying weapons or laying IEDs are targeted. The Marines call for illumination rounds almost nightly, lighting up the fields below and causing men with potentially sinister motives to scatter.

“It’s a known Taliban hangout area,” said 2nd Lt. Jeff Lenar, 2nd Platoon’s commander, of Zamindawar. “It’s a pretty fair guess that it’s where they’re infiltrating from, or at least getting supplies from.”

‘We have the high ground’

Until recently, The Shrine was manned by Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, an artillery unit out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. The outpost was created by a previous Marine unit deployed to Kajaki to create standoff distance between Taliban-held areas and Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge, a hillside installation that coalition forces have manned for years to protect the Kajaki Dam, a major hydroelectric facility.

Golf Battery took fire regularly at The Shrine in the first few months of its deployment, said Cpl. Wesley Neville, a squad leader with the unit. Since deploying, he has been in firefights at least 17 days, some of which included more than one engagement, he said. About 10 of those fights ended with him calling in an artillery strike, and in at least one case, coalition forces dropped a 500-pound bomb, he said.

“We know a lot of these compounds are abandoned, so it’s pretty easy to get clearance for fires,” Neville said. “It’s probably one of the safest ways to get into a firefight. From The Shrine we have the high ground and all the equipment we need.”

In January, the Marines took a stand. To push the insurgents back, they added another post to The Shrine on a nearby hill. Known as “Charlie Post,” it faces Zamindawar directly, and is used regularly to scout insurgent activities.

Initially, insurgents ambushed Charlie Post regularly from as close as 300 meters. However, after multiple defeats, they now typically take potshots with 7.62mm AK47 assault rifles and PKM machine guns from at least a kilometer away, said Hutchenson, the platoon sergeant. From there, insurgents can escape into the tunnels.

“I watched one guy the other night disappear, then reappear 800 meters later,” Hutchenson said. “It can definitely be a problem.”

Grunts with 1/8 arrived at The Shrine recently, as Golf Battery prepared to move some of its Marines to operate M777 Howitzers in Shir Ghazi, a village in Musa Qala district. New fighting positions were added at The Shrine and security was beefed up with additional sandbags and Hesco sand blocks.

The expansion of Charlie Post came with a major scare, however. Marines reinforcing it found a pressure-plate IED under an existing .50-caliber machine gun post, said Sgt. Levi Steele, a squad leader in 2nd Platoon. They found the plate buried in the dirt beneath the gun. It was attached to a jug filled with explosives.

“The only thing that saved me and other guys on it,” said Hutchenson, “was the wires being corroded.”

Disrupting the Taliban

The payoff to manning The Shrine and other outposts like it can be significant. Information gathered is combined with other forms of intelligence to paint a picture of what the Taliban is doing — and then to strike.

A recent example is Operation Speargun, a raid overseen by Regimental Combat Team 6, which commands combat operations in northern Helmand. Marines with 1/8’s Alpha and Charlie companies were inserted by helicopter before dawn March 25 in Urmuz, a village in southern Now Zad district involved in processing narcotics. Marine M1A1 Abrams tanks with Alpha Company, 1st Tank Battalion, provided intimidation and long-range optics, and personnel in Marine helicopters provided regular overwatch, Marines said.

Over the next five days, the raid force found mortars, explosives, IED pressure plates and drugs, including black tar-like balls of opium. Much of the contraband was at the bottom of karezes. In some cases, the contraband was hanging from ropes at the bottom of the irrigation holes, Hutchenson said.

Lenar said Marines faced sporadic potshots during the operation, but with the amount of firepower coalition forces used, the Taliban declined to put up a fight.

“They were debating whether to stay and fight us or to just get out of town,” he said. “They chose the latter on that one.”

An earlier raid in Kajaki district was different. In February, Marines launched Operation Barracuda 2 in Zamindawar, inserting forces into another Taliban-held village, Shirahmad. Second Platoon was inserted under cover of darkness Feb. 22 and faced stiff resistance from insurgents the following morning once they realized Marines were there, Lenar said.

Hutchenson said the platoon had “not so much as a trip and fall” despite being in heavy combat from sunrise to sunset Feb. 23. The insurgents wielded machine guns, assault rifles, mortars and other weapons, but the Marines held steady, he said. They found numerous caches of drugs and weapons there, too.

“How we made it out of there with no one getting hurt, I have no idea,” Hutchenson said. “Someone was looking out for us.”

The platoon was pulled out about 30 hours after being inserted — all part of the plan to shake up the Taliban, Lenar said.

“It’s all about disruption,” he said. “If you go in there and pick a fight with them for awhile, it takes the pressure off the ANSF.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

The ages of man .... a postscript

I was having difficulty deciding what to use as "art" for this post when the thought came to me that I feel much like Prometheus must have felt when he was chained to a rock atop a mountain. Once I decided that was the solution, I had a difficult time deciding which painting to use between "Prometheus Bound," completed by Peter Paul Rubens in 1612, or this one, "Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan," done by Dirck van Baburen in 1623. I chose Baburen for a few reasons, not the least of which is that his style emulates that of one of our "old friends" -- Michelangelo Merisi, known to the world as Caravaggio. This piece shows Hephaestus (Vulcan) fashioning chains to secure Prometheus to a rock as Hermes (Mercury) watches and the eagle destined to devour the liver of Prometheus hovers in the corner. This was the punishment handed down by the all-god, Zeus (Jupiter), to Prometheus for giving the gift of fire to mankind. The ordeal went on until a son of Zeus, Alkeides (Hercules/Heracles), freed Prometheus. My circumstances are less complicated than this, of course, but my story and that of Prometheus generally run the same course. The name, Prometheus, incidentally, means "he who thinks ahead," a characteristic I like to believe I possess more than most. In the meanwhile, as I think ahead, I wonder who or what will free me from the chains that have bound me since the dawn of 2012.

There are no answers here

Will Durant is a man who walked the earth not too many years ago. I have written about him in a number of posts. He is one of two men I consider to have been the wisest contemporary to my own early years of wandering the Earth. Once upon a time, he said these words:

"The most interesting thing in the world is another human being who wonders, suffers and raises the questions that have bothered him to the last day of his life, knowing he will never get the answers."

I spent some time a few days ago talking with the man who lives across the street. He is one of those who spends his time on his knees pulling dandelions and blowing leaves from his yard. When he is not doing this, he is mowing his lawn or sitting in a chair staring at the grass as it grows in his yard.

I told him that I was seriously considering buying a boat. He thought it would be a bad idea for me to do so. They are so expensive to run and to maintain, he argued, and a person spends more time working on them than he does enjoying them. This he knows, although he admits he never has owned a boat. It is an opinion based on opinion, and nothing more.

While we were talking, the man who lives next door to the "yard man" (my nickname for the "prince of dandelions") joined us and asked if we had seen what the fellow who lives in the house behind the yard man was doing. (For ease in identification, we shall label the man next door as "hot rod." His hobby, I learned from yard man's wife, is street drag racing -- yeh, really.)

So, with no further conversation, we went to yard man's back yard (my first time there, and I was absolutely thrilled at its absolute perfection -- yeh, sure) and looked across the way. The man behind (who, henceforth, shall be known as "brush burner") was burning tree branches and other assorted odds and ends in his back yard. It was very obvious that he was losing control of the fire. (An entire pine tree was ablaze by then.) Another neighbor next door to brush burner came running over with a garden house to extinguish the flames.

While the yard man and hot rod were debating the merits of calling the police department and/or the fire department, I was quizzing yard man's wife about brush burner. From what she told me, apparently, brush burner gets drunk periodically and starts burning things in his back yard. She pointed out the partially melted and extremely warped siding on his house. This, evidently, was the result of one of brush burner's previous afternoon, drunken escapades.

After telling hot rod I would appreciate watching him make a run some night, I adjourned to my house while yard man and hot rod resumed debating the pros and cons of calling the authorities. (Best for me not to become involved in that aspect of neighborhood antics.) By the way, for all the street racers roaming the sea of blogs, I will mention that hot rod said his street runner was pushing more than five hundred horsepower.

You see now, maybe, a glimpse of suburban life in mid-America -- at least in my neck of the woods. You see now, maybe, why I say life is a joke and people who think otherwise are deluding themselves. Anyway, it turned out to be an interesting afternoon.

This post is meant to serve as a comparison of life across the street in contrast to life on the blogs. I have thoughts and opinions regarding this, but will not mention them beyond saying that the blogs have been interesting and fun -- but, a disappointment to me in the sense of them being a discussion medium. I had hoped to find people who were opinionated and were not hesitant about spending a few minutes writing open and honest responses to my words. Mostly, it seems to me, the blogs appear to be made up of mutual admiration/feel good groups of individuals. There is nothing wrong with that, but I am the type who looks for answers rather than compliments.

During my journalistic existence, I encountered many people -- ordinary and celebrity -- who had interesting thoughts to share and opinions to offer. During my prison existence, there were many people -- staff and inmates -- whose lives were sometimes fascinating and occasionally beyond belief. There almost certainly are people who roam the blogs whose lives and experiences are equally tantalizing, but, it seems, they mostly hide in the shadows. The time has arrived for changes on my blog.

Whatever happens to this blog, it is time for me to stop using it to ask questions or to seek opinions, thoughts and beliefs, while hoping there might be some responses forthcoming. Whatever happens to me, it is time for the chameleon to rise to the surface once again and to take on another persona; time for me to move from one age to the next; time for a new incarnation to evolve.

There are no answers to be found here, so I will search elsewhere for the conversation which eludes me here and look elsewhere for those who wonder, suffer and raise the questions that have and will bother them to the last days of their lives ....

The music

Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" is easily among my all-time favorite songs. I have used it on my blog in the past. Rafferty died last year, essentially from the effects of a lifetime of heavy drinking.

I am using his song again here and now, but with the rendition Bonnie Raitt performed on the David Letterman Late Show a bit more than a week ago. I do this for two reasons. Bonnie is a wonderful singer, in my mind, and it always is a pleasure to listen to her .... and, my ex-wife No. 2 and our daughter happened to be rocking and rolling through New York City at the time of this performance and were at the Letterman show that evening. So, what you are watching here is what they saw live. Girls just like to have fun.

Find Gerry's version of the song, too, and listen, listen, listen. It is pure beauty. Close your eyes and allow your mind to drift. To repeat myself .... it is pure beauty ....

Monday, April 16, 2012

The (how many?) ages of man /2

Once upon a time, there was an Italian named Titian who left behind a few paintings. You may have heard of him. One of his more famous works was entitled, "The Three Ages of Man," which was completed around 1512, a century and one-half before Valentin de Boulogne's four ages. It is special, but even more special, in my mind, is Titian's "The Allegory of Age Governed by Prudence," completed not many years before his death, possibly as late as 1570. That piece, shown here, portrays three faces looking in different directions above the heads of a wolf, a lion and a dog. The three human heads depict an allegory of Titian's "Three Ages of Man" -- namely youth (the wolf), maturity (the lion) and old age (the dog). In this instance, the faces are not of a single individual at various stages of life (as in de Boulogne's piece), but thought to be portraits of Titian (old age), his son Orazio (middle age) and a young cousin, Marco Vecellio (young age). It is the only painting by Titian to contain a motto: Ex Praeterito/Praesens Prudenter Agit/Ne Futura Actione Depurne .... ("From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions"). You see? Another who believes all knowledge is to be found through the study of history -- even if it is only the study of one's own history.

"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven out of hell, or a hell out of heaven."

An excerpt from:
"Paradise Lost"
by John Milton
A return to the "ages of man"
(Part 2 of 2)

I am neither happy nor content with my life. I have been trying to change it for about five years now, obviously without success.

As I told my spiritual companion a few days ago: "It is strange. I wish to retreat from the world of my past into a new existence, a new world, and I feel the past overtaking me and, to a degree, smothering me" with every step I take. She had no answer.

The logical individual would tell me to make a plan and follow it. The emotional individual would tell me to close my eyes and jump.

Well, it is not that I have not tried to make a plan. I celebrated New Year's Eve 2009 in Warsaw, Poland. I did not expect to live in "Old Town" the rest of my life, but I thought it was the first step in a plan to leave behind my past -- including all my interests and all my failures and all my accomplishments. Absolutely everything. Obviously, since I am here, the plan did not work. It was mostly my fault that it did not.

Like many, if not most people, I seldom close my eyes and jump. I have at times, but I prefer not to leap into any unknown void.

To repeat one of my common mantras, by the time I had reached age twenty-five I essentially had experienced all there is to experience in life in one form or another. Since then, everything has been repetition and wandering, more-or-less aimlessly, down the same road. It occurs to me periodically that, maybe, there is nothing left to experience on this road other than death.

I have been within a breath of death four times, possibly five, or even more given the notion that some came and went unnoticed by poor, simpleton me. By within a breath, I mean something as ordinary as stepping left (unknowingly) resulted in life while stepping right (unknowingly) would have meant death. From my experiences, I actually believe that I can see death when he is near, not necessarily stalking me, but merely looking for someone -- anyone -- to catch unawares. I have not seen him for a few years. Which makes me wonder, at times and after a few brandies, if I might already be dead. When I was in high school, I wanted to write science fiction novels. Hmmmm.

All right. Enough aimless wandering in this post. Time to come back on topic: It could be I have nothing left to experience other than the same actions, feelings, thoughts I have known before, but in new places.

It seems to me the best way to make things new is to forget the past. Consequently, I wish to forget the Marine Corps. I wish to leave behind my bachelor's and master's degrees. I wish to look back and not see two wives and three children. No journalism career; no managing a prison; no scattering of other work.

Is this a sign of dissatisfaction with my past? I suppose, to a degree, but more so it is a desire to experience something new, if there is anything new left for me to experience, without the remembrance things, people or times past.

So, a regular reader might ask, "What does this have to do with the 'ages of man'?" I guess it is my way of saying that sure, these ages, these periods of time, exist in terms of a man's physical body -- and, for most men -- in terms of their viewpoints, attitudes and beliefs about life and living. After all, some young men never stop burning and looting and hating anything and anyone who is different than themselves no matter how many years they last, and most old men accept crawling around their yards on their knees picking dandelions as their ultimate fate in this world.

(If you are really clever, you will understand that life has been no fun for me for the past two years and, if life is no fun, what purpose does it serve? If the answer is no purpose, why waste one's time with it? You understand, this is a hypothetical question, a philosophical question. To live without purpose is a waste; to die without purpose is stupid and, in this sense, I have known a number of stupid people. I have no desire to join their ranks.)

My point is that some of us, and I do believe there are many more than a few of us, do not believe in the "ages of man" and could care less what societies or governments or companions or changing/aging bodies try to tell us. Life is a search for something not even here. Life is a joke, a tease, a taunt, a game in which there can never be a winner. Life is an allure, a fantasy, an illusion, a random event. Life, in the words of Milton, is a heaven for some, a hell for others.

A few years after Milton wrote "Paradise Lost," he turned around a bit and wrote "Paradise Regained." It includes these lines:

"The childhood shows the man, 
"As morning shows the day."

A child lives in ignorant bliss. Most among us, I believe, are still that way on the day we die no matter how many years we have lived. A few of us are not that way and are forever searching although we know the effort is futile, although we know life is but a joke. A few of us are forever Percival and Galahad.

What else can we do; who else can we be?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Beware the wolf who bites back

The Minnesota House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota. A state Senate bill also has been approved in its originating committee, apparently has widespread support and full Senate approval is expected. According to news reports, farmers and hunting groups favor the plan while animal rights and conservation groups oppose it. If the bill clears the legislative process, its final stop would be on the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton, who could either sign it into law or veto it. Now, look at the handsome fellow in the photograph. How do you think he would look with his leg -- broken and bloody -- in a trap, or with his head half blown off by a bullet from a high-powered rifle? The adorable fellow shown here smiling at you is cousin Arcady. He really is a sweet guy when you get to know him. Do you really want wolf hunting and absolutely barbaric trapping in Minnesota?

An interlude from the "ages of man"

My mind is not ready for Part 2 of 2 regarding the "ages of man," but my fingers cannot stay away from the keyboard. I often think everything I am resides within my fingers: They type, they hold pens and pencils, they pull triggers, they grip the hand of another or squeeze the body of another, they feed me .... well, you get the picture. Maybe. But, what I actually am saying is that my memory, my intelligence, reside in my fingers. They can spell words and know things my mind has forgotten. Anyway ....

My fingers always are ready. This is not the case with my mind. My mind, for a variety of reasons, is in some manner of time warp at the moment.

Mind/Manner/Moment .... hmmmm. There is a song there, or a poem .... Maybe-e-e-e.

We will add another "M" to the list, this one for Minnesota. The liberal, progressive governor of Minnesota probably will permit the renewal of hunting and trapping wolves in Minnesota. I thought liberals/progressives were supposed to be the environmentalists among us, and conservatives, like me, were the ones who wish to destroy the natural world for the sake of building another shopping mall and mega-parking lot.

Guess again, folks. These questions always revolve more around monetary greed and personal advantages than they do around political philosophies.

Apparently, the bill is sailing through the legislative process with widespread support. It appears to me most members of both political parties in Minnesota are witless fools. Well, I guess that really is no surprise. Anyway, I am "mad as hell" about this hunting/trapping plan, to borrow a line from a film, and I hope enough other people will be angry enough to contact the governor and tell him to kill the bill that would kill the wolves.

For the record, I once was a very prolific, avid, efficient hunter. I quit for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was that it became too easy. Why do anything that is easy? (If a human being is not bright enough to successfully hunt a poor, dumb deer or duck, then I hope he is not employed in any position which requires more intelligence and skill than is needed for digging ditches.) And, to be honest, killing anything when it is not necessary literally began to sicken me. It comes down to a matter of determining when necessary is necessary.

I am not quite anti-hunting yet or anti-meat eating yet, but it would not surprise me if I reach those points someday. I can tolerate hunting as long as the hunter eats what he shoots. I doubt many would be willing to eat roast wolf for their Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

By the way, hunting and gun ownership are two very separate issues for me. I might march in an anti-wolf hunting demonstration or in any anti-hunting demonstration, but I live with a belief in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson regarding firearms: "Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The (how many?) ages of man /1

There is a fantastically great number of paintings in existence entitled the "ages of man," or some variation of that theme. This is a nice one, I think, by Valentin de Boulogne. He portrays four stages: The child, the young man, the middle-aged man and the old man. The painting was completed in 1627, give or take a year in either direction. Whether one believes in three ages or four ages or, as William Shakespeare wrote, seven ages, undoubtedly we change physically and mentally and intellectually and emotionally as our lives progress. (Yes, in many, many ways.) De Boulogne, incidentally, was French, and studied the works of Italian masters . (Who does not?) He was particularly influenced by one of my favorites, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. You may have noticed some of Caravaggio's work on my pages in previous posts if you have come here before. In the meanwhile, look at the faces of de Boulogne's man as he travels through the stages of his life, and try to imagine what is going on inside of him, how he is evolving ever more -- or, possibly, diminishing? Another reason I like this painting is because the man in no way resembles me. I have a northern European look about me; you see it, do you not? When you look at my photograph?

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
An excerpt from:
All Along the Watchtower
by Bob Dylan

So, you think you have been around, do you?
(Part 1 of 2)

So much of who we are and what we are depends upon our age, which translates more into our experience than our education.

To begin, women mystify me, confuse me, leave me terrified.

Consequently, I will talk only about men as I see them.

In our teenage years, we are uncontrollable sex addicts, learning, discovering, rebelling, feeling every emotion imaginable to our species. Most of us survive it.
When we are in our twenties, we wish to save the world, we are idealists, we hope to accomplish great things and to be remembered as men who cared. Of course, these goals frequently are interrupted by legs, breasts and a wonderful smile. For most of us, we have an eye on members of the opposite sex as much as or more than we do on idealism.

When we are in our thirties, we either are among those trying to relive our twenties and find a teenage girlfriend, or we are among those ready to cut figuratively (and, sometimes, literally) throats to advance our careers, our wealth, our power.
When we are in our forties, we either are among those trying to relive our twenties and find a girlfriend barely out of her teen years, or we are among those who are beginning to realize, in the words of Bob Dylan, that life is but a joke.

Shall I stop with the forties? Oh, what the hell.
When we are in our fifties, we either are among those trying to relive our twenties and find a girlfriend who, at least, looks like she is no older than twenty-five, or we are listening to wives who are prescribing our vitamin pills, our exercise routines, our health diets and .... well, you get the drift.

Obviously, not all men (including me, I am pleased to admit) fall into these categories completely as they journey through life, but this is pretty much how I view things as they exist in America today. And, as I have written before, the man who might reach the age of seventy or eighty and who boldly announces that he has "had a good life and has no regrets and would not change a thing" is a liar or is delusional or is or an absolute idiot.
All I have to do is to walk around the block and see these old creatures (i.e., men) in their yards pulling dandelions, and I ask myself if this is what god (if he exists) designed man to end his life doing? All I have to do is to turn on television and to watch young creatures (i.e., men) burning, looting and begging for their governments to care for them from cradle to grave, and I ask myself if this is what god (if he exists) created mankind to use his intellectual resources to accomplish?

This is why I frequently smile to myself and say, life is but a joke. Dylan had it right. This is why I frequently glare at anyone who comes too near to me uninvited and say to them, (paraphrasing a literary master): "Abandon hope, all ye who approach me (who enter) here."

Something special ....