Back To War

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April 5, 2006

Back to War

City of Angels: A “Chang” with mahout plies the streets for cash in Krung Thep, Siam

Bangkok, Thailand

In the few months since leaving the war, I’ve crisscrossed the United States several times, talking with infantrymen in their twenties and veterans in their eighties, helicopter pilots, special forces soldiers, families and friends of wounded and killed warriors, all for a book about the Deuce Four’s Battle for Mosul. But it’s time to take a break from writing to let the facts and details steep. I’ve headed back to war.

I am writing now from the Middle East, poised to reenter the war in less than 15 hours; this time without the protection of the military.

Originally I planned to fly straight to Dubai, but flights on the desired date were going for about $3,000. Having been to Asia many times, I knew there was a backdoor with a low cover, so I flew to Bangkok for less than $600. From Bangkok a flight to the United Arab Emirates runs about $400. The slight detour was worth the price in time.

Thailand was once called Siam, but whatever name is used, the Kingdom has long been a gateway to Asia. Today, flights are cheap and plentiful; the food is good and the people friendly. For all these reasons, it’s often been my entry and exit point for the Near, Far and Middle East.

Thailand is having its own Islamic insurgency in the South. This one has nothing to do with America, Israel or the Palestinians; but a philosophy that breeds flames and bleeds carnage.

Like other countries with a relatively free press, Thailand’s English language editions show their media is continuously under siege. As with our own often vilified press, sometimes they are targeted unfairly, but generally the scrutiny and skepticism is earned. For instance, Thailand is today experiencing political intrigue and light turmoil. During a snap-election a few days ago, bombs reportedly exploded at some polling sites in the South. Major western publications reflexively linked the attacks to the voting. But people who’ve paid attention to our friends in Thailand would likely be suspicious of attempts to relate the explosions to the elections, or the current Prime Minister, or the peaceful and much beloved Thai Royal Family. Bombs are exploding here with or without voting; more than a thousand people have died violently in recent times.

The gentle King of Thailand has long been known as a man of vision. He likes photography, and can be seen with his camera in untold thousands of large signs around the Kingdom. I’ve never seen an image of the Thai King swinging a sword or shooting a gun over the heads of his people. This King wants his people to go to university, not war, and they dearly love him.

Although some attacks occurred at voting centers, only irresponsible journalists would join these elections like Siamese twins to those attacks. And yet they did. The same thing occurs daily in Iraq. I call it “illegal joining.” A good example is how some reporters are now joining the Iraqi civil war to the invasion. The civil war was already there, just underreported. Even CNN admits that it failed to report previous atrocities in Iraq so that it could retain access under the former dictator. Resorting to mass murder to maintain “civil order” is a hallmark of an uncivilized government. The most generous interpretation might posit that a ruler engaging in atrocities against a faction of his populace is probably facing a serious threat to his authority. But the media didn’t even resort to euphemisms when it came to reporting these atrocities, they bought access with silence, and so few outside of Iraq knew how bad things were.

But Thailand is far more civilized and advanced than Iraq. Thailand’s problems and challenges may be myriad, but the Thai people are increasingly educated, hard-working, and their society is largely open and very Buddhist. Their belief system seeks enlightenment through contemplation, and Buddhists are not compelled to commit crimes in the name of religion or tribe.

Ironically, Thailand is also, I believe, a safe-haven or sort of zona franca for terrorists. This nest is not the result of a docile or accommodating government, as was the case with the Taliban hosting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Thais fiercely oppose terrorism, actively fight it, and are close allies with the United States and other western countries, especially in the GWOT. The US and Thailand have long had close intelligence, military and law enforcement relationships. The CIA, DEA and FBI, for instance, have long-established offices in the Kingdom. It is not ideology, but rather geography and circumstance that make Thailand a waypoint for the wicked.

For many of the same reasons that I’ve decided to enter the Middle East through Thailand so, too, do the terrorists. Upon landing in Bangkok, I quickly bought a new chip for my cell phone without presenting identification. Within 10 minutes of coming to the counter, I had a new and largely untraceable cell number with which I could call, or receive calls, from most places in the world. The number would have been even more untraceable had I bought a new phone with the chip. In fact, I could have bought ten chips and phones that day; or a hundred. A person could change chips and phones with every new call.

Bangkok has thousands of internet cafés Every new message could be made from a new address and computer. I’m not giving away state secrets; the terrorists know this already. Add this easy access to transportation and communications to the high-end shopping, and the millions of foreigners from around the world who visit the Kingdom each year, and we are half-way to a safe haven.

There are more land, sea and air routes into and out of the Kingdom than can be accounted for. The potpourri of foreigners makes Thailand an easy place to melt away in, or slip out of. Despite the homegrown strife in the Southern region, many knowledgeable people remain curious about how and why Thailand has escaped a more serious wave of homegrown Islamic terrorism in its heartland.

Perhaps the foreign terrorists do not want to disrupt a conduit and RR spot, a place whose airports dispatch passengers directly, and cheaply, to points the world round.

I speak occasionally with friends who work in the Kingdom. Some days ago, I met a long-time friend who works there, and years ago he had a Thai girlfriend from a village. Although he lived in Bangkok, she would come to visit. He came home from work one day to find her squatting in the kitchen pounding spices with mortar and pestle, and when he said he could buy a machine for the task, she smiled and said no. Another day he came home and found the bathtub full of water, and three large fish swimming around. When he asked why there were fish in the bathtub, she answered, “It keep fish fresh.”

She was away and called his cell phone and he said he was sick. So she traveled to his door, showed up and would not sleep while he was sleeping. She sat up through the night, patting the sweat from his forehead, waking him up late at night to give him medicine. When he recovered, he was surprised and even embarrassed that she had done so much. He joked, “Next time I am sick, I will not tell you.” She went silent, thought for a long moment, and then said with apparent sincerity, “If you get sick and not tell me, I kill you.”

Some years ago, I was walking briskly in a Thai city, and when I turned a corner I ran straight into a large elephant. There we were: nose to trunk. I nearly had a heart attack. I’m not sure if the elephant was laughing, but the mahout atop him was smiling in the dim light, as man and Chang (elephant) ambled into the darkness. A small red light was tied to the Chang’s tail, and that taillight blinked on and off as they walked away.

That’s the Siam I know. Mostly safe, filled with mostly good people, except now there are the terrorists, killing women and children in the name of God.

Motorcycle Taxi driver checks his looks in Bangkok

A People with Vision

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I flew from Thailand to the UAE, and during the night, the jet crossed over India. India is the only country on the planet that intrudes my thoughts every day and screams. It always screams the same thing: India! Even when I am in war zones, driving through the darkness with soldiers along IED-strewn roadways, India shouts into my head: You can never forget me! On the jet from Bangkok to Dubai, I closed my eyes and stopped looking at the icon moving over the map of the subcontinent, knowing that India! was just short distance below. Some day I must tell about India.

Around midnight, after clearing immigration in the United Arab Emirates, I collected my bag, cleared customs, and grabbed a taxi which was, of course, driven by an Indian from Kerala.

The next morning, I grabbed a taxi that was also driven by an Indian from Kerala, and we headed over to the Embassy. I needed a visa to enter the war zone since this trip will be sans military. Leaving the embassy some hours later, I hailed a taxi, also driven by an Indian from Kerala. When I asked him to stop at a shop so that I could buy water, the shopkeeper was from also Kerala. I crawled back into the front of the taxi where I joked with the driver:

“That shopkeeper is also from Kerala. What is this, the Kerala mafia?”
“No mafia sir!” he laughed, “But many here are from Kerala.”
“What do you think of the Emirates?” I asked.
“Is very good sir. I like, but I miss my home in India.”
“How do the people of the Emirates treat you?”
“Oh, verry verry good sir!” He smiled and did that strange Indian-nod as if his neck were rubber, before continuing: “The native Emirates people treat me verry well. They are kind and pleasant people.”
“Every taxi driver I have ever had in the Emirates has said the local people treat them respectfully,” I told him, “Is it dangerous here?” I asked.
“Oh no sir. Is most safe. Ten years I am here without problems.”
“What other countries have you worked in?”
“Saudi Arabia sir.”
“How did they treat you?”

I knew the answer. I had asked countless foreign taxi drivers in the Middle East these questions. Few people know the pulse of a place better than taxi drivers.

“Sir, in Saudi Arabia the people are treating me verry badly.”

After this and my last trip to the UAE, a basic taxi-driver profile emerged: most drivers seemed to be from India, then Pakistan and other countries like Sri Lanka. Only one complained about the Emirates or the other people living there, and most actually seemed fond of the local people. All the drivers say they miss home. One Pakistani driver told me this morning what so many others have recounted. He works 11-15 hours per day, 7 days per week and never gets a day off, period. He brings home roughly $700US per month, somehow is able to send home roughly $400, after paying for rent, food, a mobile phone (important for taxi drivers), and other expenses. The Pakistani taxi driver this morning said he is putting a sister and two brothers through university by hacking in Dubai.

When I press on the subject of politics, the taxi drivers are likely to answer, “George Bush is very good man,” or “George Bush is very bad man, but America is good.” I always tip these hardworking people, which shoestring European and American travelers have told me (about a hundred times) “destroys the economy.” In other words, after a man starts getting paid closer to what his efforts really are worth, he is no longer a de facto slave, always on standby for next traveler who is trying to see the world on $40 per day or less.

It’s a sort of perverse-reverse reasoning. In places like India, Nepal or Tibet, I have seen travelers aggressively haggling for five or ten minutes over a few cents with poor men who sleep on woven mats on the ground. When they get sick they just die. No birth certificate. No death certificate. No life. In an effort to appear travel savvy, many tourists seem to ignore the obvious and heap indignity on the insult of fate.

The workers in Dubai are not in that class. They are ever-so upwardly mobile, only the rungs on their ladders are so close together that by the time the workers die, despite the persistence of their climbing, they might have reached the roof of a tiny house. Only the unknowing believe that poverty is the birthplace of terrorism. The same poverty that drains some spirits inspires ambition in others. There is a causal relationship between terrorism and poverty but it’s the inverse of what many claim: poverty doesn’t breed terrorism, terrorism breeds and perpetuates poverty. People with resources tend to invest in stability, not anarchy.

Some foreigners in Dubai work harder than the taxi drivers and earn less, while others work less and earn more, like the Philippino hotel worker who said he works eight hours per day, six days per week, and brings home closer to $900USD/month.

One estimate puts the total foreign workers at 80% of the population in the UAE. Second and third generations of foreign workers are being born here without citizenship. European and American governments have schlagged the UAE for its treatment of workers, but from what I see, the foreign workers might be better off here than most illegal-laborers in the United States. I have also seen how “guest workers” are treated in Germany. Neither Germany nor America stand tall enough to throw stones that far. But does any country really have clean hands?

Booming economies require booming workforces. Economies eventually cool, and the host countries, swollen with now unwanted throngs, want those laborers to trod back home. The workers never seem to fully cooperate.

In places like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, workers are from an amalgam of African and Asian nations like Sudan, Ethiopia, Philippines, Pakistan, India, and Thailand. In Thailand, in turn, the cheap labor comes from countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, which countries — if they can be called that — are so distant from prosperity that they hardly seem to exist except for the times when they are at war. (More specifically, they only seem to exist when their wars impinge upon our interests.) Unlike nations such as India and Thailand, where, despite corruption, the people are fortunate to have some leaders who actually care about them, I wonder if the bottom-rung countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar have ever had any leadership that sincerely cared about the future of the people.

If Cambodia and Myanmar are near the bottom of the ladder, and in fact, like many nations, are hardly attempting to climb it, the Gulf States of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, are rocketing upward.

Here in Dubai, the people of the United Arab Emirates benefit immensely from the vision of leaders. Few countries can make the same claim. The UAE police are un-menacingly armed with nightsticks and whistles. Months ago, I spent hours talking with a UAE policeman who said he had a Ph.D. from the United States. I believed him; he spoke English better than most Dutch speak English, and most Dutch seem to speak English better than most Americans. (No exaggeration intended.)

I asked the policeman if he had a gun, and he laughed, saying he didn’t like guns. “Why do I need a gun?” he chuckled. “Besides, it’s heavy.” He was Sunni; the same sect that many people think is evil, because of the civil war in Iraq. This world is too big for sweeping anthropological judgments.

I was doing some reading on the UAE leadership when I found an article on the Web that told of one Sheikh who had an iPOD made from gold He paid a paltry $75,000 for the golden iPod, which perhaps might be characterized as an investment in gold. But he wasn’t “wasting money” in the same sense that resources are squandered by leaving the water running or the lights on; he was merely redistributing wealth, albeit with amazingly profligate abandon. Yet what grabbed my attention on the web was not the golden iPOD, but the message that appeared when I clicked on another article about the UAE. It read:

We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political or moral values of the United Arab Emirates.
Of course! Ye’ old censorship. Every country practices censorship, in one form or the other. Just this week, Thailand is having a Texas-cage match over censorship, accuracy in reporting, and alleged slanderous swipes at the King. Last week, in America, a radio producer for a large syndicated program in the United States called me requesting that I go on the show, a show that has hosted me many times and where I’ve been referred to as, “Our man in Iraq.” But when I said Iraq is in a civil war, that same producer slammed down the phone and, in so doing, demonstrated how much he reveres truth.The many faces of suppression are interesting. The first time I said something the producer did not agree with, he slammed down the phone. That’s why I do not accept advertisement. That same syndication had regarded my opinion highly when I was saying what they wanted to hear. They were not happy per se for truth. The truth was that we were making much progress in Iraq, and that is what they wanted to hear. But I knew the honeymoon would end the day the truth was at variance to their narrowly defined message. When the receiver slammed into the phone, the producer revealed himself naked; he was not supporting the troops, nor the Iraqis, but the President. One day, perhaps when I am in some hell-spot on earth and the only person they can reach by satellite phone, they might call again, and I will go on again, and I will tell the truth, and they will either hang on my words and say, “See, see, he is on the ground! And he believes the same as we!” Or I might say something they don’t like, they might hang up the phone again, and I will go about my business, no hard feelings. Although sometimes the truth saddens me, it just is what is.

I checked my website to see if the United Arab Emirates had shut me down for saying Iraq was in a Civil War. They had not. More interestingly, though a few military leaders politely disagreed with the statement that Iraq is in a state of civil war, a larger number of Iraq-experienced military officers agreed (off-the-record) that Iraq is in a civil war, and thanked me for saying it.

So whose opinions should we respect on matters Iraq? Smart combat veterans who have graduated from top schools in the United States and who have faced bombs and bullets and bled in Iraq, or a radio producer who has never been there and who cannot control his temper in the face of words? It’s time we listened to our combat leaders.

Near the camel racetrack: In the background, powerlines surge into Dubai, where thousands of cranes are building a small empire that will not depend on oil.

Dubai is amazing. If it weren’t so expensive, I might want to live in the UAE for a year or two, learn Arabic, write my book about the Battle for Mosul, while using Dubai as a launching point to Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorist-filled Africa, all the while learning more about the changing world of the Arabs and Muslims, and telling it to those who will listen, good or bad, without hanging up.

Dubai under Construction: “The Switzerland of the Middle East.”

It was embarrassing when the United States erupted a month ago over the port security issue, and in so doing hurled insults at our friends in the UAE. I know nothing about port security and so cannot comment on that issue. I can, however, attest that the UAE is a strong, intelligent and reliable ally, very pro-West and pro-American, and before we reflexively stone our friends, it would be wise to remember that good friends are hard to find. It’s too bad no one in a position to know had the foresight to let the average American in on that. This is a part of the world most people know very little about, and the little they do know makes them anxious about knowing much more.

Our friends in the UAE want the Coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to succeed, and they are vocal about it. While much of the west, including many of our oldest allies, postures on about how the war on terror is a horrible mistake, the sentiment in the UAE is that it would be a horrible mistake not to face the facts about our common enemy, an enemy that might be just as happy to destroy the UAE as America. The people of the Emirates that I asked about the port security issue merely politely shrugged it off, but our loosely flung words did land here, with a big, dull thud.

The Grid to Dubai: Power lines are blown down frequently in Iraq, but do not need guards here

I spent a day, then two, jumping from taxi to taxi, tooling around Dubai, stopping here and there, and talking with people along the way. The next day I just walked around. The shopping is incredible. I bought a new camera lens before going to the war tomorrow.


As I toured around Dubai, there must have been tens of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis and others, working on mile after mile of expensive building projects and high-rises. I stopped at some projects, looked around and talked with people. There are not hundreds of giant cranes working in Dubai, but thousands. Where is all the money, water, and power coming from? What will happen a decade from now? Is this a bubble? I do not know. But I do know that the leaders here are thinking about and planning for a peaceful and prosperous future, a future not dependent on oil or war or terrorism.

As for today, the sun will set soon, and before it does, I want to visit a tranquil bird sanctuary that I saw yesterday, and make a few photos. After all, 13 hours from now I will leave this Oasis of civility behind. By the time these words are seen around the world, I will be back in the war.



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