Sunday, October 30, 2005

Flora and Fauna

House Sparrow

White Cheeked Bulbul Check out this great blogsite called Birding in Babylon. One of the things that's been lost in the coverage of the War is Iraq's flora and fauna, in particular birds. The fertile margins along the Euphrates River teem with birds and waterfowl from the bullrush beds along its banks, to the village gardens shaded by pear, lime and pomegranate trees. I've watched large white and black Mesopotamian Crows leap-froging from tree to tree following us on patrols through the palm groves of Haditha. Farther out in the desert the Crested Lark, a small brown and cream bird with a distinctive tuft on his head, is often seen resting in the shade under parked HUMVEEs. House Sparrows, and orange bellied White Cheeked Bulbuls frequent the date palms that border a small pond a few feet from my studio. Yesterday, after a brief morning rainshower, I watched a pair of black and white Pied Kingfishers hovering a few feet above the surface of the very same pond. They looked like they were attired in a harlequin's motley. Magpipes can be found foraging for chow in dumpsters throughout Camp Fallujah. One of the most interesting sites for me was observing Grebes swimming underwater in the catch basin at the base of Haditha Dam hunting for small fish.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Family Affair

Joey and myself at Camp Fallujah, Iraq

There is a consanguinity about being a Marine. My father was a Marine officer during WWII. My father's stories of his wartime experiences got into my veins. When my mother would cook something not to my brothers and my liking he wouldn't chide us that children were starving in China, no, he'd remind us how the 1st Marine Division, cut off from resupply, desperately survived on Japanese rations of fishheads and rice.( Somehow liver and lima beans didn't seem so bad, even if we did have to gag them down with gulps of milk.) He fought on Guadalcanal, and on New Britain, where he recieved the wounds that would take him out of the war. His unit back then was 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment. My oldest nephew, 1st Lieutenant Richard J. Fay USMCR, is a Naval Academy graduate and my father's namesake. Joey, as we call him, was the only grandchild my father ever held prior to his death from cancer on October 4, 1981. During that last painful day my Mom asked him if he knew what day it was, and he did, October 4th, the day he joined the Marines in 1938. My nephew is here at Fallujah on his first tour in Iraq. Joey's unit is the very same his grandfather served in as a young 1st louie over 60 years ago. We've been able to get together a couple times. Our hometown newspaper, the Allentown Morning Call, printed a feature article about our first meeting over here. This December 1st I will be promoted to Warrant Officer, and I hope to have my nephew perform the promotion ceremony. The Marine Corps is very much a family affair for us Fays.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Example of Field Work

Here's a pencil drawing of a Marine with an Iraqi soldier. The Marine is wearing the new digital cammies while the Iraqi sports the old style "chocolate chip" desert uniform. The Marines in Haditha conducting Operation River Gate were teamed up with a contingent of Iraqi soldiers straight out of their boot camp. These soldiers are almost entirely Shia, and range in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. One of the most remarkable things I witnessed while patrolling with them happened at the tail-end of the long referendum voting day. The Sunni owner of the home who's roof we used as an observation post directed his youngest son to spread out a prayer rug for the Shia soldiers who were with us.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Guardian Angel

I wish this image was sharper. The title of this pencil drawing is "Guardian Angel". Guardian Angel is a term coined by Major General James Mattis when he was the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, otherwise known as the initial invasion of Iraq. General Mattis knew that his Marines were going to have to adapt to a new kind of asymmetrical warfare as the period of reconstruction got underway. The mindset of the "guardian angel" required that the Marines be "no better friend, no worse enemy". It asked of them then, as it continues to ask, to consciously walk the thin line between assisting with the most generous of attitude, while being aggressively vigilant. This image shows a SAW (squad automatic weapon) gunner standing watch in 130 degree plus heat at high noon while fellow Marines work to gather up and destroy hundreds of unexploded mortar rounds in a residential area teeming with curious kids. For those of you who've never experienced these kind of temperatures, I invite you next time you take cookies out of the oven to stay there with your face at the open ovendoor for an hour. And do it while the kids are acting up.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

One of the things I do after one of my trips is review my photographs, sketches and my journal. There's a certain alchemy to what I do as a combat artist. A couple years back a gentleman named Thomas Moore penned a series of books on "soulfulness", in particular Soulmates and Care of the Soul. He speaks in his writings eloquently about the work of the soul. He reflects on the the word "rumination", which has its origin in the Latin word for a cow chewing its cud. There is a great soulfulness to war and I try to expose myself to as much of it as possible. Then the chewing of the cud begins, reflecting on photos and sketches, journaled memories. Even the dull promptings of minor physical pain, such as a banged shin or a sore shoulder blade, play their part. Today I find myself drawn to the photos I took of Iraqis in the streets and back alleys of Haditha. Such good warm hearted people! They always return your "salaam" with their own dignified "salaam" and the right hand over the heart gesture. The children are ever present begging to be photographed, asking over and over "mistah, mistah, what is your name?" in schoolhouse English, and waving as if waving were a national pastime. I'm going to include pictures of these people in this commentary so you can see what I mean.

I consider myself a liberal. A liberal in the sense of this word meaning "generous". Up until recently I was very active in a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the far left of American religion. Many of my liberal friends are very active in protesting this war, in wanting the troops out now. Whether the original premise for this conflict was right or wrong will, in my opinion, be determined by history long after we're gone. But let's say it is as the left insists, a morally wrong intervention. For someone like myself, who has been here multiple times and has experienced the Iraqis firsthand, the thought abandoning them to what would surely be chaos is equally wrong. These two wrongs simply don't make a right. Bush and his administration will stand before the judgment of history. Those of us who stand the ground over here now, know the critical nature of our mission, and we see it everyday in the faces of the Iraqis themselves. Faces that never make it to the American press, yet are indelibly pressed into the memories of the GIs serving them.


Is "trudgery" a word, if not it should be. I'm finally all cleaned up after a couple weeks of pure trudgery. Laundry has been dropped off and retrieved, fresh clothing put on and multiple hot showers enjoyed. Every trip I've undertaken over here takes on its own theme. During my April-May 2005 trip to eastern Afghanistan the phrase "storm and stone" kept popping into my brain-housing. The Operation Iraqi Freedom sojourn of 2003 was characterized by the words "fire and ice". And now the word trudgery, from the word trudge springs to mind. That's what these Marines do everyday, all day, trudge. They trudge the mean streets, fields and palm groves of Iraq from dawn til dusk til dawn with pure dogged grit and fortitude. They trudge with 40 to 60 pounds of gear, gulping down hot water and soaking their uniforms to the knees with sweat. After these trudges comes hours of "working parties" filling sandbags, burning human waste in diesel fuel, unloading tons of MREs and water, cleaning dusty weapons, and finding time for short catnaps and letter writing. And they do it all with humor, panache, professionalism, and with constant friendly "salaam"s to the Iraqis,and encouragement to each other. Where else in the world are American teenagers and twenty-somethings desribed as having grit and fortitude? People always ask me why I want to return to this experience. Among many reasons, the most compelling for me is to be in the company of adults. Young men and women who've made the transition to authentic adulthood in a culture that seems perpetually stuck in the affectations of hyped-up adolescence. I am surrounded here by the culture of the responsible, and not the society of the entitled. I am immersed in a baptismal font of pure unadulterated characters, of individuals refined in the cruelest and most demanding of crucibles, war. More than the actual visual qualities of my surroundings, it is the sharing of hardship and the getting to know these fellow Marines that I hope informs my art and gives it its validity and punch.

Besides the dusty streets of Haditha I visited and lived for a couple days at Haditha Dam. The dam is a hulking earthen and concrete presence in an otherwise featureless terrain. Built about 18 years ago with Soviet and Yugoslav assistance, it now houses elements of Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT2)of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (IIMEF). The Marines live inside the dam in a labyrinth of dusty and dark hallways and ladderwells. Episodes from Lord of the Rings come to mind. I half expected to see poor Gollum skulking about the place. Getting around the place demands a detailed mental map and a readiness to climb stairs, lots of stairs. The place has ten levels and there are 4 sets of steps between levels. The hydroelectric generating capability of the dam is probably only a fraction of its pre-war output. It was interesting to wander around the place and see the number of countries whose products and services went into both the creation of the place and its maintenance. I saw American valves, French control panels, Chinese manhole covers, Russian hoists, German switches and circuit breakers (not to mention the abandoned Mercedes parked about the place) and Yugoslav concrete work. Peace advocates always like to play the economic political card, you know the one where powerful countries can have influence over errant ones through economic pressure. It seems to me that while all these countries were doing business with Saddam's government, Saddam was putting his victims in the ground faster than Famous Amos was putting cookies in the oven.

Here's a pic of yours truly in all my trudgeness.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Wild West Show

I've just returned from a two week tour of the Wild West, as they like to call the area around Haditha, Iraq. Marines of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment are tasked with securing this important river town just down the Euphrates River from Haditha Dam. Haditha has been a hotbed of insurgent activity in the past. Over the last two weeks the Marines have put a serious dent in the influence of the insurgency. Multiple weapons caches have been found, dozens upon dozens of IEDs discovered and blown in place, and many "bad guys" rounded up. I spent my time going out on a variety of patrols, primarily with Kilo Company's 1st and 3rd Platoons.
I got to know some great young Marines like LCpl Jackie Tran, LCpl Andrew Wright, Cpl Jose Sanchez, LCpl Rene Rodriguez, Cpl Sanick Dela Cruz to name a few. I watched these young men patrol hour after hour weighed down with 40 plus pounds of gear and weapons in the hot dusty streets and palm groves of Haditha. Their unwashed uniforms are stiff with weeks of sweat and dirt. Many a time I watched LCpl Wright, an adopted Korean Marine from Novato, California, running hunched over from the additional burden of a radio to his squad leader's position with a look of grim determination on his face. His squad leader, Cpl Sanchez, is the complete professional, despite the friendly grin usually spread across his face. He earned a Bronze Star with a Combat "V" last year during the fighting in Fallujah. The grim determination, discipline and endurance of these young men is incredible.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

In the Heart of Fallujah

I've just spent the better part of four days in the heart of Fallujah with 1st Platoon,Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 7th Marine Regiment. I went out on 2 day and 2 night patrols. Echo company's battle space covers everything from open country,to both industrial and urban residential areas in the city of Fallujah. Visually the city is flat and sprawling with a predominantly dull tan color to almost all the structures. Up until the curfew at 10 PM the streets are filled with traffic and lined with shops and open-air vegetable stands. At night, especially in the residential areas, flourescent lights illuminate EVERYTHING both indoor and out. The Iraqis live in cloistered compounds of modest size. Reconstruction from the effects of the battle here last year are progressing in earnest. The streets and alleys are strung with great haphazard bundles of wires that catch on HUMVEE antennas and an occasional Marine's helmet. The industrial areas south of "Route Fran" (the main artery running east to west throught the city)still bear the worst evidence of the fierce combat that took place here. Yet, despite this, a wide variety of skilled artisans, mechanics, metal workers, and shop keepers have returned and are up and running amid the still lingering evidence of war.

The Marines of Echo Company live in somewhat primitive conditions when compared to Camp Fallujah, the main base. The young men patrolling these mean streets carry on the their youthful faces the hardness of narrow watchful eyes and dusty sweat streaked brows. When I look into these faces I see a young-old look that brings to minds the photographs of WWII.

I thought I'd include a picture of a young Fallujan. He's very representative of the energetic and sometimes wacky improvisation that characterizes the remergence of life and industry in this devestated war zone.