Sunday, April 30, 2006

If You Build It They Will Come

Last Saturday I was invited to participate as a panelist at the first ever Milblog Conference sponsored by Military.Com and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I had a fantastic time and met a whole bunch of kindred spirits. It was a combination evangelical tent revival and family reunion. Andi of Andi's World was the prime organizer of the event and she's done a super follow-up job at her site.

The overarching theme of this gathering centered on the passion milbloggers have for sharing their story-matched only by the equally fanatical desire of our readers to find, follow, encourage and support us. (I'm reminded of Norman Rockwell's WWII painting for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post-Homecoming Marine - a newly returned gyrene, clutching a Japanese battle flag, relates his war experiences to the eager ears of neighborhood boys and the guys at his old workplace.) To a person, we milbloggers are amazed how these simple internet diaries, universally started to keep family and friends informed, have taken on a life all their own. Our journals became journalism. Our first hand reporting was countering second hand media retorting. Milblogging's authentic in the trenches voice continues to challenge the reporting of the main stream media, and on a daily basis is calling them out on the carpet. We built them and you the tens and hundreds of thousands. Thank you! Staid institutions like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, during this rapid unfolding of history, are hemoraging readership while the ranks of blog readers is swelling...traditional journalism is rapidly becoming journalwasm. Speaker after speaker referenced two newly published books which help explain both the phenomena and the impact blogging is having-The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman and An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds.

I wore a second hat at the Milblog Conference. The BBC, who interviewed me twice while I was in New Orleans earlier in the month, asked me to do interviews for them at the conference. One of the interviews (half way thru the podcast)was with Deborah Scranton, director of a documentary produced in collaboration with soldiers of a New Hampshire National Guard unit. The documentary, entitled The War Tapes made its debut at the Tribeca film festival and recieved a rave review from The New York Times. Ms. Scranton, along with one of the "stars" of the film, Specialist Michael Moriarity, came to the Milblog Conference out of solidarity with our movement, and to acknowledge the influence our blogs have been on her as a film maker. Go see it when it comes to town. Her website has a list of screenings open to the public.

Another high point this week was the portfolio review, acceptance and invitation extended to a new artist to join the Marine Corps Combat Art Program. Kris Battles, a former Marine sergeant and reservist, discovered this blog last winter and immediately contacted us about participating in the program. Kris is a professional portrait and landscape painter living in St. Augustine, Florida. We're excited about this addition to the line up and expect great things from this talented Marine. Over the next few months Kris will be in-processing back into the Marine Reserve. One of the great things about being a Marine is you only have to go to boot camp once! (In fact, only Marines can enlist into any other branch of the military without ever attending their particular boot camp.)

I continue to work in my studio on prelimary sketches and studies for my first major work of the year. The tentative title is going to be Storm and Stone. It's based on my experiences last May in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment. This unit was responsible for three wild and wooly provinces on the border with Pakistan. The foothills of the Tora Bora Mountains and the valleys of the Pech and Kunar Rivers are spectacularly beautiful, and ruggedly impassable. More to come as the work progresses.

Like most of you I've watched with interest the debut of another film this week, United 93. A retired Marine gunny friend of mine called yesterday after seeing the film and was virtually delerious with the hijackers and at those who oppose the War in Iraq and on Terrorism. Every American, according to him, should be required to see this film. I've seen trailers of it and have listened to commentary on the radio about Flight 93. I don't know that I can go see it just yet. Just getting a tiny wiff of the film's content and hearing the impact it's having on moviegoers makes my jarhead meter peg way in the red. My friend, Gunny H., is a much calmer guy than I, and if he said he had to literally physically restrain himself during the last 45 seconds, the final assault on the cockpit scene, then I would have to be straight jacketed, sedated and hung upside down from a crane to keep me from bodily attacking the screen. I kid ye not. I'm Irish, and when my blood is up, Katy bar the door!

My thoughts this week about Flight 93 have been tempered by the protest this weekend in Washington, DC about the genocide in the Darfur Province of Sudan. Finally the left is picking a worthy cause to champion! Even they realize only the United States and Britain have the necessary kahoonies to do anything about this tragic and reprehensible situation. I hope and pray this time, with the support of the libs, we don't fail the Darfurians the way a previous administration allowed the slaughter in Rwanda in 1996 to go unchallenged and unmet by the UN. I still consider myself liberal and progressive on many issues. Author Victor Davis Hanson's muscular idealism resonates deeply with me. Another sign of hope, and evidence of a healthy self-examination and adjustment on the left is something called the Euston Manifesto.

I'm finally getting the hang of hyperlinking! Enjoy. I used to feel like the last analog guy in a digital world. You can teach an old devildog new tricks.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Lance Corporal Nicholas G. Ciccone USMC October 4, 1980 - October 13, 2003

Right before Easter an email appeared with a subject line that simply said Please Read. I didn't recognize the sender's name. Since starting this blog I've recieved messages from many new folks, so that by itself was no cause for concern. So, with some trepidation, I opened Please Read and the reason for the writer's urgency instantly became crystal clear. The writer, Matt, informed me that he'd just found my site and the graphite drawing of his step-brother, Lance Corporal Nicholas G. Ciccone. Whenever I'm asked what I believe to be my finest work unhesitatingly comes the reply that it's this portrait. Matt also informed me that his beloved brother committed suicide in October of 2003.

Matt's Please Read was followed by a flurry of emails from an extended network of family and friends. I had the privilege of speaking over the phone with LCpl. Ciccone's father and mother. Among other things I learned Nick's birthday, October 4th. October 4th is also the anniversary of the day my own father joined the Marines in 1938, and passed away in 1981. I can scarcely tell you how humbling and gratifying it is knowing how touched his family is by this portrait. The common thread through all their heartfelt messages is a healing sense that they've regained a piece of Nick they thought they'd never reclaim. They also wanted me to share his story-To keep before people's eyes those wounds which are rarely seen, heal the slowest, and often kill; the wounds that pierce the very soul of a person.

Here is LCpl. Ciccone's portrait again. It shows him the very instant after dropping his pack, putting down his rifle and taking off his helmet. He and his platoon have just stumbled exhausted into the blasted remains of the Kandahar International Airport terminal building after a nine day patrol among rugged Afghan mountains deep in winter's icy embrace. They had originally planned on being out for just twelve hours, but they found a huge weapons cache and the bad guys wanted it back. For nine days they battled the Taliban. For nine days they worked to destroy the cache. When they retrograded back to Kandahar they possessed what war correspondents simply call "the look". After returning to the States I had my film developed and sorted through the pictures. Ciccone's photo jumped out. I now realize why. His gear is off, but the weight's still there. Ciccone had "the look" in spades.

I personally call what had settled on Ciccone's face the "young/old" look. Walt Whitman, the greatest American poet, spent most of the Civil War as a nurse, a changer of bandages. After the war he added a chapter to his core work Leaves of Grass titled Drum-Taps. These eloquent poems are as close as you're going to get to photo-realism in poetry. Whitman, an avowed pacifist, honored the sacrifice of the soldiers he served without artifice or agenda. There's no taint of "but" editorializing or moralizing. He writes from a stool set beside a dying boy and not from some comfortable soapbox. Whitman wrote a poem that speaks of this young/old look called A Sight In Camp In Daybreak Gray and Dim. The poet has risen early and walking about a Union encampment comes upon the bodies of three dead soldiers laid out under heavy brown woolen blankets. Whitman pulls the covering away from each face in turn and speaks of what he sees. I give you the last stanza:

Then to the third — a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory; Young man I think I know you — I think this is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

This is the face of Nicholas G. Ciccone. At Easter each year we are reminded of our connectedness to the divine, to those who have suffered for us and hopefully to the healing that comes from awakening to the realization that we share a common lot with each other and with God. Christ's suffering upon the cross was in its finality more about abandonment and seperation, more about psychic than physical wounds. So to you Nick we say what Marines often do when pulling the blanket over the face of a fallen buddy, "go easy my brother, semper fi".

His father told me the story behind finding the drawing. His stepson Matt was up late unable to sleep thinking about his dead brother. So he did what many of us do during dark midnights of the soul, we google. Matt googled Nick's full name and up jumped a half dozen websites where the drawing is featured. A ray of light entered the dark night. I know this is not about me, but I must tell you again how profoundly moving it is for me to know that those closest to him find him alive in this drawing.

I mentioned in the previous post that I was down in New Orleans. I'm posting a photo I took there that I think is appropriate, and self-explanatory.

As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Pay It Forward

Hi everyone. Sorry I've been gone so long. Let me attempt to bring you up to speed.

First, where am I right at this moment? I'm sitting on the steps of The Wallace Library in lovely downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. The time on deck is 2115. Why here? Simple, it's close to my home and provides free wireless internet access. This is a wonderful library. My daughter and I have done many a homework project from here. Years ago it was an elementary school. Warren Buffett, the richest man in the known universe, went to school here. His older sister, Doris, just renovated a house down the street to be her primary residence. Something special must have happened for them here way back when. She's donated a couple million to start a Boys and Girls Club in town. The headquarters for one of Warren's flagship companies, Geico Insurance, is up the road in Stafford County.

Directly in front of me runs Caroline Street, and on the opposite side, although very much in the dark, is the site of the first home of Fielding Lewis. Lewis was married to Washington's only sister, Betty. Rumor has it that she bore an uncanny resemblence to her brother.

The original home on the property burned to the ground during Fredericksburg's Great Fire of 1807. In fact the blaze started in the house, which by then belonged to another family. A funeral wake was being held in the home, but mourners were called away to the local race track. The burning candles around the casket had the final say that day. What remains on the property from then (there is a home built in 1811) is a step garden and the oldest retail building in America, the Lewis Store.

Tonight is a lovely Virginia evening. From about seven blocks to left down Caroline at this very moment streams the rythmic clamping of a train accompanied by its mournful trombone like whistle. I love listening to that sound late on hot summer nights. The traffic on Caroline is light and there's a soft cool breeze drifting over the rising and falling swosh of passing cars..... there goes Phoenix, my neighbor's Black Lab, he's barking at something. Excuse me while I bark back, it usually quiets him. Ole Phoenix is a bravo male. I'm an alpha. I babysit him frequently....there he's stopped.

Other common sounds tonight are sirens (we've got a large regional hospital) and the sound of helicopters. HMX-1, the President's squadron is just north of here and does training flights in these skies. I was once a crewchief with them and the pilots always liked to fly over the town and neighboring counties of Stafford and Spotsylvania to point out newly purchased homes.

A few people, mostly couples with dogs, are strolling by. I must look ghostly with the blue laptop screen illuminating my face. They say Fredericksburg is the most haunted town in North America. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in these streets and homes over the course of our Civil War. Nearly every home in the Old Town districts boasts a resident spirit. The History Department students of The University of Mary Washington conduct, for a small fee, a very entertaining "Ghostwalk" every Halloween season. A local Episcopal church did an exorcism about a decade ago to liberate a home from the supposed spirit of a Confederate. My ghost only turns up the old style thermostat on very cold nights. He must long to be warm again. Check out this site on Civil War battlefield ghosts.

Living in this town is a constant reminder of the long and hard journey democracy has had even in this country. Each Memorial Day weekend the Boy and Girls Scouts sponsor a moving "Luminaria" display at the National Cemetary bordering the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The over 16,000 civil war graves are individually graced with a small votive candle set in a cushion of sand at the bottom of a plain brown paper bag. These simple luminarias create a scene that leaves only the soulless dry eyed. Taps, which was written and first heard here, is played every half-hour by two live musicians echoing each other. The scouts patrol the grounds keeping the candles lit and replaced when necessary.

So what's new? I've been busy writing for the New York Times Frontlines site. That's brought other attention. For instance, last week I did radio interviews with Minnesota Public Radio , and two BBC talk shows; Radio Five Live and World Have Your Say. My good friend Pat Dollard was wounded a couple times in Ramadi. You can read about his adventures at Hollywood, Interrupted Scroll down and you'll find a couple articles with pictures he's sent from the front lines of gonzo documentary film making. I tell you again, Pat is the real thing. He's lost some weight. I told him the picture on the Hollywood, Interrupted site is his Zoolander "Blue Steel" look. Go see. I'll wait......Hopefully his show, Young Americans, will get finished before Pat is vaporized and achieves martyrdom.

Last week I attended a Marine Corps conference for the combat camera community in New Orleans. This was the first time ever for me in the Big Easy. What a fabulous town! On the last day, Friday, I was able to spend a whole afternoon in The French Quarter. Wow. I'm smitten. I had a nice talk with a gallery owner and she echoed sentiments close to those we troops have made about MSM reporting. She lamented, especially as a business owner, how CNN has mischaracterized the condition of New Orleans. Yes, there are still widespread and unmistakable evidence of Katrina's rath, but the Quarter is open for business while the rest of the town is being radically resurrected. My day included a monster plate of steaming Jambalaya nuking the inside of my mouth, and a visit to a used bookstore where I found a book by my favorite author, Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn. Despite everything you may have heard, seen or read, the mystique of this gem at the mouth of the Mississippi is intact and palatable. Reports of the Big Easy's death, like that of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.

A theme I've found myself turning again and again to is the "I support the troops but not the war" mentality. I'm fed up hearing it. Here's my feelings and reflections on the subject. The troops are not impressed with what we see as an elitist self-serving feel good attitude. This is a statement of pity and nothing more. It's pathetic and pandering. Male intuition may be a contradiction in terms, but most GIs have highly evolved BS meters, and it pegs in the red zone on this one. It reeks of political correctness. Marines returning from Vietnam were often greeted with outright animosity. Perhaps some of those now voicing this sentiment were guilty of this 40 years ago and are now trying to placate their own guilt. Inherent in this statement is a subtext that says we, the troops, are victims and they, the anti-war folks, are going to rescue us. It also suggests that they know better than us, that our visceral field experience has little or no value. We're either just a gaggle of country bumpkins hoodwinked into serving by socio-economic pressures, or knuckledragging cretin warmongers. The actual truth is something you'll never get from a Hollywood movie. The overwhelming majority of those serving are high school graduates, of high moral character and, based on the standardized military entrance exam, fall in the upper 50 per cent percentile group intellectually. We're educated, highly trained worldly men and women from all walks of life who've chosen freely our own path into the military. In short, don't cry for me Argentina. Usually wedded to this "we're so sorry you got tricked into fighting" gestalt is an underlying belief that Iraqis, and by extension all Muslim cultures are incapable of democracy. I want to suggest that there could be a little touch of racism at work here. And all the Bush mislead us crap. Get over it. We are here. Leaving is not an option. We got this girl pregnant and we need to do the right thing, which is not an abortion. Victimization. Stereotype. Racism. I'd rather step off the plane to someone spitting at me...that, at least, takes some courage. Los Angeles Times op-ed writer Joel Stein had the hutzpah in his article "Warriors and Wusses" to not make this distinction. He doesn't support the troops and he doesn't support the war. This is a guy I can respect. But big sad puppy dog eyes I don't need. The conditionality of "I support the troops, but not the war" posits a distinction we Marines don't make. We are the war. We're not interested in the kind of self-serving intellectualizing that argues about the definition of the word "is" and butt covering legal rationalizations about what does and doesn't constitute actual sex. We live and work in a concrete world and find abstractions, the obsession with splitting hairs symptomatic of a defeatist mentality. We're in the mission accomplishment mode and by extension only interested in what supports the mission. The cry of "havoc" has been shouted and the dogs of war let loose. Talk is at an end and the doing, the mission is afoot. We don't engage in the luxury of second guessing, or the liberty of political debate. One great strength of our Republic is the freedom from fear of military coups. (For those of you who at this very moment are taking a big over-educated breath and preparing to interject into your thought process "well not yet" I caution you to examine your stereotypes-Full Metal Jacket and A Few Good Men are entertainment and not documentaries.) Our necessary philosophy in the field is real simple and can be summed up in our oft said phrase "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way". We're only interested in one statement, "WE BACK THE TROOPS". Highly footnoted, carefully nuanced and qualified statements like "we support the troops and not the war" doesn't support us, it trivalizes us at best and at worst re-enforces the will and agenda of the enemy. We don't want to cut and run. Take that as gospel. Victory is our only option, and not some hybridized academic version of victory that everyone is comfortable with. I'm talking about the species of victory that only comes from doing very bad things to very bad people until either they're dead, or demoralized into abject unconditional psyche changing surrender. We taking Unfolding of History 410 are tired of listening to the sophmoric rants of Self-fullfilling Prophesy 101 coming from down the hall. The war on terrorism is a war being fought tactically in Iraq, but strategically in the hearts and minds of America. "I support the troops, but not the war" is a little white flag being waved in another American head. The main weapons in the arsenal of the terrorists are uncertainty and fear. You might as well be loading another AK round into an insurgent's magazine. Saying "I back the troops" is the equivalent of saying you support us tactically and at the same time strategically. Anything less is self-annihilating blither which says we support you tactically, but will fight against you strategically. Or, as the great philosopher from the 1960's, Pogo, put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us." If at the end of the day this becomes the stance of the majority of fellow citizens, then we are to be pitied. Pity takes our sacrifice, freely given, and gives it back into the hands of our enemies. So next time you see a GI tell him what he needs to hear, "Kick Ass and Take Names." Or, just be honest with yourself and glare.

Want to show your gratitude, your support? Pay it forward. Go to New Orleans this year. Vacation. Volunteer. Whatever. Everything we fight for is there. Good food. Resiliency. Pretty women. Dedication to excellence. Fun. Freedom of expression. Music. The face of America shines in the streets of the Big Easy. If we weren't over in Iraq name tak'n and heart break'n that's were we'd love to be. So go! Send us a postcard.

Oh, one final thing, I'll be a panelist at the first ever milblogger conference that's going to held in DC April 22nd. This link has all the details.
If you come please say hi.