Monthly Archives: August 2015

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

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Ecological Science at the Frontier: Celebrating ESA’s Centennial (in Baltimore)

ESA = Ecological Society of America.

This was not MY conference, actually. I entered using a name badge marked “guest”. Fifteen years ago, that would have said “spouse”. Thirty years ago, “wife”. My husband is an ecologist and chair elect of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America. I tagged along to the organization’s 100th NATIONAL meeting in Baltimore last week.

I’m good at “tagging along”. I can always find something interesting to do. But I didn’t need this skill to enjoy the ESA meeting! It was exciting. I think the attendance was over 3000, larger than most professional meetings I attend. The demographic was young and the level of enthusiasm very high. I’ve long known that ecologists have fun. After all, they do much of their work out of doors and in the company of fellow enthusiasts. Often they travel. And ecologists are purposeful. The study and understanding of an organism or ecosystem often leads to the desire to protect it, a complex challenge in this age of climate change and sea level rise.

I am also pleased to report that the City of Baltimore, troubled though it has been over the past months, has got its act together. (I did NOT consider withdrawing my participation because of the recent riots.) The area around the convention center was, predictably, heavily policed. My ventures into other areas, “sketchy” but not rock bottom, were brief and uneventful. And the Baltimore Inner Harbor area is great! Full of people and activity. I couldn’t see anything that made it different from the rest of urban, tourist oriented America. The free public “circulator” buses are better than the public transit in Philadelphia or Boston, and the Light Rail, which goes farther from the city center, is quick and convenient.

And, to top it off, the Ecological Society of America really knows how to throw a party! I’ve sat through my share of convention banquets, listening to dull speeches and eating rubber chicken. ESA’s “Birthday Bash” consisted of an excursion to a local microbrewery, where the parking lot was lined with food trucks (ethnic, spicy…) and the beer flowed freely. Add a good country rock band and it was a perfect summer evening. A great time was had by all.

I plan to attend a national meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in October. Hope it is equally good! Stay tuned

“Renewable – One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope” by Eileen Flanagan

I’m surprised I’ve never met or even heard of Eileen Flanagan, because we move in circles that overlap. I said the same about Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business (see my blog entry of April 8, 2015). Flanagan is a decade or so younger than Wicks and I. Wicks and Flanagan both reside in Philadelphia.

Renewable begins with Flanagan’s recent act of chaining herself to the White House fence during a climate change protest. Then she circles back to recount how she came to that moment.

A major factor in her personal and spiritual growth was her Peace Corps service. She joined in 1984 and was sent to Botswana, a country known to me only through the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, who created the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Flanagan’s reflections on Botswana are enhanced by her analysis of the comparative impacts of colonialism on Africa and Ireland, her ancestral home.

Upon her return from the Peace Corps, Flanagan went to graduate school at Yale to earn a Master’s degree in African studies. Then she faced the complications of seeking simplicity while raising children in urban America. Familiar territory!

Interestingly, one of Flanagan’s companions in the White House protest described above was civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week.

“Flora – a novel” by Gail Godwin

I loved this book! It was another of those recommended by my friend who participates in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society book club (see July 1).

This story takes the form of a memoir. The narrator is an elderly woman looking back into her childhood. Helen was a precocious ten year old being raised by her father and grandmother. Toward the end of World War II, her grandmother dies and her father departs to work on construction at the site in Oak Ridge, TN, where the United States is building “the bomb”.

Helen’s father enlists a relative (Flora) to come and stay with Helen for the summer. Everything goes wrong for Helen, climaxing in a fatal auto accident for which Helen feels responsible.

What’s good about this book?

It takes a child seriously. Helen works hard at figuring out her family and her friendships.

This book contains wonderful “sub stories”. Helen and her grandmother have been in the habit of listening to radio dramas. Two are recounted in the story. Helen creates a classroom full of imaginary children to help Flora prepare for her career as a teacher.

What I can’t figure out is why the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society would choose this book. It has almost nothing to do with gardens or plants. Helen cuts down some grass with kitchen scissors. An old path is overgrown with weeds. I must be missing something important. Flora is a lovely name, but there must be more than that!

I enjoyed Godwin’s “The Good Husband” about ten years ago, and plan to look at more of her writing.

Area Family not Suckered by Barbecue Dream

I’ve been too busy to blog lately, so here’s this incisive analysis of the impact of the month of July on the American dream!

Not Merely For Fun

BOSTON, MA – A majority of the Walsh family celebrated the breakdown in talks aiming to bring a large barbecue to the area family’s suburban residence.  The “massive end of summer bash” was deep sixed when father Matt Walsh recognized his overriding responsibility to protect his family from undue expense or inconvenience. 

Clearly ambivalent, Walsh Sr. explained that he admired the family pride and ambition that wife Shirley and youngest daugher Emily brought to planning the get together.  “Obviously a big cookout is a great thing to bring family and friends together.  We even talked about inviting some of the neighbors.  We’d have a reason to put our volleyball net up in the side yard, and there’s the patio out back.  With the grill going and a couple of coolers of beer and soft drinks, something like this could be a real catylst for bringing…

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