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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Letter To My Children

Van and Eve, I want to write a this down for you so perhaps someday when you hear about what I did,  you will understand a little bit of why. You are too young to remember this, and that is one of the reasons I am going away now, and not in a few years when you may better understand.

It is important that we get this out of the way: this is not about money. Yes, the money is good, no denying that, this money will help us build better lives for you, pay off our debt so we don't leave you holding the bag, and perhaps even expand your horizons through opportunities like boarding school and travel. But this is about more than that.
This is about courage, conviction, commitment, change, and compassion. These five 'C’s' will serve you well as you grow older and I can only hope I model them for you throughout your lives.

Courage can be difficult. It is not about being fearless. Fear is a good thing. It keeps us safe, warns us when we are about to do something dangerous, and gives us an edge no matter what happens. Courage is about confronting the unknown, dealing with things bigger than yourself, and facing danger in a productive way. I am terrified and ignorant about what I will see when I get to Kabul. It is a war zone; people are being hurt daily and trying to hurt us. I have never really experienced immediate and lethal violence. I have studied it, I have done what I can to prepare through martial arts and research. Ultimately, however, I have no idea what is like or how I will react. I am going to Afghanistan to test my courage, face the unknown, and I want you to understand doing so is a huge part of living.

Conviction is a strange one. We are faced everyday with things we do not understand, things that make us doubt ourselves, and things that test our resolve. We can wax philosophic all we want about higher concepts but until they are tested they are lies. I am going to war because I think I believe in myself, my ability to help people, and my own moral and ethical fortitude. I want you to always test yourselves, push your limits, challenge your beliefs, and grow your will. I do not always succeed, but I try, and that is one of the reasons I am here... To try.

Commitment to one's goals, one's beliefs, and ones dharma can be difficult. Before you were born, I tried to go to the Iraq war and it didn't work out. I spent months working myself to some level of peace with my choice to go and when it didn't happen I really doubted myself. I decided to dedicate my career to understanding and helping the military to understand how its culture impacts the greater whole, both Americans and people everywhere. I could take the slow path, and stay where it is safe and warm, but the military doesn't do that and to understand it neither can I. Anthropology is about participating, and I have committed myself to that path as well, hell or high water as they say. I also committed myself to my family, and that means risking myself sometimes, and risking comfort, and providing a solid example. I hope that by doing this I can strengthen my commitment, to my dharma, to you, to your mother, and to the people with whom I have chosen to work.

Change is good. Even bad change is good. Having the ability to change means that if things change for the worse you can always change again. Ruts are bad. Comfort is bad. Coming to this job in Afghanistan is a huge change. I could have stayed in my very good job, gone to bed every night with my family, made good money, and stayed there as long as possible. But it was time for a change. Van, your arrival was a harbinger for improvements to our lives. You shook us out of our complacency and reminded us that life moves forward. Yes, risk is involved, but bringing in a new life, moving to a new house, taking a new job, and going away for awhile are all good changes. Even when they make us sad, we should take consolation in the fact that because we can face change, we become stronger and better people for every time we try something new.

Finally, this trip is about compassion. Remember to have love for everyone and everything. To have true compassion, I believe we must have three things: experience, connection, and proximity. I am going overseas so I can help people. Help people find nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts, reach their goals, and end this war. In some small way, I hope to protect Americans from harm caused by ignorance and callousness, protect Afghans from force used out of frustration and alienation. We must experience what others experience, connect with them through common goals and desires, and be close to those with whom we want to have an impact. We must seek to understand their dharma and think of it in relation to our own, and not in competition with it. We should strive to understand why people do what they do, from their perspective as well as ours, so we can find common ground. We must, in the end, become involved, even when sacrifice must be made to do so.

Eve and Van, I struggle to live up to these lofty ideals I have set for myself. That I have set for you. It isn't something to be done; it is something to do, actively and in the present tense every day of our lives. We should accept that we may never fully realize these concepts, but in the act of trying we become better for it.

We are connected to all things, and their suffering is our suffering, our strength of character is their strength. We can make the world a better place, simply by trying. In the end, all we can do is try. And that is why I am going to Afghanistan, if for no other reason than to let you see me try.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Atterbury: 06FEB2013

Well folks, here we go again. This time it seems that everything is in order, no more SNAFUs to keep things from happening. I am going overseas for a year to assist the U.S. Military in my never-ending mission to help people understand each other in a relevant and functional way.
                I have just spent a week at the deployment center in Indiana, which has blessed us with snow and mud. Thankfully the wind has been calm - that’s the worst part of winter for me. I passed all medical requirements (I would like to think that means I am healthy but really all that means is that I meet the minimum standards to not be a complete waste of space), all training requirements (75 hours of online trainings, woot!), and all contractual requirements (which had nothing to do with me, but was one of the root causes for why I didn’t go to Iraq in ’09).
                I realized when I was at White Sands how unusual the base there was. I almost never saw enlisted personnel, and the base was very top heavy with majors and Lt Colonels. Here there are a lot of sergeants. I mean A LOT. I saw a specialist the other day; it was like seeing a rare pokemon. The food is good, falling somewhere on the quality scale between Jr High school lunches and Denny’s. The biggest adjustment is that I have had to walk several miles a day just getting from place to place. It was possible to rent a car, but I decided against it. That’s a good thing, as the people running the deployment center have made it clear that vehicles are a pain in their ass and I wouldn’t have access to my car anyway.
                Other than that, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine here. Something like a 98% success rate, which is amazing when you consider the medical, dental, vision, audiology, gear, training, and other admin requirements (like getting a new ID). That is doubly impressive when you consider that there are about 300+ contractors a week coming through here with final destination at military bases and each with their own issues.
                I spoiled myself and paid for a single room. I still share showers with the hall, but it’s nice to have a little space and internet for me to use. I would not have died if I had to stay in barracks, but why add to my stress?
                The only major issue I have had is with my doctor’s office back in Las Cruces. Let me lay it out front: the doctors there are amazing. It is the staff that leaves much to be desired. They are always very friendly, courteous, and engaging… until you leave the office. My paperwork was so screwed up I ended up having to have half of my medical re-done here. Forms were missing, labs were missing, and in general I should have spent a little of the dwindling time I had left just staring at the office staff in person until I had what I needed. 
                The last thing I will say about this week is: OW! Having lost my shot records, I have had 9 immunizations and three blood draws this week to fill out my deployment requirements. They took about half a quart of blood and replaced it with live and dead diseases of all sorts. Thankfully I have had no reactions, in fact, I feel a little better than I did when I arrived. Weird, that.

                Over the course of my work I have had many business trips (TDY in military parlance) that have lasted anywhere from 24 hours to a week. This first week away from my family wouldn’t hit me so hard, except I imagine the 51 weeks ahead and it makes me really sad. Eve has been adjusting, Char is doing great, and Van smiled for the first time today... and I am here. I had better get used to that, as I won’t be back until my six month mark and I will miss a lot.
                I tell myself over and over like a mantra that this is the best time for me to be gone in relation to the kids, but I am a very tactile person and not being able to hug them is driving me nuts. I plan to be very busy at my final destination, and hopefully that will mitigate the loneliness, but it still sucks.
                I count myself lucky that I live in a time of skype, e-mail and priority shipping. My father tells me stories about letter-writing back in Vietnam and I can’t imagine how hard that was. My wife and I plan to do a few writing projects together while I am away, and I plan to speak to Eve as often as possible.
                I have a complex plan to stay resilient this year:
                Stay Busy.
                Stay in Contact.
                Martial Arts (Wushu teacher there!).
                E-mail writing projects with friends and family.
                Maybe find some gaming there.
                Stay Busy.

                I’ll let you know how it goes.

                I struggle constantly with the ethical and moral implications of what I do. I have many colleagues who question my motives (Am I in this for the money?), my understanding (You must be an idiot to think you can help anyone this way) and my sanity (You must be in pretty deep denial to think what you do is “okay”). To be honest, I think about these things constantly but I will be the first to admit that if I am selfish, ignorant, or crazy, I will probably be the last to know.

                I have done this before, in a blog long since taken down, regarding my experiences going through training with the Human Terrain System (HTS). That program and I have long since parted ways, and I have since worked as a course developer and instructor for the Air Force Community College as well as a wargaming/modeling/simulation cultural consultant for the Army. The company for which I am now deploying recruited me from a posted resume, and the vetting process has been about three months.

                That being said, I thought I would lay out a few concepts and beliefs I have at this moment that may help frame my decision to spend a year away from my family to help the U.S. mission. These may change as I go through this, in fact you may be able to track these changes here. But this from whence I begin my journey, and I can only tell you what I know consciously.

1-            I believe war to be bad. Bad things happen during war. War itself is premised on bad things happening. In a perfect world, war would not exist.

2-            I believe war to be necessary. For a variety of reasons, humans have developed an ever-expanding concept of resource competition and it behooves us to understand it as best we can.

3-            The same goes for violence. Violence is bad. Sometimes it is necessary, and it is an essential part of human existence. Violence is not just physical, but emotional, economic, and social. It is even more important that we understand violence than war, as violence is the quintessential nature of war.

4-            Geopolitical, economic, and cultural understandings of war are important, but do not reflect what war is like on the ground. Argue all you want about the former, but understanding the latter is critical to our concepts of the human condition and any discussion about war, this war, or future wars must include a comprehensive grasp of the reality of war.

5-            Warriors are worthy of respect, no matter why they are at war. This does not mean worship, and again, this is about understanding the reality of their situation and behaviors. Helping them understand the consequences of their actions, the relevance of cultural awareness, and the proper use of cultural knowledge from a pragmatic perspective will help save lives on all sides.

6-            The government, the military, the warriors, and the families involved all deserve the same respect, voice, protections, and support as any other groups with which we, as anthropologists, choose to work.

7-            Critique is best served out of respect, not disdain. Pointing out the flaws in the system, the moral and ethical pitfalls, the lack of information or context, and the maladaptive behaviors of individual or groups is a duty of social scientists, but this does not mean we can be judgmental jerks about it. If we really want to effect change, we don’t want the people we are trying to change shutting down. This brings me to my last point for this post:

8-            The core precept in anthropology (as opposed to other disciplines) is the ground-up, hands-on, emic perspective of the cultures with which we engage. It is about getting involved. It is about getting out of the armchair and working with people different from us. The military is a huge part of American culture - the same rules apply.

This has gone on long enough; my next post should be about my thoughts on applied anthropology.  Future posts will share the same basic format. I intend to write a bit about the philosophy of anthropology as it applies to my work, then a bit about my personal experiences or what is going on with me, and then a little bit about how I feel through the whole thing. I intend to update weekly, though intermittent thoughts may be uploaded as appropriate.

Prologue: 31JAN2013

I am terrified. Not of any physical danger but of the emotional hardship that is to come. There is some danger, to be sure, but I have about as much comprehension of what that might be as I would understand the moments before an Olympian tests their mettle on a grand stage.

I have worked with the army of years. I have listened to every story I could find, I have taken notes on army bureaucracy, culture, and beliefs. I have taught the Air Force corpsmen and studied the decision-making of experienced combat commanders... And I still have no idea what I don't know.

So I fear simple things: carrying 100 pounds of gear for a week; navigating the military air system to reach my destination unescorted and unassisted; having enough clothing, or too much; finding the boxes I mailed ahead; working 12 hour days, seven days a week; and finally, can i do the job I so confidently sold during this process?

I also fear bigger things, or to be more precise, smaller ones: my children are left to bear a burden they have less ability to comprehend than I do to understand being in a war zone. Arguably, their danger is much more real than mine. My daughter looks up to me, loves me with all her soul, and is as much a part of me as my arm or my heart. The question is not 'will she change while I am gone?' But 'how will she change?' Will the physical distance create an emotional wedge from which my cuddly, loving, compassionate toddler will forge a weapon to keep me away, lest she be hurt like this again? Have I destroyed the trust of an innocent? Will she be willing to forgive me and give me the girl I hugged this morning at least in some small way? Can I fault her if she doesn't?

My son is in some ways a little easier to frame in my mind, but a little darker as well. He knows me only by smell and rough muffled sounds, so he doesn't know trust, or frustration, or betrayal, or who I was versus who I will become. On one hand, we will meet for the first time when I return, and build from there. On the other, I haven't had two and a half years like I have with my daughter during which to form expectations, share joy, provide structure, model affection, and lay a foundation from which to build again.

When we made the decision for me to go, I was only thinking of myself in that things like his first step, first word, first everything mattered only to me and meant nothing to him. If I missed them, it was a sacrifice I could make. Maybe I was wrong in my thinking. Maybe it was not those benchmarks that were important to him, but the spaces between them where a parent gives back for all the singular moments the child provides.

A forgiving tone at spilled milk, laughter during a particularly bad diaper, a firm look to a test of boundaries, or a compassionate and effective response to injury all for the glue that the developmental steps rest within to hold them together and form the person beneath.
And I will not be there for those moments.

I am blessed to have my wife there to carry my banners into the war of parenthood, to wave them for me on occasion and to show my children that she is not alone, though I am far away. Through the wonders of technology I hope to see my family, watch them change, help them where I can, and show through my actions the values I hope they one day understand (even if they don't agree).

There has been a lot of change, but I still believe no change is bad. What we call bad change is merely choice with a greater opportunity to strengthen ourselves and build different people than those created along parallel paths. We'll see if I still believe that when I awake for the 309th time in a strange place, and my family is left carrying the heavy load no matter how many pounds of luggage I must haul on this path.


Expect things here shortly. The first post is in editing and will be here soon!