Sunday, February 26, 2006

This entry has been censored

Spencer Case: sage under siege. Photo by Staff Sgt. Engles Tejeda.

Last night, I had one of the biggest artistic epiphanies in a long while. I sat down at my computer and spontaneously wrote a 700 word BLOG entry about mortar attacks. It was one of the best essays I've ever written. Unfortionately, my command informed me this morning that all information about mortar attacks falls under "tactics, techniques, and procedures" and thus is OPSEC (sound of climactic violin music).

In retrospect, I can see the command's point about at least some of the information that particular entry. If I hadn't, I'd never have given it to them to double check. But it got me thinking about how easily worthwhile but politically incorrect information can be surpressed in the name of keeping soldiers safe.

I have been aggrevated by the Army's draconian OPSEC policies before. Earlier in the deployment, I was not allowed to publish pictures of Stryker vehicles because a certain infantry unit was paranoid that if the insurgents discovered the dimensions of the vehicle their security would somehow be compromised. Of course, the insurgents could simply look out the window and see the vehicle rolling past them in the narrow streets. Or they could look it up online with a simple Google search.

A few weeks ago, a free lance journalist named David Axe was stripped of his credentials and made to leave Iraq because he printed information about the Warlock signal-jamming system. An imbedded journalist like himself should have known better. Still, any insurgent with the internet search skills of a fifth grader could have found for himself. It seems unfair on some level that the journalist has to bear all the heat for repeating readily available information.

The Army's issues with the press go well beyond security concerns.

Consider the case of the article "Biggest base in Iraq has a small-town feel" by Thomas Ricks, the senior war corrospondant for the Washington Post. In the article*, Ricks takes the reader on a journalistic tour of the base, describing what items are available at the PX, what the speed limit is, how the Air Force, Army and civilians live in different parts of "town," etc. I've lived here seven months and I see nothing misleading about his discription. What could be more innocent?

Woe unto Thomas Ricks! Details such as this give the (accurate) impression that Balad is being run more like a garrison in the U.S. than a combat zone in Iraq. They also raise questions about the number of troops stationed here, since many troops in Balad don't even see Iraqis during their tour.

From what I've heard, the command at Balad is very unhappy about this article. Not because it endangers anyone's life but because the truth reflects poorly on the command. In fact, the Pentagon has been so pissed at Ricks for not pushing their propaganda in his articles that they had an unprecedented meeting with Washington Post editors to discuss their grievances a few months ago.

In my opinion, the Army could show a little more sensitivity toward journalists, who have freedom of the press. After all, if freedoms like that aren't important what are we fighting for anyway?

* The article can be found here:

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Skinny dipping anyone...anyone?

Last week I had the opportunity to provide coverage for the 84th Engineering Battalion (Combat Heavy) as they used backhoes to clear a congested canal in Balad, Iraq. Canals normally need annual maintenance, but this particular canal, being less than a car bomb blast away from the American installation LSA Anaconda, is off limits to Iraqis and has gone untreated since the war broke out in 2003. The newly-cleared canal will provide water for over 1100 Iraqis in the Balad area. And believe me, in this part of the world they need to take advantage of every drop.

This is one of the most positive stories I’ve covered. The only thing that puts a damper on it is the fact that this is the responsibility of the Iraqi government, possibly the Ministry of Irrigation or Agriculture. I sure hope this does not lead to the Iraqis depending on the U.S. military to provide other civil services for them.

While I was covering the story I saw a bunch of Iraqi kids gathering across the canal watching us dig away. Maybe I’m crazy, but I find something comforting in the fact that all kids are fascinated by backhoes. All social, economic and political differences between nations are instilled sometime in adolescence; kids everywhere are the same. May they always stay that way.

I have some before and after pictures below to show the difference.

Here is what the canal looked like before the project. Eeeehhk!

And here it is 33 dump truck loads of sludge later. It still doesn't look like anything I'd readily drink, but consider the alternative.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Soldiers tour Biblical city

I recently did a story on servicemembers in Tallil who have the opportunity to tour the ancient city of Ur, referred to in the Bible, I believe, as Abraham's birthplace. The story will be printed in the Jan. 19 edition of Anaconda Times. The pictures above shows servicemembers at the house of Terah, Abraham's father, which was rebuilt by Saddam on it's original foundation in 1999.

This is me standing on the stairway of the Ziggurat of Ur back in November sometime. Photo credits go to Staff Sgt. Engels Tejeda. La photo es muy excelente, mi amigo!

Flying over Iraq

During interviews for Anaconda Times stories, I often ask my subjects what memory of Iraq will stand out most in their minds when their deployments are over. Sometimes I ponder that question for myself. My head has been so filled with new images, ranging from the smiling, camera-obsessed Iraqi soldiers at Al Kisik, to the orange glow of enemy tracer rounds on a roadside south of Baghdad, that it’s hard to sort them.

Even so, few things have been emblazoned in my neurons as vividly as the bird’s eye glimpses of Iraq I have gotten while flying between Coalition bases to provide coverage to far-flung units.

My first intra-Iraq flight was from Balad, my “home base” located about 25 miles northeast of Baghdad, to Q-west, which was about 170 miles north. I flew in plane called a sherpa, which could hold no more than ten or fifteen passengers. The sherpa leveled off almost as soon as it lifted off the runway, flying no higher than 200 feet, low enough to scatter sheep from the noise of the engines. I’m sure that is going to warm up the local shepherds to the occupation.

Much of that flight afforded a view of a brown, flat, sparsely vegetated terrain that would have seemed in place in northern Nevada. For a while, I considered what if I really was in Nevada, where the war was being simulated in a massive government conspiracy. (I never did see any casinos or whorehouses to verify my theory.)

About half way in to the hour long flight, we were flying over a body of water—either a lake or an extremely wide area in the Tigris River that took us several minutes to cross. At one point I saw an Iraqi kid standing up in a canoe waving to us from the middle of the lake.

A day or two later, I was initiated to another means of flight. Sgt. Ryan Poland and Sgt. Engels Tejeda, two fellow public affairs soldiers at the 207th MPAD, were doing a story on a Black Hawk helicopter unit that required a few minutes of aerial video footage. The crew of one helicopter was more than happy to take us along. Once we got we needed, they proceeded to demonstrate the maneuvering capabilities of the Black Hawk aircraft in a way that regulations tend to frown on.

Black Hawk helicopters quickly became my favorite mode of transportation, even when I wasn’t joy riding. Give me the deep, throbbing hum of the propellers. Give me low flights with the side doors open. You just can’t beat that with the ear-insulting shrieks and confinement of other aircraft.

I took my favorite Black Hawk flight early last September. I was working on a personality feature about a flight medic and decided to tag alone for a routine patient pick-up in Baghdad to get some photos. Approaching Baghdad by Black Hawk is a lot like standing on the edge of the ocean, only it is a man-made ocean of blockish, brown buildings peppered with mosque domes. There was one enormous dome in the middle of the city that was so large that I wasn’t sure if it was a man made object or a mountain. I later found out that in the Bradt Iraq Travel Guide that it was an uncompleted mosque, the largest in the world. It had been started by Saddam in the 1990s to help create the image of himself as a religious leader.

Since I arrived in Iraq in August, I have gone on more flights than I can count. Sometimes I see lush terrain, other times barren desert. Sometimes I see kids playing soccer in dirt fields, other times I see farmers trying to pump water from the Tigris River to irrigate their crops. Either way, it’s an adventurous feeling.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Epithets in Iraq: Army should avoid gray areas

The following is a variation of an opinion article I wrote that was published in the Jan. 15 version of Anaconda Times under the title "Opinion: use of word 'haji' reflects poorly on the Army." I later submitted it to Army Times as a letter to the editor. Today, I received an e-mail informing me that Army Times will consider running it, though I do not know in what issue. I think the information in this peice bears repeating.

As a Reservist currently deployed to Balad, Iraq, I am offended by the casual use of the religious term “Haji” in reference to Iraqi locals. I believe that the constant misuse of the word by enlisted and officers and alike does not reflect the values that the Army stands for and may even hinder our efforts in the Middle East.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “haji,” as “One who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca” and “A form of address for one who has made such a pilgrimage.” Not all Iraqis have made a pilgrimage to Mecca and a few Iraqis – 3 percent, according to the CIA world factbook – don’t identify themselves as Muslims at all. Thus, using the word to refer to all Iraqis indiscriminately demonstrates a lack of education about our host nation’s culture.

Beyond being inaccurate, the word “haji” is in danger of becoming a racial epithet, if it hasn’t already. The word awkwardly lumps together Sunnis, Shi’a, Kurds, and other identities into one label and often carries a negative slant. For instance, it’s hard to miss the slightly condescending tone when a Soldier says, “I got the hajji version of the DVD,” meaning the DVD is pirated or of low quality.

The negativity is more blatant when Soldiers use it synonymously with “the enemy” as in, “haji has sure been throwing a lot of mortars at us today” or “You’d better wear your eye protection so haji doesn’t blow your eye out with an IED.” Using a religious term this way is not only offensive, but might be seen as giving substantiation to our enemies’ claims that we are engaged in a war against Islam. If an Iraqi man finds out that U.S. troops are routinely using a word meaning “holy pilgrim” in Arabic in place of “the enemy” it’s easy to see how he might get the wrong impression.

Most of the Soldiers who use this term probably think of it as an innocent nickname rather then an offensive slur. However, history has shown that over time “innocent” nicknames can acquire negative connotations. An example of this is the term “Jap,” shortened from Japanese. One road in Jefferson County, Texas, named “Jap Road” in honor of a well-respected Japanese family had to be renamed because of the offensive meaning that came after World War II.

At best, calling local nationals “hajis” is an uneducated use of Islamic terminology that has not become fully epithetic. At worst, it is a racial slur that could marginalize the very people we’re trying to win over. Either way, we’re better off not using the term.

Troops of previous wars assigned unkind names to the Japanese and the Vietnamese and it came to reflect poorly on the military later. I don’t want racial slurs to mar our track record in this war. When it comes to racism, I prefer to stay clear of any gray areas.


It has taken half a deployment, but I, Spc. Spencer Case, have finally succumbed to the narcissistic compulsion to see my own life in glorified BLOG form.

Since this is my first entry, a little background information may be of some use. I am a 20-year-old print journalist for the U.S. Army currently deployed to Balad, Iraq with Denver’s 207th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. I enlisted in the Army a little over two years ago while I was a student at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. I joined as a result of a few different factors. I wanted to pay for school and I wanted to see things that would inspire my writing. There may have even been a smidgeon of patriotism involved. At any rate, here I am.

Life in Iraq has its disadvantages of course. I miss some of the freedoms I had as a civilian (and probably didn’t appreciate.) But life isn’t all that bad. I’m on a base that has amenities that are so good that if I told you about them, you’d stop sending care packages. I am in a unit where I actually have friends, unlike Basic Training, and I generally enjoy the adventurous work that I do. As Confucius would say, “while in soup, might as well enjoy flavor.” So take a moment to wallow with me in the hearty soup of Army life.