So I'm spending my Christmas (and New Year's) in Middle Earth this year. It's impossible to make any kind of travel plans for New Zealand because every square meter of the island are covered in everything you could ever possibly want to do. I mean, all of it. Do I want to see this unbelievably gorgeous mountain, or the one over there? Do I want to go horseback riding on the North Island, or the South Island? What about kayaking? Caving? Bungie jumping? Do I want to see Mount Doom, or Moria? It's freaking impossible I'm telling you.
I'll carry on somehow though, I'm sure, and assuming the orcs don't get me I should be back to tell the tale. Unless I decide to just stay there and become a sheep farmer instead, in which case you would all of course be welcome to come visit any time.
Happy holidays, everybody!
December 18, 2006
So I'm spending my Christmas (and New Year's) in Middle Earth this year. It's impossible to make any kind of travel plans for New Zealand because every square meter of the island are covered in everything you could ever possibly want to do. I mean, all of it. Do I want to see this unbelievably gorgeous mountain, or the one over there? Do I want to go horseback riding on the North Island, or the South Island? What about kayaking? Caving? Bungie jumping? Do I want to see Mount Doom, or Moria? It's freaking impossible I'm telling you.
October 13, 2006
Where I'm supposed to be is Xinjiang, midway through a two-week trip out West, getting myself hopelessly lost in the desert. Unfortunately my employers, in their infinite wisdom, put the kibosh on my vacation request, so instead I'm here hanging out with the fourth-graders. Who've recently taken to calling me "Johnny Depp-sensei". Which is itself kind of amusing, but also not quite what I was hoping for at this particular point in time.
I have about 18,000 items waiting in my Bloglines reader from the past two months of internet inattention, but I am going to try and slowly plug myself back in to the news again. And there was much rejoicing!
September 05, 2006
I've taken a bit of a vacation from the internet for the past month or so. School is starting now, so it's liable to last a little while longer, until I get back into the usual routine. I'll be back eventually.
August 10, 2006
Another one from my turn at the SagaBlog:
Back in elementary school, I went to a small, private Montessori school in Bloomington, Indiana. Fourth through sixth graders all shared one classroom, with about thirty students in all. Moving into a huge public middle school afterwards was a difficult social adjustment, but Montessori was a great learning environment. One of my classmates, two years below me, was a girl named Kelsey. Her father was a professor at Indiana University (as was mine), and her mother was from Africa. Which would've been unremarkable except that this was 1994 and she was from Rwanda.
Estimates range from 800,000 to well over a million killed in the Rwandan Genocide, primarily ethnic Tutsi people at the hands of organized Hutu militias. From Wikipedia's article on the topic:
Ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors and those who refused to kill were often killed themselves. "Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself," said one Hutu, rationalizing an ambivalent mixture of regret, fear, and shame at being forced to kill Tutsis.
Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia members mostly killed their victims by chopping them up with machetes, although some army units used rifles. In some towns the victims were forcibly crammed into churches and school buildings, where Hutu extremist gangs massacred them.
Being all of eleven at the time, the full scope of this probably only vaguely registered with me at the time, but we were all definitely aware of it to some extent because Kelsey's mother was in the local paper (someone we knew was famous!) for her efforts to reunite with her family back in Rwanda. We had fundraisers at school to help her raise the money to travel to the refugee camps, searching for the scattered remnants of her family. I remember it took several trips, but she eventually was able to reunite with her mother. After some time — the details are blurry with time by now, but I think it must've taken over a year — she was finally able to secure a visa for her mother and her brother, who I believe were the only survivors in her family.
I first volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in high school; my school had a chapter and, on the suggestion of one of my favorite teachers, a sponsor of the club, a few friends of mine and I went out one Saturday to lend a hand on the house of a young woman named Jennifer. I don't remember exactly what I did that first time (I think I worked on the porch, and maybe some of the interior walls), but it was fun enough that when, later that year, the Unitarian Church that I attended at the time (that's another story) sponsored the construction of two houses out on the north side of town, I decided to go join them again. And whose house should I find myself raising the walls on my first Saturday morning there, but my old classmate Kelsey's uncle and the wife he met in the refugee camps of Rwanda some four or five years prior. And let me tell you, that was pretty cool.
Every weekend after, I dragged myself out of bed at 7:00 on a Saturday morning to drive out and take part in construction from start to near-finish: driving nails, putting up siding, drywalling, painting trim, running wiring all over the house with an old retired electrician my grandfather's age, and more. It was amazingly fun, and rewarding — and, as a teenager youth with your usual modicum of adolescent angst, also good for adding a little broader perspective to life. I continued my participation with Habitat on into college, where my constant involvement made it one of the defining aspects of my life at the time; it remains one of the things I miss most from home.
There is a Habitat for Humanity Japan affiliate, although it acts primarily as a coordinating and support service for groups taking Global Village trips to nearby countries in the Pacific. Volunteer organizations like Habitat are hard to find here in Japan; the word, ボランティア, is not native to the language and as I understand it normally carries connotations of group civic responsibility and shared sacrifice, like when my students are told to go out en masse to pick up trash along the roadside for an hour or so at school. That's good and important and all; our New Horizon third year textbooks have a unit on volunteerism, but there as well, the activities described are officially-sponsored (school groups with a partner family in Nepal — why oh why did they change it from Bangladesh this year??? I could've done a great lesson with that..) — not from grassroots.
There are a number of possible explanations for the relative absence of individual civic volunteerism in Japan. There are the obligatory references to Japan's "group culture", and the widespread influence of religious groups (Habitat, which is officially an ecumenical Christian organization, gets most of its volunteers and support from church groups, although everyone is welcome) in American social life, which Japan lacks. There's also the notion that these things are the responsibility of the government authorities, and not the general populace.
But there's also real legal impediments to the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In a 1999 article in the magazine Pacific Affairs entitled "Wither Japan's Environmental Movement? An Assessment of Problems and Prospects at the National Level", Robert J. Mason writes:
Perhaps the largest single obstacle facing NGOs is the difficulty of obtaining tax-exempt status. Indeed, 90 percent of all NGOs in Japan lack such status. To receive tax-exempt status, an NGO must be officially recognized by the government as a "public-interest corporation." Eligibility conditions for such status are not precisely specified by law, but what is generally required are either capital assets of about U.S.$ 2.5 million (¥300 million) or membership numbers beyond the reach of the vast majority of environmental organizations. What constitutes a sufficiently large membership base is decided by the ministry with which the NGO is affiliated. All public-interest corporations must be chartered by a government ministry, which will have a significant say regarding such matters as the group's activities and board membership. In short, the process is time-consuming and the requirements, while not clearly defined, can nonetheless be rigid and restrictive.
By comparison, registering an non-profit in the United States is a matter of filing a couple of forms with the IRS, which looks them over to ensure that the organization matches at least one of the large list of existing categories of charity — a process which usually only takes a couple months at most, and which is not meant to allow government or bureacucratic control of the groups. (In the UK, there's a Charity Comission, which as near as I can tell does pretty much the same thing; Canadians, Aussies, and Kiwis will have to give me a hint as to how your system works here.)
So, why are my students freezing away in dilapidated old buildings while the bureaucrats at the city hall stay warm and cozy? One possible answer is the equally underdeveloped state of Japan's volunteer organizations. A democratic government that truly represents the needs and concerns of its citizenry depends on civil society groups — churches, environmental groups, and other volunteer organizations where people associate together based on shared interests and goals — to transmit the concerns of the people to the authorities outside of the election cycle, as well as to hold them to them when it comes time to vote. So not only am I having an awesome good time when I volunteer with Habitat — I'm doing my part to keep democracy strong at the same time. And they usually have free donuts in the mornings too!
Taiwan and South Korea achieved peaceful transitions to democratic governance in the 1980s after small local religious and environmental organizations banded together to create a national movement capable of articulating a demand for reform and accountability of the government to the populace. The Chinese Communist Party — with good reason — fears just such movement today. And Karatsu — well, I'll be waiting.
Got more time to kill? Check out this site, which offers a longer article on NGOs in Japan and offers more comparisons to how they operate versus those in the U.S. For other articles I've come across relating to the broader topic of civil society, check out my del.icio.us shared bookmarks on the subject.
August 09, 2006
I originally wrote this post for the Saga JET communal blog, based on some thoughts that I've been turning over in my head for a while here. I'm not sure if they've really been fully expressed here, but it's a start. The post is reproduced below.
If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I'm not always sure about the degree to which my presence as an ALT here in Saga really makes a major difference in the lives and learning of my young students. I think that it might be doing something, perhaps in subtler ways than I can easily discern, but even with that thought it's not clear how much of it is directly connected to me, as opposed to any other friendly gaijin plunked down in my spot. I do think, though, that my being here has definitely had an effect on me, which I suppose is at least something.
Smack in the center of the sweltering Saga summer (say that five times fast), it may require a powerful stretch of the imagination, but if you'll recall it was only six or seven months ago that we were all sitting around, shivering in the biting Siberian-tinged air, tethered to the warm envelopment of the kotatsu. That is assuming we were at home; in the half-century old concrete hulks that serve as schools here in Karatsu, there was no respite. Except that, as a teacher, I could get away with wearing a heavy jacket, and retreat between classes to hover over the space heater in the shokuinshitsu to thaw my hands; unless they could think of an excuse to come visit a teacher for a few minutes, my poor sailor-suited students had no such escape.
I think it was probably the unreasonableness of teachers who would yell at students who dared to put on gloves or scarves in the frigid classrooms that was the most maddening aspect of it all, but almost equally galling was the thought that here I was, in one of the richest nations in the world, and they can't even manage to heat their children's schools! Aside from the basic issue of social priorities, the cold also had clear and demonstrable effects on the students' ability to learn and function — namely, they were too busy shivering to be bothered. It did give me an opportunity to teach the words "central heating" and "insulation", but that didn't really do much to solve the problem.
One day I expressed some of this frustration to one of my JTEs; her sympathetic response was "Yes, that's true... but Japan has no oil." At the time I think I was pretty dismissive of this idea: they appear to have enough energy to keep the city hall and the goddamn 7-11's warm, so I think there might be a little more to it than that. I still think that's the case — and tomorrow I'm going to make an effort to explain why I think these priorities might become distorted in the Japanese system —but I have to admit that her comment has stuck with me and, in a way, made me reconsider — or at least reassess — some of my assumptions.
I was born into an era of American supremacy. Although I was alive for its last few years, I have no memory of the Cold War, and my formative young adult years during the 1990s were ones where the American model appeared to be ascendant and essentially unchallenged. By virtue of my birth I have been extremely lucky in the opportunities available to me — the JET program's shared requirement of a college degree means we have all been extremely lucky, relative to the majority of the rest of the world today. In raising me I think my parents made a real effort (one I hope I'm able to emulate, some day) to ensure that I would be aware of and grateful for these gifts, and I've tried to do my part for others less fortunate, to date principally through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity during my four years at college. But surrounded by the social and physical infrastructure of the world superpower — clean water, cheap energy, good schools — it's hard not to take some of it for granted. The Japanese don't have abundant natural energy reserves, or a globe-spanning navy capable of stabilizing shipping lanes, or the world's biggest economy. The United States does, and while it doesn't explain the whole story about why my students are expected to suck it up and deal with freezing, uninsulated, unheated schools, I think it might well have more to do with it than I initially recognized. And if this is coming from the world's second-richest economy (even if we are living in one of its poorest sub-divisions), what about the rest of the world?
The implications of this are challenging. One of — if not the — best things I've done in my life has been my work with Habitat for Humanity. While I recognize that the elimination of substandard, poverty housing across the globe (as Habitat aims to do) is a goal far greater than anything I'll ever be able to achieve, I know that I have personally contributed my sweat and money and effort towards build an affordable home for over fifty families across the United States. However small the scale, that has made an undeniable impact for those families, helping them achieve a baseline of stability and opportunity, and I'm grateful for the chance to have been a part of it. (Building a house is, incidentally, also tons of fun.) But my experience in Japan, and on my trip to Bangladesh this past Golden Week on a Habitat Global Village trip, has shown me the great degree to which poverty can be relative. I don't think it diminishes the real need of poor Americans, but this gap between the U.S. standard of living and that of other countries may mean I have to reassess my assumptions. What constitutes a "simple, decent" home in the United States is drastically different from one in Haluaghat, Bangladesh, and one in Japan.
What's difficult about this is the accompanying notion that the world cannot, in fact, afford for all of its peoples to enjoy the standard of living that I as an upper-middle class American was born into thinking as "fair". And not just unaffordable in terms of monetary economics but also the natural resources that build and fuel that economy. To take an extreme example, China has been developing at full tilt for the last couple decades, the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party largely dependent on continued economic success, and it still has huge masses of rural poor in its center waiting for their turn. Personal automobile ownership — a symbol of the American Dream if there ever was one — is growing, which is liable to raise demand for energy even further. China's growing hunger for energy reserves has driven up prices worldwide. All this development has had horrific environmental consequences, poisoning China's rivers, stripping its mountainsides, and polluting its air — and ours. An attempt by the whole world to bring their standards of living up to those of America, barring some miraculous discovery of cheap, clean energy, would probably have seriously negative consequences for the future.
America got there first — but can anyone else join us?
August 08, 2006
Radio Open Source has just done a show based on a topic I suggested a month or two back. The issue is China's rise: how is its growing energy resource consumption shaping its presence in developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, and what implications that has for U.S. foreign policy. The conversation takes a number of interesting tacks beyond my initial topic proposal, and features commentary from Thomas Barnett and others.
This was my comment on the show:
I wasn't able to listen to the show live (time zone differences pretty much rule that out) but I've heard it now. Very interesting discussion, ranging over quite a broad range (I wrote a senior term paper on the Uyghurs, so they're a bit of an interest of mine as well). Glad to see I was able to squeak in my question before it went to air.
For me the two most interesting points raised during the program were Thomas Barnett's suggestion that given China's mercantalist program of relatively shallow, extractive relations with countries in L.America, Africa, and the M.East, and their limited ability to spawn broader economic development, they will increasingly be seen in those countries as the negative face of globalization. A number of the China/Africa articles I've collected in my bookmarks suggest such reactions are already beginning, particularly in cases where cheap imported Chinese labor is supplanting locals.
Equally important I thought was John Pomfret's response to my question, where he suggested that the Chinese global ruleset (to use a Barnett-esque turn of phrase) was essentially undefined, outside the basic bottom-line business of business. I would subscribe to Dr. Barnett's later comment, where he says that we have come to the conclusion that dictatorships are not viable long-term solutions for development; that's actually part of the reason why a rival "Beijing Consensus" cocerns me, since I think a country with as many unaddressed internal weaknesses as China (whose long- or even mid-term stability I am unassured of) is not a particularly good model for world-wide emulation, at least as long as it retains its current autocratic and form.
Suggestions for August are open, so if you'd like to see Christopher Lydon and his future guests tackle another topic of interest to you, do drop them a note.
July 29, 2006
Here's a collection of articles on issues related to private contractors that passed through my RSS newsreader over the past few days:
• The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has halted a high-profile children's hospital construction project contract in Basra, after contractor Bechtel (they of the ill-fated Big Dig) overran costs by %150 and lagged over a year behind schedule. Bechtel, which subcontracted the job out through several layers of companies, blamed security concerns for the problems.
Bechtel estimated that as much as 50 percent of its expenses on the project were overhead costs, which were paid with American money separate from the $50 million construction contract.
David Snider, a spokesman for the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department agency in charge of the project, said that technically, Bechtel’s contract was not being terminated because the contract did not actually require the company to complete the hospital.
“They are under a ‘term contract,’ which means their job is over when their money ends,” Mr. Snider said. So despite not finishing the hospital, he said, “they did complete the contract.”
A confidential report commissioned by the development agency criticizes it for failing to properly account for all of the costs of building a functioning hospital. The agency is likely to face further criticism as it seeks additional money to complete the hospital as part of an Iraq reconstruction program that has increasingly come to be seen as overpriced and ineffective.
As the article mentions, this follows the Army Corps' cancellation last month of another large contractor, Parsons (which happens to be the other main partner in the Big Dig, actually) after it failed to complete several prison facilities and hospitals in a timely or cost-effective manner.
• The Virginian-Pilot of Hampton Roads has an extensive six-part series on local firm Blackwater USA, which has become one of the highest-profile private military contractors today. Lots of good content here - its founding, its leadership, its experience in Iraq and post-Katrina New Orleans, and more. Check it out.
An image of strength is vital in this muscle-bound business, and Blackwater is a top dog in its field. In a decade, the company has grown from a sketch on a scrap of paper to a superstar in the rapidly expanding universe of the private military industry.
It's a controversial arena, deeply divided by an international debate over the growing use of hired guns. Blackwater has been a lightning rod in the middle of it all since March 31, 2004, when the company's name became linked with the grisly image of charred American corpses hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.
None of that has hurt the bottom line. On any given day, Blackwater has as many as 3,000 security contractors working in far-flung hot spots and some 500 paying clients in Moyock - learning to crash cars, shoot targets, board ships, storm schools, rescue hostages, bust down doors.
At Blackwater, one thing is perfectly clear:
There is big money to be made in a world full of bad news.
• California Representative Henry Waxman and the House Government Reform Committee have released a new report on waste and corruption in Department of Homeland Security contracting procedures. The Washington Post gives the outlines:
Lawmakers say that since the Homeland Security Department's formation in 2003, an explosion of no-bid deals and a critical shortage of trained government contract managers have created a system prone to abuse. Based on a comprehensive survey of hundreds of government audits, 32 Homeland Security Department contracts worth a total of $34 billion have "experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending, or mismanagement," according to the report, which is slated for release today and was obtained in advance by The Washington Post.
The value of contracts awarded without full competition increased 739 percent from 2003 to 2005, to $5.5 billion, more than half the $10 billion awarded by the department that year. By comparison, the agency awarded a total of $3.5 billion in contracts in 2003, the year it was created.
Among the contracts that went awry were deals for hiring airport screeners, inspecting airport luggage, detecting radiation at the nation's ports, securing the borders and housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Investigators looking into those contracts turned up whole security systems that needed to be scrapped, contractor bills for luxury hotel rooms and Homeland Security officials who bought personal items with government credit cards.
While many of those problems have been disclosed, today's report is the first comprehensive survey of the government's own investigations into contracting mismanagement in the domestic war against terrorism.
"Every dollar that is wasted on a contract is a dollar less that could be used to make Americans more secure," said former department inspector general Clark Kent Ervin. "This kind of abuse constitutes a security gap all its own in America's defense." [my emphasis added]
For a broader examination of the Bush administration's use of private contractors in Iraq, Katrina recovery, as well as homeland security, check out the House Reform Democrats' Dollars, Not Sense: Government Contracting Under the Bush Administration.
• Finally, at the blog MountainRunner, a review of the book "A Bloody Business".
July 20, 2006
July 13, 2006
Eric and the Armchair Generalist have beat me to the punch on the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, but if I may risk a bit of redundancy, I'd like to finish off this draft on the subject that I've been kicking around for about the past week.
For starters, I recently (actually about two weeks back by this point) finished Cobra II, by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and retired Gen. Bernard Trainor. Despite being over 600 pages, it moves along at a fast pace, giving a thorough accounting of the planning and execution of the military's campaign for Baghdad from vantage points both on high and close to the ground. (This NYT article from last March contains a number of the highlights; the authors also spoke about their work at the Council on Foreign Relations.) Some of the episodes therein have already been related at book-length detail by other embedded reporters — Rick Atkinson with the 101st, David Zucchino on the "Thunder Run" through Baghdad — but Cobra II does seem to cover the whole length and breadth of the invasion, from initial planning cycles to the regime's fall (Gordon and Trainor make use of the Iraqi Perspectives Project to add details of Saddam's egregiously misdirected war planning) and finally Bremer's arrival and disbanding of the Iraqi army (-- I'd like to see an equally dense overview of the Coalition Provisional Authority's actions in Iraq, but I guess we'll have to wait a while for all of it to come out).
The book is packed with operational details — if anything, the addition of a cast list to the several pages of maps at the front would've been a helpful aid for readers like me who sometimes have trouble keeping straight the many characters and units involved in a big military ensemble like this. Gordon, who was embedded with land war commander Gen. David McKiernan's command during the conflict, provides plenty of perspective from the halls of the Pentagon and CENTCOM's Tampa headquarters, although White House decisionmakers (save Rumsfeld) are generally absent from this DOD-centered narrative. Of course, that absence from the Iraq mission is probably in no small part due to Rumsfeld's insistence that he and he alone would be in command for the Iraq operation; his famous bureaucratic power player's skills for seizing control are amply on display in the book's early pages as he shuts out State and CIA, and wears down his generals (viewed as too conservative and risk-averse to accept the new logic of "transformation") into producing a plan that conforms to the SecDef's vision of modern war. As much as Rumsfeld might like to deflect responsibility, understanding as he did "that there was political value in being able to stand at the Pentagon podium and say that the Bush administration was implementing the military’s plan," his fingerprints are quite clearly present throughout the entire process, from discussions of initial force size to the raw logistics of deployment to the forces advancing on Baghdad ("Blue Force Tracker" and other revolution-in-military affairs network technology allowed the SecDef to closely track the war's execution, but with no corresponding icons for the fedayeen irregulars that would prove the main center of enemy resistance, it produced a distorted view of the conditions on the ground that reinforced Rumsfeld's view of his generals as overly conservative and cautious) through to the premature "off-ramping" of units not yet deployed as soon as Saddam's collapse appeared assured.
As for Gen. Tommy Franks, who Andrew Bacevich slammed in a review of the CENTCOM commander's autobiography American Soldier (which I'll confess to not having read), Gordon and Trainor's portrayal of him is if anything even less flattering than that of Rumsfeld. Franks might've been a fine artillery officer and no doubt has some real skills in directing fire, maneuver, and military logistics, but in Cobra II's pages the overall commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom displays a dismissive attitude towards the political future of post-invasion Iraq and a lack of responsiveness to his junior officers' ground situations. Having reached Baghdad and toppled the regime, he and his civilian superiors in Rumsfeld's office are already quite ready to congratulate themselves on a job well done, pack up US forces, and leave, expecting (and hinging their planning on) a "'Wizard of Oz moment' ... After the wicked dictator was deposed, throngs of cheering Iraqis would hail their liberators and go back to work under the tutelage of Garner's postwar organization and it teams of advisers attached to Iraqi ministries — in some cases, no more than a single individual." Well, things didn't quite work out that way.
Impediments to Innovation
After finishing Cobra II I next picked up John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. While Nagl does discuss the techniques of counterinsurgency employed in both those conflicts, the real focus of his study is the extent to which the British and American armies who fought in those two wars were learning institutions. In order to process individual-level innovation into organization-wide changes in behavior, successful learning institutions must promote suggestions from the field; encourage subordinates to question superiors and policies; question the basic assumptions of the organization at regular intervals; bring high-ranking officials into close contact with those on the ground; and developing standard operating procedures from local innovation rather than central dictate.
The questions aim at determining not just whether an army is interested in the collection of data — promoting suggestions from those engaged in combat — but, far more important, whether the institution is willing and able to apply the information to create change in procedures, organization, training, and thinking about conflict. ...
The most critical aspect of the learning process is not the innovator ... [t]he key to organizational learning is getting the decision-making authority to allow such innovation, monitor its effectiveness, and then transmit new doctrine with strict requirements that it be followed throughout the organization. (my emphasis)
Nagl's assessment is that, despite some bright spots (such as the Marines' Combined Action Platoons) the US Army was not an effective learning institution during either its early advisor phase or later combat phase in Vietnam. Its strong organizational culture — Nagl quotes Eliot Cohen describing its core as "[t]he preference for massing a large number of men and machines and the predilection for direct and violent assualt" — prevailed in the war's aftermath as well, as counterinsurgency lessons were shunned in favor of a reorientation towards the Fulda Gap and conventional AirLand Battle against the Soviets. Conventional warfare continued to define the Army's institutional identity post-Cold War as well, with the majority of the officer corps embracing the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, rather than a mixed political-military counterinsurgency doctrine of minimum force. Having failed to prepare as an organization for this kind of war, the results are not entirely surprising: "For Franks," Bacevich concluded in his review of American Soldier, "war is a matter of engineering—and generalship the business of organizing and coordinating materiel". By and large Gordon and Trainor's portrayal in Cobra II accords with this. Their narrative stops shortly after the fall of Baghdad, but in the book's epilogue they offer a retrospective on the errors of commission and omission that served to produce the deteriorating situation we face in Iraq today:
American troops themselves were quick to identify the nature of their [unconventional] enemy... [b]ut the American war plan was never adjusted on high. Tommy Franks never acknowledged the enemy he faced nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing. He denigrated the Fedayeen as little more than a speed bump on the way ot Baghadad and never appreciated their resilience or determination. ... Once Baghdad was taken, Franks turned his attention elsewhere in the belief that victory was his, never realizing the irregulars he maligned constituted the real military center of gravity, on that had not surrendered.
More important, Rumsfeld failed to heed his own counsel on defense planning. From the day he returned to the Pentagon as George W. Bush's defense secretary, Rumsfeld unscored the need to be prepared for the unexpected. ... Success depended on agility: the ability to adjust the battle plan in the face of threats that could be neither predicted nor forseen. Yet Rumsfeld was so confident of the validity of the prewar plan that he questioned the need to deploy the 1st Cavalry before Baghdad fell. Just a week after Baghdad was seized, the White House, Defense Department, and CENTCOM were focused on withdrawing troops and replacing them with less capable foreign troops instead of deploying the assets that would be needed to hedge against new threats.
With these impediments to innovation at the highest levels of command, an analysis using Nagl's methodology would, I think, have to conclude that the US military's learning abilities during the Iraq invasion and early occupation period were, at best, mixed.
Nagl's book does make clear that there is always a learning curve in counterinsurgency operations, even for militaries accustomed to small wars, like the British in Malaya were — every such conflict is different, and policy can't begin to adapt until errors are first recognized, which will take time even under optimum circumstances. Three years into Iraq, it does appear that the U.S. military establishment is beginning to seriously develop a counterinsurgency program. The biggest sign of this is the recent redrafting of the Army's 20-year old doctrine for counterinsurgency, willfully abandoned after Vietnam but now approaching completion under the guidance of Lt. General David Petraeus (whose conduct in this regard was highly praised during his time in Iraq) and Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded the 1st Marine Division in the invasion. Although the work has yet to be published officially, the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News has a copy of the advance draft, and Fred Kaplan gave it a run-down in Slate this past weekend.
I haven't had time to read through the thing but expect to do so during my summer vacation here sitting around the Karatsu City Board of Education. It's not the only sign of an increased attention towards counterinsurgency, either, as there have been a number of articles in the past week or so on the military's efforts to apply lessons from Iraq to the development of counterinsurgency capabilities. There's a story from the Christian Science Monitor and a similar piece in the LA Times describing a two Marine training simulations, one at Quantico and another out in the California desert. David Axe relates the operations of the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, whose staff has increased more than three times over (to 130) since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The FAS Secrecy News blog offered a handful of recent Marine Corps publications on counterinsurgency as well.
Assuming for the moment these reports accurately reflect a real shift in the organizational culture of the military (and more specifically the Army, as the Marine Corps has always been much more comfortable with this stuff, since its early organizational culture was greatly influenced by the "small wars" it was tasked to fight) and a new appreciation for the difficulties and importance of effective counterinsurgency, the question I suppose is whether this is all too late to make an effective difference in Iraq. Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli, currently the number two American commander in Iraq and who overseer of the Haditha investigations, recognizing the importance of relations with the civilian population, is increasing scrutiny over damage and deaths inflicted by coalition forces. But the Post article again emphasizes the cost of these belated changes in the way the military conducts itself in Iraq:
Chiarelli long has been concerned that the U.S. military was inadequately prepared to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. He also included thoughts about how better to prepare troops and commanders, the official added.
"You've got to prepare for the fight you're in today," said a second defense official, summarizing Chiarelli's findings on the military's inadequate training for counterinsurgency operations. "It's totally different" than fighting in Iraq two or three years ago, he said.
The Army, for example, tends in its training to emphasize using heavy firepower against the enemy, although classic counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that soldiers should use the minimal amount of force necessary to accomplish the mission.
Also, the Army early in Iraq tended to focus on killing or capturing insurgents, although counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that the best way to deal with an insurgent is to persuade him to change sides or to desert. Also, in contrast to a spate of cases of the abuse of detainees, counterinsurgency theorists recommend treating captured fighters well, to encourage them to desert and to persuade others to give themselves up. Above all, people are seen as the prize in the war, not as its playing field.
It took the British over four years to turn around their conduct of the war in Malaya towards a successful counterinsurgency campaign. They are hardly parallel cases, but perhaps the appointment of more generals like Lt. Gen. Chiarelli and the development of new doctrines and training methods will have a positive effect on operations in Iraq. I think there is little doubt, though, that the cumulated errors of their predecessors have left them with quite a hole to dig back out of.
Don't Wanna Study Counterinsurgency No More
As Eric and Armchair Generalist both noted, Kaplan's review of the new counterinsurgency docs suggested that one of the main questions we should take away is whether the US can ever successfully wage counterinsurgency warfare, and therefore whether we should really even try. Matthew Yglesias picks up Kaplan's question, and concludes that no, we probably shouldn't. He might well be right that the "incompetence dodge" is a distraction from the overwhelming difficulty of these operations but like Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, and Money and my two fellow bloggers here at American Footprints I find it hard to totally buy into. Administration incompetence is on ready display in Cobra II (and appears to be the focus of Thomas Ricks' forthcoming Fiasco), and I think one of the book's clear messages was that the results of the Iraq invasion were not necessarily guaranteed from the start, that there were points very early in the operations and the post-war transition where choices were made. Even given the tremendous difficulty of successful counterinsurgency, I don't think that failure was inevitable from the start (whether things can truly be turned around at this late stage, when figures like Rumsfeld continue to exert sway over the process, I really can't pretend to know). And even were it inevitable based on the military we had assembled in the spring of 2003, I think that Iraq is no more likely to be the last insurgency the U.S. military will ever face than Vietnam was. To end then, I'll conclude by agreeing with the Armchair Generalist, quoting Farley:
"Whether we're just bad at counter-insurgency or the task is impossible doesn't matter all that much, because we shouldn't fight wars we're unlikely to win. But this strikes me as an unproductive and potentially disastrous way to argue against intervention. " That's the point here. Like it or not, counterinsurgency operations are going to be a facet of current and future wars, just as they have been in the past. It's vital that we master this kind of military warfare, if only to avoid the many mistakes ("thousands" according to SecState Rice...) that we've seen in Iraq over the past few years.
July 02, 2006
So the other day I'm in Fukuoka (big city north of Karatsu) on my way to a concert at the Indian restaurant (kind of cool, but to tell the truth I prefer my sitar as delivered by Dan the Automator and DJ Shadow remixes) when I notice this Japanese woman on the street with bleach-blond hair and pink highlights at the tips. It's a pretty wierd look, even for the Japanese, who do like their fashion wierd, so I'm reaching for my camera in my bag to try and get a shot when all of a sudden she's standing there in front of me asking if I speak Japanese. "Uh, a little bit," I answer (no, not in English), and so she proceeds to explain that she and her friend (a guy who appears in short order) are students at a fashion school. Ok, that explains the hair. And they have a show on July 25th. Ok. And would I be willing to be a model for them?
Well, that was certainly a first, but unfortunately the 25th is not a weekend, so I had to pass (but not before getting flustered and asking "Really? No, seriously?" a couple times). I'd like to say that it was my keen sense of fashion (Habitat shirt, natch) that brought me to their notice, but as one of my other friends on the way to the same concert later said he was asked to star as well, I have to admit that it was probably my exotic gaijin good looks that did it. It's a shame, since having already starred in a promotional film for the city of Karatsu I could've been well on my way to a lucrative career in token star-dom.
I better enjoy this stuff while it lasts.
June 21, 2006
Peter W. Singer, Brookings fellow and author of Corporate Warriors, has a book out detailing the emergence of another new kind of non-traditional conflict actor: child soldiers. A quick read at just over 200 pages (excluding the notes and appendices), like his previous work, Children at War functions as more of a broad backgrounder than a detailed policy prospectus. As someone with only a passing awareness of the phenomenon prior to checking out the book (although Singer points out that child soldiers can be found in conflicts around the world, from Palestinian suicide bombers to Colombian rebels to the fourteen-year old Afghan sniper who inflicted the first U.S. combat casualty in the War on Terror, Africa still remains the global epicenter for the use of children in war, and a gap in my studies thus far), I found it to be an interesting summation of the various factors that contribute to and result from what Singer describes as the "child soldier doctrine". Two articles from last year by Singer and a recent online chat at the Post do a pretty good job of covering his major points, if you'd rather not tackle it book-length.
The spread of this doctrine can have profound affects on the conduct of wars, as Singer elaborates:
As a new source of fighters, children multiply the potential military capacities of groups that choose to adopt the child soldier doctrine. This eases the difficulties groups often face in force generation, thus increasing the likelihood of rebellions and wars. Children's recruitment also allows a proliferation of armed opposition groups with weakened or nonviable ideological bases, which would have prevented their survival just a few decades ago. Moreover, the way in which child soldiers are used means that those conflicts are inherently "messier," featuring atrocities and attacks on civilians. At the same time, child soldier group leaders consider children's lives cheaper. Subsequently, they deploy their recruits on the battlefield in a manner that leaders to a higher casualty ratio.
The ultimate result is that, when children are present, violent conflicts tend to be easier to start, harder to end, and greater in loss of life. They also lay the groundwork for conflict recurrence in following generations.
Singer identifies widespread social disruption born of disease, poverty, and state failure, together with the proliferation of inexpensive and comparatively simple small arms, as underlying causes of the child soldier phenomenon: the former provides the pool from which child soldiers are drawn, and the latter enables them to fight despite their having not yet reached maturity or (generally) receiving much in the way of training. On the demand side, as noted in the quote above, the use of child soldiers — unpaid and poorly equipped, frequently 'recruited' through abduction, and bound to their commanders through traumatizing abuse and raw intimidation — lowers the barriers to entry for "conflict entrepreneurs", who are less interested in seizing political control of a state or maintaining a popular ideology than in exploiting chaos and conflict to profit from commodity and criminal trades.
Given these incentives for conflict actors unconcerned with the rest of the world's moral approbation — the soon-to-be-tried Charles Taylor, for example — is what can be done about it. The last several chapters of the book attempt to address this question, looking at prevention (a challenge, since as Singer asks rhetorically, "how can one shame the shame-less?"; while international law is fairly unanimous in condemning the use of child soldiers, enforcement and prosecution remains spotty), rehabilitation (a long and complex process of demobilization, counseling, and gradual social integration), and also the unenviable task of crafting a combat doctrine for armies confronting child soldiers in war, where your enemy is capable of both wielding an AK-47 to deadly effect and evoking sympathy as a young victim of abuse. Units that come into conflict with child soldiers invariably suffer serious blows to their fighting morale, with higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression. The use of non-lethal weapons, firing for shock effect, and the targeting of adult leaders offers some solutions for commanders that can minimize enemy casualties while still reducing their threat to friendly forces.
Singer outlines some potential long-term solutions in the first of the above-linked articles, points which are repeated at greater length in the book:
* Increasing investment to head off regional conflicts and outbreaks of disease, including the AIDS pandemic.
* Offering greater aid to special at-risk groups such as refugees and orphans.
* Making the recruitment of children a war crime and prosecuting offenders in international criminal tribunals.
* Reducing profits by sanctioning any firms or regimes that trade with child-soldier groups (including even American firms, such as those that traded with the Liberian and Sudanese governments).
* Providing increased aid to programs which seek to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers.
* Helping to curb the spread of illegal small arms to rebel and terrorist groups who bring children into the realm of war.
"In each of these areas," Singer concludes, "U.S. action has fallen woefully short." It's an ugly, disheartening, immensely challenging issue to confront, but Singer's book makes a clear case that unless we attempt do so, the theft and exploitation of the childhood of tens of thousands will continue largely unabated, with serious consequences for both the conduct of war and the endurance of peace throughout the world.
June 13, 2006
Fukushima is a small island at the edge of nearby Nagasaki prefecture, to the south of us. At one point, there was an operation of some kind there -- possibly coal mining, although we didn't find the mine entrance -- now long since abandoned. Three hours of biking the back hills of southern Saga prefecture got us there, although the onset of summer had unleashed the undergrowth in such force that most of the complex was buried away from our eyes.
June 03, 2006
So after thinking it over for a while and skimming some camera review sites I recently decided that the time has come for a camera upgrade. I held of on actually making the purchase for a while, but this weekend I talked myself into finally going through with it, hence:
The Canon Kiss Digital N is identical to the Digital Rebel XT or 350D models sold in the USA and Europe, respectively, with the exception that it has a much lamer name, and a band of young kids wearing KISS makeup in the ads for it.
Other than that it seemed like a pretty good camera, so today I went in and plunked down about 110,000 yen for one, together with a gig's worth of memory.
Eh, won't be needing this...
I bought the Canon kit lens, which could prove to be a mistake at some point given that many people on Flickr appear to be less than complementary towards it. As may be, I've never taken a photography class in my life and still have only a vague notion of what I'm doing, so for the moment I decided to spare my bank account the impact of a high-class lens and instead stuck with the default package.
With luck, I will someday be able take the kind of pictures that might actually begin to justify this thing's cost. Here's a start — you can be the judge.
May 29, 2006
Well, Kobe was nice enough, although I don't have much to show for it beyond a sheaf of handouts and a few new elementary school lesson plan ideas. I saw a little bit of the city, but only in the course of heading out to dinner in the evenings — as the guides suggested, it looked like a nice city for living, with a strong nightlife and plenty of nice restaurants to choose from, but didn't as much to offer for the visitor as your Kyoto or Sapporo or what have you.
Far more exciting was the Sunday after I returned, when I took a trip to Kashima City to participate in the 22nd Annual Gatalympics. Kashima sits on the southern coast of Saga-ken, with huge mud flats (Japan's largest) stretching out as the Ariake Sea's tides recede — a product of one of the world's greatest tide differentials, with low tide at about six meters below the high point. Every year they have an annual "Mudflat (gata) Olympics", with locals, exchange students (there were even some Bangladeshi folks studying at Saga University) and a crowd of us ALTs mucking about in all manner of games. Saga gaijin came out in force, which the crowd of photographers there clearly loved; my event was the "World Cup", where I was roped together with four other JETs as we made a mad lunge to grab a replica of the real deal placed in the middle of an expanse of mud before some forty or so others made it there first. We didn't quite make it, but we had already been playing around in the mud for a good hour or so waiting for the event to start, so no one really cared. I was too covered in mud to go near my camera for most of it, but the whole thing was a filthy blast, and I'm still cleaning the stuff out of my ears.
May 23, 2006
Got a recontracting JETs conference to go to Wednesday — Friday, although I'm doubtful that there will be much new beyond the latest iterations of the "do your best" and "everyone's situation is different" speeches that are standard at all these things. At least I'll have a chance to see the city, which Lonely Planet tells me has recovered quite nicely from the quake a decade ago. Assuming I don't spend the entire time locked in a meeting hall, I should be back with some pictures at least.
Also, I graduated college a year ago today. Huh.
May 19, 2006
As part of its ongoing five-part series on life in rural China, NPR had a story the other day that should serve as a reminder that the US isn't the only one with migration issues these days. In China's case, though, it's not international but rather internal borders that poor rural laborers are crossing, in the search for the kinds of jobs that might allow them to achieve the standard of living the past two decades of development has brought to many of their coastal-dwelling countrymen. Men and women like Wu Dexiu, profiled in the NPR piece, are major components in the engine behind that development, as they leave behind home and family to join the 'floating population' of low-paid migrant workers filling factory and construction jobs in the big cities.
The book I was given to read on this topic back in college, Strangers in the City, is currently sitting on my bookshelf back in America, but I do have a copy of China's Minorities on the Move here with me, which, while focusing specifically on the travels of non-Han Chinese minority groups, also contains some information relevant to the broader phenomenon of the floating population. Increasing productivity of farmland has brought about a large rural labor surplus, and economic development remains by and large concentrated in the coastal provinces, creating disparities of wealth that provide strong incentive for rural-to-urban internal migration. As Robyn Iredale and Fei Guo write in their introductory overview in China's Minorities on the Move,
Mobile rural and other populations are voting with their feet to seek out the superior opportunity structures and social advantages that urban and richer rural areas provide. Wide spatial variations have emerged in China in the process of economic reform, partly as a result of the government's economic policies and its emphasis on developing the east coast.
The quasi-legal status of these migrants comes from the lingering legacy of the PRC's hukou system. Together with the danwei (work unit) and Food Ticket systems, hukou permits effectively halted individual mobility by tying food, housing, work, and basic social services like healthcare and education to one's official place of residence. The hukou system was implemented to control urbanization following the rural collectivization process and the famines of Great Leap Forward, in which poor rural Chinese fled the countryside to the cities in search of food and jobs. Having recently visited Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka, I can begin to appreciate on an anecdotal level the effects of runaway urbanization in an impoverished country, with overcrowding and pollution posing a heavy strain on the state's already limited ability to deliver services to its citizenry. (The serious challenges presented to CCP rule by China's deteriorating environment is something I intend to write on separately soon, having just finished Elizabeth Economy's excellent book on the subject, The River Runs Black.) Attempts like the hukou system to freeze the urbanization process carry with them their own costs and challenges, though, and its gradual breakdown has reopened many of the issues it was set up to forestall. "Urban residents", China's Minorities on the Move notes,
have come to enjoy social welfare, security, health care, pensions, housing, and other social infrastructure provisions that are far superior to those in rural areas. ... Increased access to information and better communication now means that rural people are becoming very conscious of the inferiority of services that they are able to access, and many leave for urban areas where they hope to improve their quality of life.Rather characteristically of the PRC's reforms to date, the emergence of private markets for housing and employment has opened new opportunities for social mobility, while the legal framework for accomodating that mobile population continues to lag behind. Education and other government services still remain tied to one's official place of residency, resulting in situations like Mrs. Wu's, whose teenage daughters continue to live in their home village with their grandparents, seeing their mother and father at best only three times in a year.
The PRC has sought to shed many features of its welfare state, devolving considerable enforcement and governance responsibilities from the central state bureaucracy to local-level authorities, but the persistent disparities of living standards between rural and urban China and the state's lagging ability to provide for the needs of a mobile population will require deft handling on the part of CCP leaders if they are to ever bridge this gap. Although it has yet to resolve the disconnect between the hukou legacy of stationary social services provision and its newly mobile labor force, the CCP does appear to be using slightly less blunt tools of leverage in its effort to cope with migrant flows these days. According to this piece from UPenn's Wharton School (via YaleGlobal), the government's recent increases in farming subsidy incentives combined with the persistently low wages offered to migrant laborers — the article notes that, on top of the absence of a social safety net, "[s]ome studies indicate that in the last 12 years, migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta have seen their monthly salaries go up only 68 yuan. If inflation is taken into account, migrant workers' income has actually declined" — may have been enough to prompt a slowdown (and maybe even some reverse flows) in the number of individuals seeking work in the cities, enough that many coastal factories are actually starting to see persistent labor shortages.
In January 2004, the first year of the labor shortage, the government issued new rules to extend the land contract time for farmers in order to improve productivity. Many migrant workers then left their jobs in cities and went back to their villages. Also that year, farmers received additional subsidies from the central government because of a short supply of grains. Over the past three years, the central government has stepped up its efforts to help farmers by lowering taxes and improving their incomes. [-- Although note that in reducing these taxes, the government is also reducing a major source of revenue for local governments; check out this Jamestown Federation brief for more on the problems this causes - mc] All those measures have helped narrow the income gap between farmers and migrant workers. As a result, says Zhong [Naiyi, a researcher at Shanghai Institute for International Studies], "it pays better to stay with" farming.
The article suggests that this process has the potential to challenge China's status as a low-cost manufacturer — which could threaten the country's rapid economic growth (and the Communist Party's legitimacy, which is now closely tied to it) should its workforce fail to make the transition to more value-added processes. But the rural labor surplus remains massive: something on the order of 150-200 million people. It's hard to imagine that farming can possibly absorb all of them, no matter what kind of incentives the government tries. Should urban worker wages rise, as the Wharton piece suggests they eventually will should coastal manufacturers continue to face local hiring shortfalls, I would expect the short-term attraction of government-subsidized farming to diminish and the movement towards the cities to renew — which, if the Chinese economy begins shifting away from labor-intensive sweatshop manufacturing to more human capital-intensive higher value services, only promises to compound existing labor surplus problems.
May 13, 2006
Being detached from American society for an extended period of time makes it hard for me to easily evaluate news like this, as heavily mediated as my impressions of life back in the States right now are, but I think cyberpunk SF author (and oddly-slow-and-deliberate-public-speaker for a writer of such fast-paced, intricate works) William Gibson is definitely on to something regarding the question of why U.S. public opinion might be ambivalent about the Bush administration's NSA programs despite their Orwellian overtones, dubiously usefulness, and tenuous constitutionality.
Speaking on Radio Open Source, Gibson says:
I've been watching with keen interest since the first NSA scandal surfaced. I've noticed on the Internet that there aren't many people who're really shocked about this. I think that what's going is that our popular culture, our real sort of 'dirt-ball street culture' teaches us from childhood that the CIA is listening to all of our telephone calls and reading all of our email anyway.
And I constantly see that as a response in sort of the 'lower discourse' of the Internet, people saying, "Oh, they're doing it anyway." In some way our culture believes that, and it's a real problem, because evidently they haven't been doing it anyway, and now that they've started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response, but it's very hard to get some people on board because they think it's a fait acompli.
This is something I've run into in conversations as well myself, the most recent instance being a debate with some Saga JETs about the various allegations contained in John Perkins' book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, in which the author purports to have been hired by a mysterious woman working for the NSA for the purpose of tricking/bribing/threatening the leaders developing countries into taking on massive debt in order to fund infrastructure projects that enrich his American corporate masters... or something along those lines. I have yet to read the book and found his appearance on Radio Open Source less than thoroughly convincing, but Perkins' apparently misinformed or otherwise willfully misleading account of just what the NSA actually does namely signals intelligence and technical surveillance, not covert operations, assassinations, or James Bond auditions should already be a big red flag in regards to his credibility.
People who get their knowledge of intelligence operations solely from Hollywood — who surely must be happy to have a new, even more super-secret agency to supplant the old CIA clichés — might be forgiven for thinking this is nothing out of the ordinary, though, which as Gibson says poses problems when you're trying to make the case that the President and his administration have overstepped the bounds of normal and acceptable practice.
May 11, 2006
Ok, ok, so no, I was not eaten by any tigers, nor was there any romance by the riverside — it's just taken me a while to find the time where I can sit down and recall the full two weeks of my trip. I doubt I'll be able to do it much justice now, but I'd better try before it gets buried under the daily grind of Ken and Demi. So without further ado, here is another installment of "MC MasterChef's Travelogues Across Asia". If you feel like cutting straight to it, the pictures are here.
The start of May is "Golden Week" here in Japan, also known as "the only time the Japanese ever allow themselves to take a holiday from work besides New Year's". It's a block of three or four national holidays all in the span of a week, and many families take the opportunity to take a trip to Tokyo Disneyland, the temples of Kyoto, the beaches of Okinawa, or some other attraction during this time. Being blessed in my JET contract with twenty paid vacation days and the mercenary work ethic that allows me to burn through them all without guilt, I took a full two weeks to go visit that hot-spot of tourism... Bangladesh.
I went with a group of nine other JET teachers from my home prefecture of Saga, plus one young Japanese woman who was a friend of our team leader. The eleven of us spent the first couple of months of this year fundraising for our trip, and brought with us over $5000 in donations, which is about enough to build five solid homes in Bangladesh, including all materials, construction costs, and administration.
I took the bus up to Fukuoka International Airport early Saturday morning on the 22nd, where the full group met up and made our way to the plane. Oddly enough, there weren't an abundance of direct flights from Japan to Bangladesh, so we ended up going through Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines; on the way over, our layover was about six hours in KL, so we just hung around the (quite nice) airport, although the return trip gave us almost a full day to wander around the city.
No matter how far I'm going, air travel always seems to consume the whole day, and this was no exception: we arrived in Dhaka past midnight, which felt like about 3:00 AM back in Japan. We queued through immigration and picked up our bags, then stepped out into the muggy night air to face a crowd of men hanging around idly on the opposite site of high iron gates that shielded the taxi drive-up from the onlookers. We milled about uneasily for a few minutes, not sure what to do, before the HFH Bangladesh Volunteer Coordinator, whose name was Sanjay, showed up with two vans to whisk us out of there and off to our guest house for the night. As we hurtled down the nearly empty Airport Road, heat lighting rumbling overhead. Soon enough we were turning into the tree-lined Banani District, part of the upscale foreign and diplomatic quarter where most of the citie's better guest houses stand. I vividly remember passing a young Bangladeshi woman — alone as she was, at that time of night, I imagine she may have been a streetwalker — draped in a sari, standing in the shadows of a tree, with huge dark kohl-rimmed eyes staring back as our van passed.
Our first morning in Dhaka was devoted to changing money — not an easy process, as all of us had brought big blocks of yen, which the first place we went to either had no interest in or otherwise wasn't able to accomodate. Eventually we were able to get the cash taken care of, after which we went to visit the national Habitat Bangladesh offices. Besides adding another Habitat t-shirt to my ever-growing collection, I gained a bit more information about the country, which I'm really only broadly familiar with in the context of its separation from Pakistan back in 1971. A riverine country, floods and other natural disasters have taken a heavy toll on Bangladesh's development, as has serious corruption and governance problems and an increasingly dysfunctional political process — our departure from Dhaka to the Haluaghat affiliate where we would be building was delayed by several hours because opposition parties had called a general strike in an attempt to destablize the sitting government, which partisans often enforce by force . According to the briefing they presented to us, 70% of the country lives in substandard housing, of which 35 million are children. While NGOs and microcredit assistance programs are very active in the country, and the garment industry has found some success as a lost-cost exporter, its per capita income is only $440 a year, and most other indicators are not much better. If that wasn't enough, a lot of the wells dug in the past to provide clean water for the countryside turned out to have significant levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in them — it was going to be bottled water for us, but the Bangladeshis didn't all have that luxury. Put it another way: the picture of Dhaka above is taken in what is supposed to be one of the nicer parts of the city.
By early evening the roads had opened up and we were able to begin the three hour drive to the affiliate of Haluaghat. We passed some pretty amazing scenes on our way up, some of which I was able to capture despite our driver's break-neck speeds. Bangladeshi rules of the road can essentially be summarized as "everybody yields to the biggest, noisiest, fastest vehicle". It was chaotic as hell and there were a couple points where we were bearing down on a huge oncoming TATA Group heavy truck a little too fast for my liking, but amazingly the system seemed to work: rickshaw drivers really would pedal to the side of the road, and slower trucks would let you pass, and we did make it through the whole two weeks without any accidents, although sometimes I wonder how. After four hours or so of driving we arrived late at night at our guest house in Haluaghat, which was part of a hospital compound just outside the center of the market town.
Our first day of building began the next day, Monday. There were two work sites, both a ways further out into the fields and villages around Haluaghat, and I worked a bit on the first one before switching mid-week; I wanted to mix groups around to get a chance to work with everyone, but people quickly became attached to their worksites and didn't want to move. Had I been leading the trip, I think I would've made a greater effort to mix people around, but oh well. I only got the story behind the first family. They owned their own land and were living in the parents-in-law's home, and sought to move out to something more spacious and more sustainable than the tin shack they were all living in. The father-in-law and the husband of the family were both masons, so they did most of the bricklaying work while we carried bricks, wetted them down (to aid in the setting of the cement) and shovelled big piles of dirt and sand into the house to fill up the foundation and raise the floor. It was good sweaty work, of the kind that I've been increasingly desperate for during my extended time here in Japan, although late in the afternoon our labor was interrupted by a swift storm that blew up almost out of nowhere, forcing us to scramble to bring everything in before the rain came. I'm not sure if scrambling to scrape, shovel, and brush up a huge pile of drying grain into baskets while storm winds whipped up around us and the family's children all scurried to help was my favorite moment from the entire trip (and it might have been, now that I look back on it) but it certainly was an exciting way to finish a work day. We sat out the storm on their old porch and then walked back to the vans, it being too wet to do any more bricklaying for the day.
That evening we had our welcome ceremony at the local Tribal Welfare Association. The people living in the Haluaghat area were not ethnic Bangladeshis, but rather a tribal people known as the Garos, with their own distinct culture and language; as you can probably see in the pictures, many people had facial features far more reminiscent of Southeast Asia or the South Pacific than the Indian subcontinent. Not too many of them were Muslim, either, which means a lot of the cultural cautions we had been prepared against didn't actually end up applying. The welcome ceremony was pretty nice, although the master of ceremony's repeated exultations for us to welcome the next dancing group "with a big clapping!" were a little overbearing thanks to the speaker set up right next to our heads. Ah but they meant well.
The second day unfortunately was not so good — despite their having a special chef there for us at the guest house and using bottled water for everything from drinking to brushing teeth, something snuck its way down my digestive track and had me pretty well out of commission for the better part of the day, and decidedly off potato curry for the rest of the trip. I went home from the work site at about eleven, and slept until the others returned at 4:00. It sucked, because I really wanted to be working, but in the end that was it for me — and several others, like our team leader Aine, were not as lucky when they came down with stomach bugs later in the week which lasted several days.
Fortunately, after sleeping most of the day I was well enough in the evening to join the rest of a group in an excursion into town, wandering around the marketplace at Haluaghat's center. Being a gaijin in Japan sort of prepares you for being an object of attention, but Bangladeshi curiosity towards visiting foreigners is if possible several of order of magnitudes greater than what I get here in Karatsu — we drew stares everywhere we went, and when one of our group stopped to buy a pair of sandals a crowd of twenty to thirty people congregated outside to watch. We were the first Global Village team to visit the Haluaghat affiliate, and if we weren't the first foreigners to ever visit, we were certainly a rare enough appearance to merit intense interest from anyone who saw us. It could be a little off-putting, although I don't think it bothered me quite as much as it did some of the others — I never felt ill will from the crowd, just maybe a few flickers of claustrophobia at moments. I can't imagine what they must've thought about us.
Wednesday morning we went to visit a local school rather the usual build; Aine and a few others had collected large donations of pencils, notebooks, and other school supplies, and so we went to deliver that and see school life in Bangladesh. The school was a Catholic one — apparently the Portuguese came through here, way back when, and a few were still around — serving all grades; we only visited the primary school part as the secondary school students were testing during the time. Many classrooms had over sixty students to them (although that may of been the entire grade, I think) and as the headmaster told us, many came to school without basic supplies or even breakfast. They were luckier than many of their peers, though, in that they were recieving some kind of education at all; many Bangladeshi kids their age were already working, and there were regular swarms of them around the second work site, where I went after lunch. They worked alongside us carting bricks and shovelling sand — actually, they directed us on what to do, more often than not — and they also went mad whenever you pulled out a camera, so I had to be sneaky if I wanted a picture of something other than a crowd of kids pressing up on my camera. Still they were fun to work and play with, and a few older ones even spoke a bit of English.. in the interest of internationalization, we taught them how to count in Japanese too.
By the fourth day we were well into the rhythm of the work site, although our site had another break in the morning when a representative from another NGO in the area came to visit — word gets around about our visit — and asked if we would be interested in seeing their project. We took a break from building and drove a ways to a nearby village, where this group — I never got a name, although they suggested they were somehow affiliated with the UN — was working on improving agricultural techniques and developing artisan skills. About this time the sky opened up and dumped down several thousand gallons of rain, which meant we weren't able to see much of the facilities, but we did get an opportunity to sample some delicious, delicious chutney, which we bought about 20 jars of between the five of us. The rain blew off and we headed back along the dirt road to our build site... or should I say, the formerly dirt, now squelching mud road. This was one of the few situations where an SUV might've actually been useful, as our little minivan got itself stuck in the mud right behind a huge truck. Our driver must've done something awful to his transmission spinning his wheels trying to get out, but eventually with enough shoulder power we were able to shift the thing out, returning mud-splattered but triumphant to finish the rest of the day at work.
The next day was a solid work day — we pounded the floor level with a big cement block-tipped bamboo pole, then threw on more dirt, then pounded it flat again. Splashing bricks with water to help set the cement was also immensely enjoyable work. The next day was our final on the site, working till around 1:00, taking our farewell pictures with the family, and then returning back to the guest house to pack and prepare for the farewell ceremony, again at the Tribal Center. This time we performed a song and dance for them — "We All Want to Say Dhonnobad (Thank You) To You", to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" — and of course there were also plenty of dances for us to welcome with a big clapping. The whole thing lasted till the power cut out — not sure if that was intentional or not, but at a good two hours long, it was about time by then — after which we split up to do a "homestay" that evening. I ended up staying with two other guys and Sanjay at the house of the Haluaghat affiliate director, so homestay is perhaps overly generous — basically it was a bunch of sitting around, talking, and drinking, till far too late in the evening for me. I think everyone was pretty drained by this point, and having just bid our farewells it was a little difficult to play guest for the evening, but being in a big group I was able to let the others do the talking and excuse myself early (11:00ish) for bed. The next morning we woke up, loaded our vans, and made the drive back to Dhaka — which went allright, except for our late start and the radiator on our van blowing out on the freeway about ten minutes from our guest house. Good thing we had all those cases of bottled water...
We had about four days to travel on our own, and Sanjay had earlier recommended a tour of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Bangladeshi tourist infrastructure is fairly marginal, so we all agreed that a trip downriver sounded like the best option available to fill our last few days of travel. We met our tour guide that evening in Dhaka and paid about $300 apiece for a two night, three day cruise down through the forest and back. The next day a quick early morning flight on a 20-seater prop plane took us to Jessore, from which we took a big bus another hour or so south to the large port of Khulna, where we boarded our boat for the cruise.
I kind of like the sensation of being contained in the separate world of a ship at sail, and this was quite a nice one to be spending time on, although there was a bit of cabin fever — probably inevitable given that we'd been spending the past week or more together as a group already. The cruise downriver took us all the way to the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, where on the second day we took a smaller skiff out down one of the side rivers deeper into the forest. No man-eating tigers — maybe just as well, as they kill about twenty people a year, and we had no desire to add to the tally — but there were plenty of mangroves, mudskippers, birds, and (from a distance too great for my camera) deer and monkeys to see. We went back to the boat for the lunch, then went out again to hike through a grassy area and onto a big white-sand beach for frisbee and driftwood cricket. The Sundarbans were quite beautiful, and it was a nice relaxing end to the build — although of course the trip wasn't over just yet.
Our third day we boated back to Khulna, and spent a night in a hotel there — not a very restful one, as by my estimate I got only about four hours of sleep, at best. We departed at 5:30 AM for Jessore and from there flew on to Dhaka, where we went back to our first guest house, got two rooms to drop our stuff, and — after a mere hour nap, in my case — hit the town. Unfortunately, I had only a vague notion of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see, so I was much less successful in my explorations than some of the rest of our group who went off separately — basically, I rode around in a succession of taxis, pedicabs, and rickshaws in an attempt to find things, and ended up missing most all of the attractions Lonely Planet had promised me were around there somewhere. It was fairly frustrating — especially since some of the other groups came back with the lungis, spices, and cricket sets I had wanted to buy myself (well, maybe not the cricket set), and the only market I ever managed to find was one for sheet metal, which wasn't quite what I had in mind for a souvenir. In the end I had to admit defeat, took brief refuge in the Dhaka Sheraton cafe — a surreal island of wealth and air conditioning near the center of the city — and returned to our guest house empty-handed. So much for my day in Dhaka. There was no catching up on sleep either, as soon enough we were packing up and taxiing to the airport for our midnight departure. The music from Star Wars as we boarded the plane — Luke Skywalker's theme, specifically — was a nice touch but didn't help all that much; I'm kind of hazy on the flight so I might've dozed a little bit, but I doubt that I could've slept for much more than one or two hours of the whole six-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.
We had almost a full 20 hours to kill in KL before our second midnight departure in a row, so there was to be no rest for the weary here. I calculated at one point that, by the time I set foot on the plane that evening, I would've gone 64 hours on somewhere between six and ten hours of sleep — although the later number was almost assuredly too generous, and it was probably closer to the former. The KL airport air conditioning was far too cold to allow any comfortable sleep on their benches (I had packed my jacket in my checked bag back in Bangladesh) so it was out to explore the city for me. KL was a marked contrast to the squalor of Dhaka — Malaysia may still be developing, but you wouldn't guess it from downtown Kuala Lumpur, which hides whatever poverty there might be there very well. Had I been a little more coherent, I would've liked to have explored it more fully, as it seems like a pretty interesting place — certainly far more multiethnic than Japan, and at least as cosmopolitan in appearance as a big city like Fukuoka or Nagasaki. Sitting in the huge KL Petronas Towers mall, I was actually very strongly reminded of America — not just because of the shops and the money on display, but also the (comparatively) diverse crowd and the fact that Malaysia fashion sense appears to be much less... uh, agressive than what you're liable to see wandering around the commercial hot spots of Japan. Of course, two hours of waiting around in a mall for the rest of my group to finish and my prolonged sleeplessness had me teetering a little bit on the edge by the end of it — mall culture is pretty disturbing even under the best of circumstances, and I was thoroughly horrified with it all by the time we escaped to dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the KL Tower. My appetite was pretty near gone and I was too stressed and exhausted to enjoy it, so I'm afraid it was a bit of a sour finish to the trip... finally we made it back to the airport for our flight home to Fukuoka, which I was able to sleep a little bit on, I think. Eight or more hours later, I made it home to Karatsu, where I collapsed and slept until around 9:00 PM.
I had some high hopes for this trip, and in honesty I'm not sure I can say they were totally met, although I've done this enough that I know I can't really expect every build I go on to be "the best one ever". It certainly did feel much different building overseas than it does back home, though; our biggest contribution to the process there was clearly our substantial donation, rather than the raw unskilled labor of shifting dirt and bricks, which obviously Bangladesh has a fair amount of to spare already. When you're nailing two-by-foors and installing windows and fastening hurricane strapping, you physically know your being there is contributing something to the process of improving people's lives... that feeling was slightly less evident here, although there was still enough work to go around that we could end the day good and sweaty and sore.
Being conspicuously, consciously wealthy relative to the rest of the local population was another fairly constant discomforting factor during my time there that probably had more to do with it being my first visit to a developing country than it did my work with Habitat (although doubtless a volunteering trip had me more conscious of it than travelling through by backpack would've). The priveleges of American birth is something I'm often aware of living here in Saga — I've actually been meaning to write more about it on here — but in Bangladesh you could rarely ever shake the sensation of being the rich (charity) tourists. A mere four bucks or so (more precisely, 250 taka) bought us buffet lunch at a fancy Indian restaurant with gated entry, guards, and a good dozen or more waiters (despite the fact that the buffet was self-serve). The feeling of being filthy rich was one of the subtle differences between building back at home and volunteering in a developing country that gave me this sense of, "we can't possibly be doing enough here".. the raw poverty of Dhaka and the remoteness of the Bangladeshi countryside limited my ability to take great satisfaction in a job otherwise well done. Habitat for Humanity is not set up to — realistically, cannot — help everyone in the world, but the limited state of development in Bangladesh made it harder to celebrate our accomplishments at the end of the build; there was clearly so much more that needed to be done. I do believe that helping individual families is worth doing, if for no other reason than to make a difference in some people's lives, and for having at least tried, but there's clearly much more to overcome in a country like Bangladesh than what I'm used to back home. Our visit to the school apparently inspired some of the students and teachers there to start their own volunteer group, though, so there's still hope for improvement, however incremental it might be.
All in all it was quite the trip, and I'm sure I'll be digesting its impact on me more as time passes. There's already talk of a trip to Nepal next year, although if that's the case I may not be leading it after all.. which would be sort of a shame, since, as fun as being a HFH participant is, I miss being Fearless Leader most of all. That's far in the future for the moment though, and for now I'd better stop here before this gets any longer.