Shallow Fakes

Surely by now you have heard of “deep fakes.”

In their most insidious form, these are doctored videos that appear real. As technology improves, so does the ability to create convincing and deceptive videos.

The fear is that people will believe these deep fakes which will then lead to some change in attitude or behavior.

While deep fakes are interesting, we have been dealing with instances of this forever. We’ve always had the “shallow fake,” or low-effort deception.

And these can be surprisingly effective.

My favorite example is from 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was intensifying and becoming more dangerous. A militant group claimed to have captured US soldier “John Adam.” I remember seeing this photo making its way around the internet.

Of course, it looks fake now.

But in 2005, when the internet was still a pretty new thing, it gave pause. I remember scrutinizing the picture myself, thinking it must be fake, but still wondering.

Deception doesn’t always have to change minds or win the war. It can just cause angst and bureaucratic churn.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Gertrude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

cairo conference picture at the pyramids

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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The Ghost of Iraq

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

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“I’m Proud to be an American.”

“So what are you, in the Marines or something?” This was his cold open. His head rested against the seat. He looked straight, eyes hidden behind large brown sunglasses.

“No, I’m in the Army,” I said.

“Are you like, coming back from Iraq?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“Oh, I do not agree with that at all. I’m glad you’re back home.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Do you want a Bloody Mary or anything? I need a Bloody Mary.”

He was probably in his late twenties. Well dressed, with a day’s stubble on his face. He seemed exhausted. He told me he was hungover from a night of partying and heading back home to New York.

“So did you have to shoot anyone?” he asked with the casual air of a mother asking her child if he had homework today.

“Yes, I fired my rifle.”

“Oh my god,” he said, finally looking towards me, flipping up his sunglasses, “did you kill anyone?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

Since this was the first time I was going home on leave after war, I was wearing my dress uniform. It was issued to me before I even began basic training. I weighed 140 pounds then. This was three years later and I had put on 20 pounds. The uniform was tight, but looked good. It felt very strange to be traveling like this, but I wanted my parents to experience it. I kind of wanted to experience it too.

The flight attendant delivered the Bloody Mary. Her vest was full of pins. Most were variations of American flags and yellow ribbons. Some were of military units I was familiar with. She placed a coke on my tray.

“My son is in the 101st Airborne Division. Thank you very much for you service,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

My new friend leaned forward and eagerly stirred his drink with a piece of green celery and took a large sip.

“So do you have to go back?”

“Not anytime soon,” I said.

“Well that’s good.”

He became more talkative. He talked about his party last night and the partying he is going to do in New York when he gets there. He says he’s tired of it all. I don’t say much back to him.

My uniform is too tight.

I spend most of the flight looking out the window. It’s a short flight. North Carolina to New York.

The pilot announces we are making our approach. The flight attendant gets on the microphone and tells us to raise our seats and place our trays in their upright position to prepare for landing.

At the point in which she would normally say to sit back and relax, we’ll be on the ground shortly, she instead announces that we are privileged to have a real American soldier on board, just back from Iraq. This gets a round of applause.

As the applause dies out, she begins to sing.

From the lakes of Minnesota
To the hills of Tennessee

“Holy shit, this is crazy!” my now drunk friend says, excitedly.

Across the plains of Texas
From sea to shining sea

I can see the flight attendant at the front of the plane, singing into the microphone. Heads are turning in their seats with wide smiles to see me. My uniform suddenly feels huge.

From Detroit down to Houston
And New York to L.A.
Where’s pride in every American heart
And it’s time we stand and say

Everyone is singing now. My friend is looking at me with a wide grin.

That I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.

The passengers erupt into applause and the plane lands a moment later.

I’m in the back of the plane, sweating. I take my time and will be one of the last to get off.

My friend gets his luggage and wishes me luck. He disappears into the rush of people getting off the plane.

I make my way to the front of the plane and thank the flight attendant as I get off. She shakes my hand but doesn’t say anything special. I get the impression that this experience wasn’t unique. She’s done this before.

My parents are in the terminal. They look impressed with my uniform.

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There will be no memorial

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”

“No,” he said flatly.

Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.

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A broken, tattered, rejected, unemployed, homeless, longform piece about war

soldiers in as samawah
Samawah

Earlier today I posted a long-form piece titled “The Battle of As Samawah.” It is a highly polished version a series of blog posts from my Iraq:Ten Years Later project from last year. I submitted it to a writing contest and it was rejected. So it’s homeless now, but I figured I might as well put it up here.

It’s almost 10,000 words, so it will take a good 20 to 30 minutes to read, if you’re interested.

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Nothing Is Over

My letters home, arranged by month
My letters home, arranged by month

Here’s another post that’s been sitting on my hard drive that was supposed to get published somewhere else.

Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.

Violence in Iraq has steadily spiraled out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”

But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.

There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’

If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.

That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.

Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and layout all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.

That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences – bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.

My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.

The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.

I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.

The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.

Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.

Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgotten. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who were now young adults. I wondered if they remembered me, or if they were even still alive.

Back in August, I grew disgusted with the whole thing. Iraq was getting worse and no one seemed to care. I thought about stopping the project. I was exhausted and angry.

I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.

And now I’m done. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year-long project is over. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.

It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag – a symbolic gesture – to wrestle the attention of a media-saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.

I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.

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The Great North East Blackout of 2003 and the Fury of the Veteran (August 15, 2003)

I was leaning against the locked door that leads to the next car of the F train, hands in the pockets of a new $300 leather jacket I just bought with war money. I was home on mid-tour leave from Iraq. It was December, 2003. Saddam Hussein would be captured in a few days. I was heading to Manhattan from my parents’ home in Queens for some fun.

There were plenty of seats available but I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to watch. The light above me was out, casting my corner a little darker than the rest of the car. I leaned there, rocking back and forth, straining my abdominal and leg muscles to try and stay as still as possible, enjoying the way my back lightly slammed against the thick glass of the door, over and over again. I watched the silent, tired commuters sitting there, all bundled up for winter, listening to music, reading, sleeping, staring into space.

Not caring about the war in Iraq.

My mind raced back to Baghdad and the thought that somewhere out there, right now, some young American soldier like me was experiencing the worst terror of his life. Right. Now.

The train rocked to a stop at 169th street in Queens and the conductor said something inaudible. The bell rang and the doors opened, and then closed. No one got off and no one got on.

As the train lurched out of the station and got back up to speed, the rumbling drowned out anything but the conversation happening in my own head. I shouted to myself internally how these people had no idea what was going on over there, what we were doing for them. Look at them, they don’t even care.

I thought back to the summer.

August 15, 2003.

“Did you hear about this blackout back home?”

I shifted barely on my cot, turning towards the source of the question. I felt my damp skin lightly peel away from the canvas.

“No, what blackout?” I responded.

“Apparently there is a big blackout all over the northeast. Everyone’s bitching about it.”

“New York, too?” I asked, propping my head up in my hand as I lay on my side, suddenly a bit more interested.

“Yeah, they’re bitching the most.”

I laughed slightly.

“Waah! I’ve got no electricity and now I can’t go to work for a few days!” another soldier interjected from across the bay, overhearing the exchange.

“What do they have to bitch about? It’s like a 120˚ here and we don’t even have air conditioning. Plus, people are trying to kill us!” came another soldier, piling on.

“If they only had to do this for a couple – no, if they had to do this for like, one day, they’d stop their bitching.”

August 3, 2013. From Disgrunted Vet, a poem by Nathan Allen Hruska:

No, my countrymen would rather
regurgitate their professor rhetoric,

upgrade to the newest smartphone,
complain to their overpaid therapist,
blog about their first world problems,
while my friends are dead, or still dying.

How can I love my flag so dearly
and hate my country so deeply?

I started this blog post wanting to write about the blackout of 2003 from my perspective as a miserable soldier in Baghdad. I have been recounting my deployment for my blog and this was a unique moment in the deployment.

The theme of the post was going to be of the “oh you think you had it bad” sort. We were infuriated that anyone back home would complain about having a power outage when we were overseas in a terribly austere environment that was significantly worse. We were bitter and jealous, but also feeling entitled.

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but this generation of veterans – myself included, as per my internal tantrum on the F train – likes to compare any inconvenience that civilians might complain about to our current or worst possible circumstance, and then self-righteously declare that those people back home have no right to complain because at least they aren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.

This, I think, is probably one of the byproducts of being constantly reminded – mostly by ourselves – that we’re a part of the “less than 1%” who serve in the military. Then there are the predictable interruptions in sporting events and political speeches to “recognize the service and sacrifice of our military.” All nice gestures that have become robotic and meaningless through forced repetition.

Like Nathan writes about in his poem, and like I experienced on the F train while on leave, I think at some point we (veterans) can’t help but compare what we’re experiencing and what we’ve experienced to the candy-laden reality we see in the media. It can be maddening.

But it’s also unfair.

When Nathan writes about his countrymen preferring to update their smartphones than honor their war dead, it’s not an actual thing that is happening, just as when I stared hard at the tired New York commuters with hate, for – I don’t even know what. They just weren’t experiencing what I experienced, and it made me angry.

We roll our eyes at constantly being called heroes and blush at the unsolicited ‘thank you’s’ at the airport, yet we get outraged if someone complains about a power outage without mentioning how bad we have it on the frontier.

All that said, I think this is all part of the process of “transitioning,” a word that gets thrown around a lot in veteran circles without ever being really discussed. You can’t just read this blog post and suddenly understand that it’s okay to let people complain about losing their power, or to ‘ooh and aah’ over a new smartphone, all while American service members are fighting and dying overseas. I think, “transitioning” is a process that does not have a set timeline or result. Every veteran’s experience will vary. And it is a thing that has to be experienced as an individual. And that’s okay.

But seriously, you have no idea how hot it was in Baghdad 2003 and you have no right to complain.

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