Lost Treasures

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The largest Buddha before it was destroyed.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

We are used to seeing horrifying images and video propaganda from ISIS and last week we saw new disturbing images showing the wanton destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Jihadists can be seen toppling statues, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers and using power tools to grind off the faces of the Assyrian artifacts, many of which date back 3,000 years. Mercifully most of the artifacts are replicas after some 1500 objects from the museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping. However the larger statues that were destroyed are originals.

The most devastating loss is the lamassu—large winged human-headed bulls– at the Nergal Gate. The beautiful and intricate gate was built during the expansion of Ninevah sometime between 704 and 690 BC. The images were destroyed with a jackkammer and it appears the damage is irreparable. The worst damage was done to the 2,000 year-old sculptures from Hatra and the damage is catastrophic. And this attempt to erase all culture other than Islamic didn’t stop there. In another appalling attack on Iraq’s heritage ISIS militants have bulldozed the Nimrud archaeological site in northern Iraq. “They are erasing our history,” said Iragi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani.

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ISIS destroying 2,000 year old Hatra sculptures.

In 2001 the Taliban, on orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited and destroyed the twin 6th century Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Bamyan in central Afghanistan. The larger Buddha was over 190 feet tall and the smaller was over 114 feet tall. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs and details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. They were painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller in multiple colors.

I was in my office on Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier when one of our Afghan interpreters, Dr. Najibullah came in to see me. Before the Taliban came to power he worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for hiding and saving many artifacts before the Taliban destroyed them just as ISIS is doing now. He held out a piece of gravel he had picked up from the road outside. It was stained with red. “This is from the Buddha,” he said with sadness in his voice. He wanted to give it to me, but I made him keep it. I simply could not take even a fragment of this ancient treasure. It would have broken my heart every time I looked at it.

From primitive to modern man humans have always used art to express what their lives are like. Whether it is a cave painting of animal hunts or sculptures of ancient Gods these legacies tell us where we came from and that is something every society has the right to know. I recently had my DNA tested and when I got the results and saw my diverse ethnic heritage it was thrilling. It gave me a sense of place and belonging. Just as we marvel at our history when we visit Washington, DC and gaze upon all the monuments and memorials that celebrate our heritage, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan deserved the right to look upon their past and marvel at the artistry of their ancestors.

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The site of the large Buddha after being destroyed by the Taliban.

Any religion or culture that destroys the past has no future. While Japan and Switzerland have pledged money to restore the Bamyan Buddhas, it just won’t be the same. The tranquil giants that looked benignly down on the valley, as travelers from China made their way to the west on the Silk Road for almost 2,000 years, were destroyed by fanatic Islamic jihadists who are so narrow-minded they cannot tolerate music, art, books or secular education. When these historic legacies vanish a part of humanity vanishes and the treasures of ancient Assyrians in Iraq and the Buddhas in Afghanistan can now only be marveled at by looking at photographs.

It should come as no surprise that fanatic extremists who do not care for human life would have no respect or reverence for art. As an artist it is a loss that I take personally and I am thankful that dedicated individuals such as Dr. Najibullah preserved some of the heritage that belongs not only to Afghanistan, but to the world.

We Served Too

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Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I am afraid he might just ask me the same question.

While I was in Afghanistan there were several American civilians killed in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Some I knew, some I only knew of, but each death filled me with despair. It takes a special person to voluntarily leave everything they know and work in dangerous areas of the world. Some people go for financial reasons, some crave adventure, but the vast majority of aid workers go because they have a sincere desire to help people who are suffering. When you make the decision to go to work in danger zones you have to accept and make peace with the reality that you could die or be injured. But seeing such a person lose their life is heartbreaking.

In 2007, 29-year old USDA Forest Service employee, Tom Stefani, was killed when an armored vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Working in Ghazni Province, he was developing and implementing an agricultural plan that included a poultry rearing facility, a cold storage facility and a grape production improvement project. While visiting an orphanage in Ghazni he learned that the children did not have enough toys and no playground equipment. He immediately launched a plan to raise money from family and friends for a playground for the orphanage. When Tom was killed his family created a fund to make sure his dream came true. In 2010, that dream became a reality as a playground dedicated to his memory was erected at the Ghazni orphanage and he would have been thrilled to hear the children laughing as they played on the equipment.

A fact that is often overlooked is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside them. Civilian workers include military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing the U.S., journalists and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions — many of them humanitarian.

Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” To date, 1569 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq and 65 have died as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The cost of war is high in blood and treasure and it can be deadly for civilians who choose to do their part to serve their country, to not only ensure freedom but also to try to make life better for the innocents who suffer the wraiths of war—disease, famine, poverty, displacement and terror.

When civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military personnel receive. Yet they too get injured and killed. And even when they return home safely — mission completed — they and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who serve in high threat and danger zones.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced disgraceful delays from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered — civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries — including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression also have difficulty in receiving the help they need to recover.

In terms of psychological well-being, a 2013 RAND study, “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for PTSD in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that — dangerous — and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who risk their lives for others.  A new organization, We Served Too (WS2), has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and to create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones.

We will never win wars by how much money we spend or by how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the on-on-one interactions that we share, interactions that civilians are in a perfect position to initiate. It is in the exchanged smiles, the touch of a hand, the expression of compassion where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists that real success can be found. We who served too don’t need parades or medals, but we would like to know that someone remembers that we were also willing to lay down our lives for our country. We would like to be remembered for reaching out to those who are suffering around the world.

I used to pass by the flag pole at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and see the memorial marker stone for Tom Stefani and many times I would pick a rose and lay it there because I wanted Tom’s family and friends to know that in the war torn country he loved, he was remembered.

 

Why Creating Jobs Won’t Stop ISIS

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Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph, – Haile Selassie

I served 26 months in Afghanistan as a USDA agricultural advisor from 2010-2012. I was a part of the historic Civilian Uplift that President Obama implemented at the same time as the military surge in 2010 and was part of a multi-discipline Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). The strategy was to put civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan to win hearts and minds by creating economic growth and stability. In other words – create jobs. The desired effect was that the insurgents would be so grateful for these opportunities they would lay down their weapons, stop attacking us and say goodbye to their old terrorizing ways.

Since 2001 we have spent over 2 trillion dollars in Afghanistan and before that 2 trillion in Iraq. That works out to $15 million dollars a day. Right now taxpayers are paying $10.54 million dollars for the costs of war in Afghanistan and Iraq every hour. In Iraq we have spent over $60 billion for reconstruction projects. The U.S. Special Inspector General along with Iraqi leaders judged the program to be a miserable failure. Instead of evaluating the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts and developing a strategy that might actually work we went on into Afghanistan with the thought process of “this should work; we just need to pump more money into it”. The U.S. spent over $104 billion on reconstruction from 2002 to June 2013 for business, agriculture, and other development projects, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR’s final report suggests a significant amount of money has been poured into questionable projects with little or no oversight, evaluation or follow-up. This lack of accountability by the American government led SIGAR to conclude that we threw billions of dollars into Afghanistan with no strategic planning about how to do it the right way and has had no lasting benefit.

And reconstruction efforts came with costs other than monetary. In Iraq 318 Americans (U.S. military, federal civilian employees, and U.S. civilian contractors) lost their lives in stabilization-related projects. At least 786 people were wounded while performing reconstruction or stabilization-related missions. It is estimated that a whopping 25 percent of civilians deployed to war zones suffer from PTSD, 18 percent met the criteria for depression and 50 percent alcohol abuse. In fact, a report showed that more civilians contracted by the U.S. were killed in war zones between January and June of 2010 than American soldiers – 250 civilians versus 235 service members. The cost in blood and treasure has been enormous and what do we have to show for it? We have ISIS and the resurgence of the Taliban to show for it.

I went to Afghanistan with the desire to help people in a country ravaged by 40 years of war. I naively thought that by trying to help the agricultural sector to become sustainable I would improve lives. Then I saw children being brought to the Forward Operating Base I was on with broken arms and legs to get medical attention from the French clinic there. The Taliban had pulled them from their homes and broken their limbs telling their parents that if they continued to cooperate with the Americans the next time they would kill them. I recall meeting a young boy, maybe five years old with his broken arm tied up in a red bandana sling. His huge brown eyes were looking at me in fear because I was an American. I still have nightmares about those eyes.

We meant well. Our hearts were in the right place, but all the money we spent, all the lives lost did not create the type of enduring jobs that the State Department talking points tout. It didn’t work in Iraq, it didn’t work in Afghanistan and it won’t work in the future. We are on the government learning curve, which is a circle and the result is that we never learn.

The only way to defeat the spread of ISIS and the many Phoenix like resurrections is to kill as many as we can as quickly as we can. Put all that money we spend trying to develop economic stability in war zones into annihilating these beyond evil, subhuman Islamic jihadists. Then let the countries themselves develop their own jobs. We cannot buy loyalty by throwing massive amounts of taxpayer’s dollars into other countries. It doesn’t work. It didn’t then. It won’t now. Terrorists don’t want jobs, they only want to terrorize.