The Mouse and the Elephant

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Lt. Colonel Romani Sanikidze, (l), and Lt. Colonel Mayfield, photo by the author

This post originally appeared in The Nugget News, September 13, 2016.  This piece concluded my series from Hohenfels, however I will be adding some fresh afterthoughts here in the BC in the coming days.

JMRC Hohenfels, Germany.  When Russian troops poured through the Roki tunnel in 2008, after months of international legerdemain and carefully stage-managed provocations, Lt. Colonel Romani Sanikidze, of the Georgian Army, was a junior officer. He was also at home on leave, well into his cups, and thought the frantic phone call calling him to duty was a bad joke.

It wasn’t, and it was hardly unexpected, but the world was focused on the Olympics in Beijing, and so this four-day war, during which the Russians seized the provinces of South Ossettia and Abkhazia under dubious pretense, sank the Georgian Navy at anchor in the Black Sea, and came close to seizing the capital city of Tblisi, passed without much notice. And it largely remains that way.

Except to the Georgians.

Freed by the fall of the Soviet Union, the tiny nation of Georgia – with a population slightly less than that of Oregon – turned rapidly and aggressively to the West. They sought to finally control and exploit their own resources, to become a trading hub between East and West, and to join NATO for defense against the designs of their behemoth neighbors.

Imagine Oregon facing off against the rest of the United States.

But the Russians, knowing the rules for entering NATO, and fearing an expanse of this treaty pact into a region they once dominated – often brutally – balked. By invading Georgia, they created a disputed border, and nations with disputed borders don’t get to play with NATO. See Ukraine, 2016.

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A Georgian soldier on overwatch, photo by author

I spent my entire embed with the U.S. Marines and Georgian Army trying to get someone to talk about the Russians – a gigantic elephant in the world’s living room – on the record. Once, I flanked a U.S. Marine Colonel, caught him by surprise, and he began to speak openly about the uptick in Russian belligerence from the Baltic Sea to Syria, about the global challenges posed by the Russian turn toward aggressive Eurasianist ideology.

But the full bird’s reputation, if not his career, was rescued by his Sgt. Major, who nudged him and said, “This is all off the record, right, sir?”

And so I closed my notebook.

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Later, when the training evolution had drawn to its exhausting conclusion, I interviewed Sanikidze for a second time. I don’t know why, perhaps because we got on well – he invited me to stay in his home in Georgia – he agreed to speak on the record about the existential threat Russia poses to home.

This was no small act of courage, given that the Russians routinely send senior Georgian officers – and Western diplomats – birthday cards, or well-wishes on the birthday of a child; messages not meant to be enjoyed.

Lt. Colonel Sanikidze told me: “We will never kiss their behinds, never again. We are our own people, and we want to be free. We turned to the West, and we are not looking back.”

This sentiment was echoed by every Georgian I spoke to, including Lt. Colonel Ambroladze, who was perhaps even sharper: “The Russians are a cancer on the world,” he told me.

In Georgian folklore, the Georgians were sleeping off a drunk when God was handing out nations. When they awoke, the countries were all handed out, and so God gave them Georgia, which he also chose for himself.

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I learned that at a Georgian supra, which is a traditional feast, the final toast – and there are a LOT of toasts at a Georgian supra – is always reserved for the children, the next generation, who inherit everything we leave behind.

I found that poignant. Here at home, we seem to be engaging in an endless bout of hand-wringing, meme-writing, and pot-shotting over which athlete sits or stands during the national anthem, who uses which bathroom, and whether or not half of America is really corralled in a “basket of deplorables.” All of which are shameful, embarrassing, and decidedly First-World problems, exacerbated by a strange and nationwide intellectual and spiritual somnabulance.

So maybe we can learn something from the Georgians, who wake each morning under the shadow of Russian guns and hegemony, who take nothing for granted, who love to argue – about everything – and who have remained together as a people through centuries of daily hardship that we, in our decades of relative comfort, can only imagine.

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Reading the news, one wonders if Americans still have the stomach for the long fight of continuous improvement, the pioneering heart to see us through our great family squabbles, and to manage them without tearing the family apart. Given our increasing divisions, are we able to envision a common goal, to see ourselves made better by the struggle in reaching it, and to arrive there with more respect than ever for each other and the founding documents that make improvement both desirable and possible?

Or have we just become very good at a grenade-tossing righteousness?

Lt. Colonel Sanikidze is a remarkable man. He has done combat, against surreal odds, with an enemy parked in his backyard, one that would see his freedom, and the freedom of his children, buried forever beneath the designs of geopolitics. With his comrades, and for his people, he fights on.

At the end of our interview he drew me close. His eyes were hard. “You know,” he said, “sometimes even a mouse can kill an elephant.”

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The Eagle Huntress

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13 Year Old Aisholpan, With Her Eagle

This post originally appeared in The Nugget News, December 27, 2016

If you are a parent – particularly a father – and you have a daughter, or if you like great movie scenery, or even if you are merely a curmudgeon with gender axes to grind, here’s a fun holiday season idea: Go see “The Eagle Huntress” at Sisters Movie House.

Without ruining the narrative, here’s the basic breakdown of a wonderfully true story: A 13-year-old Kazakh girl in Mongolia, Aisholpan, wants to continue 12 generations of her family legacy by becoming an eagle hunter. Her father, Nurgaiv, who makes his living driving herds of goats and cattle across the frigid Mongolian Steppe, is a two-time winner of the prestigious Golden Eagle Festival near the outback village of Olgii, where eagle hunters gather annually to be judged in their mastery of hunting game with eagles.

Here’s the rub: in the deeply traditional and conservative Kazakh culture -and Aisholpan is Muslim – females just don’t hunt with eagles.

And so the stage is set for Aisholpan to capture and raise her own eagle, and for Nurgaiv to train her in the necessary skills and arts to compete against the men in a centuries-old cultural tradition. Together, they must overcome their own doubts, and the considerable barriers of a culture trapped somewhere between Genghis Khan, Mohamed, crank-started Soviet cargo trucks, and yurts with solar panels.

There is a marvelous series of interviews with elder Kazakh eagle hunters, bedecked in traditional garb, looking every bit the wind-blasted, frostbitten, slightly mystical and contemplative keepers of ancient tradition. They are asked about the prospect of a female, particularly a young female, learning to hunt with an eagle and are unanimous in their rejection of the notion. Some of the elders are more vehement than others, some think it is a bad joke, and at least one insists that a woman’s job is to keep the ger warm and make curd.

The film does not, thankfully, openly editorialize on their positions. Instead, the audience is allowed to form its own opinion, and to develop allegiances based on Aisholpan’s intense desire to compete in this exclusively male activity. And the film does a fine, understated job of revealing her father’s unflagging belief in her fitness, and his own commitment to prepare her for the rigors of eagle hunting.

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All Business, Aisholpan at the Golden Eagle Festival

One of the finer moments of the film records Nurgaiv speaking with his own elderly father – himself an eagle hunter – in the thin, cold light outside of the family ger in the Altai mountains. Nurgaiv asks the old man if he will give his blessing to Aisholpan’s desires, the old man consents, and the three of them then pray together.

The blessing sequence is deeply moving on many levels. As father to a young woman who is studying and striving to make her mark in the world of agricultural science – a sexist universe if there ever was one – it is a reminder of how much pride we have in our daughters, how much hope for their triumphs in a competitive world, and how critical the role we must play in preparing our young women to compete with and to beat the men at our own games.

One of the finer elements of the film is that nothing is given to Aisholpan. She earns the respect she so ultimately deserves. Her father is a fantastic teacher and guide, but her success is the result of her own drive, determination, and admirable grit.

It has been suggested that Aisholpan’s strength is derived from the role she assumed after her brother joined the Mongolian Army. With her brother’s absence, Aisholpan took over his laborious and traditionally male chores. However tempered, her success is made sweeter by her incredible drive, though even in victory not everyone is convinced of her fitness to be called an eagle hunter.

It is, I suppose, a Kazakh version of the glass ceiling. In the film, Nurgaiv handles Aisholpan’s detractors by refusing to feed their negativity, by voicing his quiet confidence in her abilities, and by continuing to encourage his daughter’s mindset so that she begins to see herself as a qualified equal.

From the beginning, Nurgaiv is a rock of fatherhood, lowering Aisholpan by rope over a sheer cliff face into an eagle’s nest, teaching her to train the eagle to hunt and to be recalled, and ultimately riding by her side into the rugged Altai mountains for a final test, over rivers frozen solid and through deep, rocky snowbanks, to hunt foxes with her eagle, and to finally silence the critics and rigid cultural gatekeepers.

Aisholpan is not the first modern Kazakh female eagle huntress. That title belongs to Makpal Abdrazakova – now a successful lawyer – and Stanford researcher Adrienne Mayor reports evidence of female eagle hunters from 10th-century Persia. But Aisholpan’s story, well-told, is a reminder to all of us that we are never more stupid or cruel to each other as when we insist on tired assumptions and creaky traditions, or enforce them without honest examination.

And for modern American fathers of young women, Nurgaiv’s refusal to bow to criticism or cemented tradition, and to see his daughter as the natural and equal inheritor of 12 generations of knowledge, serves as a poignant and beautifully rendered example of how we might best serve our daughters – as they develop their considerable passions, and strike out into the world in pursuit of success.

Grounded

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Russ Rullman, with Christopher Rullman, in the family’s Twin Beech.

This piece originally appeared in the Nugget News, November 8, 2016

I have a photograph somewhere, taken from the rear seat of a British Norman Islander, of my father and uncle. My uncle, the captain on this flight between Pago Pago and the Samoan island of Ofu, is hoisting a beer and flashing a decidedly rakish smile. It simply simmers with mischief. My father is looking back at the camera in mock terror.

You can’t see it in the picture, but on the beach below us a gigantic tanker ship sits wrecked and rusting on the beach, half in the water, half beached, a canker sore on a strip of pure white sand and the blinding emerald of the island. Moments later we are to land on a grass strip – marked on both sides by crashed airplanes – and will be greeted by the island’s chief and most of the island’s children.

Chief Nui charged two dollars to land on the island, and after enough of those landings he was able to buy, and have delivered, the only vehicle that existed there. It was a small Toyota pickup, just large enough for the kids, and any passengers, to ride in the back on the way into the village.

So my uncle paid the chief, we loaded up, and bombed down the road into Asaga where, in a bizarre twist, a man from my dusty hometown in the Great Basin – 5,000 miles away as the crow flies – was living in a kind of self-imposed exile. I don’t know what drove him there, and I was too young to ask the right questions. Perhaps he read too much Margaret Mead. What is certain is that he had cashed it all in to find this island, and to live there raising pigs and catching fish for his new Samoan family. He seemed happy. I think he was also mildly alarmed that the world had shrunk so quickly on him.

I was a reminder of things he’d rather forget.

Most of the men in my family have been, or were, pilots. One grandfather was a naval aviator in World War II, flying TBF Avengers off of carriers in the Pacific campaign. My other grandfather was not a pilot until much later in life, but spent his war as a gunner and radioman, on a version of the same torpedo bomber, as a Marine.

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The President, and Mrs. Rullman

My uncle Rick was of the bush-pilot strain. A decided swashbuckler, he preferred island-hopping, humid bars full of spilled rum and chain-smoking ex-pats, and occasional gunplay; and so bounced from one rainforest to the next, flying seaplanes – the Grumman Mallard or Goose – around the Caribbean, or those boxy Norman Islanders in the South Pacific. Once, he escorted a giant moose head from Nova Scotia to St. Croix, where it was installed over the bar in the Comanche Club.

I hope it’s still there as a kind of monument to the ludicrous, but I doubt it.

My father was a pilot from an older school, the school of Icarus and Daedalus, of St. Exupery, Ernest Gann, and Jackie Cochran, those determined lords of the air. Had flight not existed, he would have found a way to get into the sky. Licensed at 16, an instructor before he was 20, he was the youngest person ever hired by American Airlines, and spent 37 years with the company. He retired with a seniority number of 1. No small feat.

When he wasn’t flying, he was thinking about flying, and cultivated an active bias against all things pedestrian. The aeroplane and flight, to his mind, was the summit of human achievement, and he had a difficult time relating to anyone who couldn’t appreciate the genius with the same passion.

Like me, perhaps. I am decidedly earthbound. Though I can appreciate the genius, I never caught the bug, and reasoned that if I did not have the passion for it, I could only be a dangerous pilot, like the doctors and dentists my dad regarded with thinly disguised disdain. Later, the Marine Corps would do a lot to suppress my interest in flying at all. Riding in a helicopter that is on fire, or watching one crash into the sea and kill your friends, can engender a great appreciation for remaining on the ground.

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Russ Rullman, Naval Aviator

This morning, early, a plane powered up down at the airport. I don’t know what kind of plane it was, but the sound of that great engine working to achieve flight reminded me of the tremendous roar of the seaplanes in Charlotte Amalie harbor, and so of my uncle, and my dad, and my grandfathers.

They are all gone now, having vanished into history as quickly as St. Exupery on his ninth mission. He once wrote to remind us all that “Somewhere along the way we have gone astray. The human anthill is richer than ever before. We have more wealth and more leisure, and yet we lack something essential … somewhere we have lost our mysterious prerogatives.”

And I suppose that is why I cherish that photograph I took so long ago, of brothers frozen against time in their quest for those mysterious prerogatives, Gentlemen of Adventure chasing it down in the perfect skies over Ofu.

Saved Rounds

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Gunnery Sergeant Gallup, in no mood, coordinating a Medevac, photo by author

This piece originally appeared in The Nugget News, August 30, 2016.

Hohenfels, Germany:  One of my companions for the evening was U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Robert Gallup.

Gallup, 32, was wounded in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, scene of the bloodiest fighting in the Iraq War, where 82 Americans were killed, and some 600 wounded. We were at a beer garden on the garrison at Hohenfels, where Marines, Georgians, and Hungarians were celebrating completion of their final exercise, drinking beer, taking selfies, eating schnitzel, and cutting loose after six months of non-stop training.

On his day in Fallujah, GySgt Gallup – then a Corporal – was one of 36 Marines stacked inside of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle. An AAV weighs 29 tons. It was never designed for urban fighting, and on its best day usually carries less than half that number of Marines. In perfect conditions, it is a miserable place.

“We were standing on each other’s shoulders,” Gallup said. “It was hard to breathe.”

His close friend Brian was sitting next to him. Gallup recalls the track stopping suddenly, and word passing that they were going to drop the ramp. They were already in the fight, Gallup said, could hear the guns outside. Gallup looked at Brian and asked if he was ready. Brian was.

And then the world exploded. Gallup suspects it was an RPG, though 12 years later he still isn’t sure.

“It just went black,” he said.

Gallup’s finger had been severed. He still had it though, because he was wearing gloves. It was only later, when he tried to grab his rifle and get out of the track, that he began to think something was wrong.

“It was actually pretty quiet inside,” Gallup told me. “Nobody was yelling for their mothers or any of that movie stuff.”

Inside the track, Marines were entangled in an impossible knot of weapons, gear, bodies, smoke, and darkness.

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Gunny Gallup on the move, photo by author

And somewhere in all of that quiet confusion Gallup heard Brian calmly asking, “Has anybody seen my arm?”

Gallup was evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany. He arrived still wearing his bloody uniform, though they had taken his blouse somewhere along the way. He remembers it was freezing outside, and as they got on a bus someone handed each of them a quilt, handmade, and donated for the purpose.

A month later Gallup was back home in Georgia, convalescing, and taking care of his mother, who had been diagnosed with ALS. One afternoon Gallup took up his quilt and saw again the phone number sewn into it by the maker. He decided to call, to say thank you, to share the quilt’s story and maybe some of his own, so that whoever had crafted it would know that it actually had made a difference in someone’s life.

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Evacuating a wounded Hungarian.  US Marines, and Georgian soldiers carry a comrade out of the line of fire.  

The phone rang too many times and Gallup was about to hang up when an elderly man finally answered. The man listened quietly and said he’d been following the news, watching the battle unfold on television. He asked Gallup about himself, how Marines could fight in all that gear and equipment, about the heat, about Iraq, about the Marine Corps.

Gallup kept expecting the man to hand the phone off to his wife. And then the old gentleman said, shyly, almost demurely, “I hope you don’t think I’m a pussy for making quilts. I was at Iwo Jima.”

There, in the reverie of the beer garden, it got a little dusty for the Gunny and me. But we pulled it together. Gunny lit a cigarette. He took a long drag.

“When he told me that,” Gallup said, holding his palm out over the ground at about the height of a three-year-old, the scars on his hand pronounced and almost glowing in the fluorescent light, “I felt about this big.”

And so it circles back, that brotherhood, the reverence and respect that reaches through veterans from different ages and binds them together against time. There would be other meetings, Gallup told me, in the next few years, with veterans of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, Hue City in Vietnam, and he’s felt the same way every time.

What’s true enough is that Gunnery Sergeant Gallup has earned his rightful place among those who sacrificed for each other in hallowed fights, though he doesn’t feel like it, and has a very hard time seeing himself in their company.

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Simulated IED attack on our mounted patrol

I asked him if he was staying in the Corps for the long haul, and he laughed. We were at the back of the beer garden, in the corner, the organ grind of continuous training melting away by the pint. Gunny was watching closely. Marines were starting to break things and it was getting louder.

“What else am I going to do?” he said. “This is my life, and I love these guys.”

Gunnery Sergeant Gallup and his team of U.S. Marines will deploy in October to Afghanistan, with the 32nd Georgian Light Infantry Battalion, for the Resolute Support Mission ordered by the President of the United States.

Operation Sad Panda

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This article originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, August 23, 2016.

Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Hohenfels, Germany:

On the outskirts of this training village, known to the real world as Raversdorf but today serving as the notional Afghan village of Spinchai, someone has propped a large stuffed panda on a fence. The panda stares out over the long, dusty approach to town and looks sad.

He looks like an IED.

This morning, Charlie Company of the Georgian 32nd Light Infantry Battalion is conducting a Cordon and Search Operation in Spinchai. Maybe. It’s been an hour since the first MRAPS (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) came into view, churning up dust on the edges of town, and obvious confusion is slowing them down. If there was meant to be an element of surprise, that’s been lost and the villagers are nervous, agitated and watchful.

Intel says that insurgents in Spinchai are harboring large caches of money and weapons, used to finance and supply the Taliban. The local Afghan elder is thought to be friendly, but he’s carefully navigating the influence of tribal and insurgent pressures. The Georgians want to meet with him, develop a relationship, and see what he has to say. The mission is clear, and the goal is to avoid kinetics.

A firefight in this scenario means failure. Gunfire in Spinchai could damage relations in every other village in the area of operations. The Georgians are here to make friends, to build working partnerships, to find and seize guns and money meant for the Taliban. It isn’t hearts-and-minds, exactly, but something far more practical.

But Charlie Company can’t seem to step off, and the pressure is mounting. The villagers down on the bad end of town, where the Panda sits on the fence, are visibly hostile. Things go from bad to worse when locals compromise a concealed Georgian over-watch position on the northern side of town. More villagers fill the street.

A dismounted patrol finally makes it to the edge of Spinchai, and is quickly enveloped by an irate crowd. The Georgians push them back. The villagers press in again, shaking their fists. There is some shoving and a lot of shouting. The Afghan police, played by cadets from the Hungarian Defense Force, are shifty and noncommittal.

The Georgians don’t know it, but they are within 10 feet of a sizeable cache of RPGs and Kalashnikovs concealed in a pit and covered with trash. They also don’t know that a white van, parked on the street nearby, is full of Taliban money.

When calm is finally restored, the Georgians, along with their U.S. Marine liaisons, patrol into the middle of town. Shopkeepers approach with uneasy smiles and try to sell them food and wares. Nobody trusts anybody.

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Shura in the village of Spinchai, photo by the author

Suddenly, the money van starts driving away. The Georgians attempt to stop it, but seem hesitant. The van lurches forward. The Georgians shout and wave their arms and brandish rifles but the driver is determined. Rather than be run over, the Georgian soldiers fall away, and the van roars off, past the panda and out of town. Radios erupt with traffic but nobody on the outer cordon stops it either, and the van disappears.

The Georgians and U.S. Marines are invited to a Shura with the village elder. He takes them into his home and serves tea and speaks forth on local issues. The Georgians press for specifics. They want to know who is who in the zoo. The elder gives them a few names and tribal affiliations, but he’s clearly holding back.

They are still talking in slow, frustrating circles, their tea getting cold, when the village outside erupts. Insurgents have attacked the cordon, and that’s when the real guano opera begins.

The attack has taken the Georgians off of their playbook, and the friction is immediate and paralyzing. Nobody seems to know which element is being attacked, or from which direction. Effective communication grinds to a hard stop. Fire-team sized elements are dashing back and forth between buildings and running into each other going opposite directions. Sporadic AK fire is interrupted by long, distinctive bursts from PKM machine guns. Local police are following their own ideas. The villagers have disappeared.

This goes on much too long, and at one point, with an insurgent finally located and isolated on a rooftop, a Hungarian cadet makes a long, unsupported, and agonizing run for glory to the front door of the occupied building. If the bullets had been real he would not have made it. Not even close.

In the end, the Georgians prevail in the firefight, though they’ve taken casualties, let the money drive off, and failed to locate the weapons cache.

The mission debrief is a scorcher, the lessons learned severe.

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Georgian Soldiers take cover during a firefight, photo by the author

But here is the good news: This is precisely the place to make mistakes. It is the reason JMRC exists. The training here is designed to be difficult, to replicate as nearly as possible the conditions and tactics encountered downrange, to challenge fighting units and their leaders with the unknown and the unknowable, and to encourage and elicit errors at every level of command and execution.

Of equal importance, it is designed to build a mindset that examines and learns from those mistakes, so that when these brothers-in-arms land in Afghanistan – where the bullets and blood aren’t blanks and moulage – the hard and sometimes embarrassing lessons acquired in fictional villages like Spinchai may very well keep them alive.

Dispatches from Bavaria

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Republic of Georgia Soldiers at Mockup Village, photo by author

This article originally appeared as one in a three part series in the Nugget Newspaper, August 16, 2016

Hohenfels, Germany.  There is a grim certainty of purpose among the 30-odd professional military officers gathered in the room.

We are at the orders briefing, in a non-descript hut among a village of huts, berms and concrete fortifications built into a forest straight from the pages of “Hansel & Gretel.” It’s late, and after days of continuous and tough rehearsals -involving scenarios from mounted vehicle patrols to complex IED attacks – even the air feels tired.

This camp is meant to represent Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where men of the Georgian 32nd Light Infantry Battalion, along with their U.S. Marine liaisons, will deploy at the end of this training. They started back in February, in the small nation of Georgia. There is one week remaining, and everything they have learned is about to be sorely tested in a grueling, non-stop, seven-day final exercise.

This briefing is part of the overall performance and readiness evaluation, and everyone knows it.

The men here are a direct reflection of the building itself, built for function over form. On the far wall the five-cross Georgian flag hangs next to Old Glory, and a sign says “Strength in Unity.” The ancient Georgian script looks like grapevines.

Perhaps the toughest job here belongs to the interpreters, known by their monikers “Fish” and “Coach.” Nobody knows where Fish got his name. One presumes “Coach” comes from the 40-year-old Georgian’s proclivity for wearing track-suit hoodies. The “terps” must translate the briefings from Georgian into English and back again. Proper understanding can hinge on the interpretation of a single word. It has to be right.

The pressure is palpable, and the Georgians mean to impress. Georgia wants into NATO – there are Russian tanks and mobile artillery 30 kilometers from their capital of Tblisi – and after the U.S. they are the largest contributor of troops to the effort in Afghanistan. Fish says they have been fighting off the designs of foreign empires for thousands of years. Now, he says, they want to be left alone.

The officers don’t slow down. The terps struggle to keep up and remain accurate and clear. The exchanges are often complex. The terps spell each other after particularly long sessions, which have a visibly deleterious effect – it’s like watching a wax candle gutter.

It is hard to know it, but we are at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, or JMRC, near Hohenfels, Germany. This region of Bavaria has known the presence of professional warfighters since the Roman Emperor Augustus, who sent his legions here to stop the southward advance of Celts and Gauls. There is a castle on the base dating from the year 1000. In 1641 it was nearly destroyed by lightning that struck the gunpowder tower.

Napoleon was here. The Nazi’s housed prisoners of war from Poland, Russia, Belgium, France, Britain, and America here. The U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment liberated the camp in 1945.

It still belongs to the U.S. Army, and in this most recent incarnation serves as a host for combat units from around the world, who receive some of the most advanced pre-deployment training available anywhere.

I am with the U.S. Marines of the Georgia Deployment Program, who for the last six months have been training the Georgians to NATO standards for their downrange deployment to Bagram. This program, in various forms, has existed since May 2002, when U.S. Special Operations Forces were given $64 million to spin up four battalions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In August 2009 the Marines took over.

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Georgian Soldier posting security over a bridge, photo by the author

The briefing is comprehensive, and endless. Military briefings at this level are worse than watching concrete dry through a microscope. Nothing is left out. The various section leaders must cover every conceivable contingency, from relations with local Afghan mullahs and police to suicide prevention, from VIP visits to pre-combat inspections, from the rules of engagement to how many rolls of toilet paper a battalion of soldiers will use.

But there is a certain unreality to it all. Everyone knows the maxim: no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.

Still, it’s better to have one.

The Marines love working with the Georgians. They are gritty, professional, highly motivated, and smart. They don’t drink water and they smoke constantly. They learn fast. They are fighters. Still, some cultural differences remain. Marines never break training for meals; for them, “chow is continuous.” The Georgians insist on it. Meals might last an hour or more in the middle of peak training time.

These are among a thousand small frustrations for Marine liaison teams who will deploy with the Georgians.

Somewhere in the middle of the intelligence portion of the brief, where we learn that there is a lot we don’t know, Coach melts all the way down. He is fatigued to the point of collapse. He interrupts his own translation, looks at the Georgian colonel and the mixed bank of senior officers at the head of the table. He says, in English, “I beg your pardon,” and leaves the room. Fish immediately steps up and replaces him.

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Lt. Colonel Mayfield, of the US Marines.  One of my hosts.  photo by the author

During a break I find Coach. He’s been doing this non-stop for 10 years, he tells me. He’s in a state of raw exhaustion. He has two young boys and a wife back home in Georgia, where the specter of a belligerent Russia looms large and peace is far from certain.

“It’s my blood pressure,” he says, looking into the medieval Bavarian night and lighting a smoke. “Not the best.”

Return to Norms

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Eastern Oregon Sunrise, 2016 Elk Hunt

If I have any readers left, I would like to assure you that I will soon be returning to this page in force.  Although I am, in theory, retired from gainful employment, my life seems to have become busier than I would have expected.  Here on the Figure 8 we have many, many, irons in the fire, and so I haven’t been able to give my full attention to this site, among other things.

But all is well.  In the last half year there have been some terrific developments, and between now and the New Year I will likely be posting the writing I have been doing–largely for the newspaper.  I enjoyed a tremendous trip to Germany in August where I was able to embed with US Marines training a Georgian Infantry Battalion for deployment to Afghanistan.  It was a remarkable and eye-opening time, and I have a few pieces to post here.

There was a terrific hunt for Elk in eastern Oregon.

The Figure 8 has also become a kind of bed and breakfast, and we have enjoyed the company of many friends and family–almost non-stop, which adds a dimension of difficulty when trying to get things done.

Horses galore, including a boarder for a young girl who has big Rodeo dreams.

A self-destructive gardening nightmare that has spurred new plans for this coming spring.

And naturally, the annual turkey-killing, which was turned into an unreal Thanksgiving meal and which Wendy turned into the finest turkey soup I’ve ever eaten.

So, if you are still with me, and willing, the Chronicle will rise again like a leviathan from the deeps, and maybe we can get into a few fine conversations, or arguments, or what have you.  A large part of me is happy to have not been here during the interminable election non-sense.  For the record:  I didn’t vote for any of the party nominees, and found the entire cycle depressing and embarrassing.  I keep entertaining this notion that I will abandon interest in politics beyond my front porch, but that is probably fanciful and reactionary.  It isn’t realistic, at any rate, given my abiding interests.  But I am seeking something new from them, as I am committed to the belief that the parties are largely irrelevant to the challenges we face.

So I hope this finds you well.  We are, and happy, if a little frosty in the snow and continuing cold.  Stay tuned.

Rullmanov, Defender of the Faithful