Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Reflections from the Southern Hemisphere, Part 1

Today's Top Story:
At the time of this posting, 1054 US soldiers have died in Iraq.

(Why is this "The Top Story"?

1. Each of these soldiers died in a war that was initiated by a President who is intentionally misleading the American people about the future prospects in Iraq to serve his own ends, and
2. Like Gen. Anthony Zinni, I believe that this has got to be more important than "American Idol").

Today's Feature: Reflections from the Southern Hemisphere, Part 1

I'm back in Sao Paulo, Brazil again this week. Long days at work, followed by late evening dinners and conversation with my hosts and colleagues. It is both invigorating - I really enjoy being here with these people - and exhausting. By the end of the night I have little time to do much more than crawl in the hotel bed and hope I can sleep all night.

Tonight, though, I wanted to jot down a few notes on topics I've been thinking about since before I left Indiana on Sunday afternoon. I make no promise that they are connected...or that the result will be coherent. Here goes...

When I was in college -- long ago and far away -- I had a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. It was one of my all-time favorites. Having grown up in a small, rural Kentucky town, Rolling Stone was a window into a whole 'nother world. There was no Internet in 1973, so I got my news about the stuff that really mattered -- sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, politics -- from RS.

Fast-forward to the present. I haven't seen a copy of Rolling Stone in 30 years. My 17 year old son gets a subscription. A recent issue arrives with a large spread on the classic photos of rock-and-roll. It's fun to look at. Photos of all the folks I grew up with - Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Elvis - and a bunch that I've learned about since. Some of the old feeling came back. This is nice.

But what I started to write about was an article titled "Heavy Metal Mercenary" about a guy named Wolf Weiss, one of over 20,000 "for-profit contractors" (aka "mercenaries") operating in Iraq. According to the article, these "corporate soldiers [are] the second largest contingent in Iraq after the U.S. military". Weiss is an ex-Marine (I know that's incorrect...once a Marine, always a Marine) -- ok, he's no longer an active-duty Marine. But he's plenty active, with a small corps of like-minded souls in heavily armed SUV's racing around Iraq, escorting convoys and generally doing lots of jobs we might otherwise expect our soldiers to be doing. The biggest exception - Weiss makes upwards of $20,000...a month.

The story has a real Rambo kind of feel to it. Lots of fast driving, pointing guns at people, shouting curt commands, and relishing the adrenaline rush. There's a movie to made from this.

Having read the story, and thought about it for several days, I still have conflicting thoughts about the situation it describes. I'm mostly disturbed by what appears to be another example of our incursion into Iraq going out of control. How did we get ourselves into a situation where we have to depend on private contractors to run a war? I'm not bashing Weiss, here. He saw an opportunity and pursued it. I have no doubt he's earning his money. God knows it's a job I wouldn't do. But I also wonder about the cumulative effect of 20,000 Weisses and what their kick-ass-and-take-names style does to the perception of Americans in the minds of the Iraqi people.

And it seems to be inextricably related to the same failures of leadership and accountability that resulted in the government giving Halliburton a blank check. Is this the common denominator that underlies the whole botched "war on terror"?

Here's the flip side of the same coin. In Monday's New York Times, James Glanz wrote about American truckers who have gone to Iraq to drive in supply convoys - risking their lives to double or triple their take-home pay. As one driver put it, "It's all about the money".

I'll forego another rant about lack of controls on spending, lack of oversight and controls, etc. (Yes...I'm in Brazil doing Sarbanes-Oxley audits...controls are on my mind.)

The most striking thing about both of these stories is the sense I have that these men (and maybe some women...none were identified in the stories) have taken jobs in the middle of a war zone because it pays better than the jobs they can find in the United States!

Something's desperately wrong with this picture.

But it's getting late and I've only touched on one topic this evening.

Today's Photos: Political advertisements in Sao Paulo.
Banners like these adorn lamp posts and telephone poles. They are hand-painted on the walls of houses and businesses. On the surface, it appears as though there are thousands of candidates for local offices. Each one has a registration number that appear on his or her advertisements. The larger the number, the smaller the offce -- 2 digit numbers represent the mayoral or gubernatorial candidates while a 5 digit number reflects a candidate for the local council.

Election time in Brazil Posted by Hello

Election time in Brazil Posted by Hello

Election time in Brazil Posted by Hello

BTW, the election is next Sunday.

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