Basic is bad, but normcore is cool? Contradictions of the style police

I just learned that “basic bitch” was a thing this week.

That means I’m not down with the vernacular. I’m clearly basic. Sometimes I shop at a shopping mall and I own a pair of cowboy boots. SOOOO BAAAAAAASIIIIIIC. But I didn’t wear them to my wedding so I’m not strictly a Great Plains Basic Bitch. Having grown up in Michigan but lived in New York City, Boston, and now Nashville, I am an all-American multi-regional basic bitch. I took a picture of my husband last weekend with a pumpkin. On Instagram. With a filter. I mean, the evidence is clear, people.

These femmes who wear Uggs, North Face, and leggings, fear carbs, read US Weekly, Pinterest (is that a verb?), and get their nails done…let’s be honest – they are us – we are them. You have never picked up US Weekly? NEVER? Even if you don’t pinterest (I’m using it as a verb, I don’t care) then I am sure you have at least looked at other people’s pins. And everybody fears carbs, even the doctors.

I am just really confused about the acceptable fashion options right now. I’m NOT supposed to look like other people from my demographic, because that’s basic. But I can wear normcore, the fashion trend of 2014 which looks really….dare I say it?…basic. It’s essentially 1990s grunge, but without the head banging mosh pit culture. Normcore is not unique, colorful, interesting, or aesthetically expressive. And, you can only wear norm core if you’re wearing it ironically, because otherwise you’re missing the point (which is…what exactly?).

There are a few other fashion do’s and don’ts to remember:

  • I’m not supposed to look too much like a hipster, because when people refer to hipsters they sneer (even though we all know hipsters have the best taste in coffee).
  • I’m not supposed to dress too sexy, for fear of feeding into the male gaze. But I can dress sexy for myself, whatever that means.
  • I should try to be different, but not too different, because then I will look like I’m trying too hard to be different.

If someone can tell me how to aesthetically represent one’s authentic self through fashion without drawing too much on other influences in order to be a perfect unique snowflake, I would really be interested in the recipe for success. Until then, all this fashion policing is bullshit, and it’s distracting from more important social ills.

For example, Capitalism:

“To call someone “basic” is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.” 

and, racism:

“the term [basic] has been Columbus-ed. White people want so badly to be in on the joke of making fun of white people (so as to seem hip and down and to escape criticisms of whiteness, supremacy, and racism themselves) that they picked a group of white people they can lampoon” 

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Blue is the worst movie

I saw Blue is the Warmest Color last night. I reeeeally wanted to like it. It had all the trappings of a film I would like: French, featuring women sans makeup, and playing at a local independent theater. But it was so bad. If you love the old trope of slightly older, edgier person introducing younger, boring person to sex – like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, but with two women – then this film is for you. If you like your main character to have any depth at all, steer clear.

The younger woman Adèle starts out with promise. She loves to read and engages in spirited literary conversations about Marivaux over coffee. She seems to hold her own with her friends at school. She has a brief fling with a boy, then breaks it off. She stuffs her face with chocolate as consolation. So far so good. But then she meets Emma and stops having a personality. Or maybe it’s that she stops talking because her focus moves on to more….visceral things. Either way, after some sexy scenes showing their first few encounters, the movie goes downhill fast. Adèle isn’t a mature 15. Contrasted with Emma’s cool intellectualism, she’s a kid. She has nothing to offer. And she is clearly insecure around all of Emma’s friends. She is literally just an ass and a face, both of which we are watching up close for 80 percent of the film, especially her lips, which are always wet and slightly open. After the two women get serious, Adèle quickly turns into Emma’s housewife – cooking, cleaning, hosting Emma’s parties. She leaves her love of complex French literature behind her to become an early childhood teacher, reading pedestrian stories about zoo animals to little kids, claiming this fulfills her.

I think mostly I’m frustrated that the protagonist was reduced to a gender stereotype in a seemingly unstereotypical film. I feel cheated. Reviewers have said that watching their relationship crumble under the weight of its own dullness and incompatibility created a sort of banalization of homosexuality, but I’m not sure. I think it might just be lack of imagination from a male director imposing his view of romance onto every form it takes. Monika Bartyzel of The Week said he “ignores the true uniqueness of the story to focus on all-too-recognizable tropes of superficial passion and women’s ennui in cold and subservient relationships.” YES. (Hers is the best review of the film I’ve read so far.)

As for the rest, I basically agree with everything Manohla Dargis of the NYTimes said about the director’s voyeurism and Adèle’s lack of sexual appetite.

Overall, two thumbs down.

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A defense of the rights-based approach

I was chatting with a very good friend who works in development this week. We were discussing this somewhat-recent article (gated) in the International Relations journal IO titled “Can International Nongovernmental Organizations Boost Government Services? The Case of Health.” The argument, which the authors support with data, is that the greater the number the health NGOs working in a developing country, the more the developing government spends on the health sector. This finding runs counter to the conventional wisdom that NGOs crowd out government spending. But the details of how our conversation got started is just tangential to this post. Here is our completely unedited (obviously) interchange that the article spurred:

FRIEND: I guess it’s an open question of whether this is a good thing. I suppose health spending is probably better than most things a developing country government would be spending money on. But probably not the best thing that they could be spending money.

ME: Yes. And I also I read this a rejoinder to those who see a problem with NGOs supplanting govts. And yet here we see that NGOs set policy priorities, which is still in a way taking some agency away from the govt. I think health is pretty foundational. Education might be the only thing worth spending more money on, but then you have that deworming argument that health leads to better education outcomes.

FRIEND: Yes, I think that’s the right interpretation of the article. And good points. I was trying to look at it from a slightly different perspective. In any case, I agree that health is foundational, but I don’t think it’s more foundational than providing security, a judicial system or some basic infrastructure. And health care services are less foundational than public health services like clean water and a sewage system.

ME: True. It’s crazy to think about how to prioritize spending in today’s climate with all the international pressure. It is like spending before having capacity. It’s so weird.

FRIEND: That’s why I think the “rights-based approach” is an atrocious policy concept.

Please try to ignore the arrogance of two very privileged Americans discussing what developing countries “should” spend money on. We are obviously being flippant about a very serious subject, which is basically all you can be in 10 lines or less.

But, our flippancy notwithstanding, I got caught up on my friend’s last statement. It led me to respond to the WHOLE WORLD in this blog post, rather than just to my friend, because there are so many rights-based approach skeptics out there, with whom, for the most part, I share a lot of common ground, but “rights” seems to be where our perspectives diverge.

Two high-profile examples of the “anti-rights based approach” opinion:

Dr. Chris Blattman says the rights-based approach to development “looks more like a good ideology than a good idea” and it “is about as effective as its ideological predecessor (see central planning) and has even less intellectual content.” WHOA, HARSH! Moreover, he continues, “it reinforces all of the mistakes of past aid: it ignores the agency and the incentives of the poor; it focuses less on creating opportunities and structuring incentives, and more on public works and handouts.” Ok, I hear you, Chris Blattman. This post is for you.

Dr. William Easterly says: “The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator…Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy – someone violates your rights or they do not.” He also says (echoing my  friend’s sentiments) that poor countries have limited budgets. What if they can’t satisfy the right health care and food? Who decides? The rights-based approach doesn’t give us a way to choose. (paraphrasing) If you know me, you know how much I adore all the things in Dr. Easterly’s brain, and so you can imagine how much it kills me to hear him say such things. But, no matter. This post is for him, too.

These gentlemen WHOM I RESPECT VERY MUCH seem to be claiming the following about the rights-based approach:

  • It is ineffective
  • It lacks intellectual content (ouch, swipe at Amartya Sen)
  • It ignores the agency of the poor
  • It emphasizes redistribution of resources and government handouts over market-based incentives and opportunities
  • It doesn’t help us choose between whether to spend on health care or food security or infrastructure
  • You must have a clear human rights violator to claim that human rights are being violated

I will try to address all of these points in turn.

First, let’s start with Dr. Blattman (may I call you Chris? No, not in writing, I think not). What does ineffective even mean? Effective is a meaningless term unless it is attached to a goal. Effective…at alleviating poverty? I think that’s what he meant. Now, alleviating poverty is a meaningless goal unless it is attached to a value, like justice, fairness, freedom, and/or equality. Maybe I am making too many presumptions here, but my guess is that most of us are not trying to alleviate poverty because it’s fun, or because it gives us an interesting and exotic job, or because it is a challenge and we love challenges. We are trying to alleviate poverty because poverty is bad. When we say poverty is bad, what we mean is that it is wrong. When we say it is wrong, what we mean is that it is unjust, unfair, unequal, and inhibits freedom. WHOA, I know, nobody likes to make this jump because now we are talking about normative things instead of meaningless things like “efficiency.”

Ok, we’ve got another jump to make. If you appreciate Amartya Sen’s work like I do (and I do not think it lacks intellectual content – rude!), then you understand that development is actually (supposed to be) the expansion of human freedom. If we are trying to expand human freedom, then we should not limit human freedom in the process. Especially the freedom to participate in the social and political processes that govern one’s way of life, of deciding rather than being decided for (positive freedom) and the freedom from being prevented by others from doing things one would otherwise choose to do (negative freedom). (Hat tip Isaiah Berlin.)

The reason we humans want to alleviate poverty is because we want to increase freedom for all humans. This is because poverty undermines democratic equality and creates the ability for the wealthy to dominate and oppress (whether directly or indirectly) the poor. This means that the poor are not free, if you see freedom as non-domination, which I think is a great way to understand freedom. You can be dominated by your government, through torture or imprisonment. Or, you can be dominated by a multinational corporation, that, with vast wealth and power, can take land away from you without your permission. Or, you can be dominated by your husband, if you are a victim of domestic abuse. There are many way to be dominated. The point is that people should not be so unequal in net-worth or in social standing that they can dominate each other or be dominated by each other or by institutions. It is up to us humans to design institutions that make this a reality.

So, for example, if we are trying to increase the availability of drinking water to the poor but then if we take drinking water away from some people in order to give it to more people, we are decreasing freedom for some while we increase freedom for others. This is not freedom enhancing unless it was part of a negotiated settlement where everyone’s needs were heard and considered while also respecting the freedom from arbitrary seizure of one’s home, land, goods, etc. That is not to say that the project should not go forward FULL STOP (and the rights-based approach would not say this, either). The point is, and the argument a rights-based approach makes, is that everybody’s needs and voices must be considered when these decisions are being made and the terms of the settlement must be fair.

We cannot just say, well there is more freedom being enhanced than taken away, and call it “efficient.” Like good – bad > 0. These are human lives we are talking about not mathematical calculations. Moreover, this kind of calculation is not an abstract and morally neutral or practical or pragmatic solution, this is a clear adherence to a moral philosophy that is called utilitarianism. It is one moral philosophy among many, and has not been the premier moral philosophy for the past half-century in any other field than in economics, where efficiency as a moral concept still reigns supreme. I think it is absolutely nuts that economics claims to be value neutral while holding up utilitarianism as their moral dogma, but whatever, that is for another post.

So I hope by now I have addressed these issues:

  • It is ineffective
  • It lacks intellectual content

Next, I think is the claim that the rights-based approach emphasizes redistribution over market-based incentives, and following from that, I think, that in so doing it ignores the agency of the poor.

First, I don’t understand why, say, a USGOV-funded NGO expanding the availability of microcredit in a poor country is a market-based incentive or opportunity while giving food to the poor is not. Government funding of poverty alleviation as a market-based solution is a contradiction in terms. Now, what I think Dr. Blattman means by “it focuses less on creating opportunities and structuring incentives, and more on public works and handouts” is that people who advocate for the rights-based approach generally aren’t out there trying to figure out the best public policy mechanism to increase uptake in environmentally-friendly cook stoves using randomized control trials (great research, by the way). Instead, they might be out there asking questions like, are cook stoves the biggest threat to these people’s freedom? Shouldn’t we be asking the poor what their most pressing problems are and working to address those? Which are also really important questions!

I would argue that failing to incorporate the poor’s actual perspective (not just results of field experiments involving them as subjects) in development solutions that ultimate affect them is ignoring the agency of the poor just as much if not more than, say, giving them a cash handout to buy food instead of access to microcredit so they can become entrepreneurs. Not to mention that “market-based incentives” (still not buying it) like microfinance may not even increase the poor’s agency if they don’t become business owners in the way that we expect them to. Which, by the way, most of them don’t. Most of them borrow from one loan officer to pay off another (see: Poor Economics). I’m not sure that is very freedom enhancing.

What the rights-based approach says is, whether it is a government handout or a market-based incentive, it must be freedom enhancing. If we deny people a voice (or agency, or positive freedom) then we are not being freedom enhancing. It is possible that people’s poverty denies them a voice in politics because it limits their ability to participate in political processes on equal terms with wealthier people, which would limit their agency. So maybe a redistributive policy, while not a market-based solution, might increase their political efficacy and thus, agency (or maybe not, obviously that is a research question not a reasoned conclusion). So we can’t really say that government handouts are a bigger denial of agency then market-based solutions. It depends on how agency is conceived of and measured.

Okay so that covered:

  • It ignores the agency of the poor
  • It emphasizes redistribution of resources and government handouts over market-based incentives and opportunities

Now on to Dr. Bill Easterly (everybody calls him Bill; I am sure he goes by Bill; I am calling him Bill, end of story).

The rights-based approach is a way of understanding poverty and other injustices. It is not 1) a solution to poverty; 2) it does not tells us what clear solutions to poverty might be; and 3) it is not a guideline for adjudicating between human needs like food or water or housing or security. (Before you say, “well then what good is it?!?” remember that there is no framework or ideology that provides any of these things.) A rights-based approach, then, would not automatically favor certain types of spending over other types of spending (eg. health over national defense). These decisions must be made by the people affected under a fair and democratic system (ideally). Just like one cannot easily choose the perfect mixture of freedom, equality, and justice within a society (at times, competing values), one cannot easily choose which human rights to prioritize when spending is tight and decisions must be made. But that is not what attention to human rights requires. Nobody is saying these poor governments need to secure all human rights — now! immediately! all at the same time! — when they clearly lack the capacity to even fully secure even a single one. What rights-based approachers (new word?) are saying is that the decisions about where to put the funding should be made in freedom-enhancing ways (democratically) and final decisions should not decrease freedom for anyone without their approval.

What the rights-based approach DOES do is consider the rights of minorities and oppressed groups. And it considers not just the proximate causes of human misery and how to alleviate them, but also how larger structures often contribute to that misery. The argument is, if we take a myopic view of development (like only focusing on one single project and its effectiveness), we will miss the multiple and intersecting ways people experience poverty that is not simply a market failure or imperfection that can be fixed with a technocratic solution to a single problem, but are in fact inherent in “the structure” itself.

I put “the structure” in scare quotes because it is obviously a word that many people have trouble with. Yes, the structure is global capitalism, but it is not only global capitalism, which is why singular attacks on capitalism don’t really get us anywhere, either. I defer to the late and great Dr. Iris Marion Young to help me lay out the argument. Young defines structures as “the confluence of institutional rules and interactive routines, mobilization of resources, as well as physical structures such as buildings and roads” that “constitute the historical givens in relation to which individuals act.” The “structure” could also include residuals of social norms and beliefs, like women are better at childcare than men (sexism, and insulting to both men and women) a view which has created workplaces that are not friendly to women and created a persisting lack of affordable child care options (in the U.S.). Now, I didn’t do that. You didn’t do that. But the fact is, that is the reality and it is unjust. Young makes the point in her book Responsibility for Justice (2011, p. 52) that structural injustices exists “when social processes put large groups of persons under systematic threat of domination or deprivation of the means to develop and exercise their capacities available to them.” Social process, not individuals, but made up of individual decisions within a framework. An example of this deprivation is: poverty.

Now, the question is, can poverty be a human rights violation without a clear perpetrator? The answer is a resounding YES. The perpetrator, anyway, is structural injustice. I think the problem for people becomes, but if it is a structural problem then WHO is guilty?! Who deserves blame? Who is responsible? Not me, surely. And if we can’t hold anyone responsible, then how do we fix it? Dr. Young answers this so eloquently I’m not even going to pretend that it was my idea, as much as I love it. She argues that we ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE for structural injustice and we should all work to fix it. THAT is the obligation that human rights creates. NOT that poor governments should over extend themselves trying to address every single problem, but that we should all be working harder to help others enhance their freedoms. (Simone de Beauvoir says this in another, most amazing way.)

Young explains that our (i.e. EVERYBODY’S) responsibility is acquired through the social processes that connect people in today’s globalized world. Through globalization and greater interconnection, we in the rich world have become part of or complicit in the oppression experienced by in faraway places, even when we were just going about our normal everyday business. For example, individuals in rich countries benefit from the social/market/political conditions that create the circumstances of oppression suffered by the global poor; we benefit from lower prices for products created abroad by low-wage workers working under conditions we would consider to be unjust. Consequently, we bear some measure of responsibility for these injustices, and a responsibility to help rectify them, even if we had no intention of doing harm, and made choices that appeared to us when we made them to be politically neutral. So it is not just our government, or their government, or NGOs, or international institutions, or the pope, who needs to work to change injustice – we do too.

So, I hope that covers:

  • It doesn’t help us choose between whether to spend on health care or food security or infrastructure
  • You must have a clear human rights violator to claim that human rights are being violated

I will conclude by saying that if we are trying to alleviate poverty (which is a freedom-enhancing endeavor), but we ignore human rights/freedom/agency in the process, then we are contradicting ourselves and we are not achieving our goal. Since poverty alleviation and human dignity/freedom/rights are so interconnected, there is no other way BUT the rights-based approach to think about poverty alleviation, if we want our development projects or social interventions to be successful. And by “successful” I do not mean to distribute x number of mosquito nets or to eradicate malaria, but I do mean stopping diseases from limiting people’s human potential. THAT is the goal. You do not have to be some kind of hippie ideologue who loves ideas more than actions to support that goal. Practical/pragmatic development economist-type people and human rights-type people are on the same side, we just need to recognize it rather than diss each other’s ideas.

If I haven’t convinced you, please let me know in the comments. But I hope I have a teeeeeesy weeeeeensy little bit.

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‘Masters of Sex’ isn’t as sexy as it seems

So, I’ve been watching Masters of Sex. If you’re not familiar, it’s a new show on Showtime based on a book about the lives of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who studied the physiology of sex at a research hospital in the 1950s and 60s.

The show irks me because it glamorizes sexism.

For example, in episode 2 of season 1, Masters propositions his secretary and research partner Virginia for sex. Viewers understand that she would lose her job if she doesn’t agree. The show allows for an awkward moment. Michelle Dean of the New Yorker said the scene “gives off a sour smell.” But it’s easy to miss because it doesn’t feel jarring. If anything, we are meant to understand that Masters feels uncomfortable with his sexual desires – he doesn’t look her in the eye and gives the pseudoscientific justification that it is for “research.” We see Virginia hesitate, but she’s not angry. Wouldn’t she be? Soon after, Masters fires her because he has embarrassed himself, punishing her for his own misstep. Virginia’s ability to make herself irresistible to him, professionally and personally, gets her the job back. I understand that as the viewer, I am supposed to be noticing how clever and sexy Virginia is, but instead I am thinking Masters is a monster. He treats all of the women in his life like little children, and he’s irritable, manipulative, and insecure. Yet the show’s message seems to be that he’s a lovable misfit. The show’s sexism is obvious, but not honest.

In effect, the show makes sexism look sexy. And you can tell it’s working, because that is exactly what reviewers are calling it. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker writes that the show is “a serious turn-on” and that Virginia is “a fascinating conception of a female superhero: her libido is a superpower, one she tries to use for good rather than evil, with mixed results.” WTF women usually use their libido for evil?

Nussbaum is wrong. Virginia is confident and confidence is sexy. She’s the only female character (who isn’t a prostitute – and some of them don’t even know how to orgasm!) that is comfortable with her own desire, so sure, I guess that makes her alluring compared to the other repressed women on the show. But if you attribute her allure to libido rather than confidence like Nussbaum, Virginia’s character becomes boring. Libido as  female power is not some novel idea, it’s the whole history of gender relations. It makes her seem un-revolutionary, when in fact she is the opposite: she is twice divorced, ambitious, raising two kids on her own, financially independent, doing ground-breaking research, and having casual sex that she truly enjoys…in 1950s America.

She knows what she wants. She’s a complete person. THAT is her superpower. She’s basically the only person on the show who has their shit together.

But, she’s also the most abused.

She is sexually harassed then fired by her male boss. She is punched in the face by a male coworker outside an office party because he’s angry she doesn’t want to keep sleeping with him. She is disrespected by a female doctor who doesn’t appreciate her ambition. And her son hates her.

What message does that send? I don’t think it’s a healthy one.

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A crazy couple of days

I left for a mission on Friday, to help out my teammate with some data collection for a research project our team is working on. Two is better than one when it comes to field research – one person can ask the questions while the other observes body language or takes notes on the characteristics of the village. Plus it’s just nice to have a buddy when you’re in the middle of nowhere under constant threat of attack.

At the last minute, because I’d just gotten back from another mission which was delayed, I hopped on a convoy that just happened to be passing through, headed to another big FOB in my area of operations. We stopped to pack up some conexes (big storage containers, the kind you seen on ships) because this unit is preparing to go back to the U.S. and has started shipping things home in advance. Then we pushed out to a remote COP in the mountains, which was about an hour and a half’s ride in the back of an MRAP. We had a 2 day overnight mission planned in a village that is friendly toward American forces, but is also known to be a bed down location for insurgents.

We leave early Saturday morning. My teammate seems a little shaken up. I attribute it to a fight with her husband, since they’ve been doing a lot of that lately. We arrive in the village after about an hour’s drive up a mountain. The trip is harrowing because the MRAPs are so tippy and hitting an IED means almost certain death since in addition to being blown up we’d be thrown off the side of the mountain. I try not to look out the windows. The soldiers rock out to some country music and it’s just like Nashville, only scarier.

The village is beautiful. I mean, incredible, breathtaking, etc. It looks like California – mountains, hillside estates (mud buildings, whatever), lush farm fields, trees with fall colors… I would post pictures but it’s an operational security violation to tell/show you where I was. Just take my word for it.

We’re hanging around the trucks because nobody knows what we’re supposed to be doing. The mission is to clear a madrassa and mentor the Afghan National Police (ANA) who are along for the ride. They’ve brought the us, the human terrain team, to snag some interviews with random villagers while they’re busy looking for weapons caches.

My teammates and I are both wearing about 40 lbs of protective gear: bullet proof vests with plates in the front, back, and both sides, plus helmet. Add to that our pistol, magazines full of bullets, snacks, water, a digital voice recorder, a pen, and a notebook. You know, your basic social science materials. When we finally get started walking up the mountain, I can hardly breathe. The vest crushes my lungs and the altitude is a killer. Even with all the PT I’ve been doing since I’ve been here, I’m still no match for thousands of feet above sea level.

The interviews go well. We learn a lot.

At lunch, I ask my teammate whether she got in a fight with her husband because she seemed off this morning. She admits to me, chin quivering, that she learned the night before that her father died. She didn’t want to tell anybody because she doesn’t do well with public displays of grief and since she didn’t know what else to do, she decided to just push on with the mission as planned. We talk about it for a little bit, but then keep moving since she doesn’t want to let on to anybody else what is going on.

Later, when it starts to get cold and dark, we camp up in the vehicles. We brought super warm sleeping bags and about 5 layers of clothing for sleeping under the stars, but we decide to squish into the trucks because it’s just so much warmer. We shoot the shit for a little bit with the soldiers in our truck, then we shoot the shit with each other about the things we learned from the interviews, then we curl up in our sleeping bags and fall asleep around 8:00.

At around 11:00, the company commander shows up at the vehicle, wakes everybody up, and announces that he’s just gotten some bad news from the Red Cross, that my teammate’s father has died and would she like to try and get back to the U.S. tonight? My teammate admits to him that she knew about his death before the mission, but now that it’s official, yes, she would like to take advantage of the army’s policy on emergency leave and go home asap. He says, give me 30 minutes and we’ll break down one of the lookouts and send a 3 truck convoy back to the COP, where she can catch some kind of ride back to the FOB, then to Bagram, then back home. She and I pack up all our gear, put our shoes, vests, and helmets back on, and wait. She says having other people know makes it more real, but she’s handling herself like a champ, given the circumstances.

About an hour later I see a truck precariously perched on a hill across from our vehicle, looking like it’s about to tip over. I ask our driver, is that a jingle truck? Or an ANA truck? No, he says, it’s American. A few minutes later it lurches forward and tips even further, then lurches back. I watch as they hook up a tow. All of the soldiers are outside of their trucks trying to help the driver get unstuck and untipped.

Four hours later and 3 trucks almost rolled, we finally pull out of the mountains. I’m a little terrified because all I’m thinking about is tipping over the mountain in the dark. Sure enough, when we get about halfway down the mountain our truck drives a little off the road, lurches unnaturally to the right, and tips so far to the side that the back left wheel is about 12 inches off the ground. I am sure we’re going to tip, but we don’t. And, thank fucking god, we’re at a level area so there’s no cliff to fall off of. Everybody piles out of the truck, they hook up the tow, and another truck pulls it backwards until all wheels are on the ground. Meanwhile my teammate and I are trying to walk around and stay low, since standing with the truck lights illuminating us from behind makes us an easy target.

We get back in the truck and drive back to the COP. I’m repeating over and over in my head the whole time, please don’t let us fall off a cliff, please don’t let us fall off a cliff. We make it back safely around 4:00am.

Then, for the next two days, we wait around for a helicopter that never comes. The official policy is, once your family has notified the Red Cross and it comes down through official channels, the army is supposed to do everything in their power to get you home within something like 72 hours. The platoon was amazing, driving us home in the middle of the night, but air was not cooperating.

Finally, today after another bird (helicopter) never shows, I lose it. I go up to the 1st sergeant and start raving about how the army is letting my teammate down and it’s just not right and she’s going to miss her father’s funeral because air schedulers don’t give a shit about regular joe’s, etc etc. I make a huge production. 1st sergeant tells me, earnestly, if he can’t get air figured out, then he’ll get us on a convoy tonight driving back to Salerno.

And he does.

Later, as we’re leaving I snag the 1st sergeant and apologize for my hot headedness, but explain that my teammate is just too soft spoken to yell at anybody and that somebody had to fight for her because it’s bullshit how air ignored the emergency helo request. He says it’s cool, it’s been a long time since he’s seen a woman go off like that, and that he agrees it was bullshit. Then he fist pumps me. If there’s anybody who understands fighting for your people, it’s a 1st sergeant.

I’ve made a friend. :)

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Kill capture and its effects

I recently watched this documentary called “Kill/Capture” on PBS Frontline.

The first segment with the elder whose house is searched even though he is clearly not the enemy was filmed in Khost Province, where I am posted. If you listen, as they are clearing the house one of the soldiers yells, “Ricky Bobby!” which is one of our interpreters. (Obviously not his real name.) When they bring the elder back for questioning and to do a biometric analysis, they take him to COP Tani that I visited a couple of weeks ago.

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I’ve arrived in Afghanistan

I arrived a couple of weeks ago in Khost Province. I’m not allowed to blog about the specifics of where I am, where I go, or who I encounter for security reaons. But I can give general impressions and thoughts and challenges. So here goes.

The FOB (foward operating base) where I’m stationed is relatively luxurious. I have a room that locks, a little like a dorm room. It’s in a building of 8 other rooms (all females), and the walls don’t reach all the way to the ceiling, so it’s not actually private. But it’s nice to at least be able to close and lock my door. It’s also required: because I was issued an M9 (handgun) and M4 (rifle) I must keep them behind 2 locks – it’s Army regulation. So the locked door to the hooch (my building) and the lock on my door are adequate to meet standards.

The second or third day I was here we recieved indirect fire (mortar lobbed on the base), but it didn’t hurt anybody. Word on the street is that indirect fire will let up as the cold weather rolls in. I’m lucky to be here during the winter, because there’s an Afghanistan-wide lull in the fighting.

The nights here are pitch black – you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The moon doesn’t rise until about midnight, and the base is on blackout, meaning that no white lights are allowed to be on…. ever. Which means we carry red, green, and blue flashlights, and there are no bright white street lights or vehicle lights.

The base is like a small town. There’s waste management, firefighters, police officers, water treatment. It’s a 3 minute walk to the gym and to the cafeteria and my office is across the street from my hooch. In contrast to Bagram, which is a zoo of people and noise and traffic, my base is much quieter. It’s not quite as intimate as the COPs (combat outposts), which only house a few platoons of soldiers.

The difference between a FOB and a COP is size. A FOB houses a brigade – there are about 4,000 troops in a brigade. A COP houses platoons, or part of a company, and there are only about 30-60 people in a platoon. The last COP I visited has about 120 people total – 3 platoons. So the COPs are less usually luxurious in terms of living conditions, but the atmosphere is less strict – no saluting higher ranking officers – and everybody knows each other. This is also good for personal safety, since it’s harder to get away with an assault or theft when everybody is on a first name basis. As opposed to a FOB, where there are all kinds of random people who are for the most part strangers. But FOBs have advantages too – for example, you can get fresh strawberries for breakfast.

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