Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Of stinger missiles and sheep testicles

Friday, June 19th, 2009

In the 1980′s I had the pleasure of travelling all over the Middle East.  Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, etc.  Among the many interesting projects I worked on, I was particularly in love with a crazy experiment to slurp radar data from AWACS, E2C, and missile systems in the forward area (that’s where all the scary noise is) and munge all that radar data into one complete picture locating the bad guys and good guys and displayed neatly onto a metal suitcase version of a laptop.  I think it was made by Compaq and looked something like this.

Mind you, in 1988 “laptop” meant something very heavy and very lame compared to what it means today. We gave those 14 pound laptops (with a whopping 8Mhz clock and all of 16MB of RAM…) to stinger missile teams. Now those guys are each already packing at least 60 pounds of gear per person into the forward area. They weren’t too happy with this new piece of heavy gear to lug.  Until of course they saw what it did for them.  You see, a stinger missile team normally had to use binoculars (or their Jedi mind training) to anticipate where MiG’s or F15′s would appear in order to shoot them down. These jets were able to go from the horizon to over your head in about 1.5 seconds.  This new piece of iron showed the stinger teams where the bad guys were long before the bad guys were at the horizon and therefore long before they could pose a threat. Advantage Stinger Team, 100.  Bad Guys, 0.  The already heavily burdened stinger teams lugged the new iron.

So I was in Egypt.  My team was tweaking a missile firing test to show our hosts how well it worked in the desert. We had some down-time to visit the pyramids. That was very cool (and a story for another Friday…) Then we packed into transport trucks and headed well north of Cairo into an empty expanse of sand and dirt in the Sahara and we promptly shot down the test target. Extremely cool. The generals were impressed. We were elated.

By this time in my career I was an old hand in the Middle East.  I could read and speak and even write a bit of Arabic.  The food was familiar and so were the customs.  We finished off the trip with a well deserved celebration meal, held of course by the host.  The most senior host suggested we dine at the The President’s Club.  Of course we agreed. We had visions of arriving at The Intercontinental Hotel in a tux to eat and drink a first-class French meal. This was welcome especially after a week of eating MREs in the dirt and if we were lucky, local shawarmas.  Instead, we were hauled via a harrowing cab ride (another story for another Friday…) into a seedy section of Cairo.  The pub name was indeed The President’s Club, which was inscribed above the door not in English nor Arabic but as we had hoped, in French. Only bits and hints of the gilt and black lacquer that once adorned the creaking, carved, wooden sign (carved when Rommel still roamed these parts) were still there.

In this basement hole in the wall, we sat among wealthy, well dressed locals.  Some in fine Italian, handmade suits.  Some in a silk and wool dishdash, equally well tailored.  We were served Johnny Walker Black by a nice waiter in a tux and we skipped the ice or water because it was, after all, Cairo.  Not one bottle.  Not two.  We had three bottles of Johnny to serve five people.  That certainly took the edge off.  We ate a kind of Egyptian tapas.  Sheep’s brains served raw in lemon juice, or boiled in a bit of saffron broth, or deep fried.  Nice choice. We had goat skewers and mutton skewers. Better.  We ate tomatoes and cucumbers and hummus.  And then came a nutty, crunchy tasting substance that had the texture of a bamboo shoot in Chop Suey.  Except a little chewier.  After asking my host what it was, he slurred whiskily that they were yummy sheep testicles. They were like their sheep brain appetizer cousins served raw in lemon juice, or boiled with saffron, or deep fried. No tartar sauce.  Too bad.  Messr. Walker urged me to keep my mouth shut, jut my chin firmly, smile, and eat a second helping like my host. I chewed merrily and washed it down with some more Johnny.

The next morning, I was on a long plane flight back to the states. I had little sleep and was still reeking of whiskey and burping up occasional whiffs of nuttiness as my cab took me to a friend’s birthday party. We ate his favorite meal:  Maryland Blue Crabs steamed in the bushel, served with corn on the cob, cheddar cheese and a massive amount of Old Bay Seasoning leaving nothing but fire and thirst in its wake.  The sheep were long gone.

And it was indeed, good to be home.

Courage in the face of fear

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

I went to the Washington State Presidential primary caucuses yesterday, which put my brain into history mode. It struck me again that great leaders stand their ground under fire, at times even under persecution. It’s not what they promise; it’s what they do when their mettle is tested. Great leaders face daunting challenges with resolve and inspire others with hope for a better future.

So I began to wonder, what is it about George W. Bush’s war in Iraq that doesn’t pass the sniff test for any but the most reactionary of noses? President Bush has been pestered, ridiculed, and chastised by many pundits and leaders, and in addition he has lost about two-thirds of the country’s support in pursuit of his foreign policy in Iraq. He has been under fire to say the least. He has asked us to aspire to a safer world and freedom for the Iraqi people. Why isn’t he seen by most as a great leader for sticking to his guns for this admirable intention? Without resorting to the same old arguments on this topic, I see two answers of use for all leaders.

The first and simplest answer is, the war in Iraq isn’t over. It hasn’t been won by anyone’s accounting. And although the mission objectives have been ambiguous and fluid over the past four years, not even the current mission objectives have been achieved with any sense of finality. So it is fair to say that judging his leadership on Iraq might be premature.

But there is a deeper answer to why George W. Bush isn’t seen as a great leader on this topic. The primary verb in leadership is “inspire.” President Bush has used 9/11 – one moment of pain in our recent history – to declare a military campaign to root out the source of evil. That’s a flawed promise because the source of 9/11 is essentially one man, who still lives, breathes, and communicates effectively with his followers. It is a flawed promise because the root of this evil is so wide and so pervasive, we would have to kill or subdue everyone who harbors ill will against the United States, which in turn will create more who harbor ill will against us in a never ending cycle of violence.

Leaders who elevate fear and safety as a rationale for action always create more doubt than motion. Why? Because whenever a leader elevates fear and safety as a primary concern to give impetus to an agenda, there are many already willing to face that fear and already have another agenda. Leaders who proclaim “I have the answer” instill either doubt or set themselves up for a reckoning later. Leaders who on the other hand challenge us to build or attain something and say “I believe we can do this,” are inspiring. Though we might fail, there is more motion than doubt. Lincoln, FDR, and JFK understood this. But it doesn’t require a president or brilliant orator to understand this – any decent parent understands this.  As leaders, we have the opportunity to demonstrate courage in the face of fear.  When we step up to do so, we lead others to do the same.

George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was not courage in the face of fear. It was a simplistic response to a violent act fueled by misplaced hatred and misguided political objectives. And in the process, we became the thing we sought to punish. Worse yet, President Bush created a divisive, exclusionary principle: if you are not with us you are against us. A great leader seeks inclusion – because by bringing people together, we build a better place.

In response to 9/11, a great leader would have challenged us to first forgive those assailants who were manipulated into suicide and then challenged the world to join us in building a deeper understanding of one another while bringing the principal hate mongerers to justice. Had President Bush done this, we would have collectively held him in high esteem as a great leader. Instead, his approach of elevating our fears, focusing our actions on a false sense of security, and forcing his agenda through the use of executive power has left us with a feeling of doubt and anguish.

A fine lesson for anyone in a leadership role.

(c) 2008 BlueSeven Partners LLC