Monday, August 29, 2005

Dick Newcomer – Goodbye to a good friend…

Today I attended a Memorial Service for a very good friend of mine, Richard (Dick) Newcomer. He died of apparent Heart failure; this coming a few days after he had surgery to repair a chronic back problem. His heart was suspect; the surgeons had postponed the surgery once already while they ran some tests on his heart to see if it could stand the stress. I guess they didn’t run enough tests because it failed him just a few days after the surgery was complete.

Dick and I were colleagues at the Saudi Investment Bank in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s. I was in charge of the bank’s computer systems while Dick was our Public relations manager.

I think I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone who was more open and friendly than Dick was and certainly there was no one who enjoyed life more than he did. Every day was an adventure for him. He traveled extensively throughout the world and truly enjoyed learning about and living in different cultures. He was fluent in French; a skill that served him well when he was stationed in Francophone Africa. He shared a couple of vacations with my wife and I; one in Egypt and one in the Seychelles. His two children, Jeff and Kelly, joined us for the Egyptian trip. This trip was during the Christmas and New Years Holidays of 1985-1986 and was culminated by the best New Years Eve party I’ve ever attended. It was held on a luxury cruise boat, the “Nile Beauty”, on the Nile River. Dick’s impromptu dance that evening with a Belly Dancer was a highlight of the party and of the trip. After I left Saudi Arabia in 1988, Dick stayed, finishing his career with SABIC (Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation). When I returned to the Kingdom on a consultant basis, I almost always stayed with him at his apartment in Riyadh. We had many fine evenings; talking, watching movies, visiting friends and drinking siddiqi; the local homemade liquor. He returned the favor once; visiting my wife and I in our home in suburban Chicago. Dick and I went to the local liquor store and purchased a bottle of Famous Grouse Scotch - one of Dick's favorites. We spent the evening on our back porch, chatting about old times and polishing off the bottle. I'm not normally a Scotch drinker, but it sure went down fine that evening. I think the company had a lot to do with it...

Several years ago, he retired and returned to America, taking up residence in New Mexico.

A very nice obituary / life story about Dick is posted here. I’d like to add one story, one I shared with all those who attended today’s service.
One morning when I was working at the Saudi Investment Bank, my phone rang. It was Dick telling me that he had been taken to traffic jail and to please find someone to GET HIM THE HELL OUT.

I made sure he was OK and then went looking for our Arab "fixer" at the bank, Sami Arab (great name for a Saudi, yes?). F/Y/I, practically every company in the Kingdom had an Arab "fixer" - the guy you went to when someone was in trouble, or needed a visa right away, etc. Sami was in Aref Fadil's office and they were chatting about something. When I told them that Dick had just called me from traffic jail and wanted someone to come down and get him out, they both dissolved into laughter. I thought Aref was going to pee in his pants he was laughing so hard.

When I talked to Sami later on, he told me they thought they could get Dick out that same day but as I remember it wound up being the next day. Dick's offence? He had made an illegal U-turn at a traffic light. This was an infamous corner, on a hugely overcrowded street, and everybody and their brother used to make illegal U-turns there. Evidently, the police had decided that it was time to begin enforcing the illegal U-turn rule. They had a few squad cars and a bus waiting to nab the unwary. Dick tells me that when he got onto the bus, the others already on it exclaimed "Hey! We got an American!" From that day on, that intersection was known at our bank as "Newcomer corner".

The other funny part of the story was that he had a passenger in the car. This was another American and my very good buddy, a guy who I had recently hired to come and work in Saudi Arabia as a consultant. They had just come from some sports club, I think, and were dressed in swimming trunks or gym shorts or something similar. So Dick went to jail dressed like that. And the passenger? He didn't have a drivers license (not a Saudi Drivers license nor even an American one) and yet the police wanted him to drive the car home.
I loved you Dick and I’m going to miss you very much. I’m going to miss your smile and your sense of humor. I’m going to miss your joie de vivre. I’m going to miss being on your email list – where you shared jokes and insights about the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. And I’m going to miss your Christmas letters – letters that my wife and I looked forward to each year. I’m glad I got the chance to renew acquaintances with your children today. I’m glad I was able to meet your grandchild and the rest of your family and some of your friends today; they all loved you too, and were a reflection of you and a life well lived.

Au revoir my friend, and may you Rest in Peace. I hope there is a heaven, for you have surely earned it.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mission accomplished – time to come home?

I supported the American (“coalition”) invasion of Iraq. I did so reluctantly and only after much debate with friends and others about the issue. I’m basically libertarian but supported the invasion because I believed President Bush when he said that WMD were still in Iraq and needed to be found and destroyed in order to protect our safety. No other good reason existed (or exists today). PowerLine and other conservative talking heads now have tried to spin the primary cause of our invasion from the search for WMD to the freeing of the Iraqi people and the creation of a Democratic republic in the Middle East. Such revisionist history is dangerous and contemptible. I have commented on this before.

But the question is what do we do now? I now believe that our continued presence in Iraq is making things worse, not better. The Administration continues to paint a picture of progress in Iraq, but I no longer believe anything they say about this issue (I’m sorry as hell I ever believed them in the first place). The last straw for me came when our Vice-President said that the insurgency was in its “last throes” and was quickly contradicted by our military. The terrorist attacks continue, stronger than ever. Does anyone truly believe that the Insurgency is winding-down?

I’m wondering what would happen if we just leave? Declare “Mission Accomplished” (again) and just pull out. Would it be worse than if we stayed? If we left, I think that Iraq, as a state, would most likely split into 3 parts; “Shia-stan”, “Sunni-stan” and “Kurdistan”. Would this be such a bad thing?

Look what happened in Yugoslavia as an example. This was a country that didn’t even exist until after World War I. It was carved mostly out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was made up of different ethnic groups; Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Macedonians. After World War II, it came under the control of a strongman, Prime Minister Tito (it originally was formed as a Monarchy). Tito kept the local ethnic tensions under control. But once he passed away in 1980, these same ethnic tensions became unchecked. Slovenia and Croatia each declared their independence, followed by Macedonia and then Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the last 10 years, levels of fighting in that area have flared and subsided, as the people in the region adjust to the realities on the ground, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. But I don’t think you’d find much support for the idea that things are worse off there today than they were before the breakup began (unless, of course, you’re a Serb nationalist and dream of one day having your own little empire again).

Like Yugoslavia, Iraq, too, was part of a larger empire until the end of World War I. Like Yugoslavia, it was artificially created as a monarchy. It was made up of 3 provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, provinces that roughly correspond to today’s Kurdish, Sunni and Shia-dominated regions. Like Yugoslavia, after World War II, it eventually came under the rule of a strongman, Saddam Hussein (with many coups along the way). Hussein was reasonably successful at keeping his country’s ethnic tensions under control, albeit at a brutal cost. And, like Yugoslavia, once the strongman was removed from power, these ethnic tensions began to resurface.

No the parallels aren’t exact – they never are. But I think they are instructive. What are the possible objections to Iraq splintering into 2 or 3 countries?

The Terrorists would win. It depends on what you mean by “Win”. If you say that their goal is to drive America out of Iraq, then yes, they win. But if you say that they are now going to be able to control Iraq, then no, they won’t win. This insurgency is primarily fueled by Sunnis and has little indigenous support in the North or South. They may have control of the center of the country, but then they’ve always had control of the center of the country.

America would be admitting defeat. This is stupid and irrelevant. America “admitted defeat” in Vietnam too. We were told by the war-supporters that to leave Vietnam before we “won” would be disastrous. Leaving Vietnam did not change our status as a world power and neither would this.

Islamic Fundamentalism would be strengthened. They beat the Soviets and now they will have beaten us. This is true, unfortunately, but there is nothing we can do about it whether we stay or not. We cannot militarily win this fight the way we are fighting it now. To truly win it, America would have to wage total and complete war. And that’s not going to happen.

The region would become more unstable. More unstable than what? The Kurds aren’t going to be interested in trying to conquer “Sunni-stan” or “Shia-stan”. The Sunnis won’t be able to conquer the Shia and the Shia won’t be able to conquer the Sunnis. There would be border flare-ups and probably still some suicide bombers, but nowhere near as many as today. The 3 regional governments would take control and, as they would have the great majority of their local constituents behind them, would be operating from a much stronger position. I do think that Ethnic Cleansing would be a strong possibility, especially in Kurdistan. If Arab suicide bombers continued to strike there, the Kurds would just drive out all of the Arabs. But at least Americans wouldn’t be dying because of this. Baghdad could get especially messy as Shia’s and Sunni’s are intermixed there. But people would take control of their own neighborhoods – it’s happening already. Civil war might also break out in 1, 2 or all 3 regions. But they wouldn’t be threatening us – the reason that we supposedly went in there in the first place. Those countries that do not want an independent Kurdistan, and I include Iran, Syria and most especially Turkey in this group, might object, but what are they going to do, invade? If the Turks invaded, they would face international ostracism, and would ultimately not prevail. And neither the Syrians nor the Iranians would want to take on this headache.

It would waste all of the good work we’ve done there and would negate the democratic reforms that have happened (such as the recent elections). I don’t think so. The Sunni’s would be happy to see us go, but I think that the Kurds and perhaps the Shia would want us to continue to help. There is no doubt that our troops and the NGO’s have accomplished a lot of good in Iraq. Schools have been built. Sewage treatment plants have been built. Other infrastructure projects (phone, power, water, etc.) are in various stages of completion. But the efforts have been hampered, and in many cases stopped in their tracks, by the insurgency. Very well then. Just concentrate our reconstruction efforts in the North and the South, where they would be appreciated AND PROTECTED BY THE LOCALS. And if they want us to leave, we leave.

Our sacrifices would have been in vain – our soldiers would have been killed or wounded for no reason. Let’s remember the original mission, here, the one that was used to sell this war to the American people. It was spelled out by the President in the speech he made upon the commencement of the invasion and was detailed in the Iraq War Resolution which was approved by Congress. The mission was to disarm Iraq, to have it comply with the terms of Gulf War I, to make sure that it was no longer a threat to us or to its neighbors and to free its people. These all have been accomplished. There are no WMD there. The tyrant has been removed from power. Iraq is no longer a threat to invade its neighbors. Some will respond that we have not left a "free and democratic Iraq" as our legacy. But so what? Iraq is free from Saddam Hussein. It's up to the Iraqi's to decide what kind of government (or governments) they want. All of the items in the War Resolution have been accomplished except for the elimination of Al Qaeda from Iraq. And they’re in more places than Iraq – are we going to invade them all? We’re not going to totally root them out from Iraq, we can’t even root them out from Afghanistan. The locals have to do that. The original mission was truly accomplished. It’s the new mission, the one to turn Iraq into a country built on a western model, that hasn’t been accomplished. And Americans didn’t sign up for this “mission creep.”

What would be the advantages of us leaving?

We remove our troops from harm’s way and most or all of them can come home. Any that might stay in the North or the South would be there because the locals truly wanted them there.

We would develop at least one and perhaps two new friends in the region. The Kurds seem to like Americans. As a side benefit to that, Syria would find itself sandwiched between our two friends in the region, Israel and Kurdistan. And it’s possible that the Shia’s would establish friendly relationships with us, too. We are no threat to them and they are no threat to us. We’ve rid them of Saddam Hussein and probably still have some residual goodwill left because of that.

We would save a ton of money, on the order of tens of billions or perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. All of the money now going to support the military efforts in that area could be saved. There is still a lot of reconstruction money we originally committed to spending in Iraq, but if we’re not spending it on Baghdad and the surrounding area, we can save much of it.

More oil would be available on the international market. With Kurdistan and Shia-stan having oil supplies that would, under popular local control, actually be able to function, more oil would begin to flow. Both the Kurds and the Shias would have more of an incentive to protect “their” oil wealth and would do a better job of it. We could all use lower oil prices.

We remove a large recruiting incentive from the Islamic fundamentalists. Right now it’s “Come to Iraq and kill the Americans.” If we leave and the locals take control, we remove that incentive.

We keep the hammer of “If you threaten us, we will remove you.” This doesn’t get lost or lose its effectiveness because we leave. We removed the Taliban and we removed Saddam Hussein. If one of the 3 new countries becomes a threat to us, they know that we would come back. It’s a lot easier to remove a government than it is to try and build a new one. Let's remember that Kaddafi didn’t cry uncle because we threatened to install democracy in Iraq. He gave up his WMD because we removed Saddam.

I originally naively hoped that Iraq would become democratic, pluralistic and free. And the Iraq election results gave me some renewed hope, hope the Iraqi’s were really going to turn the corner and form a new Iraq. Now I think the odds of this happening are somewhere between slim and none. The longer we stay, the worse it’s going to get. The longer we stay, the more Americans are going to be killed and wounded. The longer we stay, the more fanatics will be recruited to the cause.

And as an aside, does it bother anyone else that the majority of Iraqi's fighting and dying in this war seem to be in the Insurgency? If the other Iraqis were so grateful that we are there and wanted to help our efforts to create a "democratic and pluralistic Iraq", wouldn't they have done so by now?

I don't like it. It looks too much like cutting and running. But I just don't see how leaving coalition troops there will improve things.

Time to come home…

Thursday, August 18, 2005

News from Afghanistan - Part 4

I recently received another email from my wife's niece, Reiko, stationed in Afghanistan:
Greetings from Afghanistan!! I have gotten several emails from people wondering if I am OK, so I thought I would send out an update on the adventures in Afghanistan.

Things are heating up due to elections in September. Attacks on US troops have increased, and we have at least one IED go off on in the Ghazni province on a daily basis. I was in Nawa last week for a mission, and they had an IED that went off and killed a medic in an up-armored HUMVEE yesterday. It hits close to home when events like that happen in places I just visited.

Most of my missions this past month have been supporting the Civil Affairs team. We just recently received our funding for medicines, so we were not able to go out on any MEDCAPs for lack of medical supplies. With the IED's threatening the area, the only people going out are the combat operation teams for the time being. Which is a good thing because I have no desire to come home in a body bag.

I have begun to see first hand much of the corruption and oppression that plagues Afghanistan. I've seen clinics that have no medical supplies because the doctor was selling it off and pocketing the money. We have been focusing a lot of our attention in the Pashtu areas since we are trying to win their support. The Pashtu's are known for their sympathies to the Taliban and haven't progressed over the years. Many areas make excuses why the girls do not attend school. Most of the areas we visit you never even see the girls because they are kept working or hidden. If they are brave enough to come out they are usually chased away by the boys, but they are usually too scared to come near us.

We have jokingly started our own "Affirmative Action" program. We'll wade through the Pashtu boys and go straight to the girls where we hand out the pens, candy and stuffed animals. I figure it will probably be the only highlight in their life because most Pashtu's openly treat women and girls as second class citizens. It may be stereotyping, but most of us serving out here will agree that the Pashtu's are the greedier, pushier, and rudest of the population. It figures they are the majority in the country.

I just returned from a humanitarian mission in Wardak. We dropped some supplies to the local schools and villages and the Civil Affairs team was following up on some projects that the US is funding. I can't imagine growing up in this country. Most of these people have never seen a doctor, can't read or write, and have no idea what lies beyond the next ridge. I never would have imagined that I would one day be the tech, nurse, doctor, and pharmacist for an entire village. It's strange to have the locals address me as, "Doctor." They think I can cure anything from blindness to birth defects. I can't seem to explain that I can't heal all that ails them, but our medicine is miraculous in their eyes.

Again, thank you all for your support. We have been fortunate out here that we have not had any incidents that caused us any serious injuries. I can't wait to come home and enjoy paved roads, indoor plumbing, and McDonalds!!


Previous postings from Reiko are here, here and here.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Prostate Cancer Update

This week has been a test of my self-discipline. I’ve been attending college this summer and this week was finals week. I’ve had to concentrate on my exams and temporarily put thinking about my cancer on the back-burner. I’ve worked too hard this summer to throw away good grades. Now that finals are over, I can concentrate on beating this thing.

I met with my proctologist, a surgeon, early last week and a Radiation Oncologist today. It seems I have several options;

1) Watchful waiting (i.e. do nothing for the time being). Prostate cancer is, historically speaking, one of the slowest growing cancers.

2) Hormone therapy. Removing or dampening the male hormone, testosterone, slows the growth of Prostate Cancer.

3) Radiation therapy. This works by damaging or killing all of the tissues, both healthy and cancerous. Once the radiation treatment is stopped, the healthy tissues grow back somewhat, but the cancerous ones are unable to reproduce themselves. There are two types of Radiation Therapy I can consider, External Beam and Seed Implantation.

4) Surgery. The prostate and seminal vessels are removed. No more prostate gland, no more prostate cancer (theoretically).

Each option has its pluses and minuses, of course.

• Watchful waiting means life goes on, essentially, as before. My PSA gets checked regularly and I can look forward to fairly frequent prostate biopsies. Leaving this disease alone sounds, on the surface, insane, but prostate cancer is normally very slow growing. If I was diagnosed with this at age 75 rather than at 55, this would be a real option. But at my age it’s not.

• Hormone therapy means either my testicles get removed (they are what generate the testosterone) or else I have to take drugs to suppress my testosterone. Having my balls cut off doesn’t sound very attractive, but if it would result in my beating this cancer, it would be an option I’d consider. But the lack of testosterone only slows down the growth, it doesn’t stop it. The same negative applies with taking suppression drugs – I’d still have the cancer, it just would be growing slower.

• Radiation therapy is a real option as the odds are strongly in favor of a total cure of the disease, not just a slowing down of it. But there are real side effects. 20-25% of men who undergo this lose their sexual functions. Approximately the same percentage also experience incontinence, both urinary and rectal. The real downside to this option is that if it is unsuccessful, it makes surgery much more risky. The healthy tissues are also damaged by radiation therapy and just don’t take surgery as well as normal tissues do.

• Surgery is also a real option as it, too, has an excellent chance of completely curing me of prostate cancer. But it’s not totally guaranteed. If any of the cancer cells have spread from my prostate into the surrounding tissues or lymph nodes, then it will eventually regenerate itself. However, at that point I do have a second option, radiation therapy. You can follow surgery with radiation therapy, if necessary, but not vice-versa. There are downsides to surgery, too. They include urinary incontinence and loss of sexual function in a small percentage (less than 10%) of the cases.

So these are my options. At this point, I’m leaning towards surgery, but will spend this weekend doing additional web research on the issue. I need to make up my mind quickly. Every day I wait is another day the cancer grows unchecked.

I will keep everyone posted…

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