Friday, January 30, 2009

Patriot, Soldier, Beloved Son, Brother

It was summer, 2007. My husband Marty and I with teenage daughter Ellie in tow were visiting the various Western Europe fields where BCM International, of which Marty had recently assumed leadership, had outreach. We'd arrived in Toulouse, France, sans our luggage initially, and were staying at the local BCM headquarters/camp property.

We enjoyed seeing what their outreach, Center Seven, was doing to reach inner-city Toulouse, its youth, and extensive refugee population. But even more so, we enjoyed fellowship with the delightful BCM colleagues who were our hosts, Chuck and Cathy Powers, with their daughters and sons-in-law, Elizabeth and Herve Anneville, Michelle and Ben Hildebrand, and their own small children.

Though Lancaster, PA, natives, the Powers after twenty years in Toulouse were more French than American, with all the warmth and hospitality of their adopted country. We were made to feel immediately like family, friends and church members streaming freely in and out to greet us, good food and wine (this being France) flowing as freely. A single incongruity in this proud French city was the large American flag hanging across a living-room wall.

The flag was there in honor of Powers' youngest child and only son, Josh, home on break from Iraq. Specialist Joshua C. Powers of the U. S. Army 10th Mountain Division, had served tours in Korea and Afghanistan and was now working as a private security contractor in Baghdad. Well over six foot with the muscular build of his profession, Josh was very much a soldier's soldier. He was also soft-spoken, with a French accent as attractive as unusual for a young man raised till age six in Pennsylvania, highly intelligent and well-read. His love for his family was palpable, and one or another of his four small nieces were usually crawling over his lanky frame.

And his love for others as well. On our second day there, Josh took pity on his busy parents by taking their visitors on a tour of the famed medieval city, Carcasonne, where Kevin Costner's Robin Hood was filmed (see Josh, bottom right). At the family-owned restaurant where we stopped for lunch, Josh was greeted as an old friend. When the proprietor's wife told of a recent family crisis, Josh shared quietly and easily of the answer he'd found to pain and crisis in his own life-- faith in Jesus Christ.

When conversation turned to the new book I was researching, set in Afghanistan and the world of private security contractors, Josh graciously took time to outline the life of a PSC for me, patiently answering every question I could come up with and many I didn't. PSC work wasn't glamorous, he warned me with that rueful, almost shy smile of his. But it was a vital support to the soldiers still in uniform, and the mission was worth doing. We were leaving Toulouse by then to our next country stop, Italy. But if I had more questions, Josh assured me, I could email them, and he'd be happy to get back to me.

I never did. I had other PSC contacts, who like Josh crept into the pages of Veiled Freedom as I finished the book in the shape of characters and opinions and insights. But through the BCM grapevine and the Powers' own emails, I kept abreast of Josh's news and movements. He was back in Iraq, but planned to leave PSC work soon to study for the ministry. I was looking forward to sending him a copy of Veiled Freedom as thanks for his contribution, to hearing what his reaction might be to glimpses of himself in its pages.

Then last week I answered the phone. I didn't at first recognize the voice on the other end. It was Chuck Powers. He was calling to let us know that while Josh was working a security detail in Baghdad, the car he was riding in had been struck headlong by a truck. Josh and an Iraqi colleague had been killed. It was Friday, January 23rd, 2009. Josh was twenty-seven.

"Our Josh has gone home to heaven," were Chuck's words on the phone.

The memorial service was yesterday right here in Lancaster, PA, the U. S. home where Josh had so seldom lived. Chuck and Cathy and family flew in from France. Other friends and family, fellow soldiers and PSCs traveled in. My teenage daughter, to whom Josh is a hero, insisted on accompanying us to Hempfield Brethren in Christ Church, which had been Chuck and Cathy's home church. The service was difficult. The anguish of losing a beloved only son and brother cannot be overstated.

But it also overflowed with love and hope and a reminder that a goodbye here is not an end for the child of God, but the promise of future reunion. Through tears, Cathy shared how they'd learned long ago that their children were God's children first of all to be held in an open hand. Chuck reminded us that the heavenly Father who'd created Josh knew the grief of giving up his own precious Son that His creation might know eternal life. Brother-in-law Ben Hildebrand sang that beautiful picture of heaven, "I Can Only Imagine . . . " And as the 'band of brothers' who were Josh's military and PSC buddies closed the service with the honors due a soldier fallen in battle, we were left with that triumphant comfort from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Yesterday's memorial service was followed today by a private military burial at Ft. Indiantown Gap. As his closest loved ones say goodbye, I'd like to take this time and place to say thank you.

Thank you, Josh, for serving your country in and out of uniform. Thank you for the lives you touched, the people to whom you showed God's love, the difference you made and will continue to make.

Thank you, Chuck and Cathy, for your shining example of love and courage and faith.

Thank you, Elizabeth and Michelle, Herve and Ben, for sharing your brother with so many.

We love you. We grieve for you. Our prayers are with you.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Armchair Globetrotting for the Earthbound Writer

"I want to write about other countries and cultures as vividly as you do, but I don't have your opportunities to travel. I'm housebound in suburbia with a spouse and children. I've researched my setting thoroughly, but how do I make everyday details ring true?"

It is one of the most common questions I receive as a writing instructor. Almost as common as commentary from someone who has traveled to one of my novel settings. "Iguazu Falls are exactly as you described them (or Ciudad del Este, Lake Titicaca, the Colombian Amazon, a Central American biosphere). I felt I was walking through the pages of your novel." Or from a local, "I see from your book you were here. It's so nice to have a writer get us right."

Granted, you can't beat personal, on-the-ground experience, and I've been privileged to experience first-hand a variety of countries and cultures. But let me make a confession. I have not been to all the places I've written about (though most), and some I've visited after-the-fact, only to discover with my readers that they were exactly as I had imagined--and wrote. How did I pull it off? More importantly, how can you? The secret is as simple as it is mind-boggling, one of the great privileges of being a writer at this particular point on the timeline.


Yes, that's all there is to it. Simple, garden-variety blogs. There is no longer a distant, exotic spot on our planet where tourists, expat personnel, or even locals, have not only passed through, but been motivated to chronicle their adventures on-line in endless, detailed prose. Better yet, with countless snapshots of their journey (if you are one of these, please don't consider this a negative; on the contrary, I love it. Keep it up!). Do you want to write an authentically hair-raising confrontation with Turkish soldiers at a Mt. Ararat military checkpoint (not to mention cockroaches in the hotel bed that night)? The sights and sounds and smells of walking a cloud forest trail--or visiting the residents of a Third World city dump? A private security contractor bash in Kabul complete with demining robot programmed to serve drinks? (hey, I couldn't make this stuff up!) If you can't go yourself, travel with those who have.

A few tips for using blogs as effective research tools:

1) Read as wide a variety of blogs as possible. Different travelers have different experiences and takes on local life, but if you read enough of them, you can pick up a good sense of your setting. If ten blogs all describe the same spiderwebs lacing the walkways and coatimundis (an adorable, but badly-behaved cross between monkey and raccoon) stealing lunch at Iguazu Falls or the constant dust and diesel smell of Kabul, chances are using those particular details will make your writing ring true to the knowledgeable.

2) Use blogs to get inside characters' hearts and minds. Reading blogs of the actual character types you are writing about is a great asset in bringing their fictional counterparts to believable life. The frustration of being a female aid worker in a Muslim country. The pride of mission in a Special Forces medic saving an Afghan villager's life. The confusion and anger and curiosity about Western life of a Pakistani medical student. All are insights as valuable as a one-on-one interview (and sometimes more so, I can attest personally). For writing my most recent novel, Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan, I followed blogs of humanitarian aid workers and diplomatic personnel, U. S. military, Afghan students, and more.

3) Set your computer to Google Alerts. Again, for Veiled Freedom, I kept a Google Alert both for general Afghanistan news and for Afghanistan blogs during the entire writing process (I still am for the sequel I'm currently writing). The result was a constant, up-to-date flow of data and local color during the writing process. This is simple enough to do by following instructions on the Google (or other browser) home page. I set mine to arrive once a day to my email inbox.

Of course the next question is how to weave a plausible reality if you can't uncover those necessary details. But that's for another session . . .

Monday, January 19, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Ever wondered just how far down the time line consequences of one act can echo? Adam and Eve biting into forbidden fruit, signing Paradise away for their children. Abraham and Sarah, impatient for that promised heir, taking a short-cut through an Egyptian slave girl. The quarrels of their offspring Ishmael (Arabs) and Isaac (Jews) have ripped through the fabric of world peace ever since.

I assure you this blog isn't going to be all politics and gloom. The world is too full of beauty and adventure for that. But I did promise to expound on Iran. So here goes:

Despite its position in Bush's Axis of Evil, anti-American stance, and much-publicized nuclear ambitions, Iran was barely a blip on my radar until I began researching FireStorm and then Betrayed. Here is some of what my history classes left out (or I wasn't paying attention). In 1953 Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, had a dream of moving his country toward a modern, secular society offering education, jobs, land, health care to all. Not an impossible dream. Iran was awash with petroleum wealth.

Except that oil revenues were locked up in the pockets of foreign oil companies (picture Beverly Hillbillies being offered a few bags of groceries and a new roof for their shack instead of a mansion to understand why 'nationalizing' has a different face to dirt-poor countries whose natural resources are being siphoned into multi-national corporations). Saudi Arabia had renegotiated a 50-50 split with their American partners. Time to renegotiate in Tehran as well. Except the British oil consortium (what is now BP) wasn't interested in lowering their take. Here is a clip from Mosaddeq:

"Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries… have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have
been influenced
(i.e. bribes to the corrupt
Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net
profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation… It has been asserted abroad that Iran intends to expel the foreign oil experts from the country and then shut down oil installations. Not only is this allegation absurd; it is utter invention…"

Mosaddeq had recently been named as Time's 'Man of the Year' for his vision and popularity. But the oil consortium screamed 'communism'. Organized by Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Dulles, and his brother Alan, head of the CIA, U.S. forces staged a coup, replacing democracy with Shah Reza Pahlavi. Content with his own personal pay-off, Pahlavi ended any interference with the oil companies. In return, American oil companies (now Exxon and ChevronTexaco) got a split of Iranian oil, ironically, the same split the Iranian prime minister had requested. The Iranians themselves got a dictatorship whose CIA-trained SAVAK secret police were considered among the most brutal of all time.

The coup, by the way, worked so well that in 1954 the Dulles brothers staged a similar coup in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratic Arbenz regime where reforms like minimum wage, taxes, workers rights threatened the bottom line of the United Fruit Company, which controlled 60% of arable land--and of which the Dulles brothers were major shareholders. The military regimes that resulted have stained Central American politics for decades (Read Betrayed for that story). The CIA went on to install 'Papa Doc' Duvalier in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, General Branco in Brazil, Noriega in Panama (whom like Hussein was removed when he was no longer profitable to U.S. interests), and many more. Bottom line, it is always easier to negotiate away a nation's resources from a single military dictator than a democratic populace intent on the well-being of their own families.

If this all sounds like some left-wing conspiracy rant, I only wish it was. The opening of the CIA's own records has brought much of this to light. Don't take my word for it; Google it for yourself.

Why does this matter today?

Because the brutality of the Shah regime caused the Iranian people to greet the Ayatollah Khomeini as a liberator when he showed up in 1979. Which led to Islamic fundamentalism taking over Iran. Not to mention the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Having an anti-American regime controlling 10% of the world's oil reserves frightened the U. S. so much they sought an ally. A neighboring dictator named Saddam Hussein.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the U. S. spent the next eight years supplying Hussein with weapons and strategic training, building the Iraq army up to the fourth largest in the world. This included chemical and biological weapons (botulin poison, weapon-grade anthrax, and mustard gas components were among U.S. military shipments). In 1986, the U. S. became the only U.N. Security Council member not to sign a resolution condemning Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran (the U.S. did not condemn Saddam's tactics until he gassed his own strongly pro-American Kurdish population). During the eight year war, more than a million people died. It is estimated every Iranian household lost at least one son or father or husband in battle. (And this is the army that after six years of ceasefire, we say cannot be expected to patrol Iraq's own streets with Americans holding their hands; maybe ability to fight isn't the problem!). None of which gave cause to Iranians to change their opinion of the West.

When Iraq unexpectedly fought the much-larger Iran to a standstill and turned to Kuwait, a one-time Iraqi province, Saddam was actually so sure the U. S. would support him, he called the American ambassador to give her a heads-up. We all know the rest of that story.

Meanwhile, oddly, especially compared to U. S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Iran has always continued democratic elections under the post-Shah Islamic regime. They have also been relatively open in regards to education, books, information (it was to Iran that Afghanis looked for books and information under the Taliban). This partly reflects long Western involvement in the country, but also the Persian culture's historic emphasis on education compared to the Arabs. Internet has opened Iran to the world, and the university students especially have been quite pro-reform and pro-Western. President Mohammad Khatami was elected in 2000 on a pro-reform platform.

Which goes back to the argument that democracy and Islam are not compatible. Because Khatami was immediately put into place, his reforms quashed, by the true ruling power in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Council, a theocratic body made up of the Ayatollah and top mullahs. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, reform candidates were simply disqualified by the council from running. The result of that: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And that brings us full circle. 50+ years ago, Iranians voted for true democracy and freedom. In this decade they have done the same. How might history be different if in 1953, a small group of men in a back room in Washington, D. C. had made a different choice? What are the ripples a single human decision can send down the time line of history? We learned in the 'war on communism' the long-term consequences of arming dictators as our allies. It is because I am a student of history that I watch with great care and concern our current war on terror. A point to ponder on the eve of a new administration.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Is Democracy Enough?

In recent months, both due to election campaigning and deteriorating political situations, the American public has heard much about upholding the 'fledgling democracies' that are our 'allies' on the other side of the planet. I.E. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. A new term has entered the political dictionary: 'Islamic democracy'. Defined, it is a government which permits elected representation within the constraints of Islamic sharia law.

So is using the words 'Islam' and 'democracy' in the same phrase an oxymoron? Or can democracy exist within the framework of shariah law?

Yes, of course, if democracy is defined simply as holding elections for a chosen slate of local politicians. A resounding 'no' if one's definition of democracy includes any semblance of human rights and freedom. Afghanistan's 2004 post-Taliban Constitution, paid for with U.S. dollars and the blood of American soldiers, is a prime example. Consider its first three articles:

Article One: Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible state.

Article Two: The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.

Article Three: In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.

That 'provisions ' clause is the kicker. Every 'right' mentioned in Afghanistan's new constitution (and Iraq's) is conditioned by and limited to 'the provisions of [sharia] law'. Here are a few things Islamic democracy does NOT include:

Freedom of religion: By sharia law, it is apostasy for anyone born into the Muslim faith (or whose ancestors were conquered and converted at the point of the sword, like most of the Islamic world) to choose any other faith or form of worship. The penalty for apostasy is death. The most public recent example was the 2006 trial of Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman. Rahman became a Christian while living abroad as a refugee. Upon returning to the new, liberated 'democratic' Afghanistan, he was arrested for apostasy and condemned to death. After a huge international outcry, he was released to exile in Italy, not in any nod to religious freedom, but because it was determined he was mentally unstable and so ineligible for the death penalty. Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to intervene while the Afghan parliament enthusiastically endorsed the death sentence. While U.S. and other Western governments made formal protests, no sanctions nor even withholding of military aid were even suggested. Since then other converts have been jailed and murdered.

Freedom of speech: By sharia law, it is blasphemy to say or do (or think!) anything that could be construed critical of Islam, the religious scholars interpreting Islam, past Islamic history, or Islamic laws governing every aspect of personal life. This includes both Muslims and non-Muslims. Once again, the penalty is death. In 2008, 23-year-old Afghan journalism student, Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, was sentenced to death for downloading an article published in Iran (ironically, considered a liberal, 'free' society by Afghan or Pakistani standards), which criticized the treatment of women in Islam, and photocopying parts of it for friends. Once again, Karzai refused to intervene while the Afghan parliament overwhelmingly ratified the death sentence. Just recently, that sentence was commuted to 20 years. Again, not in a nod to freedom of speech, but because Afghan president Karzai has to publicly sign off on an execution, politically inexpedient with Western funds paying even his daily bodyguard, while he can simply ignore any lesser sentence. Meanwhile, a 23-year-old is now locked up for the next two decades in Afghanistan's most notorious prison, Policharki, for the crime of believing the new Afghan democracy--and their Western allies--were serious about freedom of speech.

Freedom of person: Men and women are 'equal' under the 2004 Afghan constitution; that is, subject to sharia law, under which a woman is worth half the value of a man, is the legal property of her male relatives, and can move, speak, or study only with their permission. Just as under the Taliban, most women in Afghan jails today are there for the crime of 'zina', or unlawful contact with the opposite sex, which can be anything from being raped (adultery under shariah law), running away from an abusive marriage or home, refusing to be forced into marriage, or just being caught in the company of a male non-relative, even if not by their own choice.

I could go on and on. You see, it is not and never has been democratically elected leaders that guarantees our freedom.

Americans may scream and fume when the other party wins an election. But we do not live in abject fear over what will happen the day after inauguration. Why? Because regardless of who has taken control, our basic rights and freedoms are above the will of a majority vote. Freedom to worship as we choose. Freedom to form our own opinions and speak them freely. Freedom from unlawful search and imprisonment. Freedom of minorities to enjoy the same privileges as a majority. Even freedom to begin planning the next political campaign to throw out the current victors. Guaranteed by a constitution and legal system based on Judeo-Christian values of human freedom, choice and equality before God, those basic rights cannot be taken away by any democratic vote. Just as under an Islamic shariah constitution, those same rights cannot be granted by any democratic vote--as Iran, the original Islamic democracy, sadly discovered when they elected their former president on a reform platform (more on that in another posting).

Five years ago, shortly after what was thought to be the end of conflict in Iraq, as attention turned to creating a new constitution for Iraq and Afghanistan, I wrote an opinion piece entitled 'Is Democracy Enough', warning of the compromise of freedoms if the U. S. signed off on shariah-based democracy. I came across that column the other day. I wish I had not proved so prophetic. I offer that column again here today as a renewed warning. (READ). Because if we as a nation continue to export 'democracy' as a value defined by holding elections rather than any serious framework of human rights and justice, the time may come when that same definition becomes accepted in our country. May Americans never have to live under the definition of democracy their dollars and blood is currently supporting among our 'allies' in the Islamic world. Let us not remain quiet!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Reason for the Season

If there's one holiday gripe I've developed since arriving Stateside from overseas, it's the bombardment of programming and commercials determined to reduce the 'reason for this season' to some nebulous 'Christmas spirit'. From observation to date, this consists in renewed belief that Santa will finally bring an outdated toy you've been obsessing over since childhood. A taste for red and green, well-decorated house, hot cocoa and cookies. Extreme shopping in order to prop up a faltering economy. And as a sop to something other than rank materialism, the usual punch-line that celebrating with family and friends, and being cheerful and kind are maybe even more important than getting that item Santa forgot thirty years ago.

It isn't just the absence of a baby named Jesus born in a manger in this equation. As the Grinch put it so succinctly, Christmas is a WHOLE lot more. Around our world, Christians are celebrating, not stockings and presents and 'things bought in a store', but public testimony to God's ultimate gift. The birthday of the King of Kings. Emmanuel. God come to man as a baby--and Savior. Some celebrate freely. Others in courageous defiance of hostile neighbors. Still others in secret under death threat. For the follower of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christmas is a proclamation of faith that though the battle still rages on this planet Earth, the final victory is assured. The King of Kings will triumph. Isn't that more worthy of excitement--and belief--than childhood wishes coming true thirty years down the road?

Now lest I be accused of grinchiness (is that a word?), let me hasten to add I see no problem with enjoying the trappings of stockings and gifts and Christmas tradition, as God supplies. This year I confess to wallowing in family planning, shopping, decorating, baking--and, yes, cocoa (though no past-life toys). The reason: God has blessed our family this Christmas with the best gift possible outside the birth of His Son. For the first time in five years, all three of our adult sons came home for the holidays. My Navy son Steve (21) flew in from Sicily. My oldest son Mike (26), who works with homeless men and underage illegal aliens in Seattle, made it out from the worst winter storm to hit SeaTac airport in a decade. My middle son Josh (22) arrived from Wyoming with new daughter-in-law and six-week old first grandson. Our daughter Ellie (17) was ecstatic to have her big brothers all home. It has truly been a wonderful Christmas from beginning to end.

During Christmas Eve and Day, my husband kept email and Skype online to keep abreast of happenings among our Christian refugees in Orissa. The good news: though Christmas celebrations were low-key, the holiday passed peacefully without new attacks. In the two refugee camps our ministry sponsors for pastors and families under death threat, Christmas was celebrated with a worship service, gifts of clothing and other needed items, and a special Christmas feast. All made possible by donations that have come in, not just from North America, but the Ukraine, Peru, Ireland. A number of our children's and family camps from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, even other provinces in India took special offerings out of their own scarcity for their brothers and sisters in Orissa. Isn't the family of God a wonderful thing when we work and love together?

Now my family has scattered again, the reason you are hearing from me. Forgive me for inflicting pictures of a proud mother and first-time grandma. But, hey, this is my blog--and these are my first family pictures in years. A Happy New Years 2009. My wish for you and yours is that you may rejoice as much as I have this holiday season in family, friends, faith, and the 'happy ending' to mankind's story that Christmas foretells.