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"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

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Monday, December 22, 2014

'A movie in the making in Comoros' or 'Marooned in Moroni'

I recently watched the depressing and exhilirating "All is Lost" starring Robert Redford.  For those who haven't seen it--it's the fictional story of a man lost at sea whose world progressively deteriorates until...wait for it all is lost (or is it?!).






Well the pics of this poor soul is what that  scenario looks like in real life without the HD cameras
and big hollywood budget.  This unnamed gentlemen is from Poland and he's been stuck in Moroni, Comoros for a few months now.

He bought this boat in Miami (he claimed to have a US green card) and has been sailing around the world since then.  Things started to go downhill when he arrived in Mumbai:

From his profanity-laced tirade (while his english was broken, he nailed the expletives perfectly), I was able to deduce that somehow a corrupt port/customs agent there had swindled him out of nearly all of his money.  At some point he said 'to hell with this' and fled the port.  Somewhere around the Comoran island of Moheli, he found himself shipwrecked.  He claims his ship once had a mast but it looked an awful lot like once of those life boats you see on cruise ships.

































Anyway, the Comoran Coast Guard rescued him and towed him to the port of Moroni on Grand
Comores.

With 100 euros to his name, a broken engine, no living relatives or friends and dwindling supply of canned food--his prognosis does not look good.  His own summation of his future prospects were slightly more colorful.

A month and a half after my last visit, though, I recevied an update from a colleague there who said that the Comoran government had given him a little money and that he was slowly getting his engine repaired.

Stay tuned for more updates in 2015!
The sea-faring wayward Polish sailor



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Depression, Suicide, West Point, the French Foreign Legion and Afghanistan

Since I read the New York Times article yesterday, I have not been able to stop thinking about the story of West Point grad Lawrence J. Franks Jr, a young man so steeped in the abyss of depression, in such a struggle with suicidal urges that he deserted to the French Foreign Legion where he served a 5 year contract with distinction.  Upon completion of his service there, he turned himself in at a US military base in Germany.  He was recently sentenced to 4 years in prison.

Franks as a West Point Cadet




















There is likely much nuance to the facts stated above and I hope that there is an industrious journalist or screenwriter that is visiting Franks in prison and allering his/her way over in France to do some in-depth research to answer the million questions that come to mind.  I am certain, for example, that Franks' roommates at West Point have some insight into his psyche.

I will say this.  IF the facts above are true and accurate, IF Franks was truly on the precipice of suicide--I do not fault him for taking care of himself and staying alive.

Do I necessarily agree with the choices that he made?  No, but then I have never struggled with depression nor battled against suicidal thoughts--I don't know those dark solitary corners--nor will I pretend to.  So I won't pass judgement on one man's particular method of fighting back and beating back the depression.

For Franks, the deprivation and challenge of misery and hardship actually elevated his spirits.  In his case, he faced a year before his upcoming deployment with the Army and he craved something more difficult and immediate--so he went after it.

I do not believe the miltary then (or now) was administrately,bureaucratically or professionally equipped to aid a soldier with severe depression.  Our government is still failing its veterans coming back from war today--why do we have any reason to believe they are better equipped to screen and assist soldier before they deploy?

Now, all of IFs may prove to be false.  In that case, a much more shameful analysis is necessary but until then I look forward to more reporting on this.

Some links for the ride home: 
A great follow-up article from the WaPo on the case
Vice's Tale of a Canadian in the French Foreign Legion
RAND study on French military in Mali--to include role of FFL
Vice's Tale of a Redneck's Failed Attempt to join the Legion
Vanity Fair's In-depth look at the FFL
Letter to the editor from Franks' parent when he went missing

That's Franks in the green beret



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Voyage aux Comores




Comoros has grown on me this past year.  


My very first trip to the country was during a muggy-buggy-soon-as-you-step-off-the-plane-you-are-dripping-wet hot week in November 2013.  I was unprepared for the heat and the bugs and the rawness of the country.  Since that first trip, however, the raw beauty and friendly demeanor of the country has worn a soft spot on my heart for the place.  While the country has a long way to go before I can recommend it as a vacation spot--its a nice break from the 'hustle and bustle' of Tana.  

In the superb The Zanzibar Chest, Aiden Hartley recounts climbing a volcano in Comoros and looking down on the island: “the beauty made me catch my breath.”  His description of the beauty there is apt--when I first stopped off the plane I couldn't stop thinking of Kauai's near-identical verdant north side.  

Some links on Hartley's book:


Unfortunately, as one of the poorest countries in the world (an an island at that)--much of this beauty will never be appreciated by the outside world.  Couple this economic isolation with the fact that they have suffered through more than 20 coups since independence and you start to get a sense of the country's challenges

Anyway, I wanted to share some photos/observations from a recent visit.

For insight on Comoran poetry--check out my post here

A great reliable driver.  Laly can be booked directly
 or through the Hotel Itsandra
Who knows how long this airplane has been ensconced in the dirt at the airport?  Same goes for the old helo.
Superb sunsets from the Hotel Itsandra
The port of Moroni

How the fish gets caught

Skys the limit

Belle Plage--if only they could keep the occassional diaper from washing ashore

Inside the boat

Downtown public beach--nice little restaurant not picture on the left

Sometimes the cards don't fall your way

Add caption

Shipwrecked boat--it's since been swallowed by the ocean

What are you looking at?

Le fin du jour



Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Madagascar's Service and Sacrifice during World War I

I had the distinct honor and privilege to attend the opening of a week-long exhibit showcasing the service of sacrifice of Madagascar in World War I.  The public exhibit opened at the city hall downtown on Independence Avenue.  Remarks were given by the Prime Minister, the chief archivist and some type of special delegate for Antananarivo (far right)--only the Minister of Defense did not give remarks.

Over 29, 000 Malagasy soldiers served in WWI and over 2400 ultimately gave their lives.  The exhibit also notes that some 2500 Somalis and Comorans served in WWI with 500 sacrificing their lives.


As you can see on one of the photos, there's a website that has some great historical photos and narratives on the campaigns of Malagasy soldiers abroad.

My biggest critique of the exhibit was that it only ran for a week--it would be nice if they put it all online so that the rest of the country could see it.

----
Interested in learning more about the role of Africa during World War I?

You can start by following this account on twitter: https://twitter.com/WWIAfrica  The author has a great website on the same subject as well.

Other Links and books:
http://africasacountry.com/the-world-war-i-project/
http://www.okayafrica.com/news/world-war-i-in-africa-project/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/13chapter2.shtml

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Love, Loss and Forgetting in Junger's "War" or What Pablo Neruda has to do with the US in Afghanistan

Sebastian Junger's eye for detail is equal to his hunger for authenticity in his writing.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his 2010 'memoir' WAR.  Admittedly I am late to the game in reviewing Junger's story of the time he spent embedded in the violent and dangerous Korengal valley but it's not like the US will ever leaving Afghanistan right?

More importantly, Junger's book is not about Afghanistan or the Taliban--these are merely the backdrop for his penetrating examination of the men who go to war (in fact, the larger geo-political questions go (thankfully) unaddressed).



In dividing WAR into three books--fear, killing and love--Junger lays out his hypothesis that these three emotions (or actions) encompass war for the young men of the United States--or more precisely address the ultimate question of why young men fight and die in war.

 

The goal of this post, however, is not to give a traditional review of a book but instead show you a twitterfied book review.  Below you will see screen captures of the comments that I posted on twitter throughout my reading of the story.  Enjoy!




You can read my review of Marlantes' Matterhorn here





















Perhaps there's no better praise of Junger's skill than that as I read through the War's final lines, I was immediately reminded two lines from Pablo Neruda's sorrowful ode to the pain and incomprehensibility of lost love.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her
Love is so short, forgetting is so long   

This tension (this war) between love, loss, self-deception and forgetting is ultimately what one walks away with reading Junger's masterful War.

Finally, it is worth noting that in considering Afghanistan and its bloody Korengal valley, another line from Neruda's poem rings equally true:

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.





Here's Neruda's poem in its entirety.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.
This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.
The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tries to find the wind to touch her hearing.
Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.