Monday, January 21, 2013

100 MPH in the Wrong Direction

If you would like to read a straightforward account of combat in Afghanistan, I highly recommend the book pictured to the left. I tells the story of various units as they rotated through a ridiculously difficult to defend outpost in NE Afghanistan.

This is not the book for you if you want your war stories in one of the following varieties: John Wayne stories about noble American troops always outsmarting and defeating their ignorant and immoral foes, or Vietnam War-type stories about our horrible soldiers who put babies to death in service of a war for oil or for votes.

Instead, guys with lives outside the service who are educated and dedicated are doing the best they can with what they have in service of a strategy that many recognize as misguided but over which they have no control. They aren't saints, they are professionals. Many have a love and respect for the local culture that begins to show results. These are the ones targeted most by the enemy who know that connections between the populace and our military would be the death of them.

The conundrum that lies at the heart of the book for me is that every time the soldiers at post use their initiative, intelligence and pride to overcome the shortcomings of a bad strategy, they only sustain the use of that bad strategy. After all, it can't be all wrong because look what our soldiers have achieved! That's what I mean when I say 100mph in the wrong direction. Our guys on the ground were working so hard to do their best, and they did, but every setback and death is, in the end, fruitless because the strategy itself cannot be overcome by our excellent tactics.

We had one of these at State recently, too. Here I am talking about Benghazi, and the results of the internal investigation. Because Ambassador Stevens was The Man when it came to Benghazi, he was less questioned in his decisions than most. After all, if someone had a question about anything in Libya, it was him they would ask.

The facility there was not up to the security risks that were present. But each team of Regional Security Officers (RSO's) would do everything they could to help upgrade security. What they really needed to do was evacuate the building when bad stuff happened earlier in the year and actually build a Consulate with the proper security measures. But that wasn't happening, so each guy did the best they could with what they had. And every success they had only made those who put the strategy in place more complacent. 100 mph of hard work by RSO's in the wrong direction of trying to make the facility safer when what they really needed was a new facility.

Do I have the magic strategy 8-ball that will fix all this? No, I don't. I just wish buildings, combat outposts, and other stuff didn't have to be named after dedicated members of the military and foreign service after their deaths in order to fix strategy problems, and I really wish their efforts to overcome  bad strategy with good tactics didn't result in a continuation of bad strategy.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Not Home For The Holidays

Happy Holidays 2012- The McKeating Version

Establishing new holiday traditions sounded like a welcome
challenge for me because for years I've gone with the obligatory flow of cook this, go here, do this...all established long ago. However, I cautiously admit that I've dreamed of doing things a little differently- like having Christmas at our own house, not having to haul all the gifts to and fro, not having to add a "road trip" to the already exhausting drum beat of the holidays. It's a lot to do year after year and most of it falls on me. So, this holiday season I finally had my chance to do things the way I had envisioned but in all honesty the task proved difficult, depressing even -no surprise considering our sunlight deprived bunch.

 Here was one of my favorite moments of this holiday! Hannah and I were coming home from the store and we got stuck behind this wildly decorated Santa toting firetruck. It was just ahead of us and as we turned onto our street we could tell that it was turning into the Oakwood Apartment complex. It was blowing it's sirens and also blasting "Here Comes Santa Claus". I was as thrilled as any kid would be!

Hannah ran up five flights of stairs and down our hallway to get her little brother. Sintayehu grabbed shoes and ran outside in time to see Santa. All the boys waved at him and ran along side the fire truck as it slowly rolled through the parking lot. It was a huge, huge moment for all of our kids! There were firemen walking around and handing out candy canes, and telling people "Merry Christmas". It was an exciting and awesome moment. I literally teared up over it all.

Thank you, Falls Church Volunteer Fire Dept!

Maybe it's because we have all hit a wall of relative heaviness lately but the holidays seemed to bring it all to head. We are all missing our home, our old church, our many friends, our FAMILY, our way of life (way more laid back than NOVA/Northern Virginia)  which would be no big deal and expected if we were new to "change" or if we were normal people but we are not. Though we are new to the Foreign Service we are not new to change (big or small, we're usually game) nor are we shy of a challenge or two, in fact we have a bit of magnetic draw to such chaos, but right now I am really wondering how much more difficult it will be once we are in Jakarta? In all honesty, I've been shocked by our need for familiar comforts. I thought we were heartier than that. I thought we were a free spirited band of gypsies who are so grounded in our ideals than we could celebrate our Lord's birth anywhere but it turns out we may be more creatures of habit than I realized. I'm thinking our lack of holiday cheer is particularly concerning because we suffered so much just being away from "home" but we are still in the United States- how much more "un-Christmas-y" will it feel when we are in Jakarta, a majority-Muslim country without Target and without the usual repetitive Christmas tunes pumping through  Safeway's speakers?

Here is one thing that the kids loved- our Gingerbread House. 
I think it will take purposeful planning and effort. We will have to be the ones making our holidays cheerful, not expect someone else to do it for us. I don't think I realized how much my parents do to make our holidays meaningful.

Here are a few traditions we can do no matter where we live:

-Make an actual list of things I'm thankful in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.
-An Advent calendar and daily time to reflect on the miracle of Christ's birth as days draw nearer to Christmas.
-Cook the family favorites. Unfortunately for us, there is no restaurant that compares to our family's holiday dinners and I learned this year that those tastes are important, even though it is work intensive I will cook the usual's, even if I have to order specific items online.
-Sharing what you have with others is the true Spirit of Christmas, have others over and/or go to their event if you are invited.
-Be social and have friendly connections before the holidays are even a thought.
-Make fudge or other treats that remind us of our holiday favorites and give them out as small but personal gifts to lots of people.
-Participate in ex-pat community events, such as cookie exchanges or caroling (ie..check community calendar every few days).
-Go all out and decorate no matter how little space there is for a tree and no matter how little storage space is available for storing it all afterwards. Kids need Christmas trees, with lights and stuff all over it.
-Play your favorite Christmas carols and sing songs as often as you can (don't just listen to NPR or worry about what Congress is or isn't doing, or focus on terrible tragedies as events unfold).
-Buy a red or other cheerful holiday tablecloth and have some sort of centerpiece that goes with the season.
-Get family and friends to email favorite holiday recipes way ahead of time so that we aren't scouring the internet for one that is "close enough" the day before I plan to cook it.
-Talk about what each member loves and needs to make their holiday away from family as meaningful as possible, and do it.
-Plan the actual day, like Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, and talk about our expectations ahead of time.
-Wrap presents while are carols playing in the background, make it a happy occasion :)
-Mail the extended family their gifts at least 10 days before Christmas, probably a lot sooner than that once we are abroad.
-Refuse to do it all by myself.
-Christmas gift shop with my spouse. Remind him this is a good thing, reward good behavior with Starbucks.
-String up or display all the beautiful Christmas cards that friends and family send us.

Here's what we will not be doing next time:

-Forget to charge the camera batteries.
-No laundromat nor studying on Christmas day after all the excitement has died down.
-No going to just "any" Chinese (or ethnic) restaurant that is open on Christmas day in place of a traditional homemade dinner.
-No trying to make up for any lack of holiday cheer by cooking all of our favorites all day for the WEEK after the holiday has passed.
-No more making homemade tamales all by myself!

Photo op after the play ended. One of my kids is in the group of shepherds :) 

Here is what we did right:

-Watched "Christmas Story" together as a family, my kids have it nearly memorized by now.
- Cooked a nice dinner for Christmas Eve.
- Went to a beautiful Christmas Eve church service, complete with a children's play and a candlelight round of Silent Night (Christmas Eve service is one thing we have longed to add to our family's holiday traditions).
- Gave our kids and each other meaningful gifts.
- Called relatives and shouted Merry Christmas as crowds of family shouted Merry Christmas back to us via speaker phone.
- Went to see Les Miserables- an amazing movie that basically pours Christ's message of grace and mercy out of every scene.
-Decorated some areas of our apartment with lights and greenery, made snowflakes out of coffee filters.

My New Year's Resolution?

 To make holidays in 2013 cheerful and meaningful, no matter where we are!