Thursday, December 30, 2004

Mindful Communication

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.

-The Fourth Precept (excerpt)
from “The Blooming of a Lotus”
by Thich Naht Hanh

The Five Precepts of Buddhism embody a framework for moral and joyful living through mindfulness, cultivating meaningful relationships with Self and the world, and finding a path to enlightenment. Mindful communication – loving speech and deep listening - is the essence of the Fourth Precept, and it is a key ingredient in the recipe for meaningful relationships.

When practicing loving speech, I consider my words before I speak them, choosing them carefully so as to bring joy and happiness to the listener rather than grief or pain. I speak even an unpleasant or uncomfortable truth in terms that help the listener to grow and learn, rather than those that belittle or discourage her. I separate my feelings from my message, and avoid speaking rashly in anger or frustration. Sometimes I say nothing at all, when nothing will do.

The other half of mindful communication, deep listening, is one of the most important - yet least practiced - elements of meaningful human relationships. When I should be listening to the other person, my attention might be distracted by the TV, computer screen, newspaper, or thoughts of the past and plans for the future. Deep listening begins with focusing totally on the speaker, acknowledging that his every word is vitally important to my understanding of the message. Deep listening grows from truly being present with the other person, putting aside the past and future and concentrating on the presence of the other person with the totality of my senses.

Once I am paying attention to the speaker, I can begin to practice the next stage of deep listening. During a typical (unmindful) conversation, I am mentally planning my reply or counter-argument, rather than truly listening to the other person’s words. This prevents me from really hearing what the other has to say. Deep listening, however, comes from just listening – carefully considering the meaning and nuance of the speech without immediately judging or replying to it. Once the speaker has finished, I can reflect on her message and then formulate my mindful reply. When you and I simultaneously practice mindful speech and deep listening, we communicate effectively. An interesting side effect of deep listening is that interruption becomes nearly impossible!

When I was young, my father taught me a lesson in mindful communication when he explained to me the difference between reacting and responding. “Reacting,” he said, “is when you say the first thing that comes into your mind, without thinking about what I’ve just said. You are focused on your own emotions or argument, and probably didn’t really hear me. Responding, however, is when you stop to think about what I said, and reply calmly, without becoming emotional.”

Words of wisdom! Think about it – a typical conversation (particularly a “discussion” or debate) consists of two people reacting to each other’s words and emotions, never really taking time to think about what they are saying or hearing, often talking past each other. A mindful conversation, however, consists of respectful speech, deliberate consideration and reflection, and calm response.

Mindful communication is an easy concept – just pay attention, listen, and respond; repeat as necessary. Of course it is very difficult in practice, both because it means unlearning a lifetime of unmindful habits and because it takes two to communicate! Mindful communication is much more likely to occur when both parties to the conversation are intentional about their desire to achieve it. It can be very frustrating to try to communicate with someone who is oblivious to his own unmindfulness.

The best way to achieve mindful communication is to practice it whenever possible. Try this: the next time you are having a conversation, put down the paper, sit up straight, look the other person in the eye, and LISTEN! Don’t reply until she is finished speaking, and then choose your words carefully. Don’t feel obligated to answer right away – reflect on the message before responding. If the other person interrupts you, just stop talking. Wait until he finishes, then ask politely if you may speak. Most people will begin to realize about now that there is something different about this conversation. Mindfulness will follow, even if by accident.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Friday, December 24, 2004

A Virtual Tour of Kalsu

Camp Kalsu is not a very big place. You can see all of it from the airfield control tower, as well as much of the surrounding area. It would take less than half an hour on foot to see everything that’s here.

From my very limited perspective, there are three basic parts to the FOB – the airfield, the living and support areas, and everything else. The airfield is primitive yet effective considering our only traffic is helicopters. The tower controllers, refuelers, and A/DACG (passenger and cargo managers) are adept at getting flights in and out with minimum delay. On a busy day (or night), it’s like a well choreographed dance of arrival, unloading and loading, refueling, and departure.

On the street where I live...The Living Support Area (LSA) technically consists only of the tents where we live and our shower facilities. The tents are arrayed like little houses on little streets, complete with alleyways and “house numbers.” There are no street signs, however, so you need to know where you’re going. There are actually several “neighborhoods” in our “town.” Mine is called “A.”

There are numerous shower trailers located throughout the LSA. Most of them are open to anyone, but there are several for women only, and one for male officers and staff non-commissioned officers (SNCOs, the senior enlisted Marines). The officer/SNCO shower tends to be the cleanest one I’ve been in, and recently the water has been hot and plentiful, which was not always the case.

Yes, there are showers inside all that concreteGiant concrete barriers divide the LSA “neighborhoods” and surround the shower trailers and chow hall, ostensibly protecting us from indirect fire (IDF) attacks. There are actually two sizes of these barriers – big (Texas barriers) and bigger (Alaska barriers). Most tents are surrounded by “Hesco” barriers – basically big wire and felt tubs that are filled with dirt. Once again this is to protect us from IDF.

The rest of the services include a laundry facility where we can drop off our dirty clothes for 24-hour turnaround, the “Internet Café” tent with computers and IP phones, the gym, the “Iraqi Mart,” the PX, the chapel, the MWR tent, the chow hall, and the barbershop. The Internet Café and gym are both very popular, and are both open 24 hours a day. They are much less crowded in the middle of the night than they are at the “peak” times of early morning and early evening.

Shopping day, Kalsu styleI have only been in the Iraqi mart once (to take a picture for the blog!) and the PX only rarely. At the former, local Iraqis are permitted to come on the FOB to sell bootleg DVDs, imitation Persian rugs, and fake Rolexes. It is much more popular than the PX, where you can find underwear the wrong size (S and XXXL), “legal” (and expensive) DVDs, and toiletries.

The chapel is one of the nicer tent structures on the FOB. It actually consists of one large tent and two smaller ones attached like arms of a cross, in cathedral style. I found it ironic that the sign in the front calls it an “All Faiths Chapel,” while the cross at the altar made me wonder if the sign shouldn’t read “All (Christian) Faiths Chapel. To their credit, there were (Arabic) copies of the Q’uran on the “tract rack,” along with many varieties of the Bible and other Christian literature.

The chow hall, as I’ve mentioned, is not too bad. I live primarily on rice, beans, and vegetables, with the occasional foray into the world of potatoes. They are building a new and improved facility next door, so I hear.

The barbershop is, like almost everything else here, housed in a tent. It is run by two Iraqis who actually do a pretty darn good job cutting hair. At any rate, they’re much better than the young Marine who sheared me at Al Asad back in October! Going to the barbershop can be very frustrating, however, for those who work at night. The posted hours are 8 AM – 4 PM, which for me is like having it open from 10 PM to 6 AM – right when I’m sleeping! This is compounded by the fact that the barbers show up when they please, seldom before 9 and usually around 10. I have managed by getting up early and hoping there’s not much of a line.

“Everything else” on the FOB consists of the places I have no reason to visit in my daily (nightly?) life. It includes the MEU headquarters area, the medical area (although I went there once when I was sick), the Army area, the Iraqi National Guard area, the Regional Detention Facility (RDF), and the small-arms range. I’ve never seen the small-arms range, but I get to hear it, usually while I’m trying to sleep.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Coasting Toward Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – not a white Christmas, but festive nonetheless. All around the FOB, trees, tinsel, and lights are appearing. The chow hall is well decorated and every day the artificial tree in its entryway has inched toward being fully decorated, first with tinsel, then with ribbons and ornaments, and finally with lights.

The Christmas spirit is a bit sparse in my workspace, limited so far to three little stockings, a couple of Christmassy stuffed animals, and a very small tree. Other shops, however, are going all out. The Marines from the Communications detachment, who keep our phones, radios, and computers working, have outdone themselves with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. Over by maintenance control there is an inflatable Christmas tree with snowmen.

Christmas means different things to different people. I have always associated it with family and friends, traveling, and making music. In my youth it meant playing in a brass ensemble for Christmas Eve service at the Community Church, spending a leisurely day opening presents with my parents, skiing, shoveling snow, and ice skating. As a Naval Academy midshipman, it meant a chance to escape Annapolis for a couple of weeks, see friends and family, and take a break from the books.

As a parent, Christmas means struggling with what to tell my children about Santa. It means watching the joy on their wonderful faces when they open their presents, and seeing them play with their cousins. It means singing Christmas carols with my wife’s family. It means doing my best to resist the rampant commercialization of the holiday and avoid the cultural imperative to “shop ‘til you drop.” It means finding time alone on a bike to escape the oppressive busyness of the season.

I am ambivalent about Christmas largely because I am skeptical of Christian mythology. It seems that in today’s polarized political-religious climate, many people who claim to be Christians celebrate the birth, death, and resurrection stories without paying much heed to the teachings and ministry of Jesus. Personally, I am much more interested in his life as a nonviolent yet radical person, speaking truth to power and bearing witness to the suffering in his world, than in the mystical aspects attributed to his birth and death. I view the divinity attributed to Jesus as another manifestation of an ancient human archetype of the man-god redeemer. This model appears in many cultures and religious traditions, embodied in the likes of Zoroaster, Osiris/Horus, and Dionysus. The archetype represents human desires for a connection with the divine, life after death, and ultimate salvation.

I find spiritual meaning in this season by celebrating the Solstice – a time of personal rebirth and renewal, a time for letting go of old ways of being that are no longer useful, and a time for welcoming progress and growth into our lives. My favorite Solstice memory is from two years ago: watching the sun rise out of the Pacific from a beach in Kauai, while my two beautiful children played in the sand and honu (sea turtles) bobbed in the surf. It was simple yet extraordinary, and much more meaningful and memorable than trees or tinsel and presents.

Celebrate the season – whether it is the birth of Jesus, the miracle of Hanukkah, the return of the sun, or some other aspect of Winter – celebrate and be joyful with family and friends. After the holidays, continue to welcome the peace and love of the season into your life, all the year round.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Circles and Cycles

shadows down
sky above
the ground

is peaceful
is clear
far away
very near

so brilliant
so bright
with earth

Once again I am able to walk around at night without my flashlight, thanks to the waxing moon. I have become very aware of the moon’s cycle here, and of the circularity and cycles of life and the Universe.

I have long been enthralled by the moon, especially when it is bright enough to see by. There is something magical about being out in the moonlight – the bright disc in the sky, the gentle silver light all around, the soft shadows on the ground. Last month at about this point in the moon cycle, I sat outside every night before work just enjoying the moonlight. One of those nights inspired me to write the poem at the beginning of the post, probably the first one I’ve written as an adult!

Being up and about at night now, I try to remember to stop and look at the stars when I do get outside. I particularly enjoy watching Orion’s progress across the night sky, starting in the east in early evening and finally disappearing in the west towards sunrise. Likewise the Big Dipper catches my attention, usually after midnight when it is high overhead. It is fascinating to think that the stars, which within our tiny lifetimes seem fixed and steady, are actually moving through space with the expansion of the Universe.

I only see the sun for a little bit each morning between getting off shift about sunrise and going to sleep an hour or so later. I spend most of that time outside reading, except when it is raining. It is both relaxing and invigorating to sit in the sunlight and cold, crisp air. By the time I stir from my tent in the evening, the sun has usually set.

Seeing these daily and monthly cycles of sun, stars, and moon brings to mind a novel by Hal Borland called When the Legends Die, about a Ute boy who is raised in the traditional way in southern Colorado. When his parents die, he is forced to live on a reservation and learn the “new ways;” after initially resisting this change, he adapts and goes through a journey of self-discovery as a rodeo bronc rider. In the first part of the book, his mother sings him a song about the circularity of things – the Earth, the lodge in which they live, a little boy’s arm, the sun, and the seasons. This idea of circularity has always appealed to me, perhaps because a circle has no beginning and no end.

As the Winter Solstice fast approaches, we mark another cycle of the years with a season of renewed hope, as the dark recedes and we herald the return of the light. Celebrating the (re)birth of the Sun (Son) has a place in human spirituality throughout all ages and cultures, from Zoroaster to Jesus, Yule to Kwanzaa, and Saturnalia to Christmas.

If you can, go outside this evening and watch the sun set and the moon as it sails high in the darkening sky. Consider the cycles of the moon and sun, and honor the Solstice as marking another trip of the earth around the sun and another year of seasons. Reflect how our lives mirror the cycles of the earth and sky, and how this common heritage binds all humanity as one great family.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


I love to read. One of the greatest boons of my time in Iraq has been having lots of time for it. Reading is a great activity - it passes the time, it’s enjoyable, it can be educational, and when reading a novel, I can be somewhere else for a while.

A good novel is as inviting as a cool blue pool on a hot summer’s day. Especially here, it is delightful to slip into the depths of a well-crafted story, emerging only when necessary and feeling a sense of loss when the last page comes and it’s time to climb back into reality.

I have always enjoyed re-reading novels, something that some people might find boring or a waste of time. I find it relaxing and enjoyable, like walking along a familiar path. Each new reading can bring a new message, a new interpretation. At different times in my life, some books have spoken to me in different ways. Other books seem to hold the same meaning every time.

Reading a new novel by a familiar author is also great fun, unless it’s a dud. It’s like walking on a new path in some familiar woods, one which might meander near or cross other favorite paths, or perhaps branch off from an old favorite.

I have recently undertaken a reading project that promises to be both enjoyable and educational. A friend in Virginia has started a book club utilizing Susan Wise Bauer’s book The Well Educated Mind. This book holds the promise of a classical self-education from reading literature using the classical trivium method. The trivium comprises three stages of learning: grammar (understanding), logic (analysis), and rhetoric (evaluation). Reading with this method promises to enhance a person’s understanding and recollection of books, as well as promoting critical thinking and reasoning.

Reading a book at the grammar stage is not much different from what most of us do – just finishing the book is the important thing. Using the trivium method, however, this first reading is accompanied by brief note-taking, summarizing each chapter, and coming up with one’s own titles for the chapters and the book, which summarize the basic ideas of the book. Reading at the logic stage allows the reader to go back to the book and her notes, reexamine questions that arose during the grammar stage reading, and analyze how well the book accomplishes its goals. At the rhetoric stage, the reader discusses the book with others and evaluates how it made him feel, and what he thinks about it.

The greatest thing about this book club I’ve joined is that it’s virtual as well as actual – I can participate from here as well as when I return to Virginia! Thank you Kate. I am looking forward to this new way of approaching books and reading, and to the sharing the joy of learning with others.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Answering the Mail

In the two and a half months since I began this weblog, I’ve received a lot of mail. Believe it or not, one response was actually in the form of a card from some friends in Monterey! I thought that was refreshing. Most of it, of course, has been electronic.

The people who have responded to my weblog fall into three basic categories: people I know and told about the weblog; strangers who found about it from someone I know; and strangers who happened upon it through a third party or by accident. About 2/3 of the mail I’ve received comes from people in the first category, most of the rest is from the second, and a handful comes from the third.

There are several people who have been writing me periodically all along to comment on specific posts or just to express their general support. They all fall into the first category. There have been many others who have written once, typically in response to a particular post. Most of these people are from the first two categories. Some folks from the third category have written me saying they found my site while searching for information on Iraq. Some others from that category found my site linked on, the weblog of the senior editor of UU World magazine.

I’ve heard from some very interesting people in the second and third categories – two people whose children are Marines, many UUs in California who belong to congregations where I have friends, a UU from Iowa, a UCC seminarian from Missouri, and a man from Milwaukee who has turned into a regular correspondent. The number in this category grows quickly as awareness of this weblog makes its way around the World Wide Web.

The tone of these responses has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of them express support for me, my family, and other servicemembers and their families. Some have been in gratitude for the effect a particular post had on their lives. One I particularly appreciated was from a UU friend in San Jose, who told me that my post “Fear” helped him get through a difficult day. Another one, from a stranger in the Bay Area, appreciated the lessons from “Great Expectations” about letting go of expectations and living in the present. One of my regular correspondents in Monterey always writes when something I’ve posted resonates with her life. My new friend from Milwaukee wrote asking for guidance about the spiritual meaning of this war.

Along with all the support and positive feedback I’ve received about this weblog, I did get one critical response. This e-mail was from a woman whose son is a Marine, and she perceived that I was writing negative things about my fellow Marines. Her letter really got my attention, and I scrutinized everything I had posted up to that point. I found some unflattering comments about the Marine Corps and its cultural and behavioral norms, but nothing negative about the individuals I have served with here or anywhere else. On the contrary, I found many instances of praise and appreciation for my fellow Marines. In my reply, I asked her to point out a specific example of something I wrote that offended her, but she never wrote me again. I still wonder what post in particular led her to write.

I have answered all of the mail I have received, and I’ll continue to do so. I enjoy getting mail (electronic or otherwise) and feedback about this weblog. Do you want to hear more about Camp Kalsu? More about Iraq? More about the Marine Corps? More about my philosophy, theology, and spiritual journey? I am open to suggestions, and I hope to hear from YOU soon!

Saturday, December 11, 2004


A young Marine recently died in a hospital in Germany. In the big picture, he’s just another of the over 1200 Americans and uncounted thousands of Iraqis who have died here in the last year and a half, but he was different; I actually knew and worked with this Marine. His name was Kyle.

Kyle was a very good Marine. He was good at his job, well thought of by everyone who knew him, and was easy to like. He even looked like a poster-perfect Marine. Kyle worked in the control tower here at the FOB, so I saw him or talked to him on the radio nearly every day. I wouldn’t say we were friends or even well-acquainted, but his death feels like a personal loss.

Kyle was wounded a couple of weeks ago during a mortar attack. He had just gotten off shift and was talking on the phone in our “Internet café.” He was sitting at the end of the row of phones, right next to where one of the mortar rounds landed. I don’t know if he was wearing his helmet, but he probably did have his flak vest on. Most of his injuries were from shrapnel to the head and lower body. A total of fifteen Marines, soldiers, and civilians were wounded, and thirteen of them (including Kyle) were evacuated to Baghdad. As soon as he was stable, Kyle was flown to Germany.

It is ironic that the majority of the casualties we’ve suffered from indirect fire (IDF) during my brief time here all resulted from that one lucky mortar round. I’m glad they can’t aim or life would be much more difficult here. The vast majority of attacks blow up only dirt.

Once I knew Kyle was in Germany, I was much less concerned about him. I had confidence in the medical profession and faith that his path would be one of full recovery and resumption of a normal life away from here. It was not to be so. Modern medicine and surgery might have been healing Kyle from his wounds, but it was an ancient illness that killed him - pneumonia.

Whatever your belief about death and its aftermath, please take some time to reflect on the life of this person you never knew. Reflect how the life of someone you know and love, or even your own life, can be cut short without warning. Live your life so that when that final moment comes, you can look back and say you really lived every moment of it.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Comfortable With Myself

Soon after meditating one recent evening, I had an “aha” moment - another realization of a seemingly obvious and simple life lesson that is really not so simple in practice. I realized that in large part, how I relate to other people and different situations depends on how I feel about myself at the time. How I live my life depends on how comfortable I am with myself.

This realization came about after I had meditated on my relationship with Bob, my boss/tentmate/coworker. I have recently become very frustrated with some of his personal traits and behaviors, and I have been looking inward to see if that frustration is perhaps a reflection of those same traits and behaviors in me. I decided to use the state of mindfulness that comes during meditation to help me toward discernment. I found much more than I expected.

During this meditation, I was able to let go of my frustration about Bob and his annoying behaviors and commit myself to practicing their “positive shadows.” For example, instead of being frustrated by his continually interrupting me, I can commit myself to attentively listening whenever he is talking. It’s “values judo” - although I cannot change the behavior of another person, I can control my reaction to that behavior and turn it into something positive. This meditation left me in a state of peace and contentment, feeling very comfortable in my mind and body.

As I transitioned mentally from the safe and pleasant realm of meditation into the uncertain reality of daily life, I realized that being comfortable with myself leads to accepting the actions of others and avoiding frustration. Being comfortable with myself allows me to be confident in any situation.

Unfortunately, being comfortable with myself is easier said than done, much like letting go of outcomes and expectations or being present. It’s another side of the same multi-faceted coin, and at the root of the other two: if I am comfortable with myself, I am much more likely to be able to live in the present moment; to focus on living my life as it is right now rather than dwelling on my expectations of the future; and to make relationships more important than issues.

My self-comfort also depends on how closely my perception of “who I am” matches my ideal of “who I think I ought to be.” The closer the two, the more comfortable I am with myself. However, when I base my image of “who I ought to be” on what other people expect rather than my own values, discomfort grows. When I let go of my concern with “what other people think” and focus on living my values, then I am comfortable with myself.

As I explore this idea of being comfortable with myself, I am reminded of wisdom I’ve learned from two UU ministers I respect very much: the ultimate requirement for effective ministry is to live an authentic life. Living an authentic life means accepting and celebrating my humanity and fallibility. It means facing the challenges of life rather than turning away. It means taking chances in my relationships with other people. It means having lots of questions as well as a few answers. Most of all, it means living every moment of an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner, rather than looking back after a lifetime of excitement and accomplishment, wondering “what did any of it mean?”

When I am comfortable with myself, I am living each extraordinary moment of an ordinary but authentic life.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Being Present

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment.

-Thich Naht Hanh, “The Blooming of a Lotus”

One of the most difficult things about this deployment (at least during my five weeks at Camp Kalsu) has been keeping a positive attitude and avoiding the pitfalls of despair, self-pity, and homesickness. It can be very challenging to stay upbeat when you spend most of your time alone, every day is just the same as all the others, and there are no weekends or holidays. Some days, it’s nearly impossible to smile.

On every one of my four previous deployments, I was a member of a unit with which I identified and had many comrades with whom I had many shared experiences. I interacted with many other people throughout the work day and off-duty, and my day-to-day routine was sufficiently varied so as not to become tedious. Plus there were these fabulous things called WEEKENDS! Weekends meant long bike trips exploring Okinawa, trips to the beach, cross-country flights to Korea, having fun at the club, and being able to sleep in.

The ultimate thing everyone looks forward to during a deployment, of course, is going home. This deployment is different from my previous ones in that I really don’t know when I’ll be leaving. I could be here for 2 more months or 5 more months, but there’s no way to tell right now. Even without a solid return date, I still spend hours imagining all the great things we have planned as a family next summer. I fondly remember how nice it is to have weekends and holidays for travel and relaxation. These visions are comforting and enjoyable, but there’s nothing better than having a “target” date for going home.

Having nothing concrete to look forward to (in the sense of counting down the days left or knowing I have a weekend coming), I try mightily to just live my life here, now, the way it is, and appreciate and enjoy it for what it is. I call this “being present.” As part of my effort to live life the way it is, rather than dwell on the future or the past, I have begun meditating. As a guide to help me establish this practice, I am using a wonderful book called “The Blooming of a Lotus,” by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh. As he puts it,

By dwelling in the present moment, we put an end to attachments to the past and
anxieties about the future. Life is only available in the present. We need to
return to this moment to be in touch with life as it really is. To know that we
are alive, that we can be in contact with all the wonders within us and around
us, this is truly a miracle. We need only to open our eyes and to listen
carefully to enjoy life’s richness.

The message of being present seems simple and obvious, but like many lessons that are truly important and valuable, it is much harder to put into practice than just to read or talk about. Over the past two weeks, I have had great difficulty finding joy in the present as I have suffered a stubborn chest cold that just goes on and on. My focus has become almost exclusively on getting every minute of sleep I can. I have done no exercise, which has taken away one of my most valuable stress outlets and morale boosters. This physical illness has taken a mental and spiritual toll, as I began to wonder if I would ever feel any better.

The practice of meditation seems to have helped – I suppose I’ve been getting high on mindfulness rather than endorphins. My health has begun improving, and today is the first day in a long time that I said to myself “hey, I don’t feel so crummy today.” I have begun to enjoy eating again. I once again take time to admire the stars in the cold night sky. Dwelling in the present moment, I breathe in. Enjoying the present moment, I breathe out. I live.

Friday, December 03, 2004

What's in a Name

Insurgents. Terrorists. Occupiers. Mujahadeen. Freedom Fighters. The Resistance. Liberators. Guerillas. Who is which? Are some of them good? Some bad? Are they similar at all?

The label used depends upon the point of view, and the words used by the media to describe fighting between “us” and “them” depend greatly upon who’s doing the fighting. Thom Engelhardt has written an excellent article comparing the media coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, fighting between Russia and Chechnya, and the current fighting in Iraq.

An Iraqi who hates the American occupation and supports or sympathizes with those fighting to end it might call them “freedom fighters” or “the resistance.” An Iraqi who is tired of the ongoing violence and sees the kidnappings and executions as a perversion of Islam might describe the perpetrators as “terrorists.” The American government and news media have settled upon the relatively neutral term “insurgents.” I think using the terms “mujahadeen,” literally meaning struggler, or “guerilla,” meaning little war, also have merit. Within the military, these fighters are officially known as “AIF” (Anti-Iraqi Forces).

Think back to the 1980’s and Afghanistan, when the U.S. financed and equipped Muslim militants (there’s another term!) in their effort to overcome the Soviet occupation. They were popularly known as mujahadeen, and President Reagan called them “freedom fighters,” although their tactics would be described today as “terrorist.” Of course one of their leaders, Osama bin Laden, would eventually become the poster boy for Muslim “terrorism.”

Remember the Chechen “rebels?” How do you suppose the Russian government labeled them? Terrorists, of course, and worse. From the Chechen (and Western) perspective, the fighting was about overcoming an occupation.

The treatment of the more powerful occupying forces in these three circumstances has also been quite different. Our government and media had nothing but criticism (rightfully so) for the Soviets in their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and we supported the Mujahadeen with arms, money, and training.

The treatment of Russia’s actions in Chechnya is a little more complicated, as it has changed over time. Prior to the “global war on terror,” (GWOT) the government and media condemned the extreme tactics (such as leveling the town of Grozny in 2000) of the Russian military. Now that Russia is a partner in our so-called GWOT, however, many previously questionable actions and tactics are somehow now justified as part of this international “war.” The conflict hasn’t changed, but the terminology certainly has.

The U.S. government “spin” and corporate media coverage of our current occupation of Iraq has been generally positive. I think the administration would like to view its actions as “liberation” rather than “occupation,” and in one sense that is true; we did “liberate” the Iraqi people from the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, we have not done much to liberate them from hunger, disease, crime, torture, destruction of their homes and property, and soldiers kicking in their doors in the wee hours of the night to take their men away.