Love and war

I have a lot of memories of the Ukraine war. But the one I keep replaying in my mind more than any other is of her standing in the middle of Kreshchatyk Avenue in Kyiv, waiting for me after I returned from Mariupol.

Kyiv’s main boulevard is closed to traffic on the weekends, and the six-lane road becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with artists, street performers, parents, children, and young couples holding hands. It was a sharp change from what I had just seen on the war’s front lines, which were only a few hour train ride away. And it was a long way gone from what happened on this street in February.

This is where under grey winter skies hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered during the revolution. Tonight the summer sky was clear and cool and people danced and sang and performed magic tricks where riot police beat protestors with batons and lobbed tear gas canisters. Tourists on segways and young children holding onto their mother with one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other strolled over scars on the pavement, evidence of where protestors burned tires as a smoke screen against FSB snipers who gunned down more than 100 people.

I stepped off the Maidan and turned left to walk along Kreshchatyk and put the sun, which was setting at the other end of the avenue, at my back. The long end-of-day beams of light increased the brightness of colors of the buildings lining the road in front of me. The few high-altitude clouds streaked across the dusk sky in oranges, purples and red like from an impressionist’s palette.

With the setting sun behind me like this, I walked into the crowd along Kreshchatyk. It seemed like I was the only one moving in this direction. All the other people were moving against me, their faces in sharp relief against the setting sun’s light.

She had texted me and told me to walk through the Maidan to Kreshchatyk and turn left and she would find me on the street. With all the people on the road I thought for a moment that we might miss each other, but I knew it was her as soon as she was there. Even though she was walking toward me like the rest of the crowd, she stood out from the fluid mess. She floated down the road like she wasn’t even touching it. Her long legs and model’s body swaying back and forth like a flickering flame as she walked toward me.

There was the distance between us and then it was gone. She wrapped her arms around me, and with a smile that wrapped across her entire face and outshined the setting sun at my back she put her hands on either side of my face to hold me there and then she kissed me long and hard and I kissed her back and we were both feeling very passionate about it. Everything happening around us on the road, or in the war, didn’t seem to matter in that one instant of forgetting that kissing each other gave us.

Then she pulled away and rested her cheek against my chest and said, “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help it. I just felt like I had to do that.”

I felt like I was swaying. Not from supporting her or balancing our two bodies that leaned into each other, but from this that was so different from where I had just been.

“Trust me, I don’t mind at all,” I said, smiling, wishing I could think of something better to say.

I had my hands on her slim hips and looked at her face. God, she was good looking, I thought. Staring at her face felt like when that first glass of wine settles into your head and you feel warm and happy and it makes you want more to keep feeling this way as long as you can.

She kissed me again, and again and again, and we put our foreheads together and laughed in the space between us like it was only us in all of Kyiv before we turned and walked down the road together.

That’s what her standing in the middle of Kreshchatyk at sunset was for me; a way to escape the world within, for a moment at least. Walking along Kreshchatyk with her by my side and life playing out around us was a temporary pass to feel like I was part of the show for a night.

A walk through a city of millions can be a lonely one if you don’t speak the language. The foreign language in your ears is a blackout curtain between you and the people who swirl around you like fallen leaves in an autumn breeze. The things you see and hear and smell and feel seem like a great big show and not real life. Real life is inside you, not this circus.

Maybe that’s why I noticed the faded burn marks on the pavement over which thousands of people unknowingly walked, or why I constantly scanned the facades of buildings looking for landmarks I might recognize from photos I had studied of the revolution. I wanted to appreciate the places within which I walked in the context of what had happened here in February. That took me away from here, now.

Coming back from war is like walking alone in a foreign country. In Kyiv the memories I carried of the life I left behind were a weight that constantly reminded me of the differences between this place and home. War is another kind of weight to carry. And war, like being a foreigner, defines every atom of you. It’s there with every step you take. Every street sign, every store front, every girl you smile at, every foot of pavement, every pigeon on the street or police officer at a street corner—you notice how each one of these things is different from home.

Coming home from war is a big scam. Because when you’re home the memories of war end up living inside of you like memories of home in a foreign country.

You notice everything about home that you never did before, because you don’t feel like you belong there any more.

For the lucky ones, though, something finally releases you from that cage. And all that aloneness comes tumbling down when you find a bridge to the world outside from the one within.

As I walked with her I realized I hadn’t been thinking about the war for a while, not until I saw a group of young soldiers walk by. Seeing them reminded me of the day before.

I thought about the hundreds of young Ukrainian and rebel soldiers I had seen spread dead on the battlefield outside Mariupol. Most with their bodies ripped apart like used firecrackers. Some were charred, burnt and twisted in horrible ways that conveyed the terror of death in static poses no artist could imitate.

“I was worried about you, you know,” she said. I flashed back to here, now. I was with her again, but not wholly.

“I know.”

“What was it like?”

“It was much worse than I thought. It’s a real war down there. I thought it would be just skirmishes and gunfights. But there were tank battles and rocket attacks and heavy artillery. It felt like World War II, or something.”

I didn’t tell her about the bodies, though. And I didn’t tell her about the checkpoint. I thought I shouldn’t. Like somehow that was all part of the unavoidable damage that war does to you that you shouldn’t offload onto someone else just to feel better. That’s the cost of being a war correspondent, after all. You choose to go there and the see that, and you should never ask for sympathy for the consequences. Life gave me every chance to ignore this war, and I ignored those chances and went anyway.

Yes, to write about a war truly you have to see it, but don’t feel sorry for yourself, you knew the cost going in. And I shouldn’t let that damage spoil this perfect summer evening with a beautiful Ukrainian girl, with whom I think I’m falling in love. And there’s a good chance she’s falling in love with me too. And if it isn’t love, and it rarely truly is, it sure feels a lot like it in this brief moment of peace after war.





A Ukrainian city on the brink of disaster breathes a skeptical sigh of relief

MARIUPOL — The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper. Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russia rebels were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other. It was like New Year’s times a million.

In Minsk, Belarus — more than 700 miles north of Mariupol — Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting. And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I’m back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago. It’s another beautiful night with an easy breeze. I’m drinking beer again, and the same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio. It’s as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can’t stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

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Last night in a war that isn’t mine

It is time to leave. I know that, but I don’t know how to do it.

Those who never fell in love laugh at those who have, thinking they would be too strong for such a thing. Until it happens to them, of course. And then you think the thing that has happened to so many others is only yours and no one else has ever felt this way.

Falling in love with a country in a war that isn’t yours is like that first blinded embrace against which all others will pale forever.

I don’t know how to leave.

How do I look her in the eyes and say I’ll never see you again?

How do I walk down her streets and walk away from something that drew me harder and truer than anything ever has?

It isn’t my war to fight, I know, and that’s what they say to me. They say it’s time to come home and that my life is back in the other place and that I don’t see things clearly. But what could be clearer than this?

They say things like I care too much and I’m too attached and I’ve stayed too long and they talk about responsibility and real life and living the way I’m supposed to.

They say these things and in the thinking part of me I understand. But thinking isn’t how true things happen.

Truth happens walking back in the middle of the night, high on wine, after dropping her off at her doorstep and kissing her good-bye and feeling the weight of everything gone and the before and the after mixed in the now as you walk through squares and along streets that are full in the day but empty in the night and it is only you and you have the whole world all for yourself, and the world inside of you too.

Anything seems possible then. You dream bigger and walk lighter and feel happy and fearless and wish that you could stay forever in this moment that you know you will look back on every time you feel despair as proof of the light of life.

Maybe that’s why love and war twist and tangle the way they do.

Those two things have the power to erase yesterday and tomorrow and make you both fearless and terrified of the end.

To find a person or a cause that is more important than you is the highest thing a soul can do, after all. And once you have done one you can do the other with ease.

And when you find a reason to live that’s stronger than the fear of death, well, that also makes the leaving harder to do.

That is why warriors fight harder and love harder than anyone else.

I fell in love with Ukraine, and her, and it breaks my heart to leave. If I had forever left to give, it would be for her and here and this.

So one more drink, just a little longer. Time to walk back soon, but not right now. I’ll say good-bye and cross back over, but not quite yet; it’s still tonight, and her and here and this is still all mine.

Forget nukes — Propaganda and shame are terrorists’ WMDs of choice

My latest article for Blue Force Tracker:

There are a lot of horrible stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My little brother, former Air Force Capt. Drew Peterson, told me one of the worst I’ve yet to hear.

He was riding in a convoy from Bagram Air Base to Kabul during a deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010.

This particularly dangerous stretch of road was known as “suicide alley” due to the frequency of Taliban improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. Most of the IEDs along suicide alley were physically connected to detonators by a thin copper “piano wire,” which, unlike IEDs remotely controlled via cell-phone, made them immune to jamming.

These hard-wired IEDs, however, required greater precision out of the attacker to time the explosion to passing vehicles.

So the best defense against attack was to drive fast and not stop. Not for anything.

“The Taliban would do anything to get us to stop,” Drew said. “But as soon as you stop or open your door, you’re dead.”

Drew was sitting in the back left seat that August day, behind the Afghan National Police (ANP) officer driving the Toyota Tacoma, which was the lead vehicle in the convoy. There were two other people in the cab, as well as an ANP officer in the back bed of the truck manning an AK-47 assault rifle.

Suddenly, there was the high-pitched squeal of brakes and the deep bass thump of impact. Drew instinctively turned to look forward, only to see a young girl, maybe five or six years old, split in two over the hood of the truck. “Half her body went over the truck, half her body went under it,” as he described it.

There was a lot of blood.

People inside the truck were yelling and cussing.

The guy in the front passenger seat was screaming, “Go, go, go.”

“We just ran over a fucking kid,” someone else said.

The Afghan driver fought through his instinct to stop the truck — he knew this was no accident.

The driver later explained that he saw a man kick the young girl into the road. This was a common tactic used by the Taliban to try and coax NATO and Afghan government convoys to slow down or stop so they could be destroyed by an IED or an ambush.

But the driver didn’t fall for the Taliban’s ploy, he punched the gas and kept the truck moving, thus saving the lives of my brother and everyone else inside from the Taliban ambush that was sure to follow, but never came.

“It fucked with our heads,” Drew later said. “But I’m sure if we stopped, they had some plans for us.”

Just to reiterate — the Taliban deliberately kicked a child in front of a truck to set up an ambush.

Such barbarity has the secondary effect of wounding the souls and consciences of the troops who witness such things.

Four years later, Drew’s sentences sometimes trail off as he explains that day, his mind replaying images and sounds for which there are no words.

“It definitely makes you question whether we are doing more harm than good over there,” Drew said. “Who are these people, the Taliban? These are not human beings. There is no bringing these people back. And if they are willing to do this to win, there is no bomb that can defeat that. How do you destroy someone that doesn’t care about being destroyed?”

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While Iraqis welcome US airstrikes, experts debate whether airpower alone can turn the tide in Iraq

My latest article for Blue Force Tracker:

Iraqis on Friday widely welcomed President Barack Obama’s approval of targeted airstrikes against Islamist militants, even as the country braces for what may be a protracted and bloody counterinsurgency battle, and some U.S. military and terrorism experts question the ability of airpower alone to turn the tide of the war.

“People are really afraid in Baghdad from the possibility that ISIS could take over Baghdad,” said Yasir Alobaidi, a 37-year-old human rights lawyer who lives in Baghdad, speaking to Blue Force Tracker from Toronto Friday. “ISIS have no support among Iraqi people, and they are considered as a bunch of barbaric thugs that have a gloomy agenda that could turn Iraq into ash.”

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For Syrian expat, hope fades as homeland moves toward ‘dark ages’

My story for Blue Force Tracker:

It was do or die time for the two Syrian brothers.

They had been hunkered down in a farm on the outskirts of the city of Deir Atiyah for almost two years, hoping to ride out the Syrian civil war there. One brother had his wife and 12-year-old daughter with him; the other was alone. They had managed to survive the ruthless bombings and artillery barrages from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which had left Deir Atiyah in ruins. But the foursome was nearly out of food. Unless they found something to eat soon, they were all going to starve.

Yet, leaving the sanctuary of the farm within which they had sought shelter meant exposing themselves to the unpredictable dangers of a conflict that had devolved into an apocalyptic, Hobbesian state of total war.

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The moral absurdity of Hamas’s war

A quick primer on just and unjust wars.

Jus ad bellum: The justice of war.

Jus in bello: The justice in war.

The key idea is this — A war fought for a just cause can become a crime if it is fought in a criminal way.

Admittedly this is an academic exercise, but stick with me for a few minutes and consider the possibility that both Hamas and Israel are fighting for just reasons – jus ad bellum.

Palestinians claim Israelis booted them from their homeland, diminishing them to a refugee nation. They say they were subsequently oppressed and marginalized, and are fighting for what is rightfully and historically theirs.

Israelis say they are simply defending themselves from indiscriminate rocket and terrorist attacks, and after three generations of statehood, as well as historical claims, they have just as much a right to the land as the Palestinians do.

Both sides believe their cause is just, and there are merits and pitfalls to each argument. The distinguishing factor for a dispassionate third-party observer, therefore, is the consideration paid toward moral justice in the way the Israelis and Palestinians conduct war — jus in bello.

No matter where your opinion lands on the reasons for which Israelis and Palestinians fight, consider this very simple, yet revealing fact:

Every rocket fired by Hamas toward Israel is intended to kill civilians indiscriminately. Conversely, every missile, artillery barrage or rifle shot fired by Israeli forces is aimed toward a perceived military target with extraordinary efforts taken to limit civilian casualties.

[Continue to full article on Blue Force Tracker…]

Latest story for Blue Force Tracker

My latest piece for Blue Force Tracker:

Afghan drug trade grows despite $7.6 billion US counternarcotics effort

Despite a U.S. investment of about $7.6 billion in counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, the UN reports that Afghanistan’s overall production of the seed used to create opium has increased for three consecutive years.

According to a Wednesday report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the overall land used for poppy-seed cultivation (used for opium production) went from 154,000 hectares in 2012 to 209,000 hectares in 2013—a 36% increase. […]

Visit Blue Force Tracker !!!

I’ve launched a military news, conflict journalism and foreign affairs website called “Blue Force Tracker.”

Our team of journalists include veterans of the military, intelligence agencies, diplomatic corps, as well as other journalists who share in our vision and have unique, real-world experience on the topics and regions about which they report.

The voice of veterans and those who value unbiased journalism is underrepresented in the media. We aim to change that.

We want to give the American people something similar. Our intent is to help close the growing civilian-military divide by giving our audience an unbiased, unfiltered and realistic account of what the military does and the world in which they operate — from writers who have “boots on the ground’ experience.

This project was inspired by my return to Afghanistan last year as a war correspondent, after a career serving as an Air Force special operations pilot. I realized that my reporting on the war went against the grain of most of the major media outlets. The reason was my background as a veteran.

That background spurred me to see the war differently than my civilian colleagues, and it also inspired the troops on the ground, who are inherently very distrustful of the media, to trust me and open up.

So check out Blue Force Tracker and help spread the message of what we’re trying to do!

On almost dying in Afghanistan

“Do you want me to grab you a can of Blue Monster?” Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Martin asked me as we left the Afghan National Army’s war room and stepped outside.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “I love those things.”

We exited the joint U.S.-Afghan tactical operations center, known as a TOC, through a cypher-locked metal gate, which led out to the small U.S. Army camp attached to Camp Maiwand — the Afghan National Army’s compound at Forward Operating Base Shank.

Martin and I snaked through the jungle of plywood barracks, called hooches, passing by a reinforced bunker built as a shelter from Taliban mortar and rocket attacks.

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