Monday, August 20, 2007


August 19, 2007
Op-Ed Contributors
The War as We Saw It


VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head during a “time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected to survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) While we have the will and the resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.


Now I Need a Wheel....

August 19, 2007
Phys Ed
Lobes of Steel

The Morris water maze is the rodent equivalent of an I.Q. test: mice are placed in a tank filled with water dyed an opaque color. Beneath a small area of the surface is a platform, which the mice can’t see. Despite what you’ve heard about rodents and sinking ships, mice hate water; those that blunder upon the platform climb onto it immediately. Scientists have long agreed that a mouse’s spatial memory can be inferred by how quickly the animal finds its way in subsequent dunkings. A “smart” mouse remembers the platform and swims right to it.

In the late 1990s, one group of mice at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, near San Diego, blew away the others in the Morris maze. The difference between the smart mice and those that floundered? Exercise. The brainy mice had running wheels in their cages, and the others didn’t.

Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.

This theory emerged from those mouse studies at the Salk Institute. After conducting maze tests, the neuroscientist Fred H. Gage and his colleagues examined brain samples from the mice. Conventional wisdom had long held that animal (and human) brains weren’t malleable: after a brief window early in life, the brain could no longer grow or renew itself. The supply of neurons — the brain cells that enable us to think — was believed to be fixed almost from birth. As the cells died through aging, mental function declined. The damage couldn’t be staved off or repaired.

Gage’s mice proved otherwise. Before being euthanized, the animals had been injected with a chemical compound that incorporates itself into actively dividing cells. During autopsy, those cells could be identified by using a dye. Gage and his team presumed they wouldn’t find such cells in the mice’s brain tissue, but to their astonishment, they did. Up until the point of death, the mice were creating fresh neurons. Their brains were regenerating themselves.

All of the mice showed this vivid proof of what’s known as “neurogenesis,” or the creation of new neurons. But the brains of the athletic mice in particular showed many more. These mice, the ones that scampered on running wheels, were producing two to three times as many new neurons as the mice that didn’t exercise.

But did neurogenesis also happen in the human brain? To find out, Gage and his colleagues had obtained brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research. While still living, these people were injected with the same type of compound used on Gage’s mice. (Pathologists were hoping to learn more about how quickly the patients’ tumor cells were growing.) When Gage dyed their brain samples, he again saw new neurons. Like the mice, the humans showed evidence of neurogenesis.

Gage’s discovery hit the world of neurological research like a thunderclap. Since then, scientists have been finding more evidence that the human brain is not only capable of renewing itself but that exercise speeds the process.

“We’ve always known that our brains control our behavior,” Gage says, “but not that our behavior could control and change the structure of our brains.”

The human brain is extremely difficult to study, especially when a person is still alive. Without euthanizing their subjects, the closest that researchers can get to seeing what goes on in there is through a functional M.R.I. machine, which measures the size and shape of the brain and, unlike a standard M.R.I. machine, tracks blood flow and electrical activity.

This spring, neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York City published a study in which a group of men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 45, began working out for one hour four times a week. After 12 weeks, the test subjects, predictably, became more fit. Their VO2 max, the standard measure of how much oxygen a person takes in while exercising, rose significantly.

But something else happened as a result of all those workouts: blood flowed at a much higher volume to a part of the brain responsible for neurogenesis. Functional M.R.I.’s showed that a portion of each person’s hippocampus received almost twice the blood volume as it did before. Scientists suspect that the blood pumping into that part of the brain was helping to produce fresh neurons.

The hippocampus plays a large role in how mammals create and process memories; it also plays a role in cognition. If your hippocampus is damaged, you most likely have trouble learning facts and forming new memories. Age plays a factor, too. As you get older, your brain gets smaller, and one of the areas most prone to this shrinkage is the hippocampus. (This can start depressingly early, in your 30’s.) Many neurologists believe that the loss of neurons in the hippocampus may be a primary cause of the cognitive decay associated with aging. A number of studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia tend to have smaller-than-normal hippocampi.

The Columbia study suggests that shrinkage to parts of the hippocampus can be slowed via exercise. The subjects showed significant improvements in memory, as measured by a word-recall test. Those with the biggest increases in VO2 max had the best scores of all.

“It’s reasonable to infer, though we’re not yet certain, that neurogenesis was happening in the people’s hippocampi,” says Scott A. Small, an associate professor of neurology at Columbia and the senior author of the study, “and that working out was driving the neurogenesis.”

Other recent studies support this theory. At the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, a group of elderly sedentary people were assigned to either an aerobic exercise program or a regimen of stretching. (The aerobic group walked for at least one hour three times a week.) After six months, their brains were scanned using an M.R.I. Those who had been doing aerobic exercise showed significant growth in several areas of the brain. These results raise the hope that the human brain has the capacity not only to produce new cells but also to add new blood vessels and strengthen neural connections, allowing young neurons to integrate themselves into the wider neural network. “The current findings are the first, to our knowledge, to confirm the benefits of exercise training on brain volume in aging humans,” the authors concluded.

And the benefits aren’t limited to adults. Other University of Illinois scientists have studied school-age children and found that those who have a higher level of aerobic fitness processed information more efficiently; they were quicker on a battery of computerized flashcard tests. The researchers also found that higher levels of aerobic fitness corresponded to better standardized test scores among a set of Illinois public school students. The scientists next plan to study how students’ scores change as their fitness improves.

What is it about exercise that prompts the brain to remake itself? Different scientists have pet theories. One popular hypothesis credits insulin-like growth factor 1, a protein that circulates in the blood and is produced in greater amounts in response to exercise. IGF-1 has trouble entering the brain — it stops at what’s called the “blood-brain barrier” — but exercise is thought to help it to do so, possibly sparking neurogenesis.

Other researchers are looking at the role of serotonin, a hormone that influences mood. Exercise speeds the brain’s production of serotonin, which could, in turn, prompt new neurons to grow. Abnormally low levels of serotonin have been associated with clinical depression, as has a strikingly shrunken hippocampus. Many antidepressant medications, like Prozac, increase the effectiveness of serotonin. Interestingly, these drugs take three to four weeks to begin working — about the same time required for new neurons to form and mature. Part of the reason these drugs are effective, then, could be that they’re increasing neurogenesis. “Just as exercise does,”Gage says.

Gage, by the way, exercises just about every day, as do most colleagues in his field. Scott Small at Columbia, for instance , likes nothing better than a strenuous game of tennis. “As a neurologist,” he explains, “I constantly get asked at cocktail parties what someone can do to protect their mental functioning. I tell them, ‘Put down that glass and go for a run.’ ” .

This Is Your Brain on Something Other Than Exercise

The human brain undergoes neurogenesis — the creation of new cells — throughout a person’s life, although the amount depends on a variety of factors, not just exercise.

MARIJUANA: We just report the data; we don’t endorse it. A 2005 study on rats found that stimulation of the brain’s receptors for marijuana increased neurogenesis.

ALCOHOL: A 2005 study found that mice that swallowed a moderate amount of ethanol showed more neurogenesis than teetotalers. Other studies on mice have suggested that heavier drinking can be damaging to the brain.

SOCIABILITY: One study suggests that rats that live alone and have access to a run ning wheel experience less neurogenesis than those that have access to a running wheel and live in group housing. So go ahead and join that singles running club you’ve been avoiding.

DIET: A diet high in saturated fat and sugar sharply diminishes the brain’s production of the proteins and nerve-growth factors necessary for neurogenesis. Exercise may mitigate that effect somewhat.

STRESS: Mice that are subjected to uncontrollable stress (like electric shock) suffer substantial deterioration in their ability to produce new neurons.

CHOCOLATE: In a study published this year, an ingredient in cocoa, epicatechin, was shown to improve spatial memory in mice, especially among those that exercised. Epicatechin can also be found in grapes, blueberries and black tea. “I plan to start ingesting more epicatechin,” says Henriette van Praag, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, “as soon as I can’t find my car keys anymore.” G.R.

Gotta Get A Handle On These Books

June 23, 2007
SHORT CUTS; New Ways to Do It Make Giving Away Books a Bit Less Painful

IT has been a long, sometimes painful process, but over the years, I've learned to separate from my books.

Years ago, each one was a little gem that I wanted sitting on my bookshelf even if I had no intention of reading it again. If I lent one to a friend, it was with great hesitation, with my name prominently scrawled inside the cover and after a few months I would start dropping gentle reminders.

Only when it became clear that, as was all too often the case, the friend was one of those for whom books were considered disposable currency, would I give up.

I can trace my letting-go process to our move to London in 1994. My husband and I looked at our thousands of books and knew some had to stay on this side of the Atlantic.

We sold and gave away hundreds and felt purified.

When we moved, our furniture and boxes followed months later. I remember sitting in our much smaller flat, which could not accommodate even one of our largest bookcases, surrounded by boxes of books and wondering what we had been thinking.

Was I really ever going to read ''Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory''? How about ''Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx: Three Great Philosophers Whose Ideas Changed the Course of Civilization''? Not unless I was under house arrest.

We gave away hundreds more without ever missing them.

But getting rid of books creates tension for many, although it is often one of the first things people have to do when downsizing or simply trying to organize their lives.

Standolyn Robertson, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, runs her own organizing company called Things in Place, out of Massachusetts.

''People have a love affair with their books,'' she said.

One client was trying to purge her apartment of the hundreds of books she had read to her children and ''she actually teared up,'' Ms. Robertson said. ''These books represented raising her kids. She didn't have room, but she was not ready to let them go. I tried to get her to understand that you can hold on to the memory.''

Ms. Robertson said she sometimes suggested that customers take photos of the covers of the books and make a memory album. She now hopes to persuade the client to pick 10 books for each child out of the hundreds she has.

A library is an obvious recipient for giveaway books, so I trotted off to my local library in Larchmont, N.Y., to find out about their experiences.

Nancy Donovan, who has worked at the library 18 years, says she is quite familiar with the overly attached syndrome.

''They can't throw them away, so they give them to us even if they are old and moldy and mildewed,'' she said. ''And then we throw them in the trash.''

Ms. Donovan hastened to say that the library was happy to receive good books in good condition, but that a book ''has to earn its keep.''

''It has to be current and in very good shape,'' she said.

Larchmont is probably more a reading community than many other parts of the region, where more media, like DVDs and CDs, are checked out of libraries than books, Ms. Donovan said, but even so, the library can take only so much.

''We say we will take one container per household per week,'' she said. And no cheating -- you have to be able to carry the container and fit it through the door.

''We're fairly brutal,'' she said. As is the case with donations to most local libraries, some of the books are tossed, and many others are sold for 50 cents or a dollar to help finance the library.

Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey, said book sales were a great and easy way to raise money.

''We make about $45,000 a year from donated books, others make about $250,000,'' she said. ''We love people to bring us their books.''

Used-book stores are another good choice. Fred Bass, who has run the Strand bookstore in Manhattan for the last 45 years, said business was booming. He does not accept donations, but said he had no difficulty finding good books to buy.

For ''a good clean trade paperback'' he will offer about $1, maybe a little more, but it has to be in brand-new condition.

''A lot of material has lost its timeliness,'' Mr. Bass said. A novel that was a best seller 10 years ago probably will not fetch much -- if anything -- today.

Those who want to do good with their books often turn to the many charities set up to take books from those who have too many and to give to those who have too few. The only trouble is, many of those organizations want your money, not your books.

Beth Bingham, a spokeswoman for First Book (, which supplies new books to low-income children in the United States, said her group got calls about donating books all the time.

''It's one of our biggest challenges,'' she said. Her charity faces the problem many do: ''We have no idea what condition they are in, and it takes so much labor -- we have to sort through the books one by one, to make sure they're not written in and content is appropriate.''

So her organization, which has been around for 15 years, does not accept used books, and provides only brand-new books to its recipients because, she said, ''we believe that the kids we serve don't get a whole lot of new things and we want to give them that.'' They do accept new books from publishers and financial contributions.

However, Better World Books ( offers a different option. Started by some freshly minted Notre Dame graduates in 2002, it collects used books and textbooks from about 1,000 campuses and 700 libraries nationwide.

As an individual, you can donate if you pay for shipping yourself; but you can buy anything off its Web site and shipping is free anywhere in the country.

''It's like 1,000 sidewalk sales rolled into one,'' said a co-founder, Xavier Helgesen. He estimates that his organization receives about 15,000 used books a day and sells about 5,000 daily.

Some of the unusable books are recycled, many of the textbooks are sent to universities in Africa and of all the books that are sold, a certain percentage of each sale -- it varies but ranges around 15 percent -- goes to nonprofit partners promoting global literacy.

Ms. Burger of Princeton Public Library says her library sends books to Better World. A neat option on the Better World Web site lets you type in your ZIP code to find out if your local library donates to the group. You can buy specifically from that collection and up to 35 percent of what you pay for those books goes back to that library.

For those who don't want to pack up and lug their books, there is the option of selling online; two of the most popular Web sites for individuals to buy and sell used books are, and, which is part of eBay.

Many have blamed online bookstores for driving many bricks-and-mortar new-book stores out of business, but online options may help the used-book market, said Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books, which sells new and used books in Waltham, Mass.

''People don't have to contend with this so much out here,'' he said, ''but if you're in the middle of nowhere, how are you going to get to a used-book store?''

A quirkier and slower way to dispose of your books is through a Web site called, which encourages people to ''release'' their books by leaving them in a public space.

At the site, you register a personal identification number, print out a label and place it on an inside cover. After you ''release'' the book, you can check the site to see if anyone reports finding it, reading it and has an opinion about it. Bookcrossing aficionados are even having get-togethers.

As I look around my home office, I still see so many books that I could weed out. That three-pound biography of Disraeli? The tome on globalization? I just cannot see myself curling up with them at bedtime.

Time to get them into the hands of someone yearning to read them.