Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years

Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years

by Ron Capps


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936182589
Publisher: Schaffner Press, Inc.
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Pages: 278
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ron Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active and reserve service members, and military family members. He is the curriculum developer and lead instructor for the National Endowment for the Arts programs that bring expressive and creative writing seminars to wounded warriors at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. His literary writing has appeared in the Delmarva Review, JMWW, the Little Patuxent Review, the New York Times, Prime Number, RiverLit, and in numerous online venues. His policy writing and commentary have appeared regularly in the American Interest, Foreign Policy, Health Affairs, Monthly Developments Magazine, and Time magazine’s Battleland blog and on NPR’s All Things Considered, the BBC World Service, and Pacifica Radio. He has been a consultant to Frontline, PBS’s Newshour, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, he served in the Army and Army Reserve for 25 years, retiring as a lieutenant Colonel. He lives in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

Seriously Not All Right

Five Wars in Ten Years

By Ron Capps

Schaffner Press

Copyright © 2014 Ronald N. Capps
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936182-60-2


My New Favorite Person

The man at the visa window stood still, his head wobbling only slightly from side to side as he fought millennia of cultural programming to present himself to the American consul precisely as his documentation showed him to be: a young, well-educated, affluent, New York financial analyst.

"How long have you been with Merrill?" I asked. I looked up briefly then back to the documents the corporation's immigration lawyers had assembled, which showed he was employed by Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith.

"Not quite three years," he responded.

"And how long do you anticipate staying on?" This was probably the only question he could get wrong. One line, deep in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1980, Section 214(b), stipulated that "every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer ... that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status ..." The chance he would screw up and say something to convince me he really intended to stay illegally in the U.S. was about nil, but I was supposed to ask nonetheless.

"Another three years, probably," he responded perfectly. Good, I thought, this one is quick and easy. I had about thirty more interviews ahead of me that morning, many of which would surely be neither quick nor easy.

Just then, my boss slipped halfway into my booth and dropped an inch-high stack of papers butterfly-clipped together into my in -box. It was the daily read-file, the collected message traffic from Washington each officer was supposed to read.

"You should look at the top one," he said and tapped his finger on the stack. I glanced at the title, VOLUNTEER CABLE: KOSOVO DIPLOMATIC OBSERVER MISSION. "As if you'd let me go," I said.

He shrugged. "We'd think about it."

A volunteer cable is a notification sent out from the Department of State to embassies and consulates worldwide announcing that a position needs to be filled badly enough that the human resources bureau is looking for volunteers. It also means that if you want to go, your boss isn't supposed to say no. At that point, the applicant could have said almost anything and still gotten his visa. It was June, the height of the visa season in Canada, and I was bored out of my skull conducting interviews. A chance to go on mission to some place called Kosovo sounded like just the ticket.

"Thanks," I said, returning to the applicant at the window. "You can come back this afternoon at three o'clock to pick up your visa."

"Thank you very much," he said, smiling broadly.

I picked up the telephone at my elbow and dialed the number listed to volunteer to go to Kosovo, wherever that was. The officer on the other end of the line had been tasked with building a team of diplomatic observers to go into a hot war during the peak season for job changes, international moves, and getting kids into schools. Apparently, the recruitment process wasn't going particularly well. When I called to volunteer, he said, "You're my new favorite person." A couple of weeks later, I was on my way to Kosovo.

The Air France gate agent took pity on me. She called me up to the counter a few minutes before boarding began and handed me an upgrade to Business Class.

"You look like you could use a comfortable seat," she said.

I didn't argue. It was a relatively short flight to Belgrade from Paris, but having some additional legroom and a couple of free drinks sounded nice. So I took the new boarding pass and proffered a sincere merci bien in return.

The JAT Airlines 737 had about a dozen seats in the front set aside for Business Class. I got a window seat. Just after takeoff, as Paris disappeared beneath the cloud layer, I pulled out what had been my near constant companion in the weeks since I had bid Montreal adieu: Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History. It was the newest book available on Kosovo's political, economic and cultural history.

Quite honestly, I had never heard of Kosovo when I volunteered to go there. I wasn't a Europeanist. I wasn't really a typical Foreign Service officer. I had come to the Foreign Service after nine years in the Army rather than directly from one of the several international relations graduate programs that serve as feeder schools for our diplomatic corps. So Malcolm's book, alongside Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Laura Silber and Allan Little, became my crash graduate course on where I was headed and why.

On the opening page of their book, Silber and Little wrote:

"The war in Yugoslavia was not the international community's fault. The war was planned and waged by Yugoslavs. It was not historically inevitable. To attribute the calamity that engulfed the peoples of Yugoslavia to unstoppable forces is to avoid addressing oneself to the central dynamic of the war. It also lets the guilty off the hook ... Yugoslavia did not die a natural death. Rather it was deliberately and systematically killed off by men who had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful transition from state socialism and one-party rule to freemarket economy."

They continue for about four hundred pages to explain how Slobodan Milosevic and his regime had destroyed so many lives in the course of dismantling their country.

Yugoslavia was in some ways a fiction. The word Yugoslavia means, roughly, "land of the southern Slavs." Three nations have carried the name. All three sprang from the ashes of war: in 1918 and 1946 and, finally, in 1992.

Marshal Josip Broz Tito ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until he died in 1980. Tito understood that in order for there to be a strong and successful Yugoslavia there needed to be a weakened and compromised Serbia. I imagined Tito standing astride Yugoslavia for forty years like the Colossus of Rhodes, with a foot in Macedonia, a foot in Slovenia, and his hand firmly upon the head of Serbia, holding down the Serbs in order that all the other ethnic groups — the Croats, the Slovenes, the Bosnians and Montenegrins, the Kosovar Albanians, and the Macedonians — could stand freely. I'm sure this is how some Serbians viewed their position in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was also horrifyingly real. Scarcely ten years after Tito's death, the nation was well on its way to a bloody, murderous, and all too public dissolution in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. We need only say the word to recall the horror of Srebrenica, or the terror of the siege on Sarajevo.

Noel Malcolm's book opens with this line: "The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo and it will end in Kosovo." He is quoting an often-heard bromide rather than his personal, well-informed opinion. But the final dissolution of Yugoslavia came about because of the war in Kosovo.

About halfway through the flight to Belgrade, I put down Malcolm's book and stared out the window. I remember wondering what I was in for. I had previously worked, both as a soldier and a diplomat, on the edges of wars in Central Africa — in Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire, and the Central African Republic. But the violence there was distant. I reported on the aftermath of fighting, often simply by interviewing victims of violence days afterwards and after they had traveled hundreds of miles. I guessed this would be different, that I would be much closer.

My job was usually described as a reporting officer: I would go and observe, then report what I saw. I've joked over the years that at its core, my job was to talk to people and write down what they said. It sounds simple, and it is to a point. But it becomes exponentially more interesting and difficult if there is shooting and burning and killing and dying going on around you.

Restless, I dug through the seat pocket in front of me. In it, I found the JAT in-flight magazine. As I absent-mindedly flipped through the pages, I found a map of Serbia at the back. I tore the map out and stuck it in my notebook; it was, for a time, the best map I had of the country. As we began our descent, I put away my books and finished off my drink.

The Ministry of the Interior officer at the immigration booth examined my diplomatic passport and visa, carefully going through each page of the passport, pausing to read other visas. Then she passed it to her colleague, who left the booth with it. The woman looked at me and smiled. We stayed that way, looking at each other for a moment until her colleague returned with my passport, nice and warm from the photocopier. She returned it to me and nodded in the direction of the luggage carousels.

Outside, an embassy driver picked me up and delivered me to the Belgrade Hilton. He told me that someone would pick me up in the morning to take me to the embassy. Once checked in, I went upstairs to my room and dropped my bags on the floor. I sat on the edge of the bed and told myself I had to stay awake until at least 10 p.m. I woke up about four hours later. I've always sucked at jet lag.

At the embassy the next morning, I met the team I would work with. I knew none of the Foreign Service officers, but one of the military planners and I had worked together in Uganda and Zaire a couple of years before on a humanitarian mission. He warned me about the politics between the members of our team and the embassy's permanent staff. Nothing unusual, he said, but there was a clear sense that the embassy staff felt the need to protect their interests against some perceived incursion by outsiders. It was true to some degree, I would learn, but it was primarily an uneasiness of the Foreign Service staff with the military. As an FSO who had spent nine years on active duty in the Army, this wasn't news to me.

It took about three days for the Serbian government to prepare my Licna Karte, the diplomatic pass that would allow me to work in Serbia. While I waited, I had a chance to catch up on sleep and see some of Belgrade. One evening, a colleague and I walked northwards from the embassy towards Kalemegdan, the historic center of the city and its old citadel. The evening was warm and people were spilling out of cafes at sidewalk tables, drinking coffees and beers, and smoking — everyone smoking. Storefronts were lighted and filled with European fashions. Couples strolled arm in arm; people rushed home from work with groceries. It was lovely. There was a park near the fortress, and as we walked through, an old woman sitting on a stool at the edge of the lawn offered to sell us 100,000 Dinar notes of the former currency. I bought a stack of twenty for about five Deutschmarks that I would use later as bookmarks and party invitations.

From the edge of the fortress, looking over the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, my colleague told me that, at one time, the lands to the west were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, its people Catholic; the lands to the north and east were Slavic, the people Orthodox; and the lands to the south were Ottoman, and the people Muslim. I'm not sure he was precisely accurate, but it was a good illustration of the complexities we faced just ahead.

The next afternoon I received my Licna Karte. The Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) told me that I was going south to Kosovo, and to focus on working with the non-governmental relief agencies there to learn as much as I could about what they were doing and why.

In the morning, an embassy driver loaded my bags into the back of the Suburban and we headed south out of Belgrade. The highway was clear once we'd left the city limits, and we made good time, arriving in the province around mid-day. Just outside the line dividing Kosovo from Serbia was a small restaurant. I thought it was probably a place like so many on county lines in the U.S., called the State Line Bar or Last Chance for Cheap Gas. In reality it was where the Serbian Army (called the VJ) and the Ministry of the Interior Police (called the MUP) would hang out between missions.

We passed through a number of military and police checkpoints as we entered Kosovo. At each stop I was asked for my Licna Karte — the Serbs are sticklers for protocol, and any chance to stick it to an American seemed a welcome diversion for the officials at that point. The road was poorly maintained, the houses shabbier than those in Serbia proper. But other than a few military vehicles on the road, I initially saw nothing to suggest that I was entering a war zone.

The team I was joining remained only partially formed. Its basic structure was simple: twelve officials, half from the military and half from the Foreign Service. This structure had been designed by a Special Forces colonel on detail to the Department of State. Special Forces teams had twelve men, so he probably figured that would be a good system for the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission. The operational model was that teams would consist of one military officer and one FSO, plus a translator. We were to travel in Chevy Suburbans that had been specially modified to withstand small arms fire, and were equipped with satellite phones and radios, plus some specialized tracking gear.

While most of the team remained in Belgrade, writing standard operating procedures and security/evacuation plans, a couple of military officers had taken up residence in the Pristina U.S. Information Service building and had begun to conduct missions. So that's where we started.

When the military gets an assignment like this, one of the services, let's say the Army, finds a unit nearby and sends it off to carry out the mission. The unit will have been together for years in some cases. All of the soldiers will have undergone basic and advanced training in their specialties, plus additional training on working together as a team to complete their mission. When the State Department gets a mission like this it's a little different. The Department isn't organized into platoons and companies and battalions. Individual officers have their specialties, but there are no formed units. When something like this comes up, the Department sends out a volunteer cable and hopes for the best.

In effect, you get whoever is available. In Kosovo, we initially had a team of seeming misfits: an intern from Ambassador Bob Gelbard's office who had to go back to graduate school at Harvard in September; our communications technician; the desk officer for Kuwait, who was to start Arabic language training in three weeks; and me. On the military side we had a couple of attachés from western European posts, an F-111 pilot nicknamed Moon from London, a Special Forces officer from Fort Bragg, and some staff officers from the planning cell at U.S. European Command in Stuttgart.

None of us spoke any of the relevant languages, so we hired translators. Most of the translators were young Albanian women who spoke English, Albanian, and Serbian. We probably would have hired Serbians to translate for us, but we couldn't find any Serbs who were willing and who spoke Albanian.

We stayed for a few days in the USIS office, sleeping on cots and doing business over macchiatos in the coffee shop around the corner. Within the week we moved a few kilometers to the south to a hotel the Embassy staff had rented for us in the Serbian enclave of Kosovo Polje — the Hotel Herzegovina.

I shared a room on the third floor in a back corner of the hotel with Moon, the Air Force pilot and attaché. It was divided into what could only in the loosest terms be called a suite, with a front room where a couch might plausibly be placed but now featured a bed, and a back room, barely big enough for a single bed and a side table, my space. There was one window, about a foot and one half square, and high up on the wall. In the July heat, it was our only source of air.

At night, any breeze was welcome, but in late summer the dominant weather pattern featured a wind from the west that carried with it the soot and smell of a lignite coal plant a few miles away. After a few nights of this we started sleeping with the window closed, but it had little effect. We woke each morning covered in soot, with our mouths and noses caked, coughing from the pollution.

My first few days on the team were spent getting to know the area. Pristina itself was a mostly charmless, Socialist -architectured burg. A few Mercedes — someone said they all were stolen from Western Europe or the U.S. and brought to Serbia through Albania — wove between the Ladas and Yugos downtown. Coffee shops lined the streets and customers spilled out onto the sidewalks, smoking and sipping espressos from beautiful, Italian-made machines. Older women wore headscarves — this was the only real sign of the dominant Muslim culture — while younger women wore tight skirts. Our first trip outside Pristina was a tour d'horizon with the defense attachés from the American and British embassies, mostly just getting a feel for the roads and how to manage the innumerable checkpoints (government) and roadblocks (rebels). Kosovo is small enough that you can drive across it in a couple of hours, and we would be covering all the main roads and hitting all the major towns in a matter of days.


Excerpted from Seriously Not All Right by Ron Capps. Copyright © 2014 Ronald N. Capps. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


KOSOVO 1998-2000,
My New Favorite Person,
The Duke of Dragobilje,
Celebratory Gunfire,
CENTRAL AFRICA 1995-1998/2000-2002,
No Deed Goes Unpunished,
The Banyamulenge War,
Count the Feet,
Our Ndoki,
Hold the Javelinas: Bagram,
A Danger to Myself or Others,
Seriously Not All Right,
Here be Monsters,
An Unruly Garden,
The Northern Alliance,
DARFUR, 2004-2007,
A Trick of the Geographers,
Three Mohammeds,
An Empty Auditorium,
Uncle Wiggily in Darfur,
All Things Being Equal,
The French Lieutenant's iPod,
Who Will Apologize?,
Plan B,
Walking the Halls,
The Whole Megillah,
Writing My Way Home,
EPILOGUE: Forgive and Forget,
Permissions and Credits,

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Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't know much about science, but I've heard about the Observer Effect. The Observer Effect tries to explain the slippery concept of what happens when someone observes something, thereby changing it to some degree. In short, if you check the air in your tires, you have to let some air out of your tires. Ron Capps observed, up close, extreme human violence and cruelty, and the tires went nearly flat. I felt, while reading it, that his own observer effect on atrocity and cruelty, might be the mystery he is trying to explore in this masterfully written story. He recorded what he saw, and tried to use what power he had to do the most good for the most people. But the frustration built, war after war, genocide after genocide, and observation after observation. This book describes what happens to the human soul when a man stands to close to the altar of Mars, the god of war. This book helped me understand my own struggles with my war experience. As an Iraq veteran, I know a little of what that war did to me. Capps' description of his symptoms are the best description of PTSD and moral injury that I have ever read. If you want to understand your own war experience or the war experience of a veteran you love, get this book. I especially love how Capps describes his ongoing work with veterans, helping them write their own stories of war and homecoming.