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June 4, 2004

Any soldier anyhow
Posted by Teresa at 09:03 AM *

Via Snarkout’s particulate offshoot Sideout comes’s list of what to send to soldiers stationed in the Middle East. The list of items is mostly obvious and sometimes surprising, a combination I tend to trust.

Apparently Beanie Babies are a smash hit with Iraqi children. They’re also lightweight, and can travel in backpacks without getting broken.

The note from Major ‘Doc’ Meyer was a tad disturbing:
The problem the clinics/hospitals have is there just isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. The medications needed are basic: antibiotics, antihypertensives, antiparasitics. They can certainly be inexpensive/generic medications like amoxicillin, hydrochlorothiazide, atenolol, etc.

This isn’t about being for or against the war. It’s about our guys who are stuck over there being hot and bored and grimy, and who are mostly doing the best they can in a bad situation. If I read the list correctly, some of it is also about kindness to the Iraqis with whom they come in contact.

It’s the basic drill: feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, help where you can. Doing good is doing good.

Comments on Any soldier anyhow:
#1 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:28 AM:

Was thinking about making a thrift store run.... soft toys are easy to ship (not breakable) and lightweight! Plus I know I have some in a big basket that I was going to take to the thrift store myself. Thanks!

Also, on a similar note, it looks as if our Operation Paperback effort at ConQuesT over Memorial Day was successful. I'm waiting for an announcement of the packing party, since I just plugged for it. One of our local fans also held a Texas Hold-em Poker party to make the money to ship the books, and that was successful too. (and really, really popular. I'm not a poker player, so am mystified by that.)

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:38 AM:

From my time in, paperbacks would be very good. Boredom is one of your worst enemies. If what you have is a spare copy of The Critique of Pure Reason, send it. Someone will love it, and share it with his pals.

#3 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:41 AM:

When I was applying to JAG, my mother-in-law was panicking because of what she'd heard from other women who had kids in the military, over in Iraq. They were getting letters about not having enough food and water, some people not having the right equipment, basic supplies that any First World military expects to have in abundance.

#4 ::: Derek Lowe ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 10:04 AM:

Good for you, Theresa. I'm very glad to see this post, and I'll be interested to see what comments it brings.

You're absolutely right about this not being a for-or-against-the-war question, but a humanitarian one. And in that category I put both our troops and the Iraqi population, in different ways.

I supported the war decision, and still do, with some pain both then and now. But I can respect many of the people who didn't, and I can understand their reasoning. My respect, though, doesn't extend to those - I think they're few, but they're sure loud - who seem to be actively wishing for disaster. I supposes there's an ecological niche for an organism to thrive on schadenfreude.

I'd also suggest the Spirit of America organization to those wishing to help out relations with the Iraqi population.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 10:31 AM:

I'm going to cull my comics. Not everyone's a book reader.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 10:32 AM:

Crossword puzzles and cryptograms.

#7 ::: Edward Liu ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 10:49 AM:


Operation Comix Relief is apparently a dedicated group of people looking specifically for comic books to send out to the troops.

-- Ed

#8 ::: helpful? ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 10:50 AM:

Oops, TNH, I'm not sure about comics.

"C1 - . . . horror comics and matrices are prohibited."

Dunno how they draw the line between horror and non-horror.

#9 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 12:25 PM:

Itís the basic drill: feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, help where you can. Doing good is doing good.

This attitude is one of the things I really like about Christianity. Next time my coreligionists are dissing "The Christians," I'm going to quote this. But actually I hear much less of this among Pagans these days.

#10 ::: Jonquil ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 01:04 PM:

Ginmar says that DVDs have been an enormous hit; her Buffy DVDs are making the rounds of her camp.

#11 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 01:08 PM:

From someone else, who sent stuff to a soldier whose name turns out to be Ron:

"He says they've got a lot of toiletries and such, since people ship 'em a lot, so the unit chaplain distributes them from a central point. What they could really use are books- that was first on his list- magazines, CD's, DVD's, cookies, and snack food like spray cheese and crackers. I'm not kidding, he specifically said 'cheese spray spread'. Not sure if those cans would LAST in 140-degree heat... The crackers and cookies would really have to be store-bought; the soldiers are under orders not to accept anything homemade unless it's from someone they know and trust."

Also, he says country music is popular, if you're wanting to send CDs.

#12 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 01:38 PM:

I wonder if Three Kings is popular with the troops...

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 05:06 PM:

Yeah, aerosol cheese in a 110 degree desert sounds like a bad idea.

Maybe they don't use it as *food*. Maybe it gets used to inflate punctured Hummer tires, or sprayed into the air at the first sign of an ambush, as a kind of smoke screen.

#14 ::: Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 05:13 PM:

I found that computer game magazines with demo CDs were very well received.

#15 ::: Dori ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 06:25 PM:

I also recommend checking out Books for Soldiers. You can get lots of ideas there of what (not just books) they'd like, as well as stuff they specifically don't want.

Reading this post made me very glad that I write for a particular publisher.

#16 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 07:39 PM:

Another idea would be to send CDs full of an eclectic assortment of good MP3s.

Yeah, it'd be copyright infringement. But as I understand it, there's tons of MP3 swapping over there anyway. A story in the Times (not written by Judith Miller) mentioned a base or camp where people have contributed music to a big MP3 library with a wide variety of selection.

Point being, if you want to avoid copyright infringment, you could buy an audio CD and send it, but it'd just get ripped and shared anyway.

I wonder if there'd be a way for people in Iraq to use gift certificates for the iTunes Music Store to download music.

It'd be kinda bad, though, if iTunes downloads started using up all their bandwidth.

#17 ::: Martial ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 07:46 PM:

"Doing good is doing good."

No, it isn't. Sometimes trying to do good does harm instead. There is a growing literature about the unintended negative consequences of humanitarian assistance. Good intentions don't cut it, especially in conflict zones.

Unfortunately, most of the literature is written in an effort to demonstrate that assistance is just bad, so we should stop and give everybody a tax break (hey, 2 cents! now I can write Teresa . . .). Some of it, though, says, "hey, we can do better!"

Do No Harm by Mary Anderson is the classic (1999, not the different book with the similar name published in 1996). She's a friend and an inspiration, but I'm serious about the book. If there turns out to be interest in the topic, I'd be happy to direct people to ancillary documents.

Anysoldier's list is mostly harmless, especially the things you know are for the use of the soldiers or are clearly toys. Sending drugs is dicey given that they are often a major black market item in conflict zones.

#18 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:08 PM:

I found a request from the guy in this post asking for simple ballpoint pens. The address is:

Terry L. Welch
105th MPAD Kandahar
Public Affairs Office
APO AE 09355

#19 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:14 PM:

Oh, and aerosolized cheese might be used to repair/seal tires or spackle school walls.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:37 PM:

Wrong, Martial.

Regardless of what your friend wrote in her book.

Failing to do good isn't doing good, but doing good is doing good. This is by definition, and inarguable.

To use one of your own examples: drugs.

Is not having the drugs available at all better than having drugs available on the black market?

No, it isn't.

Case closed.

#21 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 09:43 PM:

When I hear someone say they are against the war, but for the troops I tend to ask what they've done for them lately.

Which got me the role of guest advisor in setting up a NOW group's box program.

Books, better than anything else are books. Pretty much any book you send will be read by someone (I read some awful crap, but hell, it was something to fill time).

Magazines, local papers, DVDs, old Playstation games, salty snacks (the soft beef jerky is popular, but nuts, chips, sardines, smoked oysters, etc.) drink powders.

Chocolate is semi-sendable (ginmar tells me she ate the sticky mess that had been a pair of Sharffenberger bars) but it requires at least a single, and preferrably a double, bagging in ziplocs.

Ziplocs are good, as is writing paper (I am very fond of steno-pads when in the field).

Games, scrabble, cribbage, Parker Brothers (I suspect things like Trouble, which have all the parts, basically, would be good) Parchesi, etc.

Bordeom is the great killer of otherwise decent morale.

#22 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 11:28 PM:

I just had a bit of an idea, and want to know what everyone thinks about it...

What about "cheapass games"? I know that I have spent some good hours sitting around a game of "Devil Bunny Needs a Ham" or "Kill Dr. Lucky" (which is a sort of reverse Clue). These are small, extremely portable games usually distributed in envelopes and small boxes. It would probably be neccesary to send some dice, as they usually don't come with.

Does this sound like a good idea? I know I have a few of them I rarely play any more sitting around the house, and I'm sure I could scrounge a few more up. And if I can't... hey, they're cheap.

the company web site is

#23 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 12:33 AM:

Linkmeister writes: "I found a request from the guy in this post asking for simple ballpoint pens."

I'd think teachers would also find it useful to have some colored markers or crayons on hand, as occasional rewards for good students or prizes in educational games.

Or for art lessons...

#24 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 01:14 AM:

Leah, yes. Games are a good idea. Cheapass games are cheap, portable, and fun, so I'd say go for it. (They also need markers of some sort; some of the games require play money. For Devil Bunny, I've used Skittles candy!)

Last year, Steve Jackson donated $5,000 worth of games for the troops. I've suggested that this would make a great permanent program, but I guess he's been busy.

#25 ::: Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 03:21 AM:

Yeah, it'd be copyright infringement. But as I understand it, there's tons of MP3 swapping over there anyway.

The soldier I was keeping supplied with good coffee and computer games said that he could get just about any movie on DVD for a dollar in Baghdad, including summer blockbusters that hadn't finished their first run in the US. Some of the bootlegs even had silhouettes of movie goers on them.

#26 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 02:24 PM:

DVDs, send them. They may cost a few bucks, but there are reports of bootlegged games, and such which are trojan horsed. Given the difficulty of replacing/repairing computers, the risk is more than I was willing to take.

As for Cheapass, or Loony Labs, they would be well recieved.

Toiletries, BTW, if sent, NEED to be sent under seperate cover. Soap will manage to permeate even things you think are sealed, and ramen a la Irish Spring is nothing I want to experience again, much less inflict on someone else.

But ramen can be added to the list I gave.

#27 ::: Martial ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 03:46 PM:

James, I am sure that you would agree that someone's merely saying they are doing good may not in fact be true - no matter how much they might believe it. Too many people think that they know what the "good" is and stop there, when the ways in which "good" is pursued can have serious negative consequences. Given our daily experience of the circumstances and spin-offs of the current effort to help Iraq toward the good of democracy and the pretty rhetoric that got us into this mess we shouldn't even be having an argument.

I am quite bothered by your call of "case closed" when considering the example of sending drugs to Iraq. You appear to leap to the conclusion that there are only two options: either send drugs any which way and never mind the potential consequences or don't send the drugs (you frame the issue even more starkly: black market drugs or no drugs). The dichotomy is false because limiting the choice to these two options is false.

If the question is how to get drugs to Iraqi hospitals and clinics (as the request on AnySoldier suggests), there are, in fact, several options of how to do this. Some, however, will be more effective than others and will get the drugs to the people who truly need them at prices they can afford. And some options will lead to drugs going into the black market where they may not reach the people in need and will surely cost more.

I've recently returned from Sudan where one of the issues raised was about drugs passing on to the black market (coincidence? no. stolen humanitarian supplies are quite common). A programme, which is providing drugs to community health workers and clinics, had found that at some clinics the vast majority (70%) of drugs were vanishing (we also found that we could walk a short distance down the road from the NGO office and buy those same drugs - still with the packaging that said "Not for sale. To be distributed for free."). Given that the theft was not happening at all the clinics, we asked both what the systems were which prevented theft and what circumstances seemed to promote theft. We then discussed strategies for stopping theft at the clinics where it was common. I should add that this was not simply a process of picking something that worked in one place and transferring it without modification to another - we wanted to be effective, not just to sign off that we'd "done something".

Refusing to explore options to actually do good may in fact cause harm. Closing the case before examining whether or not an option is effective is irresponsible.

The book Do No Harm reflects the actual experience of assistance workers, those people on the ground trying to do good, who found that in some cases they were worsening the situation. (I mentioned that the author was a friend in the interest of disclosure. In case anyone was tempted to purchase it, they should know that the recommendation comes from someone who might have an interest. The book is written for humanitarian professionals and not really for the layperson, but anybody here could follow the argument.)

In general, my experience has been that militaries do not do a particularly good job of distributing relief supplies in situations of conflict. They do not have the experience or training in how to analyze a local situation from a development or humanitarian perspective: they don't have the experience (or the manpower) to tell a good project from a bad one, a good set of partners from bad ones, best practice from bad. I offer a caution about using your opportunities to support the troops to encourage them to do things for which they are unprepared, no matter how much they might think they are and no matter how good their - and your - intentions.

There are several organizations working on and in hospitals and clinics in Iraq. UNICEF could use your contribution, as could any of the organizations on this list. And by all means continue to send things to the troops. Americans abroad (more often NGO workers, but I do meet soldiers too) tell me they really miss peanut butter, good coffee, and, these days, they are always complaining about the batteries in their MP3 players running down.

#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 07:50 PM:

Martial, I believe that you think you're doing good right now.

You aren't.

Drop it.

#29 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 07:55 PM:


To expand.

I just put together a few things to send to a soldier in Iraq.

Solely due to your comments here, in order to refute them by action, I deliberately included a medicinal.

Your comments and suggestions are more than merely unhelpful; they are immmoral.

#30 ::: Martial ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 03:42 PM:

Well, that last comment of mine was pretty long. Still . . . wow, James. I've seen you engage in worse rough and tumble here without hitting quite so low. I clearly struck some sort of nerve, which was not my intent.

What might seem to be controversial is my strong caution about militaries providing humanitarian assistance. I clearly think that militaries should not be direct providers of humanitarian assistance in conflict zones and I offered a few reasons why I think this is an issue. This is not some wild-eyed view. There is a range of opinion on how involved militaries should be in providing humanitarian assistance, from MSF, which holds that militaries should never be involved, through the not quite as rigid and more realistic positions of the ICRC and the UN Guidelines on the Use of Military And Civilian Defence Assets to Support UN Humanitarian Activities in Complex Emergencies (pdf) (a title designed by a committee) to the compassion and openness of Hugo Slim. Within the military (good article!) and national security establishment there is also a range (if more resigned to certain necessities than the NGOs), including the definitive Joint Doctrine for Civil-Military Operations (pdf) which, with a heavy load of acronyms and parched dry prose, finally says - and I have to paraphrase or you'll doze: "we don't want to provide humanitarian assistance if it is at all possible to get some civilians to do it".

Evaluation of humanitarian work is what I do. Given the post by our host, I thought it might be of interest to the readers here (at a blog I read daily) to introduce them to the larger professional conversation around the impacts of assistance. Given that the purpose of evaluation and assessment should always be to increase effectiveness, minimize negative impacts, and ultimately to do our work better, I happen to have a professional interest in challenging the tautology of "doing good is doing good". While I suggested, rather strongly it is true, that certain types of assistance were better done by certain professionals, I believe I took pains to encourage people to continue giving. However, if we are going to do so, it behooves us to acknowledge that the little things we do occur in the framework of larger systems and that we bear some responsibility for how things play out on that level.

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 10:25 PM:

Martial, could you be a bit more concrete? Abstract descriptions have their virtues, but these aren't making pictures in people's heads.

I'm not sure, but I think you're talking about it not necessarily being a good policy for us to use the military as our mechanism for distributing medical aid. However, since is (I believe) an unofficial one-to-one distribution system that's separate from whatever official medical aid is being provided to Iraqis by the U.S. government, I think Jim is hearing you say that some random guy giving out free amoxicillin or hypertension meds or antihelminthics to needy Iraqis is less important than whatever dislocations that act of charity causes in overall distribution systems. (Are you? I wouldn't have thought it likely.)

I think the distinction he sees is that one way, some amoxicillin goes to Iraq and gets handed off to some individual who has an infection, and the other way it doesn't. And if I've got that right, it would explain why he's saying "doing good is doing good": amoxicillin is better than no amoxicillin.

Of course, I could be reading both of you completely wrong.

#32 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 11:38 PM:

A number of people besides Steve Jackson have sent bulk shipments of games (Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande, for example), but of course more would be better. My recommendations for when Jay sent games tended to those that were small and didn't have lots of little pieces to lose, but I was just guessing on that.

If you're not familiar with games, and even if you are, a few decks of cards would probably be the best thing to send. You can play hundreds of games with a standard deck, and it's small.

Anyone sending lots of books, comics, or similar items who isn't close to New York might want to send them Media Mail - for a box full of books the savings can be substantial, and the few extra days it will take aren't critical.

#33 ::: Edward Liu ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 09:57 AM:


The fellow at is now receiving ballpoint pens "by the thousands." If you still want to send stuff, you can either e-mail the current blog maintainer (who was very responsive to my request) or send small pads of paper instead. When I asked, that was the response I got. All the pens in the world don't do much good if you don't have things to write on, I suppose.

-- Ed

#34 ::: ElizabethVomMarlo ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 03:29 PM:

Can anyone clarify about the comics rule sited above?

I'm helping a friend clean out her house--she has many comics. I thought this would be a good place to send them but I don't want to send anything that would get someone in trouble.

#35 ::: Julia Jones spots comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2004, 02:36 AM:

And still more comment spam - he's a busy little spammer...

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