May 01, 2005

Rock the casbah

More incoherent notes:

I'm staying in a billeting tent, which is a tent dormitory with 18 cots, a few Porta-Johns nearby, and some showers and actual toilets a further walk away. Don't misinterpret "tent" - this one has wooden floors, fluorescent lights, two massive air-conditioning units, and a 15-foot-high ceiling. "The only things the army are really good at are erecting tents and lining things up in neat rows." (Presumably they're at least competent at the actual warfighting as well. And their engineers are well respected.) There are 28 such tents in the billeting area, plus a central check-in tent that features another huge TV, a small library, and the internet/phone center from which I now type. Backpacking is actually amusingly good training for living at a military base.

There are plenty of bugs, kind of surprising for an alleged desert. (Though there is a nearby canal, and fields of green weeds grow outside the fence.) I showered late, night before last, and there were sand fleas everywhere. The odd mosquito too. At night, driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, you can see surging clouds of bugs and moths flocking to every candy-cane-shaped streetlight.

It's still easy to get lost, since there are few unique landmarks. Fortunately there are bus stops everywhere, most of which have posted bus maps.

Several times yesterday I asked soldiers how long they'd been here, and they answered with how much time they have left. Most seem to be from the South or the Midwest. One of them said "It's changed a lot since the first time." This is his second tour. Last time his unit was living in bombed-out buildings and doing laundry by hand; now they have access to pools, gyms, vast recreation facilities, cooked food every night, etc.

The food ranges from unremarkable to excellent. Dinner night before last was (good) steak, lobster, and king crab legs. Unfortunately I didn't take my hosts' warning re the spikiness of the crab legs seriously, and impaled my thumb on a thornlike shell protrusion. Yes, that's right, I went to Iraq and was wounded by shellfish. Do I qualify for a Purple Heart?

Went to the gym yesterday. It's one of the huge (40-foot-high ceiling, football-field length) circus-type ovoid tents, just past the indoor/outdoor pool complex. Except for the lack of changing facilities, it's one of the nicest gyms I've ever been in. There's a basketball court, an indoor racquetball court, tons of free weights and cardio equipment, a sit-up room, an aerobics/martial arts room, all heavily air conditioned, of course. The red alert siren sounded partway through my workout. Mortar strike somewhere on base, presumably. No one heard its thin wail, obscured as it was by that Destiny's Child "I Need A Soldier" song, until the music stopped and a sergeant shouted at us all to go to the perimeter of the building and sit with our backs to the wall. This is the new red-alert procedure; the old one was to evacuate the building immediately. We sat for about twenty minutes, united by boredom, until the all-clear sounded.

Most of the actual infrastructure - power, water, roads, sewage, DFACs, etc - is contracted out, and most of the contracts go to KBR. Presumably building a military base isn't all that different from building an oil drilling compound. KBR in turn subcontracts much of the actual work to (judging from their staff) Turkish, Filipino, or Indian/Sri Lankan companies. The last group isn't that surprising - there's a long history of people from the subcontinent coming to the Gulf to make their fortune and support their families.

The non-military Turks, Filipinos, and Indians are known as TCNs (Third Country Nationals) and are treated with some...not suspicion, exactly, but lack of equality. Iraqis, none of whom I've actually seen yet, are LNs (Local Nationals) and divided into Escort Required and No Escort Required. TCNs also run the local bazaar, where you can buy leather jackets(!), brass lamps, carpets, toiletries, clothes, etc. The bazaar is pretty devoid of shoppers. I feel a certain kinship with the TCNs; after all, technically, I am one myself, though I strongly doubt a Sri Lankan could wander around the base like I do without at least occasionally being challenged.

Most soldiers choose to wear their PT (Physical Training) gear, black shorts and gray T-shirts, rather than their DCUs (Desert Camouflage Uniforms). Half of them still carry guns, pistols in strapped-on thigh holsters, or various flavours of assault rifles. It's a little bizarre being at the PX and seeing a woman carrying a shopping bag with an M-16 slung over her shoulder. There are "clearing barrels", basically triangular wooden blocks in which are emplaced barrels lined with sandbags, outside most buildings, into which guns must be pointed while cleared for fear of an accidental discharge. I'm not sure why they're so heavily armed - I've only been here two days, but I can confidently say that a firefight is not going to erupt in LSA Anaconda anytime soon. Maybe they're worried about the Iraqi National Guard unit going rogue or something.

"Freedom Radio" plays on the gym and occasionally in cars; a weird mix of rock, country, paeans to the fallen and the decorated, and exhortations to keep up the good fight, call your family, check with your chaplain if you're stressed, and not lose your ID card, along with lectures on how to recognize an IED. (Classic Orwellian milspeak. "VIED" sounds so much more clinical and innocuous than, say, "car bomb".) TV antennas pick up Armed Forces Network channels. There are also Arabic radio stations, mostly devoid of music. The first song played by Armed Forces Radio when Operation Desert Storm began in '91 was, famously the Clash's "Rock The Casbah". There is no longer any sign of that irreverent humour.

Last night, sitting with one of my hosts atop an E-shaped truck-parking bunker (with steep inward-sloping concrete, but exterior slopes gentle enough to walk on) watching the sun set spectacularly over the base, there was a GI sitting on the middle branch of the E with a lit candle, a Tarot deck, and a knife, performing some kind of pagan ritual. And I thought the place couldn't get any more surreal. Except it isn't; I've been here all of 48 hours and living on an Iraqi military base already seems perfectly normal. One thing about us homo sapiens, we adapt real good.

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