The Magazine

Hurry Up and Wait

Among the rear echelons in Iraq.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Camp Victory, Iraq

I will never whine about delays and hassles at civilian airports ever again. During a week spent touring U.S. military installations in Iraq, I encountered the Mother of All Delays. Repeatedly. That C-17 flight from Qatar to Baghdad that was supposed to leave at 8 a.m.? It won't be taking off until 8 p.m. That Chinook that was supposed to go from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, near Baqubah, to Landing Zone Washington, in Baghdad's Green Zone? It's going to a different destination. And your luggage? It's still in Kuwait.

Such experiences, multiplied repeatedly, reminded me of why GIs in World War II coined that handy acronym snafu. Not that I'm complaining. I realize that travel in a war zone is necessarily a precarious and uncertain business. Above all I'm thankful that I was able to complete my journey safely--a tribute to the professionalism of Army and Air Force crews who labor under constant threat of attack.

Moreover, it gradually dawned on me that all those delays were not such a bad thing. It may have made it harder for me to do traditional "reporting"--sticking a notebook in some commander's face and asking pesky questions. But there were some unexpected fringe benefits.

I write these words, for instance, while sitting on a patio at one of Saddam Hussein's palace complexes in Baghdad, now part of sprawling Camp Victory adjacent to Baghdad International Airport. The weather is perfect (about 70 degrees, with a light breeze), the water in the manmade lake is lapping gently against the patio, and the beige-stone Al Faw Palace (now the headquarters of Multi-National Corps-Iraq) looms majestically in the background. The stillness is interrupted only by the occasional thwup-thwup-thwup of a Blackhawk flight.

Who would expect such a moment of bliss in the middle of a war? Yet there were several such pleasant interludes during a week spent hopscotching around U.S. installations in central and northern Iraq. For all the hazards of duty in Iraq--and make no mistake, every Humvee or helicopter ride risks disaster--I discovered that troops (and their visitors) can enjoy considerable comforts while on base.

All but the smallest installations have their own Post Exchanges, the biggest of which rival a Wal-Mart in size and selection. Also common at the bigger bases are fast food restaurants (Subway, Burger King, Cinnabon), movie theaters, swimming pools, and vast chow halls where free, copious, and varied food is dished out by cheerful South Asian contract workers. Among the more surrealistic moments of my trip was sitting down at a base near Baqubah--a far-from-pacified city with a majority Sunni population--to enjoy a fresh-brewed iced latte at a Green Beans coffee shop.

The U.S. military's logistical feats make the Romans look like amateurs by comparison. The entire greater Middle East, from Qatar to Afghanistan, is studded with vast installations, few of which existed just four years ago. Here, relatively safe behind rows of barbed wire and giant concrete barricades, tens of thousands of Americans can enjoy a simulacrum of their lives back home, albeit without their families (although there is a small but growing minority of soldiers who are married to each other and can wangle an assignment at the same installation). Soldiers may lead Spartan lives by the standards of modern America, but they enjoy luxury unimaginable to their predecessors in World War II or Vietnam. Dorm-style quarters (called "chews," for Containerized Housing Units) are stocked with iPods, TVs, mini-refrigerators, and air-conditioning/heating units.

So vast are the logistical requirements of the armed forces that for every soldier or Marine performing harrowing combat patrols down bomb-infested streets, there are several support workers (many from private contractors such as KBR, formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root) who rarely leave base. LSA (Logistics Support Area) Anaconda, the main U.S. supply hub in Iraq, which is located near the northern town of Balad, has a population of some 30,000, one-third of them civilians.

Yet no matter how luxurious the base, the specter of death is never far off, whether in a random mortar or rocket attack, or in all the facilities named after soldiers killed in action. (To take only one of countless examples, Forward Operating Base Gabe in Baqubah, home of the 1st battalion, 68th Armor Regiment--itself named for a slain soldier--has a physical fitness center named after Specialist Isaac M. Nieves, who died on April 8, 2004.) Even the tranquility of the patio at Camp Victory was broken in the early evening by a haunting memorial service for a sergeant slain a few days earlier.