The Magazine

Hurry Up and Wait

Among the rear echelons in Iraq.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By MAX BOOT
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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.

The best part of all the delays I encountered was not experiencing the comforts of life "inside the wire." It was meeting the men and women who live there. A more selfless and dedicated--not to mention more friendly and polite--group is impossible to imagine, even if their manner of speaking can take some getting used to. It sometimes seems as if soldiers' vocabulary is limited to two words, one of which is "Hooah," an all-purpose affirmation that is roughly equivalent to "uh-huh." You can guess the other staple of soldier-speak.

Pretty much everyone currently in Iraq enlisted or reenlisted knowing that he or she would be sent to war. (The use of "she" isn't just political correctness--there are lots of women here, and they are not just performing traditional support functions, such as nurses or clerks. I saw female soldiers skillfully handling .50 caliber machine guns on patrol.) Not only do service personnel cheerfully face danger beyond the imagination of your average cubicle dweller, but they also work harder than an investment banker--and for a fraction of the salary.

"I've never worked as little as a 12-hour day yet," one sergeant told me. Eighteen-hour days seem to be the norm, and days off are unheard of. (Soldiers do get a couple of weeks of R&R in the rear or back home in the middle of a one-year deployment.) In many units, one soldier will be sent to fetch lunch from the DFAC (dining facility) so that everyone else can continue working. Others skip lunch altogether or gobble a PowerBar on the run.

One colonel, a brigade commander, told me that the only break he gets comes when he gets his hair cut. I believe him--after all, we were conducting our interview at 10 p.m., and he was still in the office. "If you work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and you don't drink alcohol, it's amazing how much you can get done," a senior general joked.

No alcohol? That's right: No booze is allowed at U.S. bases in Iraq; troops have to make do with nonalcoholic beer. This abstinence policy is prompted by the desire not to offend local sensibilities even though many Iraqis are happy to take a drink themselves. Given how common pre-combat drinking or drug-taking was in centuries past (think of the rum ration), the U.S. armed forces today may field the soberest soldiers ever sent into harm's way.

Soldiers have few ways to relieve the tension of facing death or maiming on a daily basis other than by working out (all bases have well-stocked gyms), calling or emailing home (free computer time and low-cost phone calls are available at Morale, Welfare, and Relief centers)--or by smoking. Lighting up may have gone out of style back home, but it still seems de rigueur in Iraq. Cigars and cigarettes are everywhere, along with chewing tobacco. One grizzled sergeant-major who was happily puffing away asked if I smoked. I told him I hadn't been in Iraq long enough to pick up the habit, but that if I faced the dangers that he did all the time, I'd be making like a chimney myself.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.