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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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.