A half an hour drive from the Kuwait International Airport is Camp Ali al Salem, a sprawling U.S. air base where flights take off for locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The landscape is flat, colorless and monotonous, but the March air is cool and comfortable even in the midday sun. I'm here to get a military flight to Baghdad, where I'm embedding at the army hospital, the 28th CSH. It's been over two years since I've last been in Iraq [see Baghdad Journal].
Ali al Salem is similar to all the other large bases I've been to, rows of container-hootches and tents arranged in blocks along a grid, with the latrines and showers on one end, the PX and cafeteria on the other. The bases have fast food concessions, McDonalds, Subway and Pizza Hut run by TCNs ("Third Country Nationals," or "Third World Nationals" as the soldiers sometimes mistakenly call them).
I'm assigned to a tent with bunks, a five-minute walk from the headquarters and the "theater gateway," a huge hall with rows of chairs filling up and emptying as groups of soldiers and contractors wait for their flights, which leave regularly but are subject to constant delays and rescheduling. I'm flying standby, as the incoming soldiers, part of the surge, have first priority. I'm told to show up early for 19:30 and 20:30 planes to Baghdad International Airport. Every time there's a flight you have to be on hand for the roll call. If you miss it, your name gets deleted from the list. However, we're passed over repeatedly throughout the night. After 20:30 there's a 1 am call, then a 2 am possibility, then 4 am.
Waiting with me is Mike Payne, a freelance religious-journalist, founder of Take a Stand Media Ministries, who's heading out to Anbar province. Mike is a heavily built guy in his 50s, with a shaved head and a kind, creased face.
Mike sees himself as spreading the Good Word about Jesus to the soldiers and about the war to the American public. He says that reenlistment is high and morale is good. Talkative and affable, he's given to saying things like, "So when they told me there wasn't any flights out to Bagram that day or the next, I thought: the Big Guy Upstairs sure as heck didn't send me here to cool my heals at some damn airbase, and he says to me, 'You go back in there and get what you came for!' And I'll tell you what, that PAO's supervisor walked in at that moment and she had me on my flight within the hour! Praise Jesus, brother!"
Also with us is JD Johannes, a burly ex-Marine, now working as a freelance cameraman for CBS news. He's something of an amateur counter-insurgency expert, who's carefully studied the British occupation in Malaya. He's convinced the war can be won, but only if the army radically changes its approach, from big bases and operations to a more intimate, intelligence-driven occupation. This would include getting rid of the huge, unwieldy KBR-supplied bases that require vast manpower to supply.
One morning, as we're watching a long line of semis crawling along an entrance road, he dryly comments, "Great, here come the Alaskan king crab legs."
Smoking is only permitted in designated wooden gazebos, where I chat with whomever is hanging out. A contractor, a muscular veteran in his 50s who has spent the last 27 months in Iraq supervising translators for the military, looks exhausted and relieved to be getting out of the job while he can. He tells me that seven Iraqis were hunted down and killed during his term, their families then stiffed out of compensation by the cheap, unsympathetic Kuwaiti bosses. Late at night, sucking on a cigarette in the dim light from the camp, there's something spectral about the man.
The dark is wreathed in mist through which the distant noise of big C-130 transport planes periodically resounds, bound for Mosul, Baghdad, Taji, Al Asad, Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and other far-flung airfields in this theater of war. Sitting there, I suddenly realize that I'm happy. The war was fatally flawed and naive in its planning, compounded after the fall of Baghdad by the blunders of Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer and Gen Ricardo Sanchez, yet it keeps drawing me to it.
I finally get a flight out at dawn. There are a dozen or so passengers with half as many crew members. The personnel seem to have walked right off the Battlestar Galactica -- they're young, slim, energetic and attractive. And somehow so very American, different races but the same optimistic natures and telegenic faces. I find myself moved by this, feeling old.
The aging, cavernous prop plane lifts off with barely a protest. We're strapped into webbing and canvas seats, lit by small windows that are too obscured by gear to see much through. JD buries himself in Julius Caesar's account of the war against the Gauls. After a lulling hour and a half, the plane banks steeply to the left and then to the right, spiraling straight down to Baghdad. We hit the tarmac with a light bump and I'm back in Iraq.
From Camp Striker, near the airport, I'll catch a ride on a hugely-armored bus known as the Rhino along Route Irish to the Green Zone. Our Rhino leaves around 4 am. I pick a seat next to a window where the coating's been scraped away enough to make out a bit of the view. Once we're past the wire I'm gazing out at fleeting bits of ragged landscape, sporadic trees and shrubs silhouetted against the night sky. A string of lights is visible in the distance, some neighborhood silently overlooking our passage.
A mosque sails by; then we cross an overpass, four roads in the sky, potential ambush sites. But soon I catch a glimpse of one of the giant crossed-swords sculptures, which signal that we've arrived in the Green Zone.
In the privatized security within the Green Zone, the formerly ubiquitous Nepalese Ghurka guards have all been replaced by Peruvian security guards, who speak little English and regard us with some suspicion. My Peruvian-inflected Spanish helps grease us past some of these checks on the way to our barracks. On one of the big blast walls that limn every building and installation here I see the graffiti: Viva el Peru, Carajo!, a rough Peruvian equivalent of, America, Fuck Yeah!
The sky is lightening as we settle into our room, which looks like a large dorm room with four bunk beds, desks, a computer and a TV.
The first rule of any office or department within the military is to have an acronym, preferably including at least one mystery word. The journalists and I are staying at CPIC, the Combined Press Information Center. I never discovered the significance of "combined." Journalists stay here temporarily while getting accredited, waiting for a helicopter or humvee ride to their embedment. When the rides get backed up, the Rhinos continue to deliver new arrivals, transforming the modest accommodations into a sea of cots, exhausted bodies gently snoring, mingled among duffle bags, damp towels and flack jackets.
It strikes me that wherever reporters gather in numbers, they themselves become a colorful part of the story -- a random collection of individualists of diverse political stripes who count themselves happy in a war zone. And in expanding its journalistic standards to include bloggers, the army increased the colorful quotient. There are the self-styled warrior-poets, the weary Ernie Pyles, the iconoclasts and the debunkers of conventional wisdom. You'll also find the angry activists and, even now, the sunny boosters ("I'd rather fight 'em here than at home"). But in spite of these personae, most remain modest and circumspect about predicting the outcome of this war. While many feel that invading Iraq was a mistake, I get the sense that few would advocate an immediate withdrawal.
Caleb Schaber is a very tattooed blogger, artist, musician and bartender who once ran for mayor of Seattle and writes for something called the Northern Nevada Newswire. He shows off his latest tattoo: a dotted line around his neck, with the inscription "cut here" (also in Arabic, helpfully, on the back), which he got because his girlfriend said he should get more punk rock for Iraq. Last year between embedments he bartended in Kabul, a city that sounds a lot like Saigon in its excesses and pleasures, at least as he describes it.
On March 26, 2007, Caleb arrives from a helicopter day trip to Diwaniya, where he had gone to witness an Iraqi Police swearing-in ceremony. Caleb provoked a sensation among the new cops for his tattoos. "But man," he adds, "when I showed them my 'cut here' tattoo they, like, totally freaked out and took off!"
Lately, Caleb has been flying around Iraq on Blackhawks and filming miniature golf courses in Tal Afar. You can hear the haunting musical results of his jamming with pilots and contractors at http://nnnv.podbean.com/ and see his videos from Iraq at http://youtube.com/Panzwayi.
Ashwin Raman and Phil Sands have been working as a journalistic team since 2003, when they met in Iraq covering the invasion. They make a comical pair: Ashwin, a cameraman in his 50s, stocky and swarthy, of Indian descent, and Phil, a British writer, in his 20s, tall, thin, fair-haired and pale. In personality, too, the contrast is marked. Ashwin is gregarious and irrepressible, while Phil is modest and reticent, occasionally withdrawn. They bicker constantly, Phil delighting in pointing out what he regards as boasts artfully couched in Ashwin's conversation. Ashwin in turn taunts Phil by suggesting that he saved his life in 2005. Phil was kidnapped by insurgents on the way to an interview and, amazingly, rescued by American soldiers, thanks, according to Ashwin, to his persistent investigations through his contacts and relaying information to the Americans. Ashwin likes to make a motion of sharpening knives as a shorthand gesture in their squabbles, adding gravely, "If not for me, Phil. . . ."
Stuck at CPIC for days while their embedment plans become inexplicably blocked, they take to touring the vast Green Zone by its bus routes until even this becomes deadening and Phil lapses into grim silence. Ashwin amuses himself by flirting with Capt. Jodie Kunkel, the embed coordinator. Kunkel's blonde, Midwestern features and sky-blue eyes seem to gaze at everything and nothing, opaque and unreadable in conversation. Ashwin is undaunted. He complements her on her complexion and even asks her what brand of toothpaste she uses, until she blushes in amusement.
The unexpected lightning rod who lands in our midst is a diminutive woman in her 60s, a hippie blogger from Berkeley, Ca., named Jane Stillwater, with owlish wire-rim glasses and a ponytail of silver hair. Jane converted to Islam, in part in protest of the Bush administration's policies. She then went on the Hajj to Mecca, but was stymied when a woman asked her whether she was Shia or Sunni. "Heck, I don't know. It really bothered her that I didn't even know. 'Sunnis are very bad people,' she said."
Jane arrived at CPIC without having actually gotten a clearance to embed, and somehow talked her way to Baghdad. Despite her age she radiates a strange innocence, mingled with her certainties about the evils of the Bush administration. She manages to get into a press conference with John McCain, and exults in getting a "no comment" response to her question about expanding "'this illegal war into Iran."
Although she's been allowed on a few day trips, Jane hasn't succeeded in getting a unit to take her on an embed. She implores the journalists to take her along on theirs. One day as I get ready to join 1st Cav, she plaintively begs the Public Affairs Officer to be allowed to come too, but, of course, nothing here is done like that. It seems to me that it's a lost opportunity for the army. Jane's so excited to be here, so ready to receive new information despite her prejudices, more so that some of the right-wing bloggers I've encountered. Some reporters are nonplussed that she's here, feeling that her naiveté could get her killed, or harm soldiers trying to protect her. But other reporters are fascinated by her blog, with its odd textural mix of Bob Woodward and Legally Blonde.
Jane wonders aloud about the feasibility of embedding with the insurgents until a reporter tells her that the only way to do that would be to tie herself to a post in the Red Zone and wait to be kidnapped. Phil convinces her that the Islamic extremists are basically thugs who will kill anyone who disagrees with them; they don't want to talk or negotiate. In a momentary lapse from her antiwar position, Jane writes in her blog, "And we want to leave and abandon Iraq to these guys? I think not."
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). His artwork is represented by Postmasters in New York.