On the ground in Iraq. When I imagined myself being a position to say those words I never quite knew just what to picture. I knew that Iraq has a lot of deserts, is very hot, and, if most major news sources are to be trusted, crawling with insurgents. Still, everywhere couldn’t really be that bad—could it?
The mission didn’t promise to be very successful when we showed up at the plane and found parts of it lying on the ramp. Nevertheless, the maintenance crew advised us that everything should be ready to go in just a short while and that the plane would be fit as a fiddle. Sure enough, about the time we were ready to start engines, the maintainers were just driving away in their vehicles, toolboxes all locked up. However, the “fit as a fiddle” part remained to be seen. It didn’t take long for us to discover that things were not quite as good as promised and, to make a long story short, we ended up on the ground in Iraq. With a broken jet.
While the rest of the crew was less than happy with our current situation, I actually was rather excited to get to see what our bases in Iraq look like from a different view than that from the cockpit of my plane. So I took advantage of my more than ample time and made sure to visit billeting (a large tent), the chow hall, and the restrooms. I actually was pleasantly surprised to find that my tent had air conditioning, the chow hall was serving up a half-hearted attempt at “surf ‘n’ turf” complete with real crab legs from who-knows-where, and the restrooms actually had running water and flushing toilets. I guess somebody figured that our troops would be around long enough that it would be worth the effort of putting up something more or less permanent. And I can’t thank that “somebody” enough; it made my unplanned visit much more comfortable.
110 degree weather has a way of reducing all of one’s priorities to a very small list, smaller even than a Leno-esque top ten list. In my case, it was reduced to three things: water, shade, and an aircraft without any maintenance problems. Unfortunately, only the first of the three could be had in any sort of normal quantity. However, the lack of an aircraft gave me the opportunity to sit and do a lot of people watching. Staking myself out in some of the more atmospheric shade at the makeshift coffee shop (yes, Starbucks and its conglomerate spin-offs have reached all the way here to the middle of the Fertile Crescent) I sat down to people watch.
The first thing I noticed was the great ethnic diversity in the number of civilian workers. I saw chow hall employees who appeared to be from the Philippines and India, gate guards who looked and spoke as though they were deep from the heart of Africa, manual laborers bantering in Spanish, and truck drivers who looked like they came straight from a Love’s truck stop somewhere along the interstate between El Paso and Montgomery. I’ve always heard it said that a war is good for the economy, but I didn’t realize that that extended to the global level.
Besides the multiplicity of nationalities represented, the age of many of the young men appeared to be no more than eighteen. Looking into the smiling face of Azad, as he handed me a foaming cappuccino, I tried to picture myself in his shoes: miles from home, serving hot coffee to a soldier in the middle of the desert of what many claim is a God-forsaken country, and choosing to do so because this job beat hands-down any sort of job opportunities at home. American have a hard enough time letting their sons and daughters go to fight a war with for the world’s most powerful army, just try to imagine them sending their children off to brew coffee and serve crab legs at a military base in Iraq.
Besides the foreign workers, the young Marines and GIs added to the interest of my spectating sport. Many of these guys, all of whom were packing some form of heat, were only eighteen or nineteen years old. Had they been back home, some would probably be driving tractors in Kansas or picking apples in Washington, and others waiting tables in New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they all are driving trucks, tanks, and humvees, picking off enemy soldiers like apples off a tree, and waiting on orders to send them back home to recoup and then do it all over again. Still, despite the fact that they were getting blistered by the Iraqi sun rather than the Midwestern heat, the soldiers I watched didn’t seem to be phased by their situation. They went on playing ping-pong, smoking, and verbally sparring as if they were hanging out in an American sports bar or pool hall rather than a Morale and Recreation tent in Iraq.
War is a strange thing and brings together all sort of strangers. The one thing all these people has in common is that their lives have been altered by the war in Iraq. Simple statistics says that not everyone on the installation agrees with the political events that provide them with job security, and the comments on the bathroom stalls bear out this otherwise purely mathematical analysis. Nevertheless, we all find ourselves in the middle of this war together, playing some part in what we all hope will turn out to be a star, rather than a blight, for the West and East.