July 19, 2007

Welcome to Baghdad

By Michael J. Totten

BAGHDAD — Never again will I complain about the inconvenience and discomfort of airports and civilian airline travel delays. You won’t either if make your way from Kuwait to Baghdad in July during a war.

Military planes leave Kuwait every couple of hours for Baghdad International Airport (or BIAP, pronounced BIE-op). The United States Army’s media liaison in Kuwait dropped me off at the airfield so I could take a flight “up.”

I waited twelve hours in a metal folding chair in a room full of soldiers who, for obvious reasons, had priority over me for available seats.

At least I had a meal. On the other side of the base a McDonalds and Pizza Hut were tucked inside trailers supplied by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR). KBR seems to have built almost everything here that the military uses as housing and storage. Out of plywood, plastic, and sheet metal they construct instant aesthetically brutal outposts of America, which somehow look and feel specifically like outposts of Texas.

I ordered a pizza from a Pakistani employee at the Pizza Hut trailer and paid with American dollars. They don’t use coins on the base. They don’t even have coins on the base. If your food costs, say, $5.75 and you pay with six dollars, you’ll get a small round cardboard disk or chit that says “25 cent gift certificate” on it as change.

All night I waited for a flight and was bumped again and again by soldiers on their way to places like War Eagle, Victory, and Fallujah. Finally I got on a manifest and gathered around a gruff barking sergeant with everyone else.

“I want you all back here in 20 minutes,” he bellowed. “First, I want you to go to the bathroom. Then I want to see you standing in front of me with a bottle of water.”

I went to the bathroom even though I didn’t have to. Then, as ordered, I pulled a cold bottle of water out of the fridge. We lined up with our gear and marched single file into the plane. I felt awkwardly out of place and also like I was in the army myself at the same time.

The plane was windowless and loud as 100 lawnmowers. I crammed pink foam plugs into my ears, strapped on my body armor, and seat belted myself into the side of the plane.

“Hang your bags on the hooks!” barked the sarge. “Hang them all the way up!”

“Don’t fall asleep,” said the soldier next to me. “When you see the rest of us grab our helmets, put yours on, too. We’ll be beginning the spiral dive into Baghdad.”

“To avoid flying low over hostiles?” I said.

“Something like that,” he said.

This was not United Airlines.

The funny thing about the steep corkscrew dive is that I couldn’t feel it. Anyone who says it is scary, as some journalists do, is talking b.s. If you can’t look out the window or see the instruments in the cockpit, you’ll have no idea if the plane is right-side up, flying in a straight line, upside down, sideways, or even spinning into a death spiral. I’m not sure how the others knew when to put on their helmets. Perhaps someone signaled. No one could hear anything over the roar of the plane through their ear plugs.

The landing was smooth and felt no different from an American Airlines touch down in Los Angeles. The back of the plane opened up onto the tarmac. Light like a hundred suns blinded my darkness-adjusted and dilated eyes. I could barely make out the dim shape of military aircraft behind us amidst the pure stunning brilliance. My first view of Baghdad looked exactly as I expected it would – like another world.

We dismounted the plane and I stepped into harsh blazing sunshine.

You know how it feels when you get into a black car in the afternoon with the windows rolled up in July? It’s an inferno outside, but inside the car it’s even hotter? That’s how Iraq feels in the shade. Sunlight burns like a blowtorch. If you don’t wear a helmet or soft cap the sun will cook your brain. First you get headaches. Then you end up in the hospital.

Getting from BIAP to the IZ (the International Zone, aka the Green Zone) is an adventure all by itself. First you haul your gear to a bus stop that feels like Crematoria. Then you get on the bus and ride for 45 minutes to an army base. Then you get off that bus and wait an hour to catch another bus. Then you get off that bus and wait for an hour to catch yet another bus to yet another base. Then you wait in the sun yet again – and by this time you’re totally fragged from the heat – and take another damn bus to a helipad.

All this takes hours. You will be no closer to Baghdad than you were when you started. There are no short cuts.

Once you make your way to the helipad you will wait for a flight on a Blackhawk or a Chinook. If you’re a civilian like me, you will fly last.

I waited for my helicopter flight with two other civilians – Willie from Texas and Larry from Florida.

Willie and Larry work construction for private companies in harsh places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are both well-rounded individuals with Red State tastes and political views and a worldliness and cosmopolitanism that surpasses that of most people who live in the Blue States. They aren’t allowed to tell me how much money they make, but it is many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

“You get hooked on making money,” Willie said. “You think you can do it for one year or two, then quit, but it’s like a drug. Or like when you get one tattoo – all of a sudden you want two tattoos. My wife keeps saying, come on, you can do it for just one more year.”

“My wife would hate it if I was out here for years,” I said.

“You get vacation,” Larry said. “You get more vacation than French people. 21 days every four months. And you don’t have to pay taxes if you take your vacation outside the U.S. Your wife can meet you in the Bahamas.”

A KBR employee who coordinates the Blackhawk flights called our names on the manifest.

“Get your gear, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

Military rules require all Blackhawk passengers to wear long-sleeved shirts. This was the first I’d heard of it, and I hadn’t brought any long-sleeved shirts with me to Iraq. Why would I? It’s 120 degrees in the shade.

Willie let me borrow an extra sweatshirt. I put that on, then my body armor, then my helmet, then my sunglasses which double as ballistic eye protection. Then hauled my 100 pounds of gear out onto the landing zone and lined up with the soldiers. KBR and the army made all of us stand there in line, waiting and broiling in the sun. We waited. And waited. And waited. My clothes were as drenched as if I had fallen into a pool. This is the army. Comfort is not a factor. None of the soldiers complain about heat. They just take it, and they get much hotter than me. They wear not only Kevlar like I do, but full kit body armor with SAPI plates.

Our Blackhawk helicopter was ready.

“Move out!” bellowed the KBR flight coordinator.

Larry, Willie, and I ran behind a line of soldiers toward the Blackhawk.

“Hold up!” said the coordinator.

The Blackhawk pilot lifted off without picking up one single passenger.

“Man,” said the coordinator as he shook his head. The roar of the chopper rotors quickly receded. “No one was mission critical so they didn’t want to give anybody a ride. I do not know what to tell you.”

“F*ck!” Willie screamed.

We hauled our gear back to the waiting area and sat. I drank a bottle of water in seconds. It disappeared inside me. I couldn’t even tell I had drank it.

“Last year in Afghanistan,” Larry said, “I waited a week for a flight. Choppers flew in and out all day every day. I showed up on the LZ for every flight, had my gear ready, and kept getting bumped. A whole week, just to fly one from place to another. At least I was on the clock. We might be here a while.”

We were there for a while. Not for a week, but for 12 hours. We kept getting bumped by new soldiers who showed up with places to go. A second time the pilot took off without picking anyone up. I couldn’t figure out why he even bothered to land. Dozens of people needed a ride. On another occasion Larry, Willie, and I made it all the way to the helicopter itself before we got kicked for some reason.

I tried to embrace the suck. Willie got increasingly agitated.

“Good thing I don’t have my glock with me!” he yelled after we got bumped for the sixth time. “I ought to pour a bottle of water on that electrical board over there and short out the whole frigging place.”

After the sun went down the air mercifully cooled, down to 100 degrees or so – which is lovely after 120, especially when there is no longer burning sunlight. Tiny bats flew over the base from the direction of a reedy lake a few hundred meters away. There were no bugs.

I watched helicopters fly over the city in the distance and launch burning white countermeasure flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles as the pilots flew over hostile parts of the city. This was the only evidence I saw that I was in a war zone. I heard no shots fired, and I heard no explosions.

After having spent several days Baghdad’s Green Zone and Red Zone, I still haven’t heard or seen any explosions. It’s a peculiar war. It is almost a not-war. Last July’s war in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon was hundreds of times more violent and terrifying than this one. Explosions on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border were constant when I was there.

You’d think explosions and gunfire define Iraq if you look at this country from far away on the news. They do not. The media is a total distortion machine. Certain areas are still extremely violent, but the country as a whole is defined by heat, not war, at least in the summer. It is Iraq’s most singular characteristic. I dread going outside because it’s hot, not because I’m afraid I will get hurt.

“I read on the Internet that the war costs 60 billion dollars a year,” Larry said.

“Well, if it’s on the Internet it must be true,” I said jokingly.

A soldier heard me and swiveled his head.

“Did you just say that?” he said incredulously. “You’re with the media and you just said that? Man, we ought to throw your ass right out of here.”

I laughed, but he was only barely just kidding.

Most soldiers and officers I’ve casually met so far are not hostile. Most ignore me unless I say hi to them first. Others say hello or good morning first and call me “sir.” Some are eager to chat. They all seem to want to know where I’m from. Lots of them are from Georgia and Texas.

Larry, Willie, and I finally got on a Blackhawk at 2:00 in the morning (oh two hundred in milspeak.) We strapped ourselves in our seats and piled our hundreds of pounds of luggage on top of us.

Blackhawk helicopters don’t have windows. The sides are open to the air. Fierce hot blasts of wind distorted the shape of my face as we flew fast and low over the roof tops and street lights and palm trees and backyards of the city.

Baghdad is gigantic and sprawling. It looks much less ramshackle from the air than I expected. Individual cities-within-a-city are home to millions of people all by themselves. The sheer enormity of the place puts the almost daily car bomb attacks into perspective. The odds that you personally will be anywhere near the next car bomb or IED are microscopic.

A few minutes after takeoff from the helipad we landed on a runway in the IZ, or the Green Zone. The soldiers left in Humvees. Willie, Larry, and I were left at the airbase alone. My two traveling buddies had rides picking them up, but no one was waiting for me, nor would someone show up. I was expected to make my way to CPIC, the press credentialing center, but how could I do that at 2:30 in the morning? There were no taxis or busses to take.

“You can sleep tonight at our compound,” Larry said, “and find your way to the press office tomorrow when it’s open.”

I would have been in trouble if I hadn’t met these two guys. I may have been deposited in the reasonably safe Green Zone, but wandering around loose on my own in Baghdad, in the middle of the night, hauling 100 pounds of luggage, sleep-deprived, in extreme heat, and with nowhere to sleep does not put me in my happy place.

Mike Woodley showed up in an SUV to give Larry a ride. He said he could get me a bed at their compound before he realized I did not yet have a badge.

“They won’t let you in,” he said.

“Can’t we just tell them I’m on my way to CPIC to pick up my badge?” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you don’t have it, the guards will not let you in.”

“Is there a hotel I can check into?” I said. “What about the Al Rashid?”

“Al Rashid is in the Red Zone,” he said. “And you can’t get in there without a badge either.”

Actually, the Al Rashid is in the Green Zone, right on the edge of it. But Mike was right about the hotel guards not letting me in without a badge. And I needed to get to the press office during business hours to get it.

“What should I do?” I said. I did not want to sleep on the sidewalk in Baghdad.

Mike pondered my options. And he came up with a great one.

“I can get into the embassy with my badge,” he said, “and I can get you a temporary badge and a bed.”

That’s exactly what he did. He got me a temporary badge into the embassy annex, and he got me a bed with a pillow and fresh linens. For only the second time in a week, I got to sleep in a bed. And I was one lucky bastard. The embassy annex, and the bed I got to sleep in, was at the grandest downtown palace built by Saddam Hussein. The tyrant is dead, and I got to sleep at his house on my very first night in his capital. What better welcome to Baghdad could anyone possibly ask for?

Up next: Night patrols on foot with the 82nd Airborne in a Sunni-majority neighborhood of Baghdad’s Red Zone.

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader dontations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 19, 2007 9:47 PM
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