Rock the Casbah

So as some of you know, I spent the last week in Iraq, on assignment for WIRED magazine. (Er. I may have dissembled about this to some of you, not wanting to needlessly worry anyone. Sorry.) I'm now in Frankfurt, will be back in London soon, and returning to Canada on Monday or Tuesday.

What follows is my usual Mass Travel Email. I couldn't bring myself to turn it into a coherent essay, so it's pretty much a journal cut-and-paste.

DAY -4: HURRY UP AND WAIT

Outside a heavy rain falls on Germany. Let's hope it's not pathetic fallacy.

I suspect I'll be typing a lot over the next few days, out of sheer boredom. But you never know; the gods of space-a may smile on me; I may be en route in the near future.

Frankfurt Airport was cavernous, gleamingly clean, ghostly quiet. I guess Monday afternoons are not a thriving time. After some of what I expect I will grow to call "the usual military confusion" I hopped a bus to Rhein-Main AFB, on the other side of the shared runway. Taxiing after touchdown, I saw it to our left: a grid of huge bulbous cargo planes perched on the tarmac, all dull gray, opposite the sleek bright-logo jets across the way.

What's most noticeable about my time so far in the military world - one hour - is how unmilitary it seems. If it wasn't for all the guys in uniform this could almost be a slightly down-at-heel civilian American airfield with unusually tight security. Rental cars, travel agencies, security guards dressed in blue suits, vending machines, public phones, CNN, a shop, a cafeteria, check-in desks and gates. A Harley-Davidson on display in a glass case, a dealer's name posted next to it.

Granted, there are other hints at where you are. Like the "Rules of Engagement" on the wall (#1: All weapons must stay inside your designated gate at all times). Or the way that the convenience store - sorry, PX - upstairs includes a wall full of camouflage gear, combat webbing, rank chevrons, compasses, Maglites, holsters, all-weather notepads and M-16 cleaning kits. (They're out of the one thing I wanted, an armband ID holder, dammit.) A whole spinning rack of D&D books, and another of comics. There are also bins full of free books on tables outside the USO, where I now type. Those will be welcome if I stay more than a couple days. I contributed Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom already.

I'm going to have to kick my habit of referring to men behind desks as "sir" out of politeness. Here they call me sir. That was odd. Everyone military I've actually interacted with - OK, that's three people, to date - has been friendly and sharp and relaxed. And I liked the way their example authorization letter, amid their information sheets, was signed by one "Major Havoc".

I do get a sort of sense of ambient purpose, that I'm inside a machine that may constantly falter and sputter and spit smoke from rusty parts but is endlessly doing something, even if no one is sure exactly what or why. Maybe I'm romanticizing. It's easy to do. When I saw a Richard Roundtree lookalike shepherding fifty kids in uniform - kids I tell you - into their gate, off to Kuwait I think, I did briefly feel more like an extra in a movie than me in my life.

DAY -1: SPACE UNAVAILABLE

Still in Germany. Bleah. And the local staff have all started saying to me "you're still here!?" with a mixture of surprise/dismay/sympathy. Sigh. Shrug. I got my laptop with me, I can at least work on Book 3. It turns out the context induces surprising productivity. And there is hope for very late tonight.

What I never appreciated about the military before is that once inside its protective shield, once you wave your magic ID card(1), all manner of things are provided for you. Some things are free (snacks, coffee, Internet, some transport, some accomodations, the gym) and the rest highly subsidized (nearby hotels, phone cards, everything in the base's restaurants and well-stocked shops). It's downright communist. In a "from each according to his orders, to each according to his rank" kind of way.

The fitness center here is pretty impressive. A soccer field and running track outside; inside, a full-size basketball court convertible into three smaller basketball/volleyball courts, a weight room, squash courts, and, believe it or not, a gymnastics training room. (Hey, it is the Air Force.) They even offer a Yogilates class, albeit only once a week. The weight room, in terms of both equipment and population, could have been anywhere, except for the sign on the exit: This emergency door opens to perimeter fence, potentially exposing personnel to small arms fire. Do not use unless directed.

The sign was blithely ignored.

(1) All you military-industrial conspiracy theorists out there will be interested to note that the card is logo'd "Schlumberger Access" on the back. Schlumberger being a huge oil company. Yes, that's right, the oil industry manufactures the US military's ID card technology. Potential abuses are left as an exercise to the reader.

DAY 1: DIESEL AND DUST

Random images from the last, lessee, 18 hours:

0400. (German time, GMT+1). Stepping out of a van onto the Frankfurt runway. The looming C-17, its high wings oddly twisted, looks enormous against the night. The interior is an enormous tubular cave, its ceiling covered by wires, duct tubing, crawl spaces and access platforms, the metal walls full of racks of odd tools, anchors, buttons, controls, nooks, crannies. The only windows are a few tiny portholes. The floor is all rollers, on which pallets averaging twenty cubic feet are stacked and secured by a mesh of seat-beltlike straps. It's hard to tell exactly what most of the cargo is. Passenger seats line the walls. Most of them are blocked by cargo, but there are enough free for tonight's four passengers.

We listen to the lecture about our oxygen masks, life jackets, and fireproof breathing hood. I strap myself into a seat beneath an axe. The axe is mounted next to a sign that says 'FOR EMERGENCY EXIT CUT HERE'. Tonight, judging from the pallet in front of me, the mighty American war machine needs files. Boxes and boxes of 9"x17" manila files ordered from INDUSTRIES FOR THE BLIND, INC. At the very front of the cave, next to stairs leading up to the flight deck, the loadmaster sits in a cubicle, surrounded by mysterious buttons and controls. We are given lunchbox-sized Air Force meals, which turn out to be not-bad.

1030. (Iraq time, GMT+3). Woken from my sleep on the C-17's steel floor and advised that we will soon begin our 'tactical descent' into Iraq. Better known to the milcognoscenti as the 'death spiral'. I fasten my seat belt. The plane begins to lose altitude, gently at first, like a passenger jet, and then the pilot pushes the nose down and lets it plummet.

The white noise drowns out everything, earplugs are pointless. My stomach first lurches, then feels just weird - not queasy, exactly - and I realize it's because I'm not used to massive sideways deceleration. We start to level off and bank, hard, at the same time, and when the banking ends, the nose goes back down, we're diving again, screaming downwards. From where I'm sitting all I can see is daylight through the portholes. For this I'm a little grateful. The nose eases back up, up, and suddenly we make a perfect three-point landing, we don't even bounce, and then we're braking hard, my bag would go flying forward if I didn't corral it with my feet, then slowing to a gentle taxi. Welcome to Iraq.

1100. The rear gate won't open. The crew chief is fiddling with it. "Just remember," the loadmaster says drily, "we're the superpower."

1115. The rear gate opens. Out into the heat and the light, neither quite as intense as I feared. The landscape is flat as a pounded pancake, baked mud and gravel and pavement, but with more trees than I expected. The first things I see are the surreal hangars; they look like colossal igloos, built out of desert-coloured bricks the size of SUVs, through which huge arching tunnels run. The vehicles nestled within look like Tonka toys. We drive to the arrivals tent, where I sign in, try and fail to connect to my contacts with an ancient field telephone, and am left to my own devices. The arrivals tent is dominated by a massive TV showing CSI to dozens of uniformed troops sitting in rows of chairs. At the other end of the room, posters fail to explain the Byzantine procedure of signing up for departures.

1200. Picked up and taken to the trailer that will be home for the next few days (though I might try a billeting tent tonight.) Most of the buildings here are temporary, thanks to a law that requires an Act of Congress to build so much as a single new permanent building on a military base. (Rebuilding old Saddam-era buildings that were smithereen-bombed, however, counts as 'refurbishing' and is OK.) The resulting temporary structures are impressive. Vast segmented tents that look like giant caterpillars. Huge ovoid domes, seamed like circus tents, with gleaming chitinous skins and massive wedge-shaped doors at one end. Countless trailers surrounded by sandbags, walled by intermittent rows of concrete barriers. Massive trapezoidal bunkers from the Saddam era, brutalist and windowless. Everything is pale, low-contrast, all colour drained away by the scorching desert sun.

1300. Off to DFAC 1 for lunch. DFAC = Dining FACility. A huge cafeteria-like structure, where sour-looking Sri Lankans serve surprisingly good food to anyone with a DoD badge. It reminds me of summer camp.

1400. Exploratory drive around the base. Pennsylvania Avenue, the main drag, is thick with Humvees, minibuses, Pathfinders, weird armoured military vehicles adorned with .50 caliber machine guns, truck cabs, huge construction vehicles that can carry entire shipping containers with their scorpion-like arm. Troops wait at wooden bus stops or walk up and down, most of them armed with M-16s and wearing helmet and armour; that last is unusual, but the threat level has been ratcheted up today for Saddam's birthday. We pass parking lot after parking lot where vehicles of all kinds are arrayed in neat rows. A lot where hundreds of Porta-Johns are arrayed in neat rows. Barriers, fences, razor wire, concertina wire - but that mostly near the airfield proper; it's easy to walk most anywhere in the populated part of the base. Buildings and trailers are often identified by unit names and numbers, sometimes with murals painted outside. The base is littered with weird unexpected bits of Americana - a US Post Office box, a Subway logo.

We pass the single most extraordinary thing I see all day, the trash dump, massive piles of scrap metal, charred twisted wreckage from the US bombing of this base, and I don't even know what else. It looks like the end of the world, like a jagged rusted Hell, and it goes on and on, and at its far corner the 'tire fire' - it's not clear to me whether this is deliberate or not - releases a constant plume of smoke into the air.

Along the fence, which looks flimsy, just chainlink topped by barbed wire, with watchtowers every so often, some low and wooden, some high and metal and camouflage-netted. To the airfield, where a C-17 is taking off, past where a Marine helicopter bulbous with weaponry is parked next to a long, long line of Blackhawks and a collection of Chinooks. Past the Iraqi National Guard enclave, past the KBR enclave, back 'home.'

1500. Exploration on foot. The base seems much bigger this way. Twenty minutes in the heat and I start to get a little fatigued. Already the churning cornucopia of traffic, the clutches of Army and Air Force troops, the trailers and sandbags and fences and helicopters above, all seems almost normal. To the movie theater, showing THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. The huge, high-ceilinged recreation center, where the electronic games room is full and the library empty, alas (and very weirdly stocked). The main PX, which is a combination grocery, electronics, clothes, and tools store, prices comparable to Back Home, with a Burger King and Pizza Hut out front. Instead of real change you get bright little circular pieces of cardboard with their value written on them; it's suggested this is to prevent pocket-jingling. Back 'home' via minibus, which comes promptly and moves quickly. I suppose a base this size needs remarkably good public transit.

1700. A jarring thump shakes the trailer. Mortar? Controlled explosion? No alarm, so probably the latter. Mortars apparently still hit the base every couple of days; in fact, LSA Anaconda is mordantly nicknamed "Mortaritaville".

DAY 2: WASTING AWAY AGAIN IN MORTARITAVILLE

More incoherent notes:

I'm staying in a billeting tent, which is a tent dormitory with 18 cots, a few Porta-Johns nearby, and some showers and actual toilets a further walk away. Don't misinterpret "tent" - this one has wooden floors, fluorescent lights, two massive air-conditioning units, and a 15-foot-high ceiling. "The only things the army are really good at are erecting tents and lining things up in neat rows." (Presumably they're at least competent at the actual warfighting as well. And their engineers are well respected.) There are 28 such tents in the billeting area, plus a central check-in tent that features another huge TV, a small library, and the internet/phone center from which I now type. Backpacking is actually amusingly good training for living at a military base.

There are plenty of bugs, kind of surprising for an alleged desert. (Though there is a nearby canal, and fields of green weeds grow outside the fence.) I showered late, night before last, and there were sand fleas everywhere. The odd mosquito too. At night, driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, you can see surging clouds of bugs and moths flocking to every candy-cane-shaped streetlight.

It's still easy to get lost, since there are few unique landmarks. Fortunately there are bus stops everywhere, most of which have posted bus maps.

Several times yesterday I asked soldiers how long they'd been here, and they answered with how much time they have left. Most seem to be from the South or the Midwest. One of them said "It's changed a lot since the first time." This is his second tour. Last time his unit was living in bombed-out buildings and doing laundry by hand; now they have access to pools, gyms, vast recreation facilities, cooked food every night, etc. The food ranges from unremarkable to excellent. Dinner night before last was (good) steak, lobster, and king crab legs. Unfortunately I didn't take my hosts' warning re the spikiness of the crab legs seriously, and impaled my thumb on a thornlike shell protrusion. Yes, that's right, I went to Iraq and was wounded by shellfish. Do I qualify for a Purple Heart?

Went to the gym yesterday. It's one of the huge (40-foot-high ceiling, football-field length) circus-type ovoid tents, just past the indoor/outdoor pool complex. Except for the lack of changing facilities, it's one of the nicest gyms I've ever been in. There's a basketball court, an indoor racquetball court, tons of free weights and cardio equipment, a sit-up room, an aerobics/martial arts room, all heavily air conditioned, of course. The red alert siren sounded partway through my workout. Mortar strike somewhere on base, presumably. No one heard its thin wail, obscured as it was by that Destiny's Child "I Need A Soldier" song, until the music stopped and a sergeant shouted at us all to go to the perimeter of the building and sit with our backs to the wall. This is the new red-alert procedure; the old one was to evacuate the building immediately. We sat for about twenty minutes, united by boredom, until the all-clear sounded. Most of the actual infrastructure - power, water, roads, sewage, DFACs, etc - is contracted out, and most of the contracts go to KBR. Presumably building a military base isn't all that different from building an oil drilling compound. KBR in turn subcontracts much of the actual work to (judging from their staff) Turkish, Filipino, or Indian/Sri Lankan companies. The last group isn't that surprising - there's a long history of people from the subcontinent coming to the Gulf to make their fortune and support their families.

The non-military Turks, Filipinos, and Indians are known as TCNs (Third Country Nationals) and are treated with some...not suspicion, exactly, but lack of equality. Iraqis, none of whom I've actually seen yet, are LNs (Local Nationals) and divided into Escort Required and No Escort Required. TCNs also run the local bazaar, where you can buy leather jackets(!), brass lamps, carpets, toiletries, clothes, etc. The bazaar is pretty devoid of shoppers. I feel a certain kinship with the TCNs; after all, technically, I am one myself, though I strongly doubt a Sri Lankan could wander around the base like I do without at least occasionally being challenged. Most soldiers choose to wear their PT (Physical Training) gear, black shorts and gray T-shirts, rather than their DCUs (Desert Camouflage Uniforms). Half of them still carry guns, pistols in strapped-on thigh holsters, or various flavours of assault rifles. It's a little bizarre being at the PX and seeing a woman carrying a shopping bag with an M-16 slung over her shoulder. There are "clearing barrels", basically triangular wooden blocks in which are emplaced barrels lined with sandbags, outside most buildings, into which guns must be pointed while cleared for fear of an accidental discharge. I'm not sure why they're so heavily armed - I've only been here two days, but I can confidently say that a firefight is not going to erupt in LSA Anaconda anytime soon. Maybe they're worried about the Iraqi National Guard unit going rogue or something.

"Freedom Radio" plays on the gym and occasionally in cars; a weird mix of rock, country, paeans to the fallen and the decorated, and exhortations to keep up the good fight, call your family, check with your chaplain if you're stressed, and not lose your ID card, along with lectures on how to recognize an IED. (Classic Orwellian milspeak. "VIED" sounds so much more clinical and innocuous than, say, "car bomb".) TV antennas pick up Armed Forces Network channels. There are also Arabic radio stations, mostly devoid of music. The first song played by Armed Forces Radio when Operation Desert Storm began in '91 was, famously the Clash's "Rock The Casbah". There is no longer any sign of that irreverent humour. Last night, sitting with my host atop an E-shaped truck-parking bunker (with steep inward-sloping concrete, but exterior slopes gentle enough to walk on) watching the sun set spectacularly over the base, there was a GI sitting on the middle branch of the E with a lit candle, a Tarot deck, and a knife, performing some kind of pagan ritual. And I thought the place couldn't get any more surreal. Except it isn't; I've been here all of 48 hours and living on an Iraqi military base already seems perfectly normal. One thing about us homo sapiens, we adapt real good.

DAY 3: BLACK HAWK UP

Objectively, a day trip from Balad to the Green Zone involves very little actual risk. Subjectively is a whole other story. Typically, I was nervous up to the moment that I actually sat down in the outgoing Blackhawk; then I started to grin.

It didn't help that the two passengers I flew out with were Airborne doctors who chatted breezily during the preflight about their recent patients; a "star cluster to the face" (don't know what that is, but it sounds nasty) and a piece of shrapnel that lodged on the inside of the victim's skull (without any brain damage). They talked wistfully about the "freedom birds", the airplanes that fly from Balad back to America, and the sad fact that they weren't on one. To fly a Blackhawk from Balad, you sign up at the space-available tent, and at your appointed hour a minibus takes you out to the flight line, where dozens of helicopters, mostly Blackhawks and two-rotored Chinooks, await. After grisly conversation you climb in.

There isn't quite enough room to stand. The door gunners sit on padded seats behind the cockpit; a machine gun is mounted on a flexible arm in the open window in front of each them. The space between them is occupied by a rugged military laptop, from which various cables and wires run. Flaps and panels in the ceiling keep storage niches covered. Everything is painted black. Behind the door gunners are three forward-facing seats; behind that are two benches of five seats, facing one another. The seats are canvas and metal pipe, and the belt buckle is circular, with three apertures, for the side and two shoulder straps; to release, you twist its propellor-shaped top. The main doors slide open and shut, and are windowed.

They turn on the laptop first, which I found surprising. Its screen is touch-sensitive and seems to display some kind of map. Then the power, this sounds like an aircraft engine coming alive, and then the rotors start to turn, like fifteen-foot knife blades with the sharp edge away from the rotation direction, the last foot or so of each rotor bent back about thirty degrees, forming a vaguely swastika shape. A few slow rotations, then whop, whop, whopwhop_whopwhopwhopwhop_ and you better have your earplugs in by now because Blackhawks are VERY LOUD.

Taxi out onto the runway; hop up, then down again, standard procedure for some reason, in sync with the other Blackhawk next to you (they almost always travel in buddy-system pairs) and then up you go, like an angled elevator, the ground falls away. But not too far. They fly about 50-100 feet above the ground, at circa 240 miles per hour. It's 20 minutes from Balad to Baghdad.

From the air Balad/LSA Anaconda looks like a child's sandbox full of military toys. The area outside is much greener, a patchwork of farming fields fissured with canals and pocked with clusters of palm trees. Then villages, big L-shaped concrete blocks and crude brick buildings with thatch/mud roofs. Roads, smooth and modern, well-trafficked. Herds of goats flee from the helicopter noise. Lots of people wave; some keep their arms lowered and stare; some just ignore us(2). We cross over wide muddy rivers, vast barren brown patches, more roads, towns, farmland. Not a lot of variety except that the size of the villages increases. On the way back, it was nearing sunset, and I could see street lights in the larger towns, fluorescent tubes mounted on hockey-stick-shaped poles. A Blackhawk is a remarkably smooth ride. The whole aircraft vibrates, but it's a kind of soothing white-noise vibration rather than anything jarring. Both flights did feature a couple of sudden heart-pumping lurches though. On the way there we repeatedly banked sharply, sometimes by what felt like as much as 45 degrees (but was probably more like 30). I presumed it was SOP to do this, a kind of evasive action, but the flight back was pretty much a straight and level shot. I guess each flight crew has its quirks.

The ride itself is absolutely exhilirating, landscape zooming past and disappearing under you, like a dream of flying.

On the way out, one door gunner had a bag full of little Tyco stuffed horses, the size of my hand, white with a brown mane, beneath his seat. He placed one stuffed horse in the turret mount in front of him, presumably as a mascot. Midway there, as we flew over a village, he dropped another one out. A gift to Iraq? A sacrifice to propitiate Lady Luck?

On the way there we spent hardly any time over Baghdad, all I saw was a sea of buildings, a busy traffic-jammed highway, then bridges over the wide Tigris, and we were already descending into the Green Zone. The descent takes about five seconds; the landing is gentle, bumpless. On the way back, we spent more time over the city, flying from the palaces of the Green Zone, across commercial streets and areas full of entirely built-up two- and three-story buildings on palm-tree-lined houses, drab and sprawling, a bit like a characterless suburb of Cairo except not as built up. Beyond that were the inevitable shantytowns, one-story shacks, slums smeared across miles - Sadr City, I suppose. Fabulous and exotic, it wasn't. I can't imagine there'd be much reason to come to Baghdad if you hadn't convinced yourself you needed to conquer it.

(2) Yeah, I know, jarring perspective shift. It's a journal, whaddayawant?

DAY 4: THE GREEN ZONE IS FOR CONQUERING AND UNCONQUERING ONLY

The Green Zone is a very weird place. It's a vast patch of prime Baghdad real estate, a collection of palaces, embassies, stadia, huge decorated archways, hotels and government buildings, all tucked into an arm of the Tigris River. Not that you can see the river much. The huge, continuous wall of twelve-foot high concrete topped by an endless cylinder of DNA-like concertina wire sees to that. This entire city district has been sealed off, interrupted only by a dozen or so checkpoints. Within is the downtown of a poor-but-not-too-poor city - wide streets, uneven cobblestoned sidewalks, and vast tyrant-ego-stroking architecture - turned into a paranoid armed camp. Especially in the district where I arrived. All the roads here are lined by more concrete-barrier walls. Another wall surrounds the helipad. The streets, parking lots, helipad, PX entrance, and compound entrances are watched by heavily armed Gurkha sentries, and believe me, a tougher-looking bunch of hombres you never did see. Smaller concrete barriers, sandbagged, block traffic. Lines of armoured Humvees with machine-gun turrets are parked on the street. Concertina wire is everywhere; in places you have to watch where you're going just walking down the road, to avoid a dangling strand. And the piece de paranoid resistance is the US Embassy, once Saddam's presidential palace, now guarded by Gurkhas, Marines, walls, cameras, and presumably every other form of defence known to mankind. I tried but failed to gain access; you need an active-duty DoD badge or a yellow embassy badge.

Lots of people wear yellow embassy badges. Almost all of them are white, American, thirtysomething, trickling in and out of the embassy to the nearby minibus stop (like Balad, the Green Zone is serviced by KBR-operated shuttle buses with Filipino or Iraqi drivers), the PX, or the Chinese restaurant. Yes, there is a Chinese restaurant, reopened after a bombing last year. Past a huge half-bombed-out palace that is now a military base, along a sidewalk demarcated by barriers and concertina wire, past a checkpoint and a shuttle bus stop and Gurkha-guarded compound entrances, then to your left, at the CHINESE RESTAURANT sign that looks like graffiti, through the cloud of Iraqi kids trying to sell you bootleg CDs, along a very narrow path with another huge concrete barrier to your right and property walls to your left - and that's even more surreal, backyards leading to moderate-sized houses in the midst of all this military security - and about a hundred feet in, in the shell of what was once a nice house, a nice Chinese family serves you food on wooden chairs and tables, indoor and out. The hot and sour soup was surprisingly very good. The vegetable fried rice was, not surprisingly, not.

I mentioned compounds: there are several, each of which have their own walls and wire and security. The embassy is the ne compound ultra, then there's a PCO (contracting office) compound, another for the State Department, another for the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party?), plus the military minibases in the Zone if they count, and the biggest compounds of all, Kellogg Brown and Root, a division of Halliburton, who run the actual infrastructure of the Zone just as they do at Balad. There are 6,000 KBR employees in Balad and probably a comparable number in the Zone. The running joke is "KBR invaded Iraq; America just came along for the ride." There are very few Iraqis in this 'downtown' embassy-compounds-helipad area. The ratio of military to civilian is something like 1:1. Some of the civilians look like civil servants anywhere. Some of them carry weapons and wear armour. Mercenary groups such as Blackwater have a significant presence here in Iraq, employed by private companies or sometimes, I think, by the US government directly. I'm not sure if the Gurkhas are mercenaries or part of the 'Multi-National Force'.

The parking lot outside the PX is like an SUV dealership - an armoured SUV dealership, with a sideline in Humvees. It seems that only Iraqis drive sedans. Past the embassy-compounds-helipad area, the Green Zone opens up a little and starts looking like a city again, one with wide two-lane roads and apartment buildings, although it's still mostly given over to government buildings and hotels - I was denied access to the Al-Rasheem, to my dismay. Note that in a five-hour visit I only managed to visit the places the buses take you, which is maybe half the Zone.

Some of the old walls are bullet-scarred. A huge archway covered by a massive golden dome spans the road at one point. Highways lead off into unexplored parts of the Zone. The roads are busy but the sidewalks nearly deserted. A couple of sidewalk stands sell Coke, cigarettes, DVDs, grilled kebab meat. I traded a dollar for a thousand dinars at one, and was offered whiskey in a hushed voice. I rode in a bus empty except for the driver, and later, in a bus where I was the only non-Iraqi; I'm embarrassed to say that both experiences were slightly nervous-making. The Iraqis were friendly, and laughed and joked with one another. Mostly men, a few women, two middle-aged with dyed hair, one young, very pretty, and heavily made up, dressed all in black with a hijab.

A friendly Scotsman I rode with explained that there are still 12,000 Iraqis who live within the Zone, and as a result only the compounds, whose denizens live and work inside, are truly secure; the Zone itself is only quasi-secure. Being ex-British military, who fought in Gulf War I, he also had harsh words about the unprofessional military incompetence of the insurgents. "I'm from John O'Groats," he said. "Isn't that the end of the world?" I asked. (John O'Groats is the northernmost habitation on the British mainland.) "No, sonny," he said without missing a beat, "this is."

DAY 5: UNDEPLOYED

Insurgent mortars hit LSA Anaconda on a daily basis. (Don't worry, it's an enormous base, the chance of actually getting hit by one is astronomically small.) The other night a barrage of about half a dozen hit maybe half a mile away from me, waking me up even though they weren't loud - there's something about that crrrrump that kicks you into wakefulness. I went back to sleep, was rewoken by the red alert siren, and went back to sleep again, as did almost everyone else in the tent; you're supposed to find a hardened bunker for the duration of the red alert, if you're on active duty, but nobody here takes the siren seriously. It's the boy that cried Mortar. Here it goes again, as I type.

Word is that one shell smacked into a shower trailer in which a soldier was showering. Fortunately for him it a) missed his stall and b) failed to explode. No word on whether the hot water was interrupted, or on whether he dried and dressed before leaving.

Last night a strong dusty wind turned into a full-on storm. It rained mud; the wind had kicked the dust up into the air, and the raindrops brought it back down. The storm grew so strong that main billeting tent (not where you sleep, but where you check in / watch TV / eat / get books / make phone calls / read Internet) half-collapsed and had to be rebuilt this morning. The walls of my tent whipped back and forth, the wooden doors slammed open and shut, and outside the wind howled and the mud spattered down.

Not much of interest happened on base after the mudstorm. I discovered the Green Beans Cafe, basically a fully modern Starbucks-esque coffee shop in a trailer, its gleaming chrome and pastel colours dizzyingly out of place. I saw Apache gunships patrol the fence line, and I watched a pair of F-16s take off at night with only their afterburners visible, like disembodied flames, hurtling skywards with unearthly, earsplitting howls.

I was originally meant to depart the theater via a National Air Cargo IL-76 to Sharjah, which would have been cool, but the airplane took off fifteen minutes early, stranding me and its other pax. Dismayed, I dropped by the space-a desk just to see what my options were, just as a C-17 to Frankfurt with empty seats was manifesting. Nine hours later I touched down in Germany. This is the military equivalent of winning the lottery, or divine intervention in your favour.

OP ED

Here's where I'll stop with the recitation of facts and start with a little analysis. Most of it based on second- and thirdhand information, to be sure, but now filtered through at least a little firsthand experience.

I have to admit I feel a few moral qualms about having been basically a tourist in a combat zone. There's a hint of ghoulishness to it, journalistic intentions notwithstanding. Oh well. It's not like I consumed anything other than food, space, and time, all of which are anything but scarce in the modern American military.

I didn't appreciate how widespread the American military presence is in Iraq. There's something like a hundred bases. It sure as hell looks more like an army of occupation than an army of liberation. Of course, it helped that all they had to do was take over all of Saddam's bases; he'd already occupied his own country.

The notion that America invaded Iraq for oil does not hold up - or at least, if they did, they failed badly. There isn't enough oil here to justify the conflict's incredible and ongoing cost. I suppose it's good that they got rid of Saddam. America's presence in Iraq is arguably keeping its homeland safe by giving suicide bombers a local target to attack. And in the long run, a democratic Iraq may lead a wave of much-needed change in the Middle East. (Because, let's face it, most of the rest of the Arab world is run by despots who vary only in the degree of their barbarity. Today the IHT reported that Kuwait, that staunch ally, once again shelved the notion of giving women the vote.) But the country is still a bloody mess, and I'm sure it will remain so for at least a few years yet. The insurgents have succeeded in creating a no-win-for-anyone situation. They're just dangerous enough to have segregated the American military from the rest of the country. From what I can tell, all rebuilding activity has basically stopped because providing security would be too expensive, and Westerners just don't leave the bases any more (I include Baghdad International and the Green Zone as bases) unless on patrol or surrounded by heavy security. And so power, sewage, etc, remain for the most part unrepaired. I imagine American commanders are reluctant to change that and put their troops at risk, now that the insurgency is mostly "just Iraqis killing Iraqis". But the insurgents can't possibly grow into anything more than a thorn in the American side.

The new government is supposed to change things, but it's weak and fractious, and risks being perceived as nothing more than a puppet of the Americans. Which it probably pretty much is. I's hard to imagine them asking America to leave, and even harder to imagine the USA acceding. Why the new government is a strong federal system is beyond me - a very loose federation, one that accepts the Kurd/Sunni/Shiite divisions within the country, seems to make umpteen zillion times more sense. But I guess it's not the American way, and it would anger the Turks, and we can't have that. Sigh. So you've got a badly designed puppet government, an army of occupation, a widespread insurgency - does this mean things are inevitably going to get worse? Not necessarily. For one thing, Saddam was not exactly a tough act to follow. The US is not unanimously hated across the country. The insurgents are still a small minority. But resentment has to be slowly growing, and the new Iraqi forces better get their act together soon.

Another thing I didn't appreciate before going there is the extent to which the conflict has been privatized. The US government and military contracts out enormous amounts of services - from cleaning Porta-Potties, to maintaining power and water on bases, to armed mercenary security - to third parties such as KBR, who in turn subcontract them to 'TCNs', the result being that the grunt work of the military occupation of Iraq is done by Indians, Turks and Filipinos, working on US bases, paid little (but more than they'd get back home) for two-year contracts with no vacations, living six to a room. The fact that you can mine an endless lode of black comedy from TCNs probably doesn't make up for the unpleasant tang of indentured serfdom.

You'd think America would have learned from the mistakes of 19th century England; instead it seems to be trying to repeat colonialism all over again. With the best of intentions, of course. Go in, win a decisive military victory, enforce free trade, import cheap labour to do the job you can't do yourself, prop up a local 'government' with the understanding that it won't ever bite the hand that feeds it, and then look bewildered when it turns into an endless conflict and all ends in blood, tears, and bullets. Maybe it will be different this time. Maybe the world has changed. Maybe.