April 29, 2005

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.


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