Days In The Wake (written April 1st, after we had been in Baghdad just a few days, only posted today)
What becomes so clear in Baghdad is how little the U.S. controls of this country. I know this is old news, but being here draws it into sharp focus: how is it that the mighty U.S. military, with billions of dollars and over a hundred thousand troops, cannot even effectively occupy the capital after FIVE YEARS?
The trip from the airport to the Green Zone (which we are supposed to call the International Zone now) is aboard armored buses called Rhinos. Or you can try and get on board a helicopter. To get from one part of the Green Zone to the landing strip to fly to another part of Iraq, you go by helicopter. To get to Anaconda Base, an hour or so north of Baghdad by highway where we are to do our embed, you go by helicopter. In other words the only troops that drive around are soldiers on patrol…. the streets are not safe, anywhere, for U.S. vehicles. Everything is done by Blackhawk. Dropping into this situation like we are after not being here for four years it seems all the more absurd. It’s a common human trait to normalize what is ostensibly mad or bizarre and folks here in the Zone take it as read: it’s just dodgy “out there”. Still.
You also see how so many soldiers can say “things are better now in Iraq”, because they are: for them. The bases seem more or less secure and life goes on as normal on a huge base. There are chow halls, game rooms, soldiers living and laughing and working. (And loving.) Even now, during the recent attacks on the Zone, daily life is barely disturbed. The klaxon sounds and the loudspeakers dryly bleat, “Incoming. Incoming. Incoming.” The KBR mens’ radios say, “All KBR personnel seek hard cover.” If we are outside we trot inside and if we are inside we carry on as if nothing is happening. Far away by the embassy we hear the thud of a mortar round and that’s it. Where we are, in the press center, the building is sturdy and the rockets aren’t aimed at us. Life goes on.
We are among thousands of troops going all over the country and the region. We were housed at a sort of way station en route to Iraq, with crowds of soldiers coming and going to and from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, etc. It was all so….normal. People smoking on benches and talking of mortgage payments, used car prices, jobs they would get when they left the service. Men sipped cokes on their bunks and complained how their flight to Baghdad got cancelled again, damn! Oh well, nothing to do but go and rent a DVD of three episodes of C.S.I.-Miami or play ping pong and wait for the next plane. For my part I picked Lord Of War starring Nicholas Cage, which I’d always wanted to see and which I thought would be apropos given that the man on whom the film is based, Victor Bout, was just arrested in Thailand in a sting operation for allegedly trying to sell weapons to the FARC. I pulled on headphones in front of one of the row of televisions and tried to ignore the Latin Dance lessons going on behind me and the banks of computer games to the side. If you’re interested, I’ll review the movie later.
One might think that the troops watched exclusively war movies, or played only “shoot the terrorist” video games, but that didn’t seem to be the case. They seemed no more right-wing than regular Americans, and ours is a right-wing country, but no more virulent or fascist than anyone you might meet at a filling station somewhere.
Anyway we billeted at the way station (I’m not allowed to say where it was) for two days and then got cleared to fly, after which we strapped on our body armor and helmets and were driven, along with lots of soldiers, to an airstrip and loaded onto a massive military cargo plane, which I have seen plenty of but never been on one. They squat on the blazing hot tarmac like a great big grey motel with wings and inside it’s the size of a two-story warehouse, with all the interior walls gone so you can see the ducts, vents, wiring and what I think were the cables to work the elevators of the wings. Of course I loved a plane like this because I like to see how everything works, and filmed as much as I could of it in the dim light, (the plane has only four windows very high up) while Prothap took pictures of us in our ill fitting helmets. The soldiers gave me the unmistakable look of “Why are you filming the No Smoking sign?” And then for the most part they all fell asleep. Everyone works odd hours and so everywhere you go there are people grabbing sleep wherever they can.
We landed in Baghdad safely, drove to the Green Zoner in the aforementioned armored buses, and are now ensconced in the media building along with other journalists from Portugal and Finland and some KBR contractors who seem to just watch DVD’s and play online gambling most of the time. It’s a strange combination of Anywhere U.S.A. and an international news zone. Except you have to have body armor.
Last night it was announced that Mukhtada Al Sadr had agreed to a truce, and when one of the KBR men sitting next to me read the news on Yahoo! he said, “About time! Now they should go in and string him [Al Sadr] up, take him out once and for all and finish the job!”
I explained to him that if the U.S. did that, there was a very good chance that half of Baghdad would go apeshit because apart from the Sunni neighborhood militias, The Mehdi controlled most of the city. He listened and understood, but it occurred to me that this is the way so many Americans think and what the media still propagates: that the U.S. military holds all the cards. That it’s a simple question of “we should do this” or “we should do that”, when the fact is that the occupation is now but one player in a complex game that is tilting more and more towards the Americans leaving. Not due to military defeat, of course, or even by attrition, as I’m sure they can handle the number of casualties. Nor because of a soldiers’ revolt, Winter Soldier non-withstanding. They’ll leave, I think, because the Iraqi government’s position will become untenable as long as the U.S. is here; in other words they will eventually be asked to leave.
P.S. I blatantly lifted the title of this missive from a Palace album. Hats off to him.
Addendum: Review of “Lord Of War”
This movie could have been a lot better. It’s very loosely based on the life of Victor Bout, an international arms dealer who became incredibly wealthy in the post-cold war era by selling piles of ex-Soviet weapons to armies all over the world. As is often the case, the reality would have been much more interesting than any screen writer could come up with.
Cage plays Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian immigrant growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, who starts out selling Uzi’s to gangsters and moves quickly up the food chain, along with his kid brother moving truckloads of guns and rockets to any and all takers. Cage plays to type, with the raised-eyebrow, deer-caught-in-headlights attitude that he is best at. This makes his character sort of forgivable, putting the movie in somewhat the same vein as “Thank You For Smoking”: an apology for death-dealing, because after all, everyone has to make a buck, right? Maybe I’m not being fair, because in L.O.W. the protaganist eventually pays a heavy personal price for plying his trade and in “Thank You…” the lead character does not. The real Bout, incidentally, is a former Soviet intelligence agent known for being a horrid racist, once quoted as saying he would sell weapons to any African country because he wanted Africans to kill each other off. Like I said, the reality would have been more interesting.
Orlov’s progression from little to big-time is shown in boilerplate Hollywood fashion and happens so quickly that they may as well have used a cheesy montage over cheesier music. I for one would have been interested to see how someone goes from selling a few pistols to supplying revolutions, but the screenwriters were having too much fun giving us the eye-candy: Cage delivering crates of grenades to African warlords while his voiceover drops wry quips that could have been written by a fourteen-year old about how there’s always money to be made in murder, his business will always be booming, even as the players die off, etc etc ad nauseum.
In Act Two of “Lord Of War” Orlov becomes fabulously wealthy selling weapons stolen from former Soviet arms depots, and then moves to supplying a character based on Charles Taylor, the dictator of Liberia. These sequences are some of the most harrowing, with scenes of utter mayhem and carnage, complete with child soldiers and brutal massacres of refugees. Taylor pays in “blood diamonds”, and Orlov’s finances grow even more.
At this point I realized that the film was following a currently-popular view of recent world history that I’ve seen displayed other places, something you could call the “I told you so” narrative of the last twenty years of world politics. It goes something like this: begin with nostalgia for the “stable” days of the Cold War (cue the 1980’s pop music). Somewhere in there allude to the U.S. funding the Islamicists in Afghanistan (foreshadowing…oops!). Then the Soviet Union collapses, and we see cheers and celebration (again, tragically hinting at the insanity to come). Then the Balkan wars, recent African wars and a general sense that the world has become waaaaay more unstable since the Big Bad U.S.S.R. went belly-up …. somewhere in there drop a hint that “Islamic terrorism is on the rise”, but no one pays attention, the fools! Then 9-11 happens and “the rest is history.”
This of course lets the audience off the hook and also fails to implicate the people responsible for world history going the way it did, which is doubly infuriating because it’s more-or-less the same lunatics who are still in power today. But I digress.
Dealing with Charles Taylor proves to be Orlov’s undoing, and he is eventually caught by a zealous Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke who as usual couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag and looks more like the last man standing at a Williamsburg bar at five a.m. than an international investigator. Can we never get someone to play a cop that looks like a cop, i.e., like a lame thug?
And then the movie hands us a Hollywood liberal cupcake: As Hawke’s character is yelling at a handcuffed Orlov, telling him he will be in prison for the rest of his life for the appalling crimes he has committed, Orlov interrupts him. He says something to the effect of: The United States is the biggest arms supplier in the world, and he (Orlov) has supplied to their allies when they could not do so directly, and thus he has friends in high places, and he will be released, blah blah blah, which of course is what happens.
But nowhere in the film did we see any of this previously! They missed an excellent chance to show the C.I.A.’s arming of the forces that would become the Taliban, or even the now-forgotten Iran-Contra arms scandal going down. Instead they leave it until the end and have Cage explain it all in thirty seconds, and run titles at the end solemnly stating again that the United States is the world’s biggest supplier of arms. It comes off as trite and not even barely heartfelt. In a movie you can’t tell, you have to show, and this one could have shown its viewers a lot more if it had more guts. For a movie about an arms dealer, it lacked firepower.