Someone once told me that the last vestige of socialism in the West was the U.S. military, and based on our experience it would seem to be true. Once you are in the system you are taken care of: the food, travel, health care leisure activities, it’s all free. At the dining facilities one is given (in Iraq) as much as you want to eat. There are desert bars and short-order lines. In another building are weight rooms and game rooms and libraries of DVD’s to rent. At Camp Anaconda there is even a large swimming pool.
Often the P.A.O. (Public Affairs Officer – our escort when we are working on a base) at Anaconda remarked that the military had changed since the days of the Viet Nam war. In those days it was a conscripted army, now it was volunteer, and they had to do their best to insure that soldiers enjoyed their jobs as much as they could, and were provided with the amenities of home as best as possible.
Which is not to say the soldiers don’t work hard; they work six or seven days per week. But the amount of resources used at the big base we lived on was staggering…. all this energy to occupy Iraq…. the fuel used to power all the helicopters and generators, the air-conditioning, the electricity …. one can’t help but ask if it couldn’t be better spent. It’s become a fool’s dream in the U.S., to speak of a society where there is enough food, shelter, and recreation for everyone. But meanwhile the dream is alive “inside the wire”, in a country thousands of miles away, beneath high-powered klieg lights and the shrieks of jets leaving the landing strip.
We talked with ordinary soldiers sometimes, but mostly we were with officers, mainly majors. As I mentioned in a previous writing, the rank-and-file women and men seemed mostly like normal Americans, who had simply signed up to do a job and earn some money. The higher in rank we went, and the more important people’s jobs were, the more they seemed to have bought into the military’s ideology.
For instance there was a very sweet bunch of folks who made media for the base, who edited video for A.F.N. (Armed Forces Network) and wrote the military’s newspapers. One day we were in their office talking with them and it turned out that two of them had been posted at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Naturally I had to tell them I had broken the law and visited Cuba but they didn’t seem too taken aback. Prothap told them that he had read about a couple of guards at Guantanamo that had committed suicide, and he asked if they had heard about this. They said no, but that given the pressure that soldiers were under, they could understand. Prothap said he had been given to believe that the men had killed themselves due to the psychological effects of seeing what was being done to the detainees there. These nice young people were aghast. Of course not, they argued. Much more likely it was due to issues with their families back home or some such thing. Did we, they asked us earnestly, understand how difficult their jobs were at Guantanamo? It was very stressful to be a guard, with the prisoners throwing feces and urine at you. Did you know that they could contract Hepatitis from that? They really wished the media (i.e. us) would be more sympathetic to the guards at Guantanamo, and tell about the tremendous strain they were under. The media was completely unfair in their opinion, the prisoners were being treated fine and the guards were being given short shrift. I picked my jaw up off of the floor, and left the room.
Defensive and insecure. That’s how I would describe the attitude our Public Affairs escorts. Maybe it’s because we were accredited through Pacifica Radio and they knew they were dealing with “leftists.” At every opportunity they extolled the military’s progress in Iraq, their ability at dealing with the problems that had arisen in the early days of the occupation and were now being addressed. One day the head P.A.O. got irate about an interview Prothap had given via telephone for K.P.F.A. in which he compared life on the base to that of an Iraqi woman we had interviewed who said she had only two hours of electricity per day. The officer felt we were being unjustly narrow in our criticism. But, replied Prothap, that is what she told us, that she had two hours per day in her neighborhood, and we can see here that you all have power all day and all night. The man was unconvinced, and asked if we would visit the Civil Affairs officer the next day, so we did.
He was thin and tall, and gladly sat before us and showed us what they were doing to help the local populace. They were distributing packets of toiletries, notebooks, and soccer balls to Iraqi children. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This was their idea of helping the locals? All around us was a multi-billion dollar archipelago of concrete and airplanes and troops….and these guys were handing out soccer balls.
I can’t say if the negative reaction to P.C.’s report had had any more impact than one annoyed officer, but I do know that another embed we had arranged, for a base called Camp Taji, was scrubbed the next day, as was an interview with Air Force personnel. There were sand storms, and a car bombing at another base, and unforseen work that had come up. But I couldn’t help but feel like we had been put on an “86” list.