Monday, March 05, 2007

Travelogue: To Camp Slayer, And Back Again

As I intimated in a previous post my job has recently taken me to Kuwait and thence on to Iraq. It has definitely been an interesting experience, seeing the machinery of war from the inside for once. It's also been a little bit depressing, because unrest in the Mid East seems to have been normalized; people are used to things going badly, indeed expect them to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

In retrospect I saw the signs of this state of affairs the first night I was in Kuwait. Kuwait has been quicker to Westernize, and to embrace Western institutions, in comparison to others parts of the region. This process may have been on the way to happening naturally anyway, but the influx of Westerners, from the first Gulf War to the present, has certainly accelerated the process. As a result Kuwait is now probably the most comfortable place for a Western company with interests in the region to do business.

Consider the apartment that I stayed in my first night, and in which I am composing this post now. It's leased by General Dynamics, a company which supplies contract IT staff to the armed forces. But GD didn't go out and find the apartment itself. Rather, they purchased the services of another company, Middle East Business Solutions, to set them up with living quarters, vehicles, maids service, a business center... all the things that GD's contractors need whether they're living in Kuwait or just passing through. I suspect that MEBS isn't unique; there are undoubtedly a lot of businesses which exist to supply the needs of contractors/contracting companies in the region.

There's an entire ecosystem of contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors out here, most of whom appear to ultimately derive their income from various Western governments. I'm not trying to peddle conspiracy theories, but there are a lot of businesses out here who have a vested interest in the continued activity of Western powers in the region. Keep that thought in the back of your mind as I tell my tale; there are a lot of people associated with the war who're just doing their jobs.

So, after arriving in Kuwait and killing a little time at the apartment, my next step was to get myself to Ali Al Salem, a Kuwaiti airbase way out in the hinterlands of Kuwait City. As you can see from the picture, its a decent distance outside of the city, so the drive gave me a chance to have a good conversation with the gentleman who drove me out.

Funny thing... this trip took me out into a war zone, but the time when I was most likely to get killed was driving back and forth between the apartment and Ali Al Salem. Driving in Kuwait is exciting, especially on the ring roads, a set of concentric highways centered on Kuwait City. People drive very fast and have only a cursory notion of things like lanes or right-of-way. On the way back from Ali Al Salem we blew by a police car on the right, but guy who was driving didn't seem to have the least bit of worry that we might get pulled over.

So anyway, on the way out to Al Salem I got a chance to talk with my driver, a GD contractor who does system administration for the US Embassy in Kuwait. He was a little bummed when he got to the apartment; if he hadn't had to drive me out to the airbase he would have been at a party at the Embassy. This is actually a bigger deal than it sounds like: Kuwait is dry in both the "desert" and "no booze" senses of the word1, but activities on Embassy property aren't subject to these rules. One of the big perks of being an Embassy employee is getting to drink, a lot, in an otherwise dry country. The Embassy has a weekly happy hour, but the serious business of drinking and networking takes place at the more exclusive after-parties. My driver had just scored his first after-party invite, so I was duly sympathetic. At least he got overtime for driving me out.

On the drive out we got to chatting about his job (system administrator, not terribly interesting) and what its like living in Kuwait. He wasn't very complementary of the native Kuwaitis, describing them as racists and rich idlers. It seems that most of the actual useful work in Kuwait is done by third country nationals (TCNs), people who have come to Kuwait from elsewhere to work. There are a lot of Phillipinos and Somalis working in the service industries, and many of the lower-end white collar jobs are held by Indians. Paraphrasing the contractor: Kuwaitis think white people are OK, but really look down on the TCNs. He described the Kuwaiti Army as a joke; they look upon their Army as a social club of sorts. The contractor supports the people who sell weapons to the Kuwaitis, so I expect he has pretty good insight into the matter. He said there's no chance that they'll ever actually go to war; apparently we keep selling them crap at a discount just so they'll keep letting the US use Kuwait as a base of operations.

He wasn't too keen on the current conflict either, a view that's apparently shared by a lot of the Embassy staff. They all think its very important to support the troops, but they've been able to separate supporting the troops from supporting the execution of the war. I would encounter variations on this theme throughout my stay: some people agreed with the decision to go to war, some people thought it was a bad idea to start with, but I can't remember meeting a single person, in favor or not, who thought that the current state of affairs was anything other than a clusterfuck. This is what I meant when I said at the beginning of this post that the war has become normalized. There are so many people with direct exposure to the war, people who see that things are going badly and who are conceivably in the position to do something about it, and yet the war continues to run its course. This is the kind of behavior I would expect if people saw the war as part of the status quo rather than as an ongoing exception situation. Or maybe they interpret the current war as exceptional, but see unrest in general as just a feature of this part of the world. I don't claim to have a definitive answer, but it does seem like everyone is standing around saying "we should do something".

Eventually we got to Ali Al Salem; from there I would catch a flight to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Everyone, military and civilian, who needs to go to Iraq or Afghanistan passes through Al Salem. Unfortunately, if you're a contractor, like me, you can spend a long time waiting for a flight. I ended up spending ~40 mostly sleepless hours waiting to get on a plane. I won't try to synthesize that experience; you'll get a better flavor reading the raw snippets that I recorded during that time:

Flushing The Cache: 2/22/2007

Quote Of The Day
Conversation between two anonymous soldiers, in reference to returning 
home for R&R:

Soldier 1: I getting tired of people telling me how much they 
           appreciate what I'm doing. The next time I hear it I'm 
           going to smack someone.

Soldier 2: That's why I'm not wearing my uniform.

I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of it.

Scrawlings observed in various places:
+ I hate this place
+ The 25th is being extended
+ Chuck Norris is never late; time waits in fear of him.

Vatican To Sell 'Limbo' To Army
As of the time of this writing I've spent the better part of 24 hours 
at a place called Ali Al Salem, a "temporary" camp outside of the big 
military airfield on the outskirts (actually the out-out-BFE-skirts) of 
Kuwait City. Most, if not all, of the traffic going in and out of Iraq 
and Afghanistan passes through this camp at one point or another. Right 
now its home to, in addition to the usual masses of soldiery shipping 
in and out, a bunch of cranky contractors who are desperately trying to 
Baghdad, referred to around here as BIAP ("Baghdad International 
Airport" I assume).

The limbo part comes in because, since I've arrived here, there haven't 
been any empty seats on any flights to BIAP. In order to get a seat 
you have to be present for "roll calls" for each flight where, if 
you're lucky, the powers that be will dole out a couple of "Space-R" 
seats to the awaiting swarm of contractors. That's where things get 
annoying: Al Salem is actually pretty nice for being out in the middle 
of the desert. They've got a PX, a 24 hour McDonald's (always busy), a 
mess hall, billeting, etc., all of which are available for use by 
contractors. However, the aforementioned role calls happen at all hours 
of the day and night; its not like you can go get 8 hours of sleep and 
then get up and try the next day. The best you can really do is hope 
that the role calls are spaced far enough apart that you have a chance 
to catch a few hours sleep in between.

Though, really, you're better off not leaving the waiting area at all. 
You can get scheduled for a flight and not even know it. Then, when you
miss the flight you don't know you're on, it causes all sorts of havoc 
and badness.

Flushing The Cache: 2/23/2007

Sleep Dep
What does it mean that Thomas Pynchon makes more sense to me after 36 
hours traveling?

Stop Marginalizing My People
The PX at Al Salem has a really impressive selection of tobacco products; it
seems like smoking is one of the few vices that the armed forces are 
willing to put up with. Goddammit though, why is it that I can get 
peach-flavored cigarillos if I want but I can't get cloves? 

The ubiquity of McDonald's at LSA is a little bit alarming. They've got 
a mess hall, but that's only open during normal mealtimes. Given that 
a large percentage of the people here at Al Saleem seem to be on anything 
but a normal schedule, the only place available for them to get food is 
the 24/7 McDonald's. Bleh... the smell of McDonald's at 6AM is really 
stomach churning. I don't even like McDonald's, but that's all I've had 
for breakfast and dinner recently. Man, I could really go for something 
not fried right now.

Joke of the day: Why do marines ride in Navy ships? they're easier to 
hide than sheep.

I stick out like a sore thumb. I'm obviously a contractor, but all of 
the other contractors look to have at least 10 or 20 years on me.

If its not immediately obvious from the above, I was pretty incoherent by the time I finally got off the ground.

A lot of people, both at home and in Kuwait/Iraq, asked me why I'd decided to take the job. Some of it was work-related: I like training people, it looks good on a resume, gets me brownie points with the folks upstairs, etc. But the real reason, though, was the story value of the whole experience. I tell this to some people and they look at me like they don't quite get it, and then there's another group that nods and goes "yeah".

A good example of the latter was a trauma nurse that I met shortly before I leaving Ali Al Salem. He was maybe 55... could have been pushing 60, and was going out to Baghdad to train Iraqi medical personnel in the fine art of putting people back together again. I chatted with him for awhile, talked about what he was going to do in Baghdad and the training system they were using. They have these dummies that can simulate almost all of the major vital signs; the guy who was running the program had even hacked one so that it would squirt blood just like a person would if they'd had their leg blown off... cool stuff. It turned out that this gentleman had been to 71 countries in the course of his military career. He was a hardcore, outdoors type who was into bow hunting, so we talked about all the random places he'd seen and hunted in. I suspect that he may have been engaging in a little bit of hyperbole; its hard to imagine anyone having all the different adventures he'd claimed to have. Still, it was obvious that he'd been around; he understood that the last thing you want to do on your deathbed is worry that you played things too safe.

He's also the guy who told me the joke about the Marines. Its no secret that the armed forces have a problem with homosexuality, but listening to this guy talk you could see the pathology pretty much out in the open. He made a number of homophobic remarks, out loud with no obvious concern of reprisal, and most people seemed to be nodding along in agreement. The comments that I can remember of the top of my head had to do with the locals (some of whom wore robes) wearing "man dresses" and acting "swishy". But then, at the same time, they've got that joke about the marines and sayings like "It's not gay if it happens underway". Yeah, really, that came out of the same guy's mouth. There's this strange dichotomy where they all seem to be acknowledging that people are having teh hot, steamy buttsex, while at the same time going out of their way to prove that they're not gay themselves. Interpretation of that little factoid is left as an exercise for the reader.

But I digress... eventually I got space on a transport to BIAP and made it to Baghdad. There's a lot of "hurry up and wait" in the armed forces, but when they finally decide to do something they don't mess around. They hustled us on to buses, drove us out, and then we filed right on to the plane. I bet it was less than 20 minutes between the time we arrived at the plane and the time they were taxiing. The flight itself was uneventful, but I don't envy the military personnel who have to spend a lot of time on these cargo planes. They're loud, and cold, and there's less legroom than Southwest Airlines. The way over wasn't so bad, in part because I did have a little legroom, but the flight back was an exercise in personal discomfort. The takeoffs and landings were pretty aggressive, climbing to cruising altitude quickly and coming in just as fast; they don't want planes to be targets any more than is absolutely necessary.

So, after much sturm und drang I eventually made it to Sather AFB/BIAP; from there it was a pretty quick drive to Camp Slayer. I didn't have to go in convoy, or wear my flak vest, or anything like that. It was just me and the guy driving, and we were in a plain old SUV. The area around the airport (Camp Victory, Camp Slayer, etc.) is apparently one of the safest places in Iraq right now. Its not near any civilian infrastructure, the roads in and out are well-controlled, and there's just no reason for anyone to linger in the area. That makes it a wee bit difficult to go sniping at people or to plant IEDs. Contrast this with the Green Zone, which is right smack dab in the middle of a bunch of people who want to blow it up.

Camp Slayer itself was originally the "Perfume Palace", a big entertainment complex where Saddam kept his wimmin. Who knew he was a ladies' man? It might have been relatively nice once, but being converted to a military based and generally being beat to shit had certainly taken a toll on the grounds. The inside of the palace itself, at least the part I had access to were, was still in pretty good shape. There were some interesting decorative flourishes, Islamic-ish, non-representational frescoes for the most part. And then there were these ugly, ugly, teal faux ostrich skin draperies on the windows. Those, apparently, were original. As much of a ladies man as he might have been, Saddam had crappy taste when it came to interiors.

Apart from the official buildings there isn't that much more to the camp. They've got the necessities, a mess hall and dormitories, plus few amenities: PX, barber, movie theater. When I wasn't actually working I was generally either in my room or in the dining facility (that's "DFAC" or "chow", depending on how official you want to be); there's really just no place else to go.

The dormitories, run by everyone's old friends Kellog, Brown, and Root, can accurately be described as a "warren". Row upon row of trailers, subdivided into small compartments, utterly functional and completely disheartening. Each room is maybe 10x12 or so and, with a bunk bed and a couple of cabinets, is intended to hold two people. I got lucky and was assigned a room all to myself, sort of. Each room shares a common entry area with another; basically KBR has taken a larger space and divided it with a permanent partition. So I had a roommate, who turned out to be one of the guys I was training, but I also had a decent amount of privacy as well. The thing I really noticed on first walking into my room was that it had no desk or table; the rooms are designed for sleeping and that's about it. Overall assessment: clean, functional, spartan.

As far as the DFAC went it reminded me of nothing so much as being back in my college dining hall. Lots of food, most of it greasy and not terribly healthy, none of it really all that good. As in college I found myself eating way more than I usually would, hoping that the next item I tried would entertain my mouth enough that I'd finally feel like eating something. As has been noted elsewhere the food is "all American", with a definite Southern slant (grits, anyone?). Within a couple of days of arriving I found myself fantasizing about having a nice bowl of pho, just to wash all the fat out of my veins.

The dining hall had a bunch of TVs, all of which were tuned to the Armed Forces Network (AFN). I normally bemoan the mixing of eating and television viewing, but in this case it wasn't so bad. AFN carries various news programs at the same time they're being broadcasted stateside, so there were a couple of mornings when I was able to have my breakfast and watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. What's a little bit different about AFN is that, instead of commercials, they have military-oriented public service announcements which vary in quality from the amateurish up to the professionally produced. There was something about the tone of these announcements that was little weird, but whatever it was it was subtle and I could never quite put my finger on it. I was especially amused, though, by the anti-smoking adds, since the PX is so well-stocked with various smokeables. Again, it would appear that the armed forces have a love-hate relationship with tobacco.

The actual business of living and working at Camp Slayer was notable primarily for its utter lack of variation; one of the guys I was working with compared it, very accurately IMHO, to Groundhog Day. The GD IT contractors, civilians all, have one of the most monotonous existences I've ever encountered. They work 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, no breaks. Then they go home, try to distract themselves for a few hours, go to be, get up, and repeat. There wasn't even a sense of excitement or danger in the air. I felt completely safe while I was there; you wouldn't really have even known it was a zone apart from all the military folk running around with guns.

I noticed the above within a couple of days of arriving at camp, so I was especially interested to find out why these people had volunteered for the assignment. Turns out that its all about the Benjamins. They told me that the average IT contractor at Camp Slayer makes about $190k/year. Most admins are doing pretty standard Windows work, not rocket science, so that works out to between 3 and 4 times what they could make in the states. Not too shabby... I can understand their motivation. They'd volunteered for a year and were mentally prepared to buckle down and do their jobs, then get out and live better with the mountain of cash they'd managed to accumulate.

But then there was another contingent, some of whom had been out in Iraq and/or Afghanistan for multiple years, that I couldn't quite fathom. I was champing at the bit to leave after just one week but these folks, in contrast, seemed content to just keep on doing their thing indefinitely. Maybe I'm being elitist and/or judgmental, but I'm not sure that the ability to work in places like Camp Slayer for multiple years reflects positively on these people. The existence here is so small, both literally and figuratively, and so vanilla. Perhaps, if I got the sense that they were putting in their time and working towards some greater goal, I would be more understanding. But I don't believe that to be the case. One guy in particular was bragging about how he hadn't even gone on leave in a year or something of that nature. That means that he'd gone to work, day in and day out, for 365 days, and he was still sane. Take it away Ani:

they say goldfish have no memory
i guess their lives are much like mine
the little plastic castle
is a surprise every time

Though the isolation at Camp Slayer did have its upside as well. Until I was in the DFAC, watching AFN, I was able to totally forget that most people were still awash in Anna Nicole Smith trivia or the recent stupidity involving Al Sharpton and someone who's related to Strom Thurmond. The trivia that passes for news these days was much muted, definitely a good thing.

Tangentially, I might as well comment on the whole Al Sharpton thing while I'm at it: Its dumb, period. Whether or not someone related to Strom Thurmond once owned one of Al Sharpton's ancestors has absolutely zero bearing on anything. People who are making a big deal of this, Al Sharpton included, are perpetuating a mindset which gives undue importance to ancestry and the mists of history. Sure, if Al's ancestors had been owned by someone else, or hadn't been owned at all, things would have turned out differently... he might not be the political gadfly that he is today. But that's a trivially true statement which anyone can say that about their own ancestors: If things had been different then, then they'd also be different now. But the things which make Al Sharpton quintessentially Al Sharpton would remain unchanged if we were to find out tomorrow that his folk were owned by someone else, or weren't owned at all. So yes, its an utterly meaningless distraction.

Of the actual work that I did at Camp Slayer there's very little interesting to say. I went in and trained a bunch of IT guys on how to use some of their equipment. In that respect it was no different that anything I've done stateside. They weren't any brighter or any dimmer than other groups I've taught, nor more or less respectful; in short, it was a typical class.

So, after a few days of training, it was back to the real world again. The process going out was essentially the same as the process coming in, but I didn't have to wait for 40 hours to get on a plane out of Baghdad. On the ride from Camp Slayer to Baghdad I had a chance to talk with a contractor who thought that the war was initially a good idea; he believed that Saddam had WMDs and must have moved them to Syria or somewhere else prior to the start of the war. But he, too, thought that the current situation was a complete disaster, and said that it would take a decade of the US toughing it out in order to fix the place.

His rationale for that last statement was fairly insightful. He noted that it was all well and good for people to run around waving purple fingers in the air, but that Iraq was really still practicing a superficial form of democracy. When things go south the Iraqi people don't look to democratic institutions and/or the rule of law to protect them; they turn instead to non-democratic institutions such as tribes and militias instead. In his view the US needs to stay in Iraq until such time as Iraqis are practicing a more comprehensive form of democracy, but when I pushed him on just how the US could effect such a change he didn't really have a good answer.

Probably the person who best summed the whole situation up was a contractor who was on the flight back to the US with me. He said that the reason for the current state of things is that there's just so much inertia inherent in waging this war; I think he hit the nail on the head. None of the people I met had a hard-on for this war. Many of them had it within their power, in theory at least, to push to rectify the situation. And yet none of them were doing so. why? It's the inertia. Everyone thinks that things are going poorly, but no one has enough positive incentive to motivate themselves to action. So the war goes on, it seems mostly because its easier to stick with the status quo than change.

Here ends the lesson.

1 When I arrived I assumed that Kuwait is dry due to Islamic influences, but apparently this is not the case. Kuwait voluntarily became dry after the first Gulf War in a show of solidarity for the POWs held by the Iraqi government. Now that Iraq has been "liberated" there's a decent chance that the country will go back to being wet.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was at Camp Slayer. I was there for 13 months and it wasn't bad at all for me. I was living in the old (IRAQ) officers quarters that had a small pond right outside my back door. As a contractor, it was really a good experience for us compared to the guys and girls in the military. I got to take some very good pictures while I was there but only on base.

I wouldn't go back but I did learn alot while I was there.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Mandy said...

Nice post which . It's also been a little bit depressing, because unrest in the Mid East seems to have been normalized; people are used to things going badly, indeed expect them to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. In retrospect It saw the signs of this state of affairs the first night It was in Kuwait. Kuwait has been quicker to Westernize, and to embrace Western institutions, in comparison to others parts of the region. Thanks a lot for posting this article.

5:48 AM  

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