Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Life on the FOB (an excerpt)

Here's a long-ish excerpt from Fobbit. Ordinarily, I wouldn't post something this big, but it's what I was working on this morning in the pre-dawn grog of my day, and so I thought I'd share:

Forward Operating Base Triumph was an American city unto itself. A small, rustic American city composed of tents, trailers, Quonset huts and dust-beige rectangle-houses (leftovers from the regime), but a city nonetheless. Not unlike what you would have seen 150 years ago in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon or Montana—slap-dash communities nailed together by railroads, miners and lumberjacks, quickly swollen with prostitutes, grocers, haberdashers and schoolmarms, then just as quickly deflated as the mines dried up, the railroads moved on, and the forests depleted. Like frontier America, FOB Triumph had the buzz of newborn excitement, tempered with the understanding that it was most likely impermanent. Its eventual doom foretold in its name, FOB Triumph would one day wither away when the U.S. was victorious in Iraq.

That day was still far in the future, however.

For now, soldiers, Local Nationals, American contractors and Third World Employees (known as “Twees”) moved through the gravel streets, quickly and roughly laid between the fifteen rows of trailers, going about the business of supporting a war which crackled across Baghdad, well outside the sandbag-fortified entry control points where guards checked ID badges, held mirrors on poles (giant dentist tools, really) to look at the undercarriages of trucks, and German shepherds pulled against leashes as they sniffed for bombs. Vehicles were forced to navigate a quarter-mile of concrete barricades, slowing them to a crawl as they wound their serpentine way onto the base. By the time a suicide bomber cleared the last barrier, he would have been killed five times over by the soldiers at the gate and in the observation post towers twenty feet above the gates. They would have been riddled with bullets—turned to bleeding hunks of Swiss cheese—before their lips could even form the words “Allah Akbar!”

FOB Triumph was located on the western edge of Baghdad, caught between the pressure points of the Baghdad airport and Abu Ghraib prison. Soon after the U.S. took control of Baghdad in 2003—securing first the airport, then gradually expanding the ring of safe real estate outward—FOB Triumph grew in increments. Hastily-dug foxholes next to tanks turned to tents, tents turned to shipping containers tricked-out with cots and air conditioning, shipping containers turned to trailers with windows, doors and small wooden porches—the kind of tin-sided mobile home that made more than one soldier from Hog Wallow, Tennessee weep with homesickness.

Walk down the lanes between the trailers one night after you get off shift. You’ll pass soldiers hanging out—guys leaning in their doorways, girls with one foot on the steps, not daring to venture any closer because of General Order No. 2 (which strictly forbids members of the opposite sex from entering your room). On your left, four guys and two girls, hatless and stripped down to brown T-shirts, are gathered around a makeshift table made from an abandoned pallet and a sheet of plywood, playing dominoes. On another porch, an NCO in his late 30s is leaning back against his railing, smoking a cigar and languidly blowing the smoke into the air. The smell of cigar is strong and fills your nostrils as you continue to crunch your way down the gravel, which rolls under your boots like marbles and always makes the going hard. You pass another door and loud hip-hop music thumps out into the cigar-tainted air. There’s a girl inside dancing by herself—she’s hipping and hopping, all right, and she thinks no one sees her. Her room is decorated with pink sheets and comforter, an oversized fuzzy pillow the shape and color of candy and what looks like pictures of her boyfriend collaged on the wall above the head of her bed.

When you reach your own trailer, you pause just before entering. The word “Home” passes through your head and, with a sickened feeling, you realize that you’re thinking of this trailer, not the house back in Georgia, nestled in the trees, wide porch where your wife, having just tucked the kids in for the night, is sitting by herself, slowly sipping wine as she stares out into the darkening night. Yes, this trailer, indeed all of FOB Triumph, is now your home, like it or not.

There are dangers here, too. Lest you forget, you’re smack-dab in the middle of a combat zone. While, horizontally-speaking, the FOB is well fortified by concrete barriers and guard towers, this is not to say death cannot and will not fall from the sky at any given moment. There is no Kevlar dome over FOB Triumph, no invisible force field off of which mortars or 107-millimeter Chinese rockets will rebound. Why, just last week, one Second Lieutenant Zipperer had a 762 round come through his roof. It punched through his tin roof in the night and this Zipperer must have been one hell of a heavy sleeper (or zonked out on Valium) because he didn’t even flinch, not so much as a fluttery pause in his REM. When he woke up, there was the round sitting on the floor of his hooch. He sat up on the edge of his cot, groggy and cobwebby, and stared at the metal shards for the longest time, not fully comprehending, until finally he uttered the phrase which he would repeat once every two minutes for the rest of the day (much to the irritation of his co-workers): “Holy Mother of Fuck!”

Yes, even in 2005 life here was still wild and wooly. FOB Triumph had nearly everything a frontier town in Montana would have enjoyed—minus the prostitutes, and even there you could make the case by citing the names of a few Filipino Twees or slutty U.S. soldiers who were willing, able and bored (though not necessarily in that order).

Walk the gravel paths and dirt streets of FOB Triumph and you would come across a post office, a medical clinic, a library, a movie theater, a bowling alley, two churches, five dining facilities, and four fitness centers.

There is a phone center, a single-wide trailer lined with three rows of wooden-walled cubbyholes where soldiers grip receivers, already grimed with 200,000 sweaty, homesick palms, and murmur into mouthpieces which have by this point heard it all: the sex talk, questions about the dying relative, the soft weeping when the news is not good, the coo-cooing to babies and puppies, the profanity-laced blowhard stories for the drinking buddies left behind, the casual dismissal of combat zone danger to soothe worried parents. At any given time, there is a chorus of babble filling the phone center, punctuated by the occasional slam-down of a receiver. The voices rise and fall, rise and fall.

“What’s this about a court summons?”

“And then you put it in your mouth while I…”

“No, no, it ain’t too bad—we haven’t hit an IED in almost a week.”

“She took her first steps today? Day-um!....I know, I wish I could have been there, too.”

“I’m fine, really!...No, really, Ma, that ain’t necessary….Ma, really, I--....Okay, put her on.”

Leave the phone center, spring-hinged door banging in your wake, and keep walking, keep crunching through the gravel until you reach the MWR Quonset hut where, tucked away in one corner, you’ll discover a disco club which in 2005 allowed soldiers to take off their helmets and weapons and (males only) strip down to their T-shirts as they boogied up gallons of sweat each night after work, bathed in the light from the disco ball whose reflections moved like bright moths across their faces. It had been twenty-five years since disco died, but the soldiers at Triumph didn’t mind. It may have been KC and the Sunshine Band, but fuck-it-all it was a beat that grabbed their legs and gave them permission to fling away all the ill will which had built up during the day. Not to mention the fact that it was the only officially sanctioned way boys and girls could get close enough to touch, an excitement that was always elevated whenever a female soldier, daring to flaunt the rules, stripped away her DCU top and danced in her T-shirt, hitting the boogie so hard and with such abandon that her breasts took on a mind of their own to the delight of every male lucky enough to be in the club that night.

If you exited the club, half-drunk on near-beer and hormone turbulence, took a left turn, and continued down the main thoroughfare for another mile, you’d hit the post exchange. The entrance to the PX is lined with a series of small trailers which house a Burger King, a What-the-Cluck Chicken Shack, and a Starbucks, where you can purchase a venti caramel macchiato and, with the first sip of the froth and sugar, be transported to within an inch of heaven, or Seattle—whichever came first.

The PX, run by the U.S. military, is the equivalent of the Old West general store, whose aisles are stocked with potato chips, beef jerky, cases of soda, sunglasses, baby oil, pantyhose, tennis shoes, magazines (sans the porn, in deference to host nation Islamic sensitivities), video games, tins of sardines, nail clippers, one big-screen TV (which can be yours for only $1,500), stationery, small floor rugs, music CDs which lean heavily toward country-western, value-packs of chewing tobacco, T-shirts (“My Dad Deployed to Iraq and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”), brooms, fishing poles, cheese-in-a-can, crackers, compasses, canteens, bras, socks, paperbacks which lean heavily toward Louis L’Amour and Nelson DeMille, desk lamps, Frisbees, pillows, and Insta-Gro planters in clear plastic globes whose promise of fresh vegetation in just two weeks made them a big seller to soldiers hoping for a little green in this dusty hellhole.

A fly-by-night bazaar rings the dusty concrete courtyard outside the PX, a hodge-podge amalgamation of folding tables, open-bed pickup trucks, and outspread blankets full of wares Local Nationals have brought on the FOB for sale, having first gone through a rigorous security scrubbing at the entry checkpoints. This, U.S. military officials believe, serves two purposes: giving the soldiers a taste of “real life” outside the FOB wire, and pumping good old American dollars into the local economy. The nut-brown vendors chatter like goats as they try to pull the pasty American boys and girls to their tables and blankets. “Mister, mister! Here, mister! You like? You buy?” This, then, is where the discriminating shopper can find scarves (gaily patterned with camels and palm trees), musty-smelling Oriental rugs, pirated blockbuster movies, carved wooden camels, elaborate glass and stamped-metal contraptions that looked suspiciously like hookahs, black-velvet paintings of Jesus, Elvis, and Ricky Martin, and silverware once used by Saddam Hussein (authenticated with a computer-generated certificate by a “Dr. Alawi Medrina, History Professor Emeritus, University of New Baghdad”).

Did we mention this dusty hellhole was constructed on the former site of Saddam Hussein’s palace and hunting preserve? It’s true. FOB Triumph has overtaken the grounds where Insane Hussein once treated his guests to weekend hunting parties. Nervous staff officers would join the dictator when he walked through the fields, knee-high weeds whisking damply against his pants legs as he flushed the stocked pheasants and quail from their nests and killed them in a bloody burst of feathers and viscera before their little beaks had a chance to form the words “Allah Akbar!” On some weekends, when he was feeling especially jaunty, Saddam would place an order to the Baghdad zoo and they would deliver pairs of lions or jackals or foxes for his guests to hunt. As the handbook given to newly-arriving soldiers will tell you, “Wildlife is abundant on the compound in the forms of rodents, snakes, deer, fox, coyote and gazelle to name just a few.” It goes on to advise: “Do NOT, ever, ever, EVER, at any time, feed wildlife or domesticated animals such as dogs; report sightings of loose dogs on the compound at once, so they can be disposed of properly.”

Beyond the realm of menageries, in the midst of the humvees rushing to and fro and the helicopters buzzing through the air like prowling insects, you will come across a large, shimmering pool of what appears to be fresh water. Reflected in that water is a many-tiered building, white as a dozen new moons. This is the palace, lined with cobalt-blue tiles and topped with impossibly beautiful minarets, built by Saddam in the glory days of his reign. It’s truly something straight out of the Arabian Nights. Walk inside and you’ll likely gag on the excess of marble, crystal and gold-leaf. Right down to a kitchen the size of a football field and the bidets which once cleaned Saddam’s asshole, it is a testament to wealth. Now, it serves as headquarters for the American forces who defeated the dictator and pulled down his statue with a quick yank.

The palace is perched on the banks of a shallow, boggy lake which, decades ago, had been hand-dug by those disloyal to Hussein or his brothers. The 30-acre lake, built in the shape of a Z, is now prime breeding grounds for disease-laden mosquitoes. In the mornings, bats swoop overhead, near the end of their night shift. The stillness of the water is broken every so often by carp leaping for breakfast bugs. Mallard ducks bob in the reeds along the shore, only taking flight when they’re disturbed by the muffled whoompf! of a car bomb downtown.

At dawn, you will often see Fobbits running along the geometric planes of the lakeshore. They come here before the sun has fully cleared the horizon to bear down and bake the tops of their heads with a vengeance. They jog in their grey Army sweats, the fat jiggling and straining against the waistband of their shorts, the sweat spritzing off their scalps, and with each step they continue to count down the days, the hours, the minutes until they are released from Triumph and they can fly back to the arms of their families.

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