Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Would the last one out of Camp Victory please turn off the lights?

Is it possible to wax nostalgic about a battlefield?  Is it permissible to get sentimental over a place of carnage, terror and trauma?  If so, let me pause for a moment, a little sad and overwhelmed by mostly-good memories of a year spent at a military command post on the edge of Baghdad.  This week, I read in the Washington Post that Camp Victory will soon be shuttered as part of Barack Obama's drawdown of troops deployed to the Iraq War.
      In a few short months, the American military presence here will be history; the tanks, weapons, computers and personnel all shipped out; the gates locked and the keys turned over to the Iraqi government.
      Already, only 24,000 troops remain on the base, and the amenities that once made this the most American of outposts in Iraq—the Cinnabon, Subway and Burger King kiosks, as well as the PXs that sold everything from microwaves to thong underwear—are rapidly closing.
      A sign tacked up recently in the restroom near one of the last remaining mess halls reads, “Due to the drawdown the maid has been fired. Therefore clean up after yourself!!”
      “This whole place is becoming a ghost town,” said Lt. Col. Sean Wilson, a public affairs officer for the Army, who lives on base. “You get the feeling you’re the last person on Earth.”

That's a far cry from the Camp Victory I knew back in 2005 (when it was called Camp Liberty). It was the military equivalent of Grand Central Station--humvees zipping back and forth on the narrow crumbling roads, salsa dances at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center every Friday night, and the PX crowded with soldiers hugging bags of tortilla chips and T-shirts ("Someone at Camp Liberty Loves Me," to be worn by a third-grader in a small town somewhere back in Louisiana).  It wasn't America--the hourly popcorn-rattle of M-16s firing in the distance made sure we never forgot where we were--but it was an approximation of America, a place we cobbled together out of what each of us individually thought America should look like.  It might not have been Home Sweet Home, but for 12 or 18 months we made the best of it out there on the edge of Baghdad.

My trailer's on the far right: home-away-from-home for most of 2005

And now it's all about to disappear.  I don't know if Vietnam vets ever get verklempt about places like Binh Thuy Air Base or Camp Holloway, but I know I'll always have fond memories of Liberty/Victory.  The place had such an impact on me that I transmogrified it into Forward Operating Base Triumph in Fobbit.  Here's an excerpt from the novel which describes the military base, circa 2005, through only the thinnest gauze of fiction.

(Brief and unapologetic self-congratulatory update about Fobbit:  After three weeks of shopping the manuscript around to publishers, my agent emailed me last week with the news that Grove/Atlantic had made an offer--which I quickly and happily accepted.  There's still more work to be done, trimming the novel down to more manageable size, but I'm buzzed with joy at the thought that one day in the not-too-distant future, Fobbit will be sitting on a shelf in a bookstore somewhere in New Hampshire and complete strangers will pick it up and thumb through my words.  I'm "living the dream," as they say.)

*     *     *     *     *

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, swollen with a flood of 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, politically-speaking, 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 which engineers had quickly and roughly laid between the fifteen rows of trailers.  Triumph's residents moved like ants, orderly and focused, as they went 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.  He would have been riddled with bullets—turned to a bleeding wedge of Swiss cheese—before his lips could even form the words “Allah Akbar!”

FOB Triumph sat on the western edge of the city, caught between the pressure points of the Baghdad airport and Abu Ghraib prison.  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 to brown T-shirts, are gathered around a makeshift table made from an abandoned shipping 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 puffing rings into the air.  The smell of cigar is strong and fills your nostrils as you continue to crunch your way through 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, fantasizing about hard bodies in strobey clubs, 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 before entering.  The word “Home” passes through your head and, with a sickened feeling, you realize 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 at the darkening night.  She’s an ocean away and starting to fade at the edges of your waking thoughts, try as you might to keep her in focus.  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 which mortars or 107-millimeter Chinese rockets will rebound.  Why, just last week, one Second Lieutenant Zipperer had a 7.62 round crash down in his hooch.  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!”

But what Lieutenant Zipperer was really Holy-Mother-of-Fucking about was the fact that just the day prior he had done some interior decorating in his hooch, moving his cot from the east wall to the north wall and that furniture-shift had made the difference between a round punching through the roof and landing in the middle of the floor and the same round coming down and sizzle-slamming through his skull, bursting his head like a hot tomato.  Thanks to feng sui, he might just make it out of this war alive.

Yes, even in 2005 life here was still wild and woolly.  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 with a loud-banging door which snaps back on a spring getting looser by the day as thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilian contractors walk in and out of the one place on the FOB offering a tangible link back to the comforts of home.  The trailer is lined with three rows of wooden-walled cubbyholes where soldiers grip receivers, grimed from 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 pals left behind, the calculated, casual dismissal of combat zone danger to soothe worried parents.  At any given time, a choir of babble fills the phone center, punctuated by the occasional slam-down of a receiver.  The voices rise and fall, rise and fall.  As they ride the waves of sound, some soldiers doodle on the wooden cubbyholes with penknife and pen, carving names and anatomies of certain girls left behind.  Even today, if you go over there, you’ll find—just below the motto “Saddam Suxx”—an impressive nude study of a Miss Sammie Grafton of Gillette, Wyoming.

The knives whittle, the boots tap on the plywood floor, 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 like pistol shot behind you, and keep walking, keep crunching through the gravel until you reach the MWR Quonset hut where, tucked 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 it was the only officially sanctioned way boys and girls could get close enough to touch, an excitement elevated whenever a female soldier, daring to flaunt the rules, stripped away her DCU top and danced in her T-shirt, shake-shake-shaking the bootie so hard and with such abandon 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 java heaven.

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 $1,695.99), stationery, small floor rugs, music CDs which tilt heavily toward country-western, value-packs of chewing tobacco, T-shirts (“My Daddy 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.  It is here where Fobbits can buy the false souvenirs which will later corroborate their equally-false stories of their adventures “outside the wire.”  That same jagged piece of metal which gets slapped down on the bar at the American Legion with the claim that it’s from the hull of a Republic Guard tank blown to bits “while out on patrol one day” is actually scrap scavenged from a local auto junkyard by an enterprising merchant by the name of Emad T. Hamad who whaled away at it with a ballpeen hammer in his garage the night before offering it up for sale to one Specialist Bert Huddleton, a computer specialist in Task Force Headquarters who, after spending 341 days growing pasty-faced by the light of his work-station monitor, was looking to buy his way into combat authenticity four days before he re-deployed to the United States.  Bart went away $44 lighter in the wallet, but secure in the knowledge he now had something to show-and-tell for the story he’d been spinning in his head regarding a (non-existent) patrol that had “gone bad” one terrible day outside the wire; Emad T. Hamad pocketed the 44 Yankee infidel dollars with a grin, muttering the Arabic equivalent of “Suckah!”

Walk through the bazaar and you’ll find plenty of Fobbits like Bart and plenty of Local Nationals like Emad.  In the PX courtyard, the nut-brown vendors chatter like monkeys as they try to pull the pale, blinking 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 integration 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.  The keeping of pets for personal pleasure or profit is STRICTLY prohibited.”

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.  Type A, ass-pucker lieutenant colonels now scurry through the halls with the tock-tock-tock of bootsteps where Republican Guard aide-de-camps also once skittered, fearful of the firing squad’s bullet and Uday’s beheading sword.

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.


  1. Congratulations, David. I'm living the same dream, albeit with a nonfiction tome. Took 12 years. It's a good thing you agreed to their terms. I had to cut, too. Just got it done. Some was hard to part with, but I dug in and tossed it all aside. I have questions about the excerpt. Is the whole book in second person? I tried this in a recent newspaper story and the editor killed me on it. The second is the use of "as" constructions. They can dilute the action, making it all less effective. I think this is from John Gardner. The dialogue should have known speakers, in my view, otherwise it's talking heads syndrome. I know what you were doing but I've never been able to get away with it. I would have preferred to be in the protagonist's head and see what he sees. Good details.

    The hard part is over, now the work begins. Good luck.

  2. Thanks, Mark.
    And congratulations on nearing the end of your 12-year journey.
    As to your comments/questions about the excerpt: No, the entire novel is not told from this POV. Most of it is done in the omniscient third. And thanks for pointing out the "as" constructions. I can defnitely see the diluting effect they have on the narrative. It's something for me to watch out for (and corect!) in the future.

  3. Thanks and I hope it helped. I like close third. Omniscient is from the 1800s and defies intimacy with the protagonist.

  4. Congrats on the deal, David! I've enjoyed reading about your book here (among many other things) and wish you the best with Grove/Atlantic.