It happened on the way to embed
I’m embedded in Iraq right now, preparing for a special day of coverage on June 30th on Al Jazeera English to mark the milestone of six months before the deadline for the US military to depart the country. Being here reminded me of a blog I wrote last time I embedded in Afghanistan. It still rings true today…
Embedding clearly has its challenges. I have done it a number of times, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. You only see what the military allows you to see and if things get difficult - and they usually do - you depend on those you are covering to provide for your safety and well-being. That dynamic creates something similar to the Stockholm syndrome. In other words, it may be hard to report critically on the guys that may have to save your life and who are providing you food and water.
And yet, I still believe embedding is worthwhile. Without embedding one part of the story would not be told, it is as simple as that. Living up to Al Jazeera’s brand of “Every angle, every side” would be impossible without showing the perspective of the troops, conquerors, defenders or occupiers, whatever one chooses to call them.
One of the rules of embedding prohibits the gathering of footage while in transit to meet up with your assigned unit. This is unfortunate, since some of the most interesting things often happen on the way to the embed. In order to get to units on the front lines you first have to pass through massive bases that offer a keen insight into the US war machine.
Trip to Kandahar
Such was the case on my last trip to Afghanistan. The following is a clumsy, but true, travelogue of my journey from Washington DC, to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
Five hours after interviewing Admiral Michael Mullen, the senior military man in the US, in his office at the Pentagon, I find myself on a flight bound for Afghanistan to test his answers against the reality on the ground. Roughly 17 hours later I’m in one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, the Dubai International Airport.
My connecting flight leaves from Dubai’s infamous terminal two. Its departures read like a Central Command hit list: non-stops to Baghdad, Kabul, Islamabad, Peshawar and Kandahar - and yet, it has a Starbucks.
On the flight to Kandahar, my seat is 6b, but the sixth row says ‘17d’. Apparently, this row has been ripped from another plane without bothering to change the seat number. I sit down, strap in and notice another disconcerting detail. On the buckle is the emblem for Pan Am - the iconic international airline that went out of business some time last century.
Afghans - women completely covered; men with turbans, some with beards died red - eye us suspiciously. This must be what they would feel like on a flight out of JFK. They sit in a traditional Afghan style, crouched, feet in the seat, knees near their ears. I guess leg room on planes isn’t a big deal here.
Kandahar airport has a groovy mid-century-modern design, in an ageing but New York City-trendy-again turquoise. I wonder if it is a hangover from Kandahar’s pre-Taliban, hippie-haven, drug-denizen days.
The immigration line stagnates. The heat melts my mind, crushes my morale. A female Canadian soldier approaches me twice to ask if I am Jeff. If she asks again, I’ll say yes, I think. A panicking bird trapped in the airport bangs against the windows, clearly regretting its entry into this sweat box. It wants out - it seeks fresh air, a slight breeze and a cold, cold drink. Or maybe I’m projecting. In front of us in the line stand women covered completely from head to toe in burkas, with even their fingers hidden in gloves. They give their passports to security without lifting their veils; I wonder if their passport photo is of a veil.
Last word from our military point of contact tells us to find our way on to the military base side of the airport. There is no mention of how we should do this. What seems like a minor detail in Washington, DC, feels much more significant as we exit the airport into Kandahar proper.
I’m with my friends and crew: Snorre Wik, on camera, and Sebastian Walker, producing. Snorre and I sit with the equipment in a pavilion that looks like it is straight out of an amusement park. Concrete benches, light posts, and a gazebo are fabricated to look as if they have been carved out of trees, like it is a magic forest oasis in the middle of this desert. Seb leaves to “go find the military”. It all feels a little surreal. Minutes pass. I negotiate a currency exchange of US dollars for Pakistani rupees to pay the porter, who looks 100 and is probably 80. I pass him a handful of foreign bills. I guess it is not enough as he pushes the money back on me. I give him more. He seems content but less than happy. As the heat soars past 120 degrees, so does our concern for Seb and ourselves. The longer we sit here with hundreds of thousands of dollars of television equipment, the more enticing we must look to would-be captors, like chicken slow-roasting before hungry eyes.
Finally, Seb returns with a couple of US Air Force guys who were beyond the wire inspecting a crater from a rocket attack of the previous evening. They’re worried about us hanging out in front of the terminal in Kandahar and agree to take us on base. They search our 14 bags, help us load up and take us to their building on the tarmac. We drive past ageing civilian airliners and even older, Soviet-era helicopters. The driver points out where a helicopter recently crashed into a hangar, and where the rotor had slashed through the walls and the roof.
Shops and eateries
We enter a wooden building semi-officially known as the “yellow barn on ramp juillet”. It is a ready room, a green room equivalent for military pilots. This one hosts US Air Force pilots who fly helicopters with Afghan crews and which have control panels in Russian. Inside, a baby-faced blond major plays ‘Tiger Woods Golf’ on a Nintendo Wii. He’s on hole five of a course in Banff, Canada. It couldn’t look more different than our present location. He promptly asks me to join in. I do. Next hole is a par 5. He’s on the green in two. I’m in trouble. Until he 7 putts for a 9. I par. Nothing is turning out as I expected, but things are looking up.
Before long, another officer joins the round, as does my crew, but now we are playing the sport of hippie champions - frisbee golf. We each flick our controllers at the screen, with virtual disks spinning through the thin mountain air of Banff. Meanwhile, the pilot is telling me how he wants to retire somewhere in Colorado. I mention Boulder, but he says it’s “too hippie for him”. Just as the friendly game of frisbee golf is turning competitive, our US Marine escort arrives.
A captain with a shaved head takes us to the chow hall for chilli mac on rice, something of a staple meal. We find out we are scheduled to depart on a military flight in the middle of the night. They need something to do with us for the next 10 hours. A master sergeant offers to take us to the social area of base. As we are driving across the enormous base, he gives us directions on how to get back to the dining facility for our evening rendezvous. We round a corner and he says, “Just remember when you get to the French cafe, take a left”. Clearly they don’t fight wars like they use to.
We drive past a coffee and doughnut shop, a Canadian hockey rink (sans ice) and a gym. Sand like talcum powder fills the air as does the sharp odour of boiling urine and baking faeces from ubiquitous port-o-johns. Inside one such plastic stall, graffiti refers to the smell as “the persistent poop aroma”.
We go into the base store to pick up local SIM cards for our cell phones. Inside, soldiers in various uniforms from different Nato member countries shop for their war-time essentials, which by the look of the merchandise includes plenty of body building supplements and teddy bears, knives and flat-screen televisions.
We need to escape the heat, so we head to the computer lounge. They will not allow us in because we have bags. There is a rule, which we find out is another thing this base has plenty of, that says “no bags”. We go to an entertainment and recreation building. We hear it is air conditioned. This time it is a double whammy, another rule - “no open-toe shoes”. I am in flip flops, my other shoes are in a bag the Marines stored for us. Our cell phones do not work, although it matters little because the number we are given for the Marines can only be dialled from another military phone. Finally we find such a phone and eventually our contact comes for us. We put our bags in his room and he gives me his running shoes to wear for the day.
So far the “hell” part of “War is hell” seems completely self-imposed by uniformed bureaucrats, adult-hall monitors intent on ensuring soldiers wear ridiculous glow-in-the-dark belts as they walk around base and wash their hands before every meal. Perhaps, “War is kindergarten,” would be a more appropriate cliché, on this base at least.
In the MWR tent I sit on a leather couch that is so hot it puts the seat heaters in my car to shame. We have escaped the sun, but not the heat. I sweat profusely while writing “I sweat profusely”. Hundreds of soldiers watch TV, play pool and ping pong. A special area is set aside for what seems to be the most popular pastime. Two dozen black leather couches lie end-to-end facing flat screen TVs each hooked to a video gaming system. With real machine guns resting at their boots they play first-person shooter games. While not on real patrols they are on virtual patrols killing countless virtual bad guys and winning in contests where the idea of victory is clear and where there are no consequences for losing.
Afternoon comes. Jet lag hits like an Ambian freight train. We sleep on a couch in a Green Beans coffee shop, the Starbucks of forward bases. Its motto is “honour first, coffee second”. I’m not sure what that means, but for Snorre and I, the afternoon hours turn into sleep first, coffee second as we doze on the hot leather couch.
As the day dims to dusk we stroll along a boardwalk in the middle of base. It’s not unlike the boardwalk in any beach city, expect there is no water. Inside a wooden walkway boxing in an area large enough for a couple of soccer pitches, soldiers compete in a sand volleyball tournament next to a heated, tennis shoe-enabled hockey match. Country karaoke blares over loudspeakers. Shops like the French pastaria, German base store and Habib’s Gems surround the walkway.
As the sun sinks slowly, soldiers play basketball to a background soundtrack featuring the roar and whip of Harrier jets and Black Hawk helicopters.
This does not feel like war. It feels like a big base from the Bush years, when the US began deploying entire cities with its troops, thanks to enormous contracts with companies like Halliburton and KBR. This feels like a gaudy relic of the past, opulent by war standards.
A central theme in US counter-insurgency doctrine: big bases may be safer for the troops, but they undermine the mission; soldiers must live and operate within the civilian population. A lesson learned from too many bloody years in Iraq; a lesson that was at the heart of the Iraq surge strategy and supposedly of the new Afghan strategy as well.