If you ask the average American what life is like for our troops in Iraq, the answer you get would probably be “a living hell.” It’s hard to conclude otherwise when the news media relentlessly focus on the two or three Americans (out of more than 150,000) who on average lose their lives there on any given day. This has led to the popular perception that our troops are in the line of fire 24/7. For many people, the present conflict probably conjures up lurid images from Vietnam-war films such as Platoon or Apocalypse Now.
There is no doubt that the combat is intense and the danger great for some of our troops: namely, those garrisoned at joint security stations or combat outposts. These installations are small, relatively exposed positions located in high-risk areas where conditions are fairly Spartan. The troops populating them, however, form a distinct (if slightly growing) minority. Life for most of our troops (and most civilian contractors) is considerably more comfortable and less dangerous.
Baltimore Sun correspondent David Wood has produced the best account I’ve read yet of what most Americans in Iraq actually experience. These are the “fobbits,” who seldom—if ever—leave their giant, heavily fortified forward operating bases (FOB’s). As Woods notes from Camp Anaconda, a giant base housing 28,000 Americans north of Baghdad:
For fobbits inside the wire, after all, life is tolerable. The food is abundant, the showers have hot water and usually good water pressure, the $5 million gyms are open 24/7, as are the swimming pools, the post exchange, and the 745-seat movie theater.
There’s a Pizza Hut, a Green Beans coffee franchise, and a Burger King, but a Whopper and fries go for $5.50 and taste suspiciously like the stuff available for free next door at the immense chow hall (four steam-table entrees every meal; burgers, fries, onion rings, and pizza; double 40-foot salad bars and burrito bars; and cakes, pies, and Haagen-Dazs over past the mounds of energy bars, Gatorade, and Pop-Tarts).
“Biggest threat here is gaining weight,” huffed a beefy airman.
Pedestrians wear gym shorts, official T-shirts, and combat helmets, and carry a rifle along with a plastic bag of goodies from the PX, where you can get socks, censor-friendly magazines, and television sets, but no liquor. You can even order a car or a Harley Davidson here; pick it out from a catalog and have it shipped home from international dealers in Europe.
What Woods also captures is the ennui that builds in this slightly surreal environment, with almost no Iraqis and little real danger. He writes:
[T]he monotony slowly builds stress. Days stretch out in a haze of heat and dust. The chow hall menu rotates predictably—if it’s Thursday, it’s chicken-fried steak. . . . Every day pretty much unrolls like the previous one, whether your job is tracking convoys, logging inventory, or preparing the daily intelligence briefing for air crews. Families are close by e-mail or phone and sometimes too close: you can sympathize with a $700 brake job on the family car but you can’t do much about it. And there is the guilt of missing birthdays, graduations, and the unimportant events that make life precious.
And yet to balance against these stresses there is little sense of immediate accomplishment. Troops “outside the wire” can get a temporary high when they’ve killed some insurgents or made a town safer. (They can also get a temporary or not-so-temporary low if a buddy is killed or maimed.) For the fobbits, there is no such satisfaction. Which may be why I’ve found that morale is often higher among front-line units than it is among those who are objectively much better off—at least by civilian standards.