January 14, 2007
Baghdad Diaries, Part 3 of 3
BY Lee Wang
Soldiers at Camp Anaconda watch a USO tour performance.
It's December 30th when we leave Q-West, the military equivalent of small town America, for the big city life in Camp Anaconda, a sprawling base in the center of Iraq with a population of 25,000. We fly in around lunchtime on a flight that is suspiciously empty. Passengers are usually the surplus cargo, packed into the empty spaces left over after pallets of food, water and equipment have been stacked in the hold. But this time, my partner Lucille and I have room to stretch out.
We find out later that most flights have been canceled for the day. Saddam had been executed this morning and the military has taken planes out of the air and convoys off the road as a precaution. Like most news in this place, this headline comes to us by word of mouth. Our public affairs escort tells us about the execution over breakfast, his usual scrambled eggs and sausage, neatly compartmentalized in a yellow Styrofoam tray. "They did it a couple of hours ago," he says.
We don't see the video evidence until we land in Anaconda. While we're waiting to check in at the airport, Fox News is playing the tape in a loop -- masked executioners leading Saddam to the gallows over and over again. In another box on the screen is his body shrouded in white.
The contractor on line behind us shakes his head. Then, as if to answer this man's silence, the contractor on line ahead of us smiles and says: "I can't wait to download the video," then adds presciently, "You know some Hajji was in there with a cell phone."
Specialist Gibson, a reporter for the base's weekly newspaper the Anaconda Times, has just returned from a trip to Ramadi, where the fighting is so intense, even public affairs staff have been killed.
The Garrison Life
We were warned about the size of Anaconda. One soldier told us that you could tell how big a base was by the bus lines. Up north, at Q-West, there was line 1 and 2. At Anaconda, he joked that the lines went from A to W. This turns out to be an exaggeration, but the base is big enough to have an East and West Side, and for soldiers to argue about which dining hall (there are four) has the best waffles.
"It's the garrison life," Specialist Gibson tells us on our first tour of the base perimeter. The Sergeant, a reporter for the base's weekly newspaper the Anaconda Times, has just returned from a trip to Ramadi, where the fighting is so intense, even public affairs staff have been killed there. Still, he's anxious to get back in the field: "I'd kind of prefer to be closer to the action."
There is an edge of envy in his voice, which at first seems crazy. But driving around the outer limit of this base, I see what he means. The world of most soldiers here begins and ends at this fence. If you stand long enough at the perimeter, behind layers of fencing and concertina wire, you'll see fleeting signs of the Iraq outside -- wide-eyed children piled into a wooden carriage pulled down the road by a tired donkey, a man cruising on his bike along a canal that runs along the edge of the base.
Anaconda is only 40 miles from Baghdad, but the war feels like it's happening in another world. The fighting is inescapable in the capital. Explosions shake the ground beneath you. But at Anaconda you have to strain to remind yourself that you're in Iraq. People walk around and even bike around the base free of Kevlar or body armor; there are speed limits and the familiar pedestrian crossing street signs from back home; and the medians are landscaped with olive trees. The streets have a boulevard feel to them and they are lined, much to our surprise, with street lamps. If you want to meet any actual Iraqis, you have to go to the Bazaar, a tented mall of shops that specializes in elaborate Turkish rugs and chintzy war souvenirs like brass-plated camels and miniature hookahs.
Palettes of water are scattered throughout the base, a constant reminder to soldiers to stay hydrated.
This is an insulated reality, but it also offers a crystal ball glimpse into the future. Anaconda is the logistics hub of Iraq -- the supply center for the war -- and for that reason, it's a kind of weather vane for what's to come. If the U.S. stays on "surge," Anaconda will grow to meet the demand. More flights and more convoys will transit in and out of the base as the need for basics like armored vehicles, fuel, water and food increases. If the U.S. draws down and bases start closing, the Anaconda hub will have fewer spokes to feed. It may also be the last base standing.
One of our public affairs escorts, Sergeant Major Mark Shulz, is a Vietnam Veteran and has a uniquely long view on the war effort. He tells us that when the last choppers pull out, like they did in Vietnam, it won't be out of Baghdad. The security concerns in the capital are too intense for Baghdad to be the staging area for a withdrawal, he explains. It'll be much easier to stage the last flights out of Anaconda.
"This will be our Saigon," he says.
Anaconda is the logistics hub of Iraq -- the supply center for the war -- and for that reason, it's a kind of weather vane for what's to come. If the U.S. stays on "surge," Anaconda will grow to meet the demand.
Shulz has been in the public affairs game a long time. He filled a similar role as a 20-year-old draftee in the last days of the Vietnam War, when he was stationed in Chu Lai. I expect him to have dark memories of his time there, but he seems to smile through his stories. "At least we had beer then," he jokes.
The hardest part about leaving, he tells us, was the people they had to abandon. The Vietnamese he seems to remember best are the two women he hired to wash his clothes. They would stomp on his uniforms to get them clean. One woman was incredibly quiet and always left the room when he walked in. Another swore like a sailor.
"Leaving is easy," he says. "The problem is who you leave behind."
Water: Made in Iraq
With all the uncertainty about the direction of the war, I'm surprised to see signs of permanence on base. Most offices are housed in the yellowing remains of the Saddam-era one-story buildings made of cinder block and stone. In official parlance, these are "pre-existing structures." The new structures -- characterless white containers of different sizes used for sleeping and showering -- are all designed to be temporary, we're told.
But we spot a third category of buildings -- new structures that look like they're designed to stay, buildings with foundations and steel frames, three stories high. A sign on the corner of one lot filled with Indian and Filipino construction workers tells us that the Army Corps of Engineers has hired contractors from Kuwait to build new barracks.
But the most revealing sign of permanence is in the dining hall. Next to rows of boxed drinks and multicolored Gatorade are unmarked bottles of water. The water, it turns out, is manufactured on base. It's pumped in from a canal that connects to the nearby Tigris River and filtered in a high-tech factory run by a Utah-based contractor named Al Morrell.
Filled with sparkling stainless steel machines imported from Italy, the factory itself looks like it was transplanted from a rust belt state in the U.S. The manager, Jim LaLonde, turns out to be from Michigan. He voices my surprise when he says:
"Who would have thought you'd find a factory like this in the middle of a war zone?"
A before and after look at water purified from the Tigris River, which is pumped through a 12-step filtration process.
The plant is almost entirely self-sufficient and completely mechanized. In one machine, clear bottles are blown into form from chips of raw resin; in another, silver tubes shoot streams of newly filtered water into the bottles. The water itself is pumped through a 12-step filtration process that involves chlorination, a series of micron filters and blasts of UV light.
The resident quality control specialist, Timothy Tan, tells me unequivocally, "It's better than Evian."
Anaconda has been producing its own water since November 2005. On summer days when the temperature creeps above 120 degrees and demand is at its peak, the plant can produce up to 280,000 liters a day. That water doesn't just supply the 25,000 soldiers and contractors who live in Anaconda, it also goes to several surrounding bases.
There's little doubt that the factories are helping to save soldiers' lives. Water falls into a narrow band of commodities that cannot be moved in large quantities by air. Until recently, it meant the water was moved by convoy. The plants have kept soldiers off dangerous roads -- a reduction of 27,000 trucks in the last year, according to Al Morrell's estimate.
There's little doubt that the factories are helping to save soldiers' lives. Until recently, water was moved by convoy. The plants have kept soldiers off dangerous roads -- a reduction of 27,000 trucks in the last year.
That's an astonishing figure, but on the flip side of this self-sufficiency is a new degree of isolation. U.S. bases depend on food trucked in from Kuwait, fuel trucked in from Turkey and now fully formed factories flown in from Italy.
The water is pumped in with little regard for its impact on surrounding communities. When I asked if anyone had looked at how pumping thousands of gallons of water from the river might impact the environment, I was told the matter was never investigated. And when I asked the manager of the plant how local villagers (who are mostly farmers) felt about the water plant, he told me he had no idea. But I learned that a few months ago, insurgents attacked the water pipeline to Anaconda, stalling production for a few weeks. The pipeline was quickly repaired and production is back to its regular levels. But the company is now exploring the possibility of digging wells on base.
A New Year
In the last hours of 2006, my partner Lucille and I head over to Anaconda's Morale Welfare and Recreation Center, an enormous hanger-like structure that houses rooms full of computers, phones and giant television screens that always seem to be playing football and rows of pool and ping pong tables.
A New Year's Eve dance is starting to warm up. We gravitate toward a quieter room and naively ask people about their resolutions for the new year.
A New Year's Eve dance is starting to warm up; hip-hop and salsa alternating as the favorite music. We gravitate toward a quieter room and naively ask people about their resolutions for the new year.
Private First Class Phillip Burns, a 19-year-old convoy driver from Wisconsin who looks like a high school freshman, says his goal is to "get home safe."
This past year was "pretty much a life-changer," he says, while his buddies loudly exchange bets over a game of Texas Hold 'Em. Burns volunteered to come to Iraq. "I really wanted to come over here and be a war veteran," he says quietly. "And say that I did something."
When we ask Specialist Brandon McKoy to sum up his 2006, he bluntly replies, "Why am I in the military? That's my assessment."
At a nearby pool table, when we ask Specialist Brandon McKoy, a Texan with a freshly shaven head, to sum up his 2006, he replies bluntly, "Why am I in the military? That's my assessment."
"I probably shouldn't say that," McKoy adds. "But I'm basically just waiting to get done with my four years."
Talking about the future is a tricky matter here. No one wants to bet on things changing. They've done that before, on their first or second deployments to Iraq.
One young specialist on his way back from a convoy run tells me that this last year has been tough. He says he lost everything when his fiancee broke off their engagement a few months back.
Relationships don't do well in this war zone. One chaplain who offers counseling along with spiritual guidance guessed that more than 50 percent of the soldiers in the battalion he's with would find themselves divorced or separated from significant others by the end of the year.
If I were at home, I know that I would be intently following the debates over whether to surge or withdraw. But it all seems pointless from here. A new policy or a new year doesn't really mean that much. Most soldiers seem resigned to deferring their futures. And for them, the important countdown isn't to a new announcement from Bush, or even to a new year; it's to that magical date when they get to go home.
Reporter, Lee Wang.
Lee Wang is a San Francisco-based filmmaker with a passion for social issue documentaries whose work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and the Travel Channel. Wang is currently working on an hour-long film about contractors in Iraq for PBS. A graduate of Yale University, she recently completed a masters degree in journalism at U.C. Berkeley.
Check back soon for accompanying video.
Read Part 1
Read Part 2 (includes video)