Baghdad Report: Over There

My son, standing on the sidewalk in the dusky light hugging my wife’s leg. That was the image I carried in my mind on the long ride out. Michelle and I were now really bound for Iraq, and we were both mostly quiet for the first few minutes of the ride as her husband drove us to the airport. Whatever feeling of loss and trepidation I had that night were at most one-one thousandth of what our troops who have families must feel when they get orders to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of them have deployed to one or the other before. Most of them, particularly the enlisted who do much of the fighting, joined after 9-11 and even after the 2003 invasion. They knew what they were getting themselves into, and joined up with eyes wide open, not because they like war and fighting, but because they feel called to defend their country and Iraq is the current focus of our national defense.

An 11-hour plane ride takes us from the safe environs of the United States to the…safe environs of Kuwait, where we land in a glittering capital tucked in close to the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is everything an American would hope to find in the Middle East, full of friendly people, ultra clean streets, spectacular architecture, modern conveniences and cuisine from all over the world. Here, the country’s oil reserves provide for a soft lifestyle for Kuwait’s 5 million citizens. Imported labor performs most of the actual work done here.

An hour’s drive from Kuwait City takes us out into the desert, though the night here conceals everything more than a few feet from the road. We drive to a US Army base that has become the logistics and travel hub for the war; from here you can catch a flight to Bagram, Kabul and other points in Afghanistan or Basra, Mosul, Baghdad and other points within Iraq. This dingy airport is the war’s new normal.

The base itself looks like it ought to be on the dark side of the moon–gray gravel streets, dark green tents in perfect rows and blocks, a few lights off on the perimeter, an airstrip in constant use a few miles away. We spend a perpetual night here waiting on a flight to Baghdad International Airport–“BIAP” or “biop” in milspeak–only to get bumped by an element of the 82nd Airborne on its way to where we’re going. It’s the beginning of the surge, two days before President Bush announces it.

We fight with our satellite phone system–which never did work. We log on to the internet in the MWR tent to email our families that we’ve arrived safely in Kuwait. We watch a little of the NFL playoffs on a big screen. A civilian on his way to someplace in Iraq recognizes Michelle, the first of many times the Fox effect appears on this trip.

Eventually we get a flight out, but not before spending a long time in the 24-hour Green Bean coffee shop and hour upon hour in the terminal.

The flight to Baghdad aboard a C-130 takes about 90 minutes, but upon landing it feels like we’re on another planet. Kuwait was new and modern and friendly; BIAP is a primitive mudhole. Rain the day before had turned the sand into a light beige mud that could double for super glue. It gets into and onto everything, and soon both of us have BIAP mud up to our knees. The civilians here must work 24 hours a day; we’ll see the same people as we leave a few days hence, who are helping us navigate getting first to the Green Zone (called the International Zone or “IZ” now) and then to our base at Camp Justice.

The Air Force loses our bags, then finds them, flies them around Iraq and Kuwait before sending both of mine and one of Michelle’s two back to us at BIAP. The whole fiasco costs us a day of our embed, and costs Michelle most of her wardrobe. She’ll end up wearing the same muddy pants for the entire trip. She’ll end up complaining about it so little that it has no effect on our mission at all, save not having a few of the critical items that were in her lost luggage.

A Rhino ride from BIAP to the IZ, a couple hours getting our press credentials and waiting on our ride to Justice, about 25 minutes in Humvees bumping across town (and across one end of Haifa Street), and we’re here: the war. Minus the day we lost waiting on the Air Force to gets its act together, it has taken us about two days to get from my doorstep to the war in Iraq.

During the uneventful ride down the “highway of death” called Route Irish to the IZ, US and Iraqi troops were engaged in a fierce battle with insurgents on Haifa Street. That’s about 20 blocks from where we ended up in the IZ, but we had no idea that we were essentially riding straight toward a battle. We only knew about it from seeing CNN’s footage on a big screen in the IZ’s media lounge later on. CNN’s tone made it seem like all of Baghdad was fixated on this battle, but the truth is that the city is so huge that even a large battle like that one is pretty easy to miss if you’re more than half a mile away from it. When we rode near the area, all was quiet. A kidnapped Iraqi journalist’s body would be discovered on that street the day we flew out from Kuwait.

A short flight from BIAP or a longish convoy ride can take you to Anbar, where some of the war’s fiercest fighting is still going on. Bloggers Bill Ardolino, Bill Roggio and Michael Yon are there–“there” being about 2.5 to 3 travel days from where you are.

Another travel day or so can get you to where Michael Totten is, blogging from Hezbollah’s stronghold in Lebanon. In less than a week, you can go from over here where we think we’re safe, to over there where Iran’s terrorist army rules the terrain.

On our way out, Justice troops drove us straight to BIAP, bypassing the IZ, and we got lucky catching a flight back to the base in Kuwait a few hours later. Troops there were kind enough to give us a ride back to Kuwait International, from which we caught a cab to the Sheraton to spend the night before flying back to the States the next day. In all, we went from the war front to safe Kuwait in less than a day, and could have been back in the US 14 hours later if our flight had been timed right. The night in Kuwait gave us the chance to get cleaned up and catch up on sleep, and the following day we had a brilliant Lebanese lunch at the hotel before heading off to the airport, where the biggest worry is the overly aggressive baggage handlers. The free wi-fi at Starbucks made the airport a useful and comfortable office for a few hours.

If we can get to the war in about 3 days, others can make the reverse trip just as easily. They can get from Iraq to Europe or Mexico quite easily, and in either jumping point they can obtain false papers that will allow them to enter the US. Or, of course, they can just walk in from Mexico and get their false papers here. Or they can apply for student visas and get in that way.

When we hear about the latest violence in Iraq–the loss of two dozen troops this past weekend, the terrorist bombing of a university in Baghdad that kills 72 innocents–or the daily political infighting between Maliki, the Coalition, and the Iraqi people–it all seems so far away. It can all seem irrelevant to our lives here, except for those who have family and loved ones involved in the fight or the reconstruction of Iraq. But over there isn’t as far away as it feels. In fact, over there isn’t nearly far enough away.

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Photo by SPC Jacob Gibson