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Vacation in Baghdad

By Henry I. Stern

Some Harvard students go skiing for winter vacation. Others visit their grandparents in Florida. I went to Iraq.

For eight days last December, I worked as an assistant on a United Service Organizations tour of Kuwait and Iraq. I shook thousands of hands, heard hundreds of stories and saw things that I have never seen before and will never see again. I held a suicide bomber’s belt; I met a man whose face was burnt and eyes were blinded by shrapnel; I dined in a tyrant’s water palace; I even detonated a bomb (albeit a small one).

Life in Baghdad seems a lot like life anywhere—complicated, difficult, often mundane and very real. Familiar social realities persist even in a war zone. The life of the average soldier is very much a blue-collar grind. These men and women work long, hard hours, earn low pay and eat, sleep, joke, flirt and live like most Americans.

Most of the men and women serving in Iraq right now are not the fighting machines we typically imagine them to be. According to the commander of the Air Force camp at Baghdad International Airport, the ratio of support staff to combat troops is 10 to 1. The Civilian Engineers Corps makes sure the generators are working and that the tents are sturdy. The dishwashers wash dishes. There is a laundry staff. There is even an entire unit whose sole purpose is to make sure all the Hummers have gas. Most of these people signed up thinking that they would be going to reserve trainings a few weeks out of the year and earning some extra cash doing a patriotic duty. The pilot who flew me into Baghdad had been flying FedEx planes just a month earlier. Now, here we were, screaming through the desert on a C-130, banking back and forth in a series of nauseating maneuvers in order to avoid what he called “smoking fenceposts.” I call them rockets.

The majority of the men and women in Iraq are typical, hard-working Americans who are filled with a powerful sense of purpose, risking a much higher probability of being killed than the typical waitress or auto mechanic. One only needs to listen to the thump of mortars during the night to remember that life in Baghdad is unlike life anywhere else.

There do exist, however, a select group of soldiers who do not flinch at these concussions—men who have wanted to be warriors since the days they were born. While everyone else is sorting mail or reheating potato wedges for the 10th consecutive day, these Special Forces operatives are hunting insurgents in the middle of the night. On my last night in Baghdad, the self-proclaimed “secret squirrels” of Iraq invited my group to dinner at one of Saddam’s water palaces (they had been living there since February 2002, a month before combat had officially begun). We ate Whoppers and hot apple pies around a U-shaped marble table in lavish, high-backed upholstered chairs. Saddam’s flat-screen surround-sound theater system echoed satellite television off the cavernous walls of the ballroom.

Unlike the “yes, sir,” “no, sir” personalities of most soldiers we met, these guys were full of personality and flair. They play practical jokes on each other. They drive down to the Army barracks at night and recruit female troops to come up to the palace for pool parties. They sneak beers into the medical fridges (due to the “hearts and minds” purpose of Operation Enduring Freedom, alcohol consumption is prohibited for U.S. armed forces in Iraq).

As the night at Saddam’s wore on and one beer turned into three or four, the dark realities of their lives began to surface. During a cigarette break outside the palace, Aaron—a tan, spiky-haired 25-year-old who liked to talk like Mr. T—told me about the time when his convoy got stopped on the outskirts of Kirkuk. Stopped at a checkpoint, a young boy approached Aaron’s truck with an AK-47 in his hands. The child pointed the assault rifle at Aaron and Aaron shot the child in the head. He bluntly stated that morality was not a factor in his life anymore: his motto was “kill to live,” as it had to be.

While most soldiers are not compelled to such cold, calculating brutality, self-doubt and moral ambivalence are weaknesses in a place like Baghdad. It is the job of those who command these troops, the political leaders who receive the blind faith of our armed forces, to truly honor the sacrifices these men and women make. We must never forget that war is fought by human beings. If we are truly going to support our troops, we ought to feed them right and pay them well. Most importantly, let them know just what it is they are doing over there. The problem is, I don’t think anybody knows.

Henry I. Stern ’04 is a history concentrator affiliated with Eliot House.

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