Thursday, August 14, 2008

Leaving with honor: My 12th and final report from Iraq

After waiting around for most of the night at a bus stop at Camp Stryker, I finally made it out to BIAP (the so-called Baghdad International Airport -- consisting of a whole bunch of porta-potties, lots of blast walls, a few Quonset huts and a handful of tents). By the time I arrived, it was five in the morning and everyone there was dog-tired so I huddled down next to a small airborne Army unit that was waiting to go home on R&R and we all tried to catch some sleep. Have you ever tried to sleep on a hard-as-a-rock cement apron next to some blast walls without pillows or blankets and surrounded by soldiers, backpacks and Kevlar? Forget it. I read a book.

The guy next to me also gave up trying to sleep and squatted over a drain grill to shave himself, using bottled water and no mirror.

"So that's how this man's army manages to stay clean-shaven," I joked.

"Hey, this is better than in the wintertime," the soldier replied. "At least the water is warm." Which reminded us that the sun was about to come up and cause us all to be very hot once again. And then the guy on the other side of me pulled an electric shaver out of his gear.

I'm too tired to come up with an analogy between men and women getting up and getting ready for work in America and men and women getting up and getting ready for work in Iraq.

"You know that there's a DFAC right down the road," said the shaver. A dining facility! I'm there. And the sign at the DFAC read. "Dear guests: Upon hearing unannounced explosions or rocket whistling, drop to the ground. DO NOT wait for giant voice announcement to react!"

By 11:00 am, I was lucky enough to get a C-130 flying Space-Available back to Kuwait, and of course once I arrived at the American airbase there, I went straight to their DFAC too. I love DFACs. You don't have to cook. Or do dishes.

While I was happily eating my pot roast, mashed potatoes and salad at the DFAC, John McCain came on the wide-screen TV and started talking about solving our energy crisis by building "45 nuclear reactors". What? Does McCain even realize how crazy that sounds? 45 more nuclear reactors would create enough radioactively-contaminated waste water to kill every man, woman and child on the planet approximately ten times over. That's a rough estimate but still....

On the other hand, maybe McCain is on to something here. If we're all dead, then we won't be making all that many energy demands, the amount of oil we have now will last us forever and we will never again have to be afraid of the words "Peak Oil". We'd be dead.

Then I went off to find a tent to stay in while waiting for my visa to come back from the Kuwaiti government -- you need to get a visa in order to enter Kuwait when you fly in from Iraq -- and took a short nap on a real bed with real sheets. Then I popped off to the medical clinic here on the airbase to have my bug bites checked out. This is the third time that I've staggered back from Iraq all broken and they've patched me back up. "I may have caught Leishmaniasis," I whined.

"Leishmaniasis is a very serious infection and we don't treat it without extensive tests first. But if it migrates to your liver, you could die." Yeah. but then I'd get to write a heck of an article about it first!

"Here's some Calamine lotion. Give that a try." So now I'm all bright pink and look like I just got back from Girl Scout camp with a case of poison oak.

At one of the soldiers' recreation and welfare centers back in Iraq, I had picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle's book, "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose," which is highly recommended by Oprah's book club. I thought it looked a bit New Age to be reading on Army bases because of its numerous anti-war quotes -- such as, "These days you frequently hear the expression 'the war against' this or that, and whenever I hear it, I know that it is condemned to failure.... War is a mind-set, and all action that comes of of such a mind-set will either strengthen the enemy, the perceived evil, or if the war is won, will create a new enemy, a new evil equal to and often worse than the one that was defeated.... Beware of making it your mission to 'eradicate evil' as you are likely to turn into the very thing you are fighting against."

However, much to my surprise, several different soldiers came up to me and said, "Hey, I see that you are reading Tolle too," and "I've got all of his books," and "He really knows what he's talking about." Good. Maybe Eckhart and Oprah will finally be the ones to succeed in putting an end to war. I'm down with that.

I also talked with a reservist about what will happen next for him, after he gets out of the service. "The new GI bill is a step in the right direction," he said. "It gives vets a $1,200 living allowance to go back to school with. That's good. But to qualify for it 100%, you need to have been on active duty for five years AFTER September 11, 2001. Which means that the time that I served in the Gulf War doesn't count and I have to stay over here one more year in order to qualify."

One of the main reasons that this reservist is over here is economic. "If this job disappears, I don't know if I can find another one."

"Yeah, but..." I said, as we stood chatting in the chow hall of a military camp that must have cost ten billion dollars to build, "all that military money could have been used to employ people to stop global warming or build hospitals and schools. You guys are intelligent and well-trained. You could have done that instead. You guys could do anything." Plus all that money spent on the last five years of constant warfare hasn't bought America any more safety at all. In fact, it is the general consensus that America is far less safe now than it was even right after 9-11. Heck, even as we speak, those [leaders] in Washington are hinting around about starting a nuclear war with Russia! How safe is that?

Plus when the spit really hits the fan ecologically and our planet turns into deserts, we are all gonna be smacking our foreheads and saying "Doh!" just like we were all Homer Simpsons. "Doh! Why did we spend all those resources on war! We shoulda spent them on soil conservation and alternative energy." Not that those would be Homer's words exactly -- but even he would get the drift.

Getting back to the reality of what Tolle describes as living in the NOW, here's my plan: Tomorrow I will take a bus into Kuwait City, board United Airlines flight 8743 to Frankfurt and then spend the next 24 hours watching inflight movies and waiting between flights. So. Before my brain goes on strike again, let me summarize what I have learned in Iraq. "If our troops pull out now, we will be leaving with honor...."

Another thing to consider regarding having our troops leave Iraq now is that those [leaders] in Washington have just gone out of their way to make an enemy of Russia and Russia has a lot of oil and Iran doesn't like us either and Iran has a lot of oil. Plus China and Europe are looking to buy oil from Russia and Iran -- and Iraq -- and because they too have been antagonized by the threatening and bellicose attitude of those [leaders] in Washington, they are pretty much going to jump at a chance to use euros and rubles instead of dollars to buy oil. And if this happens, America's economy will probably eat dirt and we won't even be able to AFFORD Iraq any more. In this case, then our ability to "Leave with honor" right now might be a good thing.

And as for myself? Right now, I feel like I've lost something important over here, but I don't quite know what. I gave this trip to Iraq everything I had, put every ounce of my entire heart and soul into learning as much as I could about the situation here and trying to write about it in a manner that would allow people back in America who have never been here to actually get an idea of what it is like -- and now that I've got no heart and soul left, I still have to endure yet another 24 hours of fear of flying. Again. Was this trip worth it? Who knows. If I can in any small way effect America's ability to see that both the foreign and domestic policies of those [leaders] in Washington are hurtful, expensive, scary and wrong, then this trip will have been a success.

And let us also hope that I can still somehow manage to not get bitten by any more bugs or get lost in the next 24 hours, make it to the Kuwait City airport in one piece, get myself and my luggage onto Flight 8743 tomorrow night and "Leave with honor" myself.