Impressing the Brass – Episode 1

The scene recounted below took place during the first field mission that I went out on (see A Day in the Field – Month 1). This was my first contact with the Lt Colonel, and our relationship only went downhill from here. A year later two veteran military men separately admitted to me that were he their commander in a “real war zone,” they’d have shot him themselves. He was a self-absorbed, micro-managing lunatic who put a lot of people’s lives at risk for his own self-aggrandizing reasons: his desire for a Combat Action Badge and his hope of a Purple Heart. But more on that another day …

August 2006

I’m very sorry to report that I’ve met our commanding officer, and we are not impressed. (Either of us.) The Lt Colonel invited himself along on the site inspection tour that Bill [the man I’ll replace when he redeploys in a few weeks] and I had planned for the day. I successfully avoided direct contact with the LTC all morning, but at lunch he sat down across from me and administered some test questions. I failed: surprise!

As most of my sites are located an hour or more to the south of base, the custom is to eat lunch at Camp Bucca, a base in that area. Bucca is an American base, though it lies within the British Area of Operations (AO). The name Bucca was chosen to honor Ronald Bucca, a soldier in the 800th Military Police Brigade and New York City Fire Marshall, who died on September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Camp Bucca was used as a prison camp by the Brits during the war (let’s pretend it’s ended), then the Americans took over in 2003. One of my projects is actually on the base, having to do with an expansion of the prison facilities. Since the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, many of the detainees from Abu Ghraib have been moved here. (That oughtta solve the problem, since the location of Abu Ghraib was fully responsible for the abuse of prisoners. Wait … huh?)

The base is located near the Port of Umm Qasr and the city of the same name. Flat, sandy, dusty, very hot, very beige, and hopelessly ugly, Bucca does have a very large mess hall that serves ice cream. (Never underestimate the power of ice cream in Iraq.) The base has a small PX that’s not very well stocked by US standards*. Six or eight trailers near the PX house hajji shops – the common word used here for gift shops of any kind – jewelry, carpets, trinkets. The base also has a post office, and being that it’s the only American post office around, this is where our mail is routed. Once a week our admin assistant comes down with a PSD team to pick it up.

* I called the PX small in August … by October I considered it large and well-stocked. Toothpaste and deodorant were almost always in stock (at least one brand of each item).

Bucca is supposed to be a temporary base, which might serve as an excuse for the tent housing. I get the impression no one really believes in the temporary designation, as people roll their eyes and snort when the phrase is spoken.

My encounter with the colonel began innocently enough. He placed his tray carefully on the table and sat down across from me.

What do you think of the country so far, he asked me heartily, a big grin on his face. He’s very gung-ho, perky even, and obviously wanted a team-player response. He’s a professor of something at West Point, which implies all sorts of tedious characteristics that I was at first willing to ignore.

Distracted by the new environment and the depressing fried food, I almost blurted out, What country? Because so far I’ve seen two beige-dominated military bases and a running slice of military occupation or international military policing or something. I’ve seen three hours worth of countryside vignettes as we drove from site to site this morning: small pieces of a ripped up country viewed through ballistic glass while armed men hover. What country are we in?

Coming to my senses in time, however, I hedged.

I like the people, I replied carefully.

From my limited sample so far, aside from the armed guards, the contractor’s hate-eyed manager, and the nasty IP, (I know, sounds like everyone) the people are very polite, friendly, helpful, and socially graceful (I’m talking about six contractors’ engineers, forty-some workmen we encountered at projects this morning, and the six or eight Iraqi engineers I’ve met back at camp – see? The ones with guns aren’t everyone!). The contractors’ workmen are attentive and formal, touring us carefully around their sites then offering cold soft drinks before we climb back into our vehicles. They’re eager to explain what they’re doing, and positively glow with pride when anyone compliments their work. Many men shake someone’s hand, then lay their hand on their heart, which they do very naturally and so it’s a very warm gesture. Most of us westerners mirror the gesture without thinking, occasionally earning approving laughs and nods from the Iraqis.

Without comment on my somewhat oblique answer to his first question, Lt Col Academy then asked me what I think of the projects, using the same perky expression and straight blank gaze.

I think, I replied, they look like good projects. I hope they’re sustainable.

Why do I always feel compelled to tell the truth? In a perfect world, this trait would make me golden, but it’s probably not the most valuable habit to be hauling around in a military world.

The LTC stared at me for about ten seconds as if waiting for me to correct myself, then went back to his meal without another word.

My inconvenient knack for honesty aside, I’d have thought that sustainability would be a valid topic of conversation. From what I gather through the ConReps who have been in-country awhile, there are legitimate concerns about ongoing looting and sabotage of sites. Apparently it’s not unusual for a project to be looted during and after construction. I’ve heard stories of buildings effectively stripped as soon as they’re finished. A health center without electrical fixtures is not particularly effective.

Some ConReps have also pointed out that project design and equipment is often state of the art, beyond the energy means and/or technical capacity of the available workforce. An estimated 80% of educated Iraqis have left the country, leaving the ill-educated and criminal as a majority. The savages, my Iraqi engineers call them. If you build a water treatment plant that requires filters to be changed regularly, someone needs to know that filters need to be changed regularly, and how to change them.

I wasn’t interested in starting an argument or criticize the mission, but it might have been interesting to discuss some of these issues with a person who is, theoretically, in a position to begin to address them.

Instead, I made it through lunch without impressing the brass … we finished our meal in silence, he possibly pondering my inadequate enthusiasm for The Mission and me certainly pondering his questionable skills in conversation and critical thinking.



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