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There is no joy in being here. Nothing to laugh about. For every drop of information conveyed, a bucket is spilled. Folks say to me, “I hope you are saving all that for a book when you get back.” Fact is, now is the time that the information can be most important.
In an attempt to ameliorate this and to increase the trickle to some sort of steady flow, I will begin publishing a series called RUBS:
RUBs will amount to little more than a stream-of-consciousness note…tapped out as quickly as I can, and posted without checking nary a tense or, comma.
For the first RUBS, let’s start with day to day stuff. I’ve been evicted from a trailer due to lack of space (something I cover more in a dispatch ready to launch tomorrow). Billions of dollars are spent on the war each month, millions of dollars fly around here like sparrows, yet there are no designated places for journalists? While so many soldiers and their families shout for coverage from Afghanistan (remember that place?) and Iraq, I can sometimes be found from midnight to sunrise sitting outside, trying to transmit photos through a wireless network that only works sometimes. RUBS will be mostly sans photos.
A friend named “Q” called me this morning. I haven’t seen Q for more than a year. Q is a soldier, and this his second combat tour. I got to know Q up in Mosul in 2005. Q called on my cell to tell me he was at the PX. The PX is the big store on base where they sell shoes, frozen foods, and even 10 varieties of flat-screen televisions. The most expensive costs $2,000. When I got to the PX, there was my buddy Q, sitting at a table just next to the Burger King, Taco Bell and Popeye’s chicken place. A soldier tossed a couple fries to a some sparrows while I asked Q how the war has been going for him.
We got a coffee at Seattle’s Best coffee joint, and while we stood in line, Q told me that one of his closest buddies was killed yesterday in combat downtown. He got shot in the head. Q is taking it like a soldier, which is to say he misses his friend. I didn’t know what to say. Q wanted to buy my coffee. The memorial is will be on the 26th. Q had shot people himself in Mosul, and recently made it through Special Forces selection, but he was back here an infantryman. He had volunteered to come back to Iraq. Soldiers like Q are the reason I came back, because I know they deserve to have their stories told, and I know that Americans want to read them.
After some conversation, Q had to head back to his unit on a nearby base, and I sat there for a while thinking. Helicopters flew over. Last night there had been a lot of armor moving. Big Strykers, M1 tanks, Bradleys, all rumbling off to somewhere. A fight was scheduled for somewhere. Lights and dust. Creaking and groaning machines with powerful engines rumbled in the night. Dark helicopters flew overhead, and jets above them. War was unfolding. That was last night.
There are jackals around here, not just the metophorical ones, but the ones that yip, and sometimes bunches of them start yipping at once. Yesterday, while I was doing an on-air interview on my cell phone with Glenn and Helen on Instapundit, a jackal skulked around, walked up on a berm and just stared at me. I was staring back at the jackal while talking to Glenn and Helen. Often while I am talking with people in the States, they hear the helicopters flying, but none have ever said they heard the gunfire or explosions that sometimes occur while we are talking.
I have not left base in a good two weeks. This is unprecedented, given that sometimes I would run two or three missions per day, or at least try for five or six or seven per week. Trying to get living quarters and good communications is truly a waste of time. Only the richest or most determined news agencies dare come here for more than a brief stay. Most of the journalists seem to start cracking pretty quick anyway.
Generally it’s a huge waste of time and money to come here, and the hassle and risk to reward ratio is very bad. I’ve spent more than a year embedded in Iraq, and numerous times public affairs people have made snide remarks that journalists should be happy they get to eat “their chow” for free. Of course, they don’t mention that “their chow” belongs to American taxpayers, the same taxpayers they hurt when they squelch journalism from the war. Whether they do it directly, intentionally indirectly, or just by plain bungling the simplest stuff, like making sure writers have a surface to write on, whatever the case, I haven’t met anyone yet who knows how to write or hold a camera who comes to Iraq for free food. It’s really not fun here, next to impossible to do the job, and the food is nothing special. After all, we’re not talking about covering the French army.
The dining facilities are interesting and vastly different throughout the country. Some are rough and soldiers are lucky and happy to get sandwiches. But here in Baghdad the mess halls are like restaurants. Steak and crab once per week. All the major sodas, lots of cake and ice cream, complete with African guards out front. Most people can enter the dining facility without a problem, but at the dining facility near my tent, I get searched every time because I have a press ID. That’s a nice touch–wand the press before they eat. But I know first hand that it can get even more heavy-handed. One time, in 2005, after I wrote something they didn’t like (Proximity Delays), I needed a guard to eat.
Inside the dining facility here, most of the workers are from places like India, Bangladesh and Nepal. They all smile and are very polite, but when I talk with them during times when it’s not busy, all seem unhappy. One man from Nepal told me that after he pays everyone off for having the job, he makes $275 per month. One of the Indian men working at a fast food joint on base (not saying which) said he makes $500 per month for 60 hours per week. No overtime or holidays. After hearing all that, I suppose the public affairs people are right: I am lucky to get a free lunch!
But considering all the planning, organization, logistics and resources that went in to putting up what amounts to a food court in a surburban mall, how hard would it be, really, for there to be a clean, well-lit press trailer, open 24-7, with some desks, chairs and lockers, wired for the internet? Not on every base, but on enough of them so that stories from everywhere else could get out on a regular basis. For a military that is the first to gripe about not getting enough press–in a kind of war where the press can determine the outcome–it seems fairly obvious that the first step would be to at least make sure there is a place for the press to work. If this were a few months into this war, I could understand it, but to not even be at square one this far in?
A general emailed in the past 24 hours threatening to kick me out. The first time the Army threatened to kick me out was in late 2005, just after I published a dispatch called “Gates of Fire.” Some of the senior level public affairs people who’d been upset by “Proximity Delays” were looking ever since for a reason to kick me out and they wanted to use “Gates of Fire” as a catapult. In the events described in that dispatch, I broke some rules by, for instance, firing a weapon during combat when some of our soldiers were fighting fairly close quarters and one was wounded and still under enemy fire. That’s right. I’m not sure what message the senior level public affairs people thought that would convey had they succeeded, (which they didn’t) but it was clear to me what they valued most. They want the press on a short leash, even at the expense of the life of a soldier.
Some readers might recall that LTC Barry Johnson denied my embed requests in 2006, but after I wrote “Censoring Iraq,” somehow the door opened up. Strangely, a couple days ago, LTC Barry Johnson invited me to be a panelist at a symposium in Washington D.C. on ”the role of blogs and bloggers in the news environment today. The intent is to help PAOs better understand the issues involved.” Call me suspicious, but my whiskers tingled on that one.
I’ll post a major dispatch within the next 18 hours. Lots of photos. I worked very hard for you. They’ll probably say I broke some kind of rules. Fact is, as soon as the public affairs people will start being part of the solution and not part of the problem, I can start writing about the successes and the soldiers like Q who are out in Baghdad even now, trying to make this work.
That’s it for the first fire-from-the-hip RUBs.
Good night and Good luck.