12 June 2011

To Guadalcanal by way of Little Hethrow

I kicked off my final road trip auspiciously – by offending the sensibilities of a Special Forces Colonel.  With horror etched on his face, he grabbed my New Yorker out of my hands as I was sitting in the KAIA terminal and demanded to know what I was doing reading this rubbish.  Once upon a time, it was a good magazine; now it was a fringe liberal rag and would turn my brain to mush.  Given that the article I was reading was about Christian Louboutin, I didn’t have much standing to argue the second charge (bit of a tangent here, but Monsieur Louboutin associates the word comfy with a sad, lonely, puffy woman holding a big bottle of alcohol and wearing clogs.  And here I just thought it was after-work sweats).  Several of his soldiers, meanwhile, were huddled together, thoroughly engrossed in an iPod shrilly asserting that cap-and-trade policies cost more than the annual defense budget and were in fact the linchpin of a global plot to weaken the United States.  Brain mush comes in myriad guises, sir.
Helmand - it's a beach with no water

This turned out to be more or less the theme of my outing, as a series of delays, frustrating interactions with linguists, exhaustion, and intense heat definitely fried some of my synapses.  My enduring impression of southern Afghanistan is of a dust globe – think all of the swirling motion of a snow globe, but decidedly grainier.  Rattled as I was, my notes and observations were a bit more obtuse than usual (or they might always be this random.  Sometimes it’s hard to judge from this side of the looking glass).  But here goes – some random musings from my jaunt through Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

I ended up passing quite a bit of time on NATO bases during a trip that was ostensibly to Marine-dominated outposts.  In fact, I spent two days at three different terminals before I ever even hit Helmand, bouncing from Kabul to Bagram to Kandahar and finally to Leatherneck.  One leg even saw me strapped into a plane, IBA and Kevlar on, gear palletized, before I was yanked off to make way for some VIPs and delayed into the wee hours of the morning.  MilAir, I love you so.  What with all the opportunity I had to make comparisons, I did notice how seriously NATO bases take female security.  The tent locks at KAIA are so fierce that I actually got locked inside the tent.  Even so, I do rather enjoy hanging around NATO installations.  When I finally escaped the transient tent, I stumbled out into a gaggle of Swedish commandos, all sun bathing.  Never have I found bearded men so delicious. 

Overall, Coalition forces seem to approach their deployments with an airiness that Americans, when housed alongside them, likewise adopt.  They also co-opt some of the more obviously European mannerisms, like excessive smoking and Puma-wearing.  Likewise, Afghans, when housed with units they like, will start acting like Americans.  They curse with startling fluency, make dirty jokes, say roger and pop smoke…  Some even go so far as to start collecting tattoos.  The lucky ones had a benevolent tattoo artist in their unit – there are lots of artists, though few willing to work on linguists – while others went local.  The quality difference is…noticeable.  However, I have yet to see an Afghan act like an Italian.  I wonder about the directionality of the equation.

NATO bases, perhaps because of the language barriers, also have some of the best signs I’ve ever seen.  I need to preface this by admitting that I love signs.  I think it’s amazing how we communicate so much information though terse sentence fragments and iconography.  For example, KAIA sported some posters reminding me that, in the advent of a rocket attack, I should don my body armour and lay flat on my belly.  As confusing as the Taliban may find planking (God knows it baffles me), I don’t think it’s sufficient to make them stop.  The British helio terminal at the multi-national base complex in Helmand is a self-styled ‘Little Heathrow’. 
Fair warning at KAIA

Coalition bases are not alone in their quirks, of course.  I’d never noticed it before (I’m not one for energy drinks, but turns out there’s nothing ingesting 40000% of your daily value of vitamin B to heighten your powers of observation at 2 am), but the man/woman stick figures on the restroom signs at the BAF terminal are exactly the same.  They’re both wearing pants, rifle held casually to one side; mirror images in different colour schemes.  Meanwhile, when you land at Dwyer, a rather tremendous welcome sign announces that “The Marines have landed…the situation is now well in hand”.  As if to reinforce that notion, the street names are Al Anbar, Guadalcanal, Chosin and a number of other Marine conquests of yore. 
Force multipliers at KAF (apparently these barriers are leased.  Good financial sense, that)

When I did finally arrive in Helmand, a series of heat-induced power outages revealed to me that I find dark bathrooms terrifying (this trip was surprisingly introspective).  If I ever end up writing a horror film, it will involve either Taliban vampires (for campy horror) or bathrooms with burned out lights (…probably also campy horror, but my fear will be genuine).  I imagine that it wouldn’t have both, though.  Allah knows what happens in the female ablution centers; the Talibs don’t want to.  Darkened bathrooms, however, are better than none.  I spent nearly a week at Camp Dwyer and never managed to find a female latrine.  Showers, yes.  ‘Female Only’ marked porta-potties, sure.  Fourteen male latrines within walking distance of my tent, no problem.  But actual female latrines were MIA.  Rumor has it there had been one, but they relocated the day I arrived.  To where, no one knew.  When I got to KAF and was again able to wash my hands in running water, it seemed a small miracle.  I really shouldn’t complain, though.  One of our female linguists described to me how, assigned to a Marine FET, she had spent 7 months at a COP with no running water at all.  It was a bit discomforting how very similar MREs and bag-based field latrines look.  Incidentally, she was turning in her resignation.   

While the Marines might rough it, Army ladies travel in style.  In nearly every transient tent I passed through, my bunk-mates enjoyed pillows and fitted sheets to go compliment their sleeping bags.  Their uniforms and towels were neatly hung up, curling irons set out for use in the morning.  I do not take any such amenities with me when I travel and consequently feel like a heathen and the world’s most inefficient packer.  Their rucks had to have been blessed by Mary Poppins.