THE KEEP |
March 08, 2007
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 3/8/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
It was beautiful, once, in that brief, halcyon era of aggressive building, fueled by rising oil prices and the limitless credit of the newest despot on the block, in a yesterday where the Americans were friends, Arab-on-Persian warfare was still a few years away, and the power of Tikrit's favorite son ran unchecked. In that gleaming age, this building was a shopping mall, tall, white and new, filled with fresh Western products, thanks to the hard-working folks over at the Ministry of Trade. An artificial waterfall cascaded down through the central interior courtyard, its clear raindrops illuminated by colored, recessed lights, and children played in the eternal rain as it landed in the wading pool below. Escalators purred quietly, smoothly lifting suburban women up to the shops above, languid in their thin black robes, their dark eyes flashing in the crisp air conditioning as they chatted to each other, excited at the prospects of a day's shopping. In the middle of the night, when the soldiers are sleeping, I fancy that I can still hear the whispers of their robes, edged with gold filigree, brushing against the tiled floors, somewhere back in the Stygian darkness.
Inside the human pipeline between Kuwait and Iraq, returning from RnR to the strange planet that is Baghdad, I ran into some fellow soldiers from my unit, and heard the rumor for the first time. The Great Surge is on, and we are destined to be a part of it. The 82nd is in town, ready to bring the smackdown to the various militia groups that have held this city in their grip for so long. I am excited to be a part of it, even if it means leaving our little Mayberry of a FOB next to the Ministry of the Interior. FOB Shield had become a comfortable home, with its excellent chowhall, the friendly Pakistani guys at KBR, and the cool civilian cops of the IPLOs. By the time I got boots on ground at the Thunderdome, I was greeted with a hearty handshake and a directive: "Don't bother unpacking. We leave tomorrow. Oh, and your soldiers already packed the rest of your gear for you." At least that trial was taken care of; nowadays the worse part of a move is figuring out how to squeeze all of my junk into a couple of duffle bags and a ruck.
The initial rumors had been been varied and interesting, which is how initial rumors usually sound. We're moving to a palace here, a hotel there, maybe an Iraqi Army FOB there. How bad can it be? I nursed a secret hope that they were going to put us up in one of those great five-star hotels that the reporters all stay in -- maybe the Palestine Hotel, or the Al-Rasheed, downtown near the Green Zone. It was not to be, however, and instead we ended up in this bombed-out, half-torched, abandoned hulk of a building, somewhere on the far east side of Baghdad. The place is completely gutted, and lacks every single amenity you need to work and live properly for three months. No electricity. No running water. No showers. No hot food. Not even a rickety bed to sleep in.
When I stepped out of my HMMWV and looked on its bullet-riddled, RPG-spalled edifice for the first time, my dream of mimosas with Christiane Amanpour disappeared with a quiet, stomach churning "pop".
Our translators tell us that it was an Iraqi Ministry of Trade shopping mall, built in the 80s by Saddam Hussein. It is of strange, crenelated design, with a sawtoothed exterior in which each successive floor juts out above the one beneath it. With the concentric rings of T-walls that we have added around it, the entire complex now resembles some brutal Vulcan castle. I think of the place as "The Keep." At some point, either during the first Gulf War, or during our invasion in 2003, the mall was looted by the local Shia people. Every single possibly useful item was stripped and hauled away, and then the first floor was set on fire. There are black charred smoke marks above the windows. The escalators look like the skeletons of long dead reptiles, nothing but steel ribs and the lolling plastic tongues of the handrails. The Iraqi Army used the structure for a while as a machine gun post, which explains why the fourth floor is filled with human excrement. We moved in four days ago, and have been shoveling it out ever since, as well as trying to improve the place in other, slightly more advanced, ways.
But really, it's not that bad. Part of me has wanted a rougher experience. The surrealism of eating Alaskan King Crab every single day for three months at Shield was not exactly what I had in mind when I first envisioned coming to this war torn city. This is more of a "real" experience, as if we are getting a little taste of what it was like back in OIF I, during the invasion, when food was scarce but America was winning, and who cared if you only got one MRE a day when you were allowed to actually shoot back at the bad guys?
Our new home combines all the best aspects of living in a coal mine, a bunker, and a ruined city, in one convenient package. We've boarded up and sandbagged all of the windows, since the locals still like to take occasional potshots at us, so except for the gray light that filters down from the central skylight, the interior of the structure is perpetually dark. They handed out cool little LED lights for everyone the other day, which strap right onto your forehead. At any one time there are several hundred multi-colored spheres of light bobbing around in the gloom, and out of that gloom lurch lumbering, hunch-backed troglodytes, bent low beneath the weight of their black weapons and gear; soldiers in body armor moving back and forth on their missions. I'm reminded simultaneously of H.G. Wells and Pogo -- "We have met the Morlocks, and they are us."
Without electricity, there isn't a whole lot to do when you're not out on mission. Books have enjoyed a sudden rise in popularity, along with chess sets and cards. You start keeping farmer's hours, which means once it gets dark everyone who's not on mission goes to sleep, as if on cue. It's interesting to think that the entire Western world is one flick of a switch away from the Middle Ages.
Sometimes we wander outside to enjoy the thrill of watching the local day laborers dig trenches in the mud for our plumbing. At one point I count ten soldiers standing around, smoking cigarettes, watching five old men and one teenage kid waist deep in the muck. It smacks a little bit too much of colonialism for me, and after a while I amble off to enjoy the only other available spectacle; that of watching the trash fire. It's a massive steaming hump of coagulated plastic and scorched metal, but if you throw on a couple old MRE boxes full of trash, you can get a pretty good bonfire going in no time. Living fire in the middle of a dark night is always hypnotic, but when you add the bullet-scarred concrete looming overhead, and the stark, empty faces of the tactical vehicles clustered around, the effect is even more powerful. Nothing quite says "apocalypse" with the same intensity, and the mingled taste of burnt plastic and tobacco in your mouth can't help but add an extra dimension to one's cinematic memories of combat Hell, born of Francis Ford Coppola and Joseph Conrad.
There are times, though, when the place still has a strange sort of timeless beauty to it. I woke up the other morning and swam my way out of the nylon folds of my sleeping bag. It was somewhere before six in the morning, and most of the soldiers were still asleep. A still, silver light was shining down the central courtyard, and the shaft was quietly full of birdsong. The little brown birds were flitting back and forth across the long-dead face of Saddam's waterfall, and my buddy, Phil, was standing there, out by the rails, alone, watching them with his head cocked to the side, peering up at them, that usual quizzical look on his face. The concrete stairs, once encased in marble, were salmon pink in the early morning light, looking more like ancient sandstone than raw cement. For that moment, it didn't look like just another bombed out building in Iraq, but rather like something from the last Indiana Jones movie -- the lost city of Petra, a rose colored ruin forgotten in the desert, a relic full of whispered secrets. In that moment, before the cacophony of the Baghdad rush hour burst over us like a wave; anything was possible -- perhaps even rebuilding this monument to suburban glory and mass consumerism.
Maybe then I could get that ice cold Pepsi I've been dreaming of for the past ten days.