The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


July 23, 2008

Name: James Aalan Bernsen
Posting date: 7/23/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Austin, TX
Milblog url:


Saddam Hussein was a sick, evil bastard, but there's no reason that sick, evil bastards can't love their grandkids too. Hitler loved children, or at least that's what the propaganda photos always showed -- Hitler shaking hands with little German girls in dirndls and starting a "youth club" for the little boys. How charming.

Hitler's bizarre mountaintop retreat at Obersaltzburg was kind of an adult fantasy land, complete with strange pagan and medieval imagery and castle-like construction. Perhaps the builders took an idea from the not too distant Neuschwanstein Castle, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria's astounding fairy-tale fortress which became the inspiration for Disneyland.

Framed_bernsen_flintstone_2_4 It finally occurred to me that that's what this whole palace complex where I live is: a fantasy get-away place for the old Iraqi elites. And like Hitler's cronies, who built a mountaintop dreamland (for a guy who was notoriously afraid of heights), Saddam's cronies built palace after palace to glorify their leader and his triumphs, real or imaginary.

But Saddam didn't want to live the big life all by himself, and built palaces for his sons and his friends. He had grandchildren too: precocious little tykes who liked cartoons, sports and games.

He must have thought them charming, suspended in that little naive world of youth -- you know, that time before they grow up to run rape rooms and torture cells just like daddy and grandpa.

And one thing that these kids really, really liked was "The Flintstones." That's right, the 1990s spinoff movie of the classic 1960s cartoon. These kids must have devoured the show, because one year, for their birthday or something (it probably wasn't Christmas) Grandpa Saddam told his architects to take time off from building some of his numerous palaces and had them build something entirely different -- a perfect replica Flintstone Village.


And so the architects of the tyrant turned away from their marble columns, monumental arches and intricate mosaics and turned to something totally new. It was like no government-built building in the entire country: It did not feature either the image or the wise sayings of Saddam Hussein. What? A building in Iraq without Hussein's face or name stamped all over it? Blasphemy!


The replica building they designed is complete with fanciful cave-like dwellings, odd-shaped windows and terrifying precipices that any normal parent would never conceive of incorporating into what was to become a child's playground.

One can almost imagine the wonder and joy of the children when they first saw their new fantasy land. I could just hear them shrieking and yelling as they bounded up the stairs.


The building is not just eccentric on the outside, it features tons of little caves and maze-like walkways, as well as funny little playrooms:



It must have been quite the playground back in the day, but after four years of neglect it's a shell of its former glory. Years of soldiers, contractors and others passing through have left their marks, in ubiquitous graffiti. A touch of Disneyland meets a touch of the Berlin Wall.


The graffiti shows the wide diversity of people who have passed through. Americans from just about every state;Texans, Californians, and some very proud patriotic Hawaiians who took the time to sketch their unique flag. Certainly a few proud Marylanders must have come through, but they didn't bother trying to do their complex, gaudy flag.


Australians are well-represented, as are troops from El Salvador and other coalition countries. Indians, Pakastanis, Fillipinos and other contractors have all come by to tag this place.

As someone who is averse to graffiti on principle, I nonetheless make exception for symbols of oppression, be they in Baghdad or Berlin. Seeing good ol' American obscenities painted all over this place actually warms me up inside.


It is impressive on its face, but like many places around here, the construction is rather shoddy. In the palace where I work, the beautiful marble is a fake facade. Once the marble panels -- about half an inch thick -- are removed, the concrete beneath is appallingly-poorly made. In fact, it's not really concrete, but more like adobe. While I'm sure the structural beams are stoutly-built with re-bar, elsewhere the only support in this cheap concrete is some kind of chicken wire.


The Flintstone Village is no different. Walking along the walkways here, you see dozens of places where the fake walls have simply caved in, leaving gaping holes you could easily step into and fall through.

And when I say fall through, we're not talking a little drop to Pebbles' playroom below. How about a 40-foot drop through iron girders and concrete supports to the rancid lake muck? Perhaps we could have disposed of Saddam quicker by simply exporting to him our legal system and then unleashing the tort attorneys.



In other places, whole sections of the wall have fallen through, as if the Flintstones' pet tyrannosaur had come through, smashing and stomping in full Godzilla roid-rage style.


Perhaps this is what happens when Fred doesn't give you your Dino crack.


One only wonders how much damage is a result of the Occupation, or perhaps soldiers knocking chunks of the plaster off for souvenirs. But the advanced deterioration of this less-than-a-decade-old structure is really just par for the course for Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Everywhere I turn, I see this ostensibly opulent facade is really just rotted through underneath. A kind of Costco version of Versailles.

Right across the lake from this faux Americana is, ironically, Saddam Hussein's unfinished megalomaniacal masterpiece, the "Victory over America" Palace. Like the builder of Versailles, Saddam Hussein lived in a dream world of his own overblown importance. "L'Etat est moi," he seemed to be saying. If you can't beat 'em, build a palace and claim you did anyway.

In the end, Saddam's dementia offered nothing to his country but disaster and gaudy monuments to ego. And years on, that's all that's left. He thought he was a new sun king, but ended up little more than a half-baked Ozymandias.


Perhaps the final statement on Saddam Hussein's Iraq can be summed up with this image. Standing and surveying the wrecked America palace is Staff Sgt. Billy, an Oklahoman on his third tour in Iraq. Sgt. Billy's a simple guy -- a hard-working American Indian who does his job and never complains. Humble and good-hearted, he's the antithesis of the egoism reflected in the design of the palace before him. Saddam Hussein thought of himself as one of the greatest conquerors and historic figures of all time, but in the end, he was toppled not by generals or presidents or even high technology.

Saddam Hussein was toppled by an army of Sgt. Billys.


Thanx for the interesting blog and photos.

Ha, the Flintstones, who knew?!

Mostly, Thanx to all the SGT Billys who toppled the evil bastard and continue to fight the fight.

I bet those kids loved that place! I would have when I was a kid. I think the grafitti sucks though. It's ugly, no matter what it says.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away


Awesome post!

Nice job, who would have thought S.H. would have a factuaction with the Flintstones? a child at heart with a horrible sick mind. I suspect his uncle was a poor role model.

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