The long trip back to Baghdad is now complete. I left FOB Bernstein Sunday morning on a convoy to Balad Airbase (I took a few final pictures before I left that can be seen here). The troopers on the convoy with me had reason to be happy: they were heading home for two weeks of leave. Among those making the trip was Sgt. Muirin from Ohio, whose wife was expecting their third child any day. She had complications in the previous two births, so Muirin was especially pleased to be able to be at her side. Unfortunately, nurses at Akron General Medical Center have gone on strike, which means that the Muirins’ hospital is not inducing labor except in emergency situations. (This brought a round of condemnations against union practices from the troopers, which surely warmed the cockles of Professor Richard Epstein’s heart.) If Sgt. Muirin is to be home for his child’s birth, nature will have to cooperate.
The trip to Balad was made in 5-tons, which are large cargo trucks with metal benches on the vehicle’s flatbed sides. This is the same kind of vehicles that the soldiers used to get in country from Kuwait, and I can assure you that they were built for utility, not comfort. The roads are inconsistent, and the suspension on the 5-tons is such that a good bump will toss you from your metal seat before gravity returns you to it with a vengeance. The open design also assures that you experience all the heat and dust that Iraq has to offer, both of which were in surplus on this day.
We arrived at the base at 11:45 am—a scant 15 minutes before I was supposed to be meeting up with another convoy to take me to the base at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). The rendezvous point was the Mayor’s Cell—an office which, as the name implies, oversees municipal services (as well as some uniquely military functions) to a base the size of a small U.S. city. I arrived at the Mayor’s Cell a few minutes early, and the convoy I was supposed to be meeting was not there. I chatted at length with some of the guys in the office, who were National Guard members from Arizona. The base PX had just gotten hit the previous week with a missile attack, leaving 3 soldiers dead and 12 wounded. On Saturday, I had ridden through Kurdish villages with some Special Forces officers, who told me that one of the men killed while waiting in line at the PX was also Special Forces. It is tragic when any of our men die, but I have to agree with a trooper, who, upon hearing about the death, noted how unfortunate it is for someone who has spent so many years learning not just to fight but to protect himself in any situation to be killed while standing in line for pogey bait (i.e., snack food). I’ve been in that PX before, and I can tell you that nestled in the middle of one of the largest airbases in Iraq, the idea of missiles flying through the walls did not even rise to the level of a fleeting thought. But as Major Smith informed me, the base gets attacked daily. The only difference is that this time, the terrorists managed to hit an occupied area.
As we talked, Major Smith, the senior officer in the Mayor’s Cell, pulled up the National Review page and the Ashbrook page to see some of my writings. My work obviously did not offend his senses too badly, because he took the initiative to secure a flight for me when the late hour made it apparent that my convoy was not coming. The flight on the Blackhawk the next morning directly to the Green Zone saved me from arranging for and awaiting another convoy down to BIAP. (If Maj. Smith happens to read this, I am very grateful.)
When I arrived in Baghdad, the first thing I did was to stop at the PX to pick up some clothes. You see, every time I come to Baghdad, I must have some kind of luggage problem. This time, the day before my convoy departed, I was on a mission that ran a little longer than anticipated. The laundry service decided to close early that day, thereby assuring that my clothes would have to be shipped to me. And to complete the circle, much of the clothes remaining in the Green Zone PX were sized for the freakishly large or small.
Baghdad is much as I remember it, only busier. The transition and the court martial trials have clearly stepped up journalistic interest in the city. This led to some minor complications in finding accommodations. When I arrived at the Sheraton, it was booked, and the Palestine across the street was also full, however I eventually found a secure apartment building that had some space available. I then went to the Convention Center, where the pre-trial Abu Grab court martial proceedings were taking place. It was Baghdad’s version of the OJ media circus. I have never seen so many TV trucks out in front of the Convention Center—not even for the signing of the Transitional Administrative Law. They had closed off the proceeding by the time I arrived, but an Air Force Lt. Colonel I spoke with gave me some interesting impressions of the Iraqi press. The Iraqis seemed fascinated by the proceedings, because the people with the power did something wrong, and were being called to account for it. The Iraqis are used to their leadership doing bad things—in fact much worse things—so that has really not been as big of a story in Iraq as it has been in the U.S. Indeed, in northern Iraq, where I have been for the last 6 weeks or so, the general sentiment among the locals was something of a yawn. Many adopted a fatalistic view that those who were abused probably were guilty and therefore deserved it. While some Iraqis were particularly outraged by the abuse, I have not yet seen evidence here of the level of interest displayed by American media. But the idea of holding people with power accountable does seem to have struck a chord. The Iraqis want to see whether justice will actually be done. We should not disappoint them.