Owen (Al's brother) lives in France and showed up toting what he calls his "atheist books." Sure enough, it's a work by Richard Dawkins arguing that religion is not only silly and pointless, but even dangerous. And he's been walking around, he tells me, trying to other liberals (he noted with pride that a couple of the Army guys on the plane yesterday [?] were reading other "atheist books"). Owen kinda lives for political confrontation.
I, personally, kind of forgot I was a liberal for a while there. Not that I've become a full-fledged hawk. I've just sort of forgotten about politics. It's easy to do when you're someplace so strange. When I got to our hotel yesterday, I was pretty winded and jet-lagged and Kuwait looks less like America than anyplace I've ever been. The architecture, which I'll try to capture on "film" today, is a mixture of giant orbs and blocky rectangles thrown together, seemingly, by random drawing. Last night, along the highway, you could see lights stretching off into the distance but illuminating...well, nothing in particular. It was explained to me that these were Kuwaiti "campgrounds" -- every winter, when the temperature becomes manageable (it's in the 50s), Kuwaitis drive their Lexuses and BMWs to these "campgrounds," which actually feature tile flooring, satellite dishes, and many of the other very Western creature comforts, so they can get back to their roots. I think those roots may be Bedouin, but, to be honest, that may just be a word I think I heard somewhere once. Look, I'm tired, and it's early.
Anyway, all this by way of explaining that once I'd gotten to the hotel, tried to figure out the foreign light switches, power adapters, shower, and everything else, I was a little homesick, which is a very uncommon condition for me. I hate being home. But here I was, turning on the TV, hoping to find out if the Sox had signed Daizuke Matsuzaka or if, you know, I still had a job with Air America. I found CNN International, which was reporting on a deadly bombing in Iraq. That's when I realized my only truly "American" TV option (I'm not ready for Kuwaiti telenovelas just yet) was Fox News. So, Fox News it was.
Not just Fox News -- OLLIE NORTH! Reporting live from Ramadi! Hey, it's going really well over there! Those liberal media types don't know what they're talking about! He had a Marine with him.
"And you're handling the situation just fine? You don't need any more troops?"
"And the terrorists are on the retreat?"
In fact, according to Ollie, Sunnis and Shi'ites are uniting to fight their common enemy -- al Qaeda! This was probably the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard, but I let it slide, because it was just nice to see a little jingoism. When you're this far from home, you do feel like an American first and a whatever else second.
Politically, there's a pretty even division between "Man, we screwed this up!" and Ollie's "The liberal media ain't givin' you the full story" position. Sometimes those two aren't mutually exclusive. One gentleman who was in the latter camp was Sergeant Major of the Army Ken Preston. He's the top non-commissioned officer in the Army and our host for this tour. You'd expect a guy in his shoes (boots) to be a real tough fellow and very imposing, and you'd be right (he immediately taught us all to say "hoo-ah"). He's also one of the nicest guys I've met over here. The whole time I was talking to him in the dining hall (or DFAC), troops and civilian contractors kept coming up to him very formally, addressing him politely ("Sar'n Major?" -- nobody pronounces the second syllable in "Sergeant"), and asking for a picture, which he was always happy to take. Although you wouldn't know it from his pose, which is very formal. I couldn't resist hopping in line.
He does that exact same pose with everybody, including people who've actually done something to merit a warm handshake from the SMA. And they all grin like I did.
He was pretty insistent that I was going to see a different war than I had been seeing on TV (I didn't tell him I'd been watching Fox back at the hotel -- I suspect he would have found that funny). One of his senior staff, Sar'n Anderson (who wanted me to call him "Terry," but, sorry Terry, I don't know that many people I can call "Sar'n"), who does PR for the Army and is putting together a DVD of the tour that he's going to try to package for television, mentioned that he had passed along this blog's address to his family so that they could have an "unvarnished" take on the war. So, there's a lot of confidence among the people who have been here that I'm going to discover something my liberal buddies reading this didn't know about the war. (By the way, hello to Sar'n Anderson's family.)
So what don't you know about the war? Probably the same things I don't know -- after all, I'm still in Kuwait. But I'm learning a lot about the troops.
First of all, they are unfailingly, unflinchingly, and unreservedly nice. Sar'ns Preston and Anderson, both of whom probably had more important things to do than hang around with me, have been exceedingly friendly and generous with their time, their wit, and their patience. And the men and women in uniform are all just great. Sitting in the DFAC, watching Al (but mostly Leanne Tweeden) sign autographs and shake hands, watching the troops in line smiling, it just felt so unreservedly GOOD. Here's a picture from the plane, while I'm thinking of it.
Second, they are very, very well-treated. And I don't just mean because they get to see a show tomorrow night. The facilities, while sometimes sparse, are well-maintained, they've got ESPN on high-definition TVs, last night was steak and lobster night, and there's even some unintentional comedy.
Oh, sorry. Let me zoom in.
There's even a great almost summer-campy feeling of camaraderie. We spent some time at the PX last night, which is sort of the Army general store, and there was Christmas shopping being done. And the aforementioned hoedown outside.
Third, and this will have to be last, because there's a Kuwaiti breakfast buffet waiting for me downstairs and I'm very eager to see what's on it (I may try to swipe the room-service menu for posterity -- let's just say it's eclectic), but there is an absolute dedication to the mission here that is by far the most important motivation driving everyone from the drummer in the Army band to the guy I met behind the DFAC last night.
Embarrassingly, I forgot to write down his name, but he's a civilian contractor whose job is, as he put it, "IED hunter." IEDs are what kill people "over here." They're improvised explosive devices planted in the road to ambush American convoys. Camp Arifjan is the big logistics base in Kuwait, so the trip from here to the front lines in Iraq is extremely important and very dangerous. This guy was walking with a limp, although he said he thought he just had a sprained knee. Apparently, he and his crew had found an IED and were in the process of disarming it when their truck was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), blowing the truck into the air. He was hanging out in back in hopes of meeting Darryl Worley, whom he then followed all the way to what Al started calling the PFAC (the bathroom in a free-standing structure about a quarter mile away).
He was so utterly cheerful about everything. Maybe not cheerful, I guess. But not angry. I'd be angry if I signed up for a gig and got hurt on the job. But his job, he said, was to go find IEDs, and that's what he did. There's that same sense of, I don't know, chipper dedication with every soldier I've talked to. Folks here are doing a job, and they're happy to be of service.
Maybe that's what you don't know about the war. It's being fought by people who could care less what you think of what they're doing or the wisdom of their doing it in the first place. They're doing it because it's their job, and they're very, very good at it.
More on this later, although I'll add this caveat. I bet steak and lobster night is a lot more fun for the troops at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, and even more fun for the troops who get to go home and eat with their families. I haven't been to Iraq or Afghanistan yet, and compared to that, Camp Arifjan is a day at the beach. (Literally -- there is sand EVERYWHERE).
But my first exposure to the military presence in the Middle East, at the very least, makes me understand Fox a little better. It's not that the guys over here want me to go home and tell everyone that things are going just fine in our bizarre and silly adventure in nation-building. It's that they, themselves, are doing just fine, and since I asked, they're happy to tell me.