Into the Sandbox

An air base in Kuwait -- The State of Kuwait looks a bit like Darth Vader's helmet in profile, with Darth looking west, away from the Persian Gulf. Kuwait City is where Darth's ear would be, and somewhere inland toward his brow is a U.S. military base from which soldiers, contractors, and embedded journalists deploy at a rate of roughly two thousand per day.

I have never embedded with the US military before, and immediately I have doubts about the process. As a condition of their hosting me, I had to sign into a minor devil's bargain, which among other things forbids me from saying the name of the air base where I'm now writing (the base is secret, except for the large sign that bears its name on the public highway nearby), from photographing anything without permission from a public affairs officer, and from interviewing anyone -- soldier, contractor, camel spider -- without the same officer listening in.

The military does, of course, need to protect itself and practice responsible public diplomacy. This anonymous airbase is a controversy-magnet in Kuwait, and remaining discreet should be its priority. But draconian rules are largely unnecessary and counterproductive. Of this I feel sure, because Canadian military gets along with much looser ones. Reporters who embed with them are told simply that they may not report anything that compromises missions or troop safety. All conversations are on the record, and soldiers are warned to talk only about what they know. That openness has paid off with a great deal of balanced coverage of the Canadian mission in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. soldiers and sailors assigned to handle journalists here are professionals and thoughtful, and their presence is distinctly non-Orwellian. But threat of a filter is still present.

At this base, treading cautiously and biting my tongue lest I accidentally interview someone, I've acclimated to the dusty gravel underfoot, the tent cities, and the portable buildings that characterize the architecture of all big US bases in the region. On previous trips I've visited ten such bases, and by now I know their general feel and layout the same way a traveling salesman knows instinctively where to find the ice machine at an unfamiliar Holiday Inn. At night, the brightest lights often glow from the direction of the basketball court and the fast-food trailers. This base has a life-sized Ronald McDonald statue, whose blood-red smile is creepy in a place as bleak and un-smile-worthy as this.

I emerge from my tent at 7am, and it's not yet hot. Watching the soldiers come and go, crunching across the gravel, is like watching the migration patterns of deer or waterfowl. Men in sandals walking west -- that's the way to the showers. Soldiers in workout gear carrying styrofoam containers -- follow their footprints backward to the dining facility. Soldiers wearing armor and carrying duffels -- the passenger terminal, with flights to Iraq and Afghanistan, must be that way. I'll follow them, and make my way this afternoon to Baghdad.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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