Welcome to the Baghdad Country Club, founded in the middle of the war zone of 2006 Iraq, where even the beer runs were a matter of life and death
An Iraqi man carries cases of beer outside of one of Baghdad's few alcohol shops / Reuters
Iraqis have a word, barra, which means "out there," and for those lucky enough to be inside the Green Zone came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch in 2006, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in '75.
The Baghdad Country Club, the only authentic bar and restaurant in Baghdad's Green Zone, was one place where people could forget about barra for a moment. Anyone -- mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis -- could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:
NO GUNS, NO AMMUNITION, NO GRENADES, NO FLASH BANGS, NO KNIVES--
To keep the bar adequately stocked, the BCC's owner James -- a British ex-paratrooper turned security contractor who asked that I use his first name only, due to concerns that his past ventures in Iraq might affect his current work there (the Baghdad Country Club was a place where many people liked to recreate, but few later desired to admit they had) -- and his fixer Ajax had to venture out there regularly. To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armor, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities -- if today's your day, it's your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.
Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That's because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad's warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.
James couldn't go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shia territory. "But I knew my way around down there," he says. "I could get what we needed." He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. "I had the whole supply chain down, man!"
For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.
"Can you head back downtown?" he asked. "We're empty."
Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn't big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn't be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.
A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that the holiday would be an unfriendly time downtown. Realizing that they wouldn't be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC's storage rooms and the giant containers outside and then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.