KANDAHAR AIRFIELD—Being on a big military base, even one in a relatively dangerous spot, can feel a bit like being on a cruise ship. Grand exertions are made to ensure comfort, and leisure is organized: basketball at six, bingo at 11. B-list celebrities, armed with camera-ready smiles, are on deck to shake your hand. The food is rich and plentiful, and cooked with the primary goal of not sickening anyone. And there's no exit, other than jumping overboard, or over the concertina wire. Base life is, as Samuel Johnson might have said, like being in prison, with a chance of being mortared.
During my two years in Iraq, spent primarily on military bases, the soldiers I met tended to be American, with at most a tiny contingent of foreigners in each place to make the forces technically multinational. (My favorites were the Albanians, a gang of a few dozen angry warriors whose dark, olive-drab camouflage blended terribly into the daylight of Mosul. Americans who worked with the Albanians said they came out at night to prowl the base perimeter, knives in their teeth, in search of insurgents.)
In Kandahar, the military internationalism is real, and it is dizzying. Among a vast array of tents—mostly half-pipe structures with wooden interiors and air-conditioning—there are French, Dutch, Romanian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Australian, American, British, and Canadian ghettos, with the Canadians the plurality. In the dining facilities, it's common to hear half a dozen languages, not including the Dravidian tongues of the servers. Familiar military acronyms are translated into other languages. "Think OPSEC," or "operational security," say the loose-lips-sink-ships reminders posted on bases in Iraq. Here, a poster of a coffin draped with a Canadian flag adds, "PENSEZ SECOP."
The military goes to great lengths to keep the wide coalition happy, starting with the food. Echo's, a restaurant open to paying customers, serves Dutch food (I've been meaning to try it), and one of the mess halls, "Cambridge," specializes in the cuisine of the British Isles (you'd have to pay me to try it again). Another mess, "Niagara," serves North American cooking, and still another serves Mediterranean cuisine. What unites all the mess halls is that nearly every dish contains pig products, a remarkable achievement in a country where swine are reviled, and therefore scarce. (Off bases in Afghanistan, I have never seen pork anywhere—except, incredibly, in Chelsea Supermarket in central Kabul, which stocked a big bin of pork rinds near the entrance.)
These efforts to pamper soldiers sometimes border on the ridiculous. Many have noted the luxuries of modern warfare—the portable Burger Kings and Pizza Huts dragged into battle by the United States, the military stores stocked with video games and potato chips, the overpriced Potemkin bazaars constructed on bases, so soldiers have a place to buy local souvenirs. The Canadians have imported a fully functioning outpost of the coffee-and-doughnut chain Tim Hortons; there is a line out the door at all hours. When I remarked on the eagerness of the military to bring the comforts of home to the battlefield, I heard a fellow Canadian reporter say that if I went to the British area I could even try curling. For a moment it sounded almost plausible that the military would, to appease its winter-sport fanatics, keep a sheet of ice chilled in the blazing heat of southern Afghanistan. (It turned out he said "curry.")
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Does this coddling make soldiers soft? A Vietnam veteran in Iraq, then working for DynCorp, complained that today's soldiers "aren't worth a hair on a Nam vet's ass" and had let their core fighting skills wane. But many others have argued that today's soldiers match or exceed their predecessors' skills, and that creature comforts are the least the military can provide.
For my part, after time in the velvet embrace of this big base and time at smaller, less opulent ones, I wonder whether the cosseting might not exactly make soldiers soft, so much as threaten their long-term morale. The happiest soldiers I met were the ones who spend months at a time in bleak, perilous conditions, and who scorn the doughnuts and menus of their less exposed countrymen. They deride soldiers and contractors who sequester themselves at bases like Kandahar's as "fobbits" (for "Forward Operating Base") and "Hesco Hobbits" (for the Hesco barriers that provide on-base shelter from rocket and mortar attacks).
"They don't understand us," says a military policeman at a tiny, spartan outpost that takes regular fire from insurgents. "They have their Timmy's. When we go there, they're like, 'Why do you look like that?' Well, no showers, for one. And the Taliban are trying to kill us." A few months ago he was wounded in a firefight, and he now has a fresh scar by his eye.
The world of regular firefights seems distant at Kandahar Airfield's Catwalk—a large square of desert, marked off by a boardwalk of fast-food trailers and souvenir shops. These shops suggest why the comforts could end up doing harm. The aroma of individual-size pizzas fills the air, and they remind soldiers of home. But these greasy, frisbee-sized madeleines are really reminders that they're not home. They're far from it, and stuck with an inferior alternative. In the Canadians' clubhouse, the life-size cardboard cut-out of Don Cherry, beloved hockey commentator for the CBC, is a reminder of their nation's most popular sport, but also a reminder of how far away they are from their living rooms and friends. A Canadian Navy lieutenant notes that the soldiers who are constantly calling home tend to be the ones most likely to pose disciplinary problems.
Are the Pizza Huts and Tim Hortons self-defeating, then? I think so. For me, the real comforts—and they are few—of being on a military base in Afghanistan are uncomplicated, and equally available to the frontline fighters and the soldiers supporting them in the rear. After dark in both places, the dirt roads go silent, but for the purr of generators and air-conditioners, and perhaps the lulling farts of small-arms fire in the distance. The quiet is a deliverance from the anxiety of the day, and the calm (perhaps comparable to the silent, snow-muffled freeze of the Canadian prairie) is something to savor. The swelter of the Afghan summer subsides to mere cozy warmth. The stars are bright. And they shine on us all, in Edmonton and Kandahar alike.