Dispatch August 2008

An Air-Conditioned Nightmare

In Afghanistan, some soldiers are pampered. Should they be?

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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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic staff editor.

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