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.