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Fobbits in Mordor

An older Humvee surrounded by the new MRAPs. (photo by John Goodman)

When you're involved with the military overseas, movement seems to be the key to sanity. Sit around for too long and you'll either lose your mind from boredom, or someone you don't want to notice you will do so - be it an enemy combatant or an authority figure with a sharp eye for details who also has nothing to do. Photographer John Goodman and I had spent the better part of a week staying at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad's International Zone, and kept busy interviewing members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, and some of the Iraqis they were working with, but during the down time, we didn't have the option to go out and look for trouble like you can in most cities (well, unless you're like this guy). Venturing out in Baghdad is pretty dangerous - I've heard that Westerners are worth $40,000 on the black market right now - and even if lack of danger made it possible, there are many different checkpoints throughout the city requiring one kind of security badge or another. Unless you're in the military or a contractor, freedom of movement doesn't exist, and even then there are hangups that could ground your plans to visit some historical site, or - if they even have them - night clubs.

Our lives became a fairly predictable pattern of waking up in the dark pre-dawn hours, exercising, eating, interviewing some people, eating again, writing, exercising more, eating another meal, writing, maybe exercising again, and going to bed early to repeat the process. There are many people who live and work on the FOB, and some of them burn up copious amounts of free time by going to the gym a lot. Some of these people end up looking pretty scary - prison scary. On the larger bases, there are people who never, ever leave the FOB. These people are referred to - often in a derogatory manner - as "fobbits." Everything a fobbit needs, including food, water, recreational activities, and a job to do, can be found on the FOB. "War is hell...when they run out of ice cream at the chow hall," I heard one guy say.

As journalists, it didn't make much sense for us to become fobbits. Every now and again, an explosion could be heard, followed by the inevitable rumors or reports that an IED had gone off somewhere outside the Green Zone. I was curious where it was, who had rigged it up, and who had been targeted. More importantly, I wanted to know how things like that affect Iraqis and their confidence in their new government. It seemed that we had juiced the PRT for all the information they were worth for the time being, and we were beginning to feel like fobbits ourselves.

The sunrise over Union III and the old Baath Party building lit the sky in pastel shades of pink and blue on February 5th, seeming to signal the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy - the 425th's Battalion Commander. He was coming to see a fire academy graduation that some of his soldiers had been involved with. His arrival was a welcome occurrence for John and I, especially since the convoy he came in on was to bear us to our next destination - FOB Liberty. I know - another FOB; but this FOB is the one from which missions into the wider word are launched. For a pair of journalists who have to do everything with a military escort, this FOB would hopefully offer freedom.

We met our convoy beneath the huge crossed swords that mark the entrance to Saddam's vast parade ground in the middle of downtown Baghdad. If you remember Desert Storm and Desert Shield, you might recall seeing images on television of Iraqi infantry divisions and trucks laden with Scud missiles passing in review before Saddam as he watched from his grandstand. After all, his was once the fourth largest army in the world. The grandstand - an imposing modern structure with a massive array of stadium lights - still stands ominously over a parade ground that is now cracked and choked with scrub weeds and low concrete divider walls. The only traffic seen on it are Army vehicles - both Iraqi and American - and security contractors. The enormous crossed swords, which stand at both ends of the four football field-length stretch, are held up by hand-shaped pedestals, with piles of Iranian Army helmets at their bases. One of the hands - which are formed by metal shells - had fallen off, exposing the steel girders supporting the monument. Weeds and unkempt shrubs surrounded the piles of helmets, of which the only ones remaining are those partially embedded in the concrete. Many of the others were looted as souvenirs by soldiers.

Our ride to Liberty, which is located in Baghdad's hinterlands, was aboard one of the MRAPs in Lieutenant Colonel Handy's convoy. The interior of these massive, blast resistant vehicles is Spartan but comfortable, but the ride is not unlike sitting in an airplane seat in the back of a dump truck. The bodies of these heavily armored vehicles are actually built upon dump truck chassis. I took one of the seats just behind the gun turret and strapped myself in, having to wait for a few minutes as the soldiers we were traveling with went outside to "lock and load" - or prepare their rifles and pistols for potential action. I peered through four the four inch-thick bullet proof windows as we entered the freeway, watching the urban scenery of the Green Zone morph into the bible-land I'd seen on the chopper ride in a week earlier. Really, my view was limited to a semaphore of whatever I could see when the concrete walls had crumbled low enough to be able see over them.

Handy sat next to me during the trip, and we chatted about home. His wife and children have been holding down the fort in Santa Barbara until he returns, hopefully, he said, by July or sooner. The sight of the gunner's feet swinging back and forth as he scanned the horizon with his turret pried my mind from far off Santa Barbara. I asked Handy what he thought about the impending withdrawal, and he scrunched his face, as if thinking of the appropriate answer to give, and then relaxed. "Withdrawal is a good thing," he said. "Security is a lot better than it was." He continued that there are plenty of problems back home that U.S. resources could be spent on, and that the Iraqis would be able to take care of themselves. "There's more crime in cities like New York or Detroit than there is here," he said of the occasional IED attacks, which, I'm told, are used not only by insurgents and terrorists, but by organized crime entities and families feuding with one another as well. "As these sporadic killings continue, Iraqis are going to tell Al Queda to leave. This is a process every third world country goes through."

We arrived at Liberty in the afternoon. A vast expanse of tents, trailers, and makeshift wooden buildings set against the endless brown of the Tigris River's alluvial flood plain, there was no doubt that this was an Army camp. Lots full of tan military trucks and buildings surrounded by the now-familiar concrete blast walls were everywhere. John and I climbed atop our trailer to watch the sun set over the 64 square mile FOB. Fingers of dust stretched lazily across the sky, creating a spectacular array of bright oranges and pinks. It seemed to beckon to us to leave the drab, but comfortable environs of America's foothold and go experience the humanity out there - the layered experience of thousands of years of life and tradition. All we needed was a mission, and in order to get one, you sit and wait.

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