Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles -- the Cadillac of dumptrucks. (photo by John Goodman)
When looking up into the sky at the Middle Eastern crescent moon, I can't help but wonder what it must have been like to travel across the dusty Mesopotamian plains by camel in years past. Wearing robes and and a tightly wrapped headcloth would have been essential for protection against wind and sun -- a traveler's worst enemy here, with the exception of bandits and tribesmen offended by trespassers upon their lands. In many ways, the armored protection required to travel here now can be compared to the protective cloth of days long gone, but the modes of transportation have since changed from the hoofed conveyances available in those much simpler times to a more modern, petroleum-powered variety. Sectarian violence and American military presence in Iraq have limited the manner in which most Westerners can get about, but there are several ways to do it, depending upon how far you want to travel.
From my experience, this is by far the most handy, and the coolest way of getting around. Nothing says badass like a Blackhawk helicopter, and whether you're a pudgy computer repair technician from Des Moines or a seasoned infantry soldier, nothing will make you feel saltier than a ride in one of these. From the moment the wind of the blades hits you in the face as you are beckoned aboard by the door gunner -- they wear black, visored masks that make them look like Imperial Tie fighter pilots from Star Wars -- you will be fully aware that whether or not the trip is good, it will be nothing like riding the bus or taking the family minivan. Flying over rural areas is vaguely reminiscent of footage from Vietnam War movies.
Pros: Liftoff occurs abruptly, but these aircraft don't usually fly all that high off the ground, so the view out of the side windows is pretty amazing. Like other forms of military travel, you may be subject to a lengthy wait to get a seat on a Blackhawk, but there are a lot of them in the air, so it's not unusual for some guy to pop in the door of the terminal and yell, with the chopper's noise nearly drowning out his voice, "Hey who needs a lift? We got a chopper heading to [your destination here]!" If you're lucky enough to have your gear handy and be near the top of the standby list, off you go.
Cons: Since there are a lot of them about, Blackhawks occasionally crash into one another and people die. Plus, since these birds seldom get a break, there are occasional mechanical failures as well -- never good in a machine that is significantly heavier than air and has no wing surface upon which to glide. Autorotation sounds like a crappy way to come down. I would imagine they're probably pretty easy to shoot down, too, which would also be a huge bummer for the people inside.
A fixed-wing, multi-engine airplane, this is essentially a not very large cargo and/or passenger plane, with absolutely none of the comforts of a passenger liner. A lot of these fly in the dark, and the only lights inside are a few dim, red bulbs placed high on the ceiling. Looking down the large, dark cargo hold at the jam-packed rows of helmeted heads, it's not hard to imagine that you're about to be told to jump out the back and go storm a beach somewhere. Nobody talks or looks at one another on these flights. Not that you could if you wanted to -- the roar of the four propeller engines is much too loud.
Pros: If you have to cover a long distance or the weather is too foul to take a helicopter, this is the way to go. Choppers are grounded as soon as visibility decreases from weather, but these will fly through pretty much anything. These planes carry a lot of cargo.
Cons: Plan on getting to the terminal at least three hours before your flight is supposed to leave. Then plan on wrestling with sheer boredom in a stark, uninteresting place for hours upon hours. Once on the plane you will crowd onto canvas benches that run the length of the cargo bay, at an interval that defies Western rules of male closeness. Every time the plane lurches and your leg touches the guy's next to you, you will have to do an uncomfortable shuffle dictated by the military's unofficial policy regarding properly displayed homophobia. The shuffle is necessary though, as the cushionless seat crushes the nerves and blood vessels in your posterior, which bears the added weight of a flak jacket, a Kevlar helmet, and whatever carry-on luggage you brought.
The Governator has a few of these, but ones the military uses do not sport the plush leather-wrapped interior that the star of Conan the Barbarian is used to. I very much doubt that any of the Hummers Ahnold has are equipped with diesel engines, machine gun turrets, or packed with communications equipment. The ones in Iraq are also a departure from the military Humvees you may have seen here and there on US freeways, as they are armored with heavy steel plating and four-inch thick bulletproof glass windows, making them quite a but heavier.
Pros: They look cool as hell, and can get through just about anything, although with the extra armor on them, nobody is too sure if their offroad prowess has survived. It's kind of a novelty to ride in them at first, and in most cases, it beats walking.
Cons: Unfortunately, these are often selected by insurgents as IED targets, and a vehicle is never a good place to be when that happens. The "air conditioners" that somebody slapped in as an afterthought do little to actually cool the vehicle, a serious downer considering that temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade during an Iraqi summer day. With all of the equipment they're loaded down with, there isn't a lot of room for imagination, or anything else in a Humvee as you watch the world go by through the thick glass. These trucks always travel in convoys, so delays are commonplace. Getting five miles down the road can be a three hour odyssey.
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle
Known as the MRAP, this is the safest, and now most oft used ground transportation for getting around outside the wire. These things are absolutely massive, and your first time in one, you feel like you've been transported onto the set of Robocop. The ride is very rough, but the bad guys can throw grenades and rockets at you and you'll most likely live to tell the tale. If you don't think they look cool, these beasts will make you think they look cool.
Pros: MRAPs were custom-designed for the military in an age where money grows on trees and is harvested before it matures. As a result, they are quite plush for military vehicles, boasting aircraft style seats, color-matched interior padding, and a climate control system that will recreate Antarctica or the Sahara Desert on demand.
Cons: Again, convoys mean hassles. In addition, unless you're in one of the two front seats, riding in one of these things is like riding in the back of a dump truck, but strapped into an airplane seat. The farther away you are from the driver, the rougher the ride is, and when you're wearing Kevlar and a flak jacket, your kidneys and tailbone are likely to feel pretty beat after a full day in an MRAP. The seat cushions are made out of some stuff called "memory foam" -- presumably because you'll never forget how uncomfortable they were while you were wearing battle rattle -- but they're still better than the ones aboard the C-130s.
A Normal Passenger Car
Unless you're an Iraqi or a State Department official living in the Green Zone, good luck getting your hands on one of these, and even better luck trying to get through checkpoints in one. Barring these hurdles, this would be a quick way to get around the city, well, until someone found out you were a Westerner, at which point you would likely be kidnapped by an insurgent militia and held for ransom. I'm told that journalists and civilians are now worth $40,000, and an armed soldier can go for as much as $100,000 -- I guess kidnappers like Berettas and M4s.
I don't speak any Arabic, so I could probably never get away with it, but I think it would be amazing to wrap my head in a keffiyeh, hop into a beat up Toyota -- today's camel -- and hit the road. Chances are good that I would get to where I was going quickly (depending upon traffic, which gets pretty bad in the city) and would have the freedom to move about at will and visit some of this vacation bible school storybook scenery that I've thus far only been able to view from a chopper.
Freedom is a wonderful thing, but if you stand a chance of having your throat slit in front of a crappy video camera, it loses some of its appeal. Hopefully, at some point in the not-too-distant future, foreigners and Iraqis alike will be able to move around the country freely without fear of injury. There is a lot of history to see here, and a unique culture that has survived for thousands of years. Perhaps that nutty Italian tourist who traveled to Baghdad from Turkey in a taxi a few weeks ago was only the beginning of a bigger movement. Things seem to be getting better, ever so slowly, but only time will tell.
Looking out over the Tigris River from a Blackhawk helicopter. (photo by John Goodman)