Bloated in Baghdad
CAMP STRYKER, Iraq -- The first warning that many U.S. troops receive here in Baghdad isn't about the rampant IEDs (improvised explosive devices), or the RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), or even the EFPs (explosively formed projectiles). It's about the PCPs: the pervasive combat paunches.
As I wait for my C-130 flight from Kuwait to western Baghdad, a soldier tells me about a PowerPoint slide that's becoming popular in Army briefings: "Back in 2003, the average soldier lost 15 pounds during his tour of Iraq," he recounts. "Now, he gains 10."
Arriving at Camp Stryker, I get to savor the dilemma firsthand. My low-slung Army tent is pitched just down the road from a Pizza Hut, a Burger King and a Green Beans Coffee -- the war-zone cousin of Starbucks that sells mocha frappes for a cheeky $4.25. Around the corner sits a massive chow hall run by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc. where troops load up on four varieties of fried meats and five flavors of Baskin Robbins. The facility is billed as "all-you-can-eat," and, trust me, soldiers do.
Traveling all the way to a war zone to report on military calorie counts may seem like the height of triviality, especially as Baghdad's security situation implodes. But Camp Stryker's butterball cuisine is more than a frivolous aside; it's an entree into the general engorgement of the war itself.
Where, for instance, do the mountains of beef patties, pecan pies and Coco Puffs come from? The Houston-based KBR farms out most of its $27-billion government contract to Gulf states middlemen, who greet initial food shipments in Kuwait. Low-wage Pakistani and Nepali subcontractors then distribute the goods to U.S. mess halls, where even lower-wage Indians and Sri Lankans prepare them for the troops. All along the route are markups galore, sometimes exceeding 500 percent.
This logistical gravy train creates the unchecked fat on America's profile here in Baghdad. The bloat applies to basic counterinsurgency strategy, too. Even after Gen. David Petraeus shifted several units out of giant bases and into Joint Security Stations -- humbler urban outposts where soldiers, to use the general's words, live "among those we are trying to protect" -- the average U.S. camp remains a behemoth and a glutton. Over 70 percent of American troops here are classified as "support" forces, meaning they may never step outside the wire to engage in local operations or address community grievances over a customary glass of chai. These big-base bureaucrats are known to front-line soldiers as "Fobbits" -- a play on the acronym for "forward-operating base" (FOB) that echoes J.R.R. Tolkien's plump, provincial milquetoasts.
The whole scenario unfolds to the ironic soundtrack of "support the troops." The FOB experience in Iraq, particularly on larger posts, is defined by countless privatized efforts to console and distract: mini-marts where soldiers can buy PlayStations and Harley-Davidsons; KBR recreation facilities where they can shoot pool or take salsa lessons; fast food joints where they can kick back with a non-alcoholic beer and a personalized pizza. Such perks ostensibly make soldiers feel more at home. But many insist that the surreal arrangement only highlights what they've been asked to leave behind. A baseline fact remains: Troops' psyches can't be bought with bikes or bacon double cheeseburgers (or re-enlistment bonuses, or college loans, or fill-in-the-latest-bait) -- especially after Gen. George Casey's acknowledgment that "the current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply."
Passing time in a rec tent back in Kuwait, I chat with a soft-spoken 28-year-old sergeant who is preparing to fly back into the cauldron of Baghdad's Sadr City after three weeks of R&R in Georgia. In a room strewn with crepe paper palm trees and plastic hula skirts left over from the previous night's "Spring Fling Luau," the two of us look like attendees at a cornball junior prom. But the sergeant's mind is a long way from such frivolities: He has recently lost his squad leader, and two other soldiers from his area of operations were killed a few days later.
Burying his head in his hands as we talk, he says: "All the Burger Kings in the world wouldn't be enough for this. Some of us are on our third or fourth tours, and we just can't do this anymore -- we really can't."