Embedded in Najaf

In Many Ways, Base Was More American Than New York
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 3 2004 5:32 AM

Embedded in Najaf

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The days blended together as the month went on. Every day another big attack was planned, then canceled. The battle slowed down in the giant cemetery where the fighting had begun, but it intensified in the south of the city. I popped on my flak jacket and headed to the front a half-dozen times looking for action, but I didn't find any. I started to call myself the Buddha.

Meanwhile, I tried to stay sane in the heat, which mainly meant trying to stay clean. The base had no running water, but near our tents were big wooden stalls topped by red plastic tanks. Three days in, I figured out they were showers, and after that, I tried to shower at least every other day. Because water was scarce, we were supposed to take "Navy showers"—rinse, turn off the water, scrub up, and rinse again. In cold weather, a Navy shower would be no fun, but in 120 degree heat, standing naked and covered with soap feels pretty good.

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I didn't expect to spend close to a month at the base, so I had only brought one pair of pants and a couple of T-shirts. I washed my clothes every three or four days, but I'm naturally messy, and within an hour of putting on a new shirt, I was the most wrinkled and frazzled person on the base. By the second week, I had given up, and I traipsed around the base in shorts, T-shirts, and Birkenstocks. The other embeds gave me a hard time, telling me I ought to look less like a surfer and more like a reporter, but I decided not to care. The job was hard enough without wearing a sweaty pair of pants as I shuffled from our tent to headquarters or the chow hall.

Chow was surprisingly good, by the way. We always had plenty of food. Nothing too exotic, more or less what you would see at a Midwestern county fair: hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, lasagna, sloppy joes, fried chicken, fries, mashed potatoes, and the occasional corn dog. Fruit and vegetables too: melon, a salad bar, bananas, oranges, and apples. Dessert was blueberry cobbler, bread pudding, and three flavors of ice cream. Plus Gatorade, Slim Jims, trail mix, PowerBars, and all kinds of soda and juice. On Friday nights, they brought in steak and king crab from God-knows-where.

About the only thing we didn't have was booze. Budweiser showed up in the coolers one day, but the red-and-white cans turned out to be nothing more than a tease, near-beer. The soldiers bitched plenty, but I never heard anyone complain about the food. Anyone wearing a flak jacket in Iraq in August doesn't have to worry about counting calories. And I didn't get sick once.

I had never embedded before, and I found the experience of living on base disconcerting. We were in Iraq, and yet Camp Hotel was in many ways more American than New York. We spoke English and ate American food. No one ever left base, except to go on patrol, and Iraqis were almost never allowed inside. The base didn't get any supplies locally; military and Halliburton convoys trucked in every ounce of water and every gallon of gasoline. We burned our own garbage. We were in Iraq, and yet we could have been anywhere; we could have been in a biosphere on the moon.

And yet the camp had compensations, especially at night, when the sun went down, and the tents and tanks and guard towers glowed in the starlight. A half-dozen high-sided trapezoidal boxes were permanently parked just south of the tents. They were Marine personnel carriers, but in the dark, their strange shapes seemed like relics of an alien civilization left in the desert. Some nights the explosions of Marine artillery echoed across the base, and we could see buildings burning red where the rounds had landed 4 miles south in downtown Najaf. But the fighting generally slowed at night, after the insurgents learned the hard way that night-vision goggles gave American soldiers an insurmountable edge in the dark.

On nights when a big raid or attack wasn't planned, the senior officers slept, and captains and lieutenants ran the operations center, joking and waiting. The front lines have a camaraderie and a simplicity that does not exist at home; women (there are no female Marines at the front-line bases) and families and friends fade away, and survival becomes its own reward. Walking through the camp at night, another day done, I understood Robert E. Lee's famous quotation: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

Alex Berenson is an author and journalist. From 2000 to 2010, he worked as a business and investigative reporter for the New York Times. His seventh novel, The Night Ranger, will be published in February.