July 13, 2006:
There's a method in this madness. One thing that amazes soldiers from other nations, when they visit American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the range of amenities available for all the troops. Fast food, swimming pools, ample and tasty chow in the dining halls. There are also mini-malls offering the same range of goods found state-side. Most of the troops live in air-conditioned living quarters, and can embellish those with mini-refrigerators and flat screen TVs (for viewing videos or playing games.) It's more like an American college campus, except for the occasional mortar shell going off, and the sound of bombs and gunfire in the distance. Foreigners think that this must be incredibly expensive, and it is. And while many of the people making the amenities function are Iraqis, or people imported from other (for security reasons) countries, most of the U.S. troops are there to provide security or technical assistance in maintaining the comfortable base camps.
Not all American troops live in such comfort. Many of the combat troops move around, and live in temporary bases that lack many of those amenities. But even most of these guys eventually get back to some of those comforts. And why is all of this so important? Simple. Morale. As generals have known for thousands of years, the troops appreciate their comforts while they are facing danger and death in the combat zone. We're not talking "the lap of luxury" here, for the comfort levels in Iraq and Afghanistan often come close to, but usually fall far short of, what the troops are used to back home. Comfort is a relative term, so if you have just spent the last twelve hours dodging bombs, bullets and bad guys in Baghdad, a good meal, a little XBox action, and an air-conditioned room to sleep in, makes all the difference when it comes to how stressed you feel the next day. That's when you probably have to go out and get shot at for another twelve hours.
While it may seem manly to live in a tent, sleep in the heat, eat drab food that is quickly covered in dust, and go without the Internet and video games, this is not good for your head. At least if you are a normal person. Some people really get off on the rough life and constant stress. But there aren't too many of them, which is why the Special Forces and SEALs have such a hard time recruiting. The U.S. Army has found that, if you throw in some battlefield comforts, your average soldier can put up with a lot more combat stress. As G.I.s like to say, "whatever works."