Murphy's Law: November 27, 2003

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Of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, most (about 100,000) are really roughing it. Living in tents, or out in the open, they have little access to email, PX's (general stores were everything from shaving cream to snacks can be bought) or any other amenities. For the 40,000 or so living in well developed camps (often former Saddam palaces), there is air conditioning, hot meals, regular email and mail service plus gyms, PXs, libraries, live entertainment (USO shows) and air conditioning. Most of those living rough are combat troops, and they take a certain perverse pride in it. But it gets old eventually, and when they do get a chance to take shower or visit a PX or email center, the event is much appreciated. While new camp facilities are being built every day, the combat troops are often on the move, usually to a rougher neighborhood than they just pacified. Battalions and brigades are often shifted around, especially in the "Sunni Triangle" outside Baghdad. While non-U.S. troops take care of much of southern Iraq, American troops are sent where the trouble is, or appears to be brewing. 

There's a lot of guard duty, as the American camps are prime targets for the pro-Saddam fighters still active. The combat troops spend a lot of their time on patrols, often at night, and making raids. These are nerve-racking exercises, and commanders of these units make a big effort to provide as much R&R (Rest and Relaxation) for the troops as possible when they are off duty. In the 4th Infantry Division, commanders are expected to get their troops at least two hot meals a day, three if they are not out on operations. 

This being the 21st century, all camps have some electricity (usually via generators), and every units has troops with laptop computers, and DVD movies are available in the PXs (and from Iraqi merchants, who quickly realized what the market all those well paid American soldiers could be.) The DVD and CD players take an edge off the otherwise unpleasant living conditions. Gameboys, and other portable entertainment electronics are popular. "Phone tents" with long distance phone service (for a dollar a minute using AT&T's phone cards, or 38 cents a minute using the more popular cards from Kuwaiti vendors). 

Some of Saddam's palace have been turned into recreational areas so troops can be brought in for a few days "vacation." But some officers don't like to send their troops there, because those same luxurious compounds (with swimming pools, bike paths, with bikes, tennis courts and so on), also provide rather nice living and working accommodations for staffs and support units. These commanders feel it's bad for morale if their combat troops see how well these other troops are living while the "grunts" are living out in the sand. It doesn't seem to make much difference, the combat troops know that some folks have it pretty easy, and wouldn't mind sharing the good life for 48 or 72 hours.

Morale is not great, but it's not any worse than it was for combat troops in World War II and Vietnam. With one exception. Unlike past wars, the combat troops are not taking most of the casualties. Usually, the infantry receive some 80 percent of the wounds, with tank and artillery crews getting another ten percent and everyone else sharing what's left. The combat troops comprise only about 20 percent of the troops in a combat zone, and the non-combat troops would take some comfort in the fact that things could be worse if they were in the infantry. But in Iraq, the attacks have concentrated on the non-combat troops, mainly because the combat soldiers are rough customers and are really good at fighting back. More than half the casualties are among non-combat troops, mainly due to ambushes and roadside bombs. This does not help their morale. The combat troops, on the other hand, are there to fight, and will get the coveted "Combat Infantry Badge" (CIB) after their tour of duty. The non-combat troops get no such recognition, and most of them have figured out that everyone has about a ten percent chance of getting wounded, or sick enough to be hospitalized, before their tour in Iraq is up. Compared to past wars, the chances of getting killed are quite low, but that's little consolation when you know of someone in your unit who got an arm or leg blown off.

Since World War II, the army has made a major effort to get the troops a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, no matter where they are or who's shooting at them. For the troops (or, increasingly, civilian contractors) involved in preparing food, Thanksgiving is their annual "performance evaluation." If you do well on Turkey Day, slack will be cut if you screw up during the next year. Screw up on Turkey Day, and it will not soon be forgotten by your boss (or the people you are feeding.) In Iraq, the Turkey Day effort is assisted by civilian contractors (often retired military) in getting the tons of turkey and fixings to military kitchens through the country. The troops appreciate the effort, which is considerable, even if the result is sometimes barely edible by the time they get it. While wars are usually reported in terms of battles and deaths, the reality is days trying to get some sleep in spite of heat and desert insects, and looking forward to some soggy turkey and stuffing.

 


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