Dispatches from the front – April 2004

Month Overview

The month of April was perhaps the most violent month during my tour in Iraq. Intense combat operations were undertaken in Fallujah although perhaps the tactical military victory was offset by a strategic political defeat. The week prior to Anzac Day saw some horrific attacks against civilians by the enemy. Perhaps the saddest was the death of scores of school children in Basra who happened to be driving by a police station at the time of an attack by a suicide bomber.

Thankfully the deaths seen at Ashura were not followed up at Arba’een (the second component of the commemoration). Sadly the incarceration of an associate of Moqtada Al Sadr caused major upheaval throughout southern Iraq with members of his militia taking control of police stations and other locations. At the same time, the Spanish departed Iraq after a change of government and associated terrorist attack. And finally, the public portrayal of some horrendous activities at Abu Ghurayb dealt a severe blow to the Coalition.

01 April 04

On the phone this evening, Katrina asked whether I had been to Falja (sic) and told me that I shouldn’t go. I am happy she didn’t ask about Fallujah instead. It has been frustrating to observe the TV experts talk about absolute rubbish who are not linked in with what is actually happening, despite having years in the ‘industry’. One fellow couldn’t understand why the forty million dollars allocated by the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) to improve the local situation had not made the people of Fallujah supportive of us and that Fallujah was a support base for Saddam – perhaps if he had a clue, he would have known that not only had the Marines just arrived and had only just started working through providing funding for the local communities, but the Fallujah has been a problem for every ruler of the land since the time of Saladdin. Even Saddam had a special policy for dealing with this problem child. Perhaps Fox should have asked for a refund.

02 April 04

The fallout from the Fallujah killings continues. I think the manner of the killings and the way in which the bodies were treated pushed beyond a number of redlines that exist within the US psyche. I think one key fact has been lost – it was not well considerd for four western males to go into a place like Fallujah, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most dangerous parts of the country, without telling anyone. While their deaths were tragic reminders of the precarious security situation over here, the deaths were completely avoidable. It is an interesting comparison to note that when five US missionaries were killed two weeks ago in Mosul (again going somewhere they shouldn’t have), there was not any kind of major outrage – admittedly their bodies were not strung up somewhere though. It is sad that there are many avoidable deaths through accidents or stupidity, which does nothing to assuage the heartbreak of the families that are no longer complete.

I was able to catch up with a very good friend of mine, Bart, who is a Marine Corps captain, with whom I had many adventures while we were both in Toowoomba under sufferance (an alternate view might incorporate service to Queen and Country). This is his third time here (Desert Storm, last year and now here for round three). It is somewhat abnormal meeting a good mate in a war zone, instead of in an Irish pub which was a scene that we were both perhaps too familiar with. During my visit to his base, a couple of us were able to check out some old tanks and associated paraphernalia from the war, and of course the tourist in me came out. I now have a picture with me in the driver’s hatch of a T-72 with one of my mates.

Bart recently arrived in country with his unit and like me, is suffering under the total alcohol exclusion zone policy in place here. I think being able to sip a Bombay Sapphire with Schwepps Indian Tonic water and a dash of lime would do marvels for morale. Of course it would be important to do it on a balcony of one of the many palaces looking out across the hustle and bustle of a headquarters area while the sun is waning across Baghdad International Airport in the distance…

Today has been a bizarre day – I have done almost nothing, which I must admit has been good. One would expect that at a time that the sky is falling in Fallujah, the general craziness would have impacted upon my life. However the opposite was experienced by your humble correspondent, for which I was very grateful. There is a point where it is critical to take a pause and think about other things and today was that day for me, hence my ability to finish off what I wrote on the 28th and now today. As always, it is fascinating to try and finish off a journal entry from a few days ago when one’s perception has been coloured by the drama of the intervening days.

It is funny writing these little excerpts of my life on a Friday or Saturday night – if any of us were back in our own countries, I think we would be spending our time rather differently. Somehow I am fairly certain that I would be spending far too much money being as epicurean as possible with wine and song (am not very good on the third thing that finishes that phrase). I think my visa card is reasonably pleased with its lack of use (and the lack of gargantuan club bills is quite unusual).

We are now coming up Arba’een, the second part of the Ashura, in a couple of days – remember when a couple of hundred pilgrims were killed in early March? Sadly, I think you will all get to witness more death and destruction, proudly sponsored by some psychotic terrorists, who have delusions that their collective actions appeal to some rather sick religious doctrine where the sacredness of human life is yet again desecrated…

08 April 04

I was planning to dispatch this letter a couple of days ago, but as per usual, the notion of days is very misleading. We have generally resigned ourselves to seeing everyday as a Monday. It is funny that we can rattle off a veritable range of what is going on in Iraq and understand what the multitude of forces are doing, but when it comes to days and dates, well we are all over the place. I am fairly certain that I have previously canvassed this topic in preceeding letters, although I must use my “very tired” excuse. While it is probably weak and pathetic (somewhat like me in the context of doing a workout in the gym), I have not gone through all my previous correspondence yet to discover some of the horrendous grammatical and spelling errors that a particular individual has made. Of course I have yet to devolve to a state of using American spelling and thus desecrating my beloved language, which I shall not do. In the same way that Bertie Wooster holds out against plans of aunts for his marriage prospects, or the British held out against the Zulus in 1879, or indeed how young male officers hold out against recommended drinking levels, I will always seek to strive valiantly in the cause of Her Most Gracious Majesty’s English against the diabolic insurgency of American English.

I presume that the media in Australia and other countries has picked up on recent goings on in Iraq. Yes, some of the natives are getting restless which is rather sad to see. It doesn’t really lend itself to a quiet couple of months in Iraq, so we are condemned to uncivilised work hours. As part of my own personal war against heavy work (which is hardly gentlemanly), I have taken to staying in bed until a decent hour each morning. I do not know how long this will last – I can but try. I could probably attempt to be witty and amusing, but I don’t feel that it is really warranted. On a more serious note, it is very sad to see a large increase in the level of violence here. Unfortunately, large scale intervention missions are always going to be long and drawn out, and in places such as here, involve lots of wanton death and destruction. It is rather tragic, but it is a reflection of some of the more nasty aspects of human nature. There are more things that could be said, but it is perhaps inappropriate at this point given the rather proximate nature of these shenanigans to your Baghdad correspondent.

With this, I will send this latest contribution out or else it will not be for another week that I get it out. I hope all of you have a good Easter weekend in your respective locations.

Regards,

James

08 April 04

The last nine days have seen a dramatic rise in conflict here due to the operation in Fallujah and the commencement of actions against Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi army. Both were certainly issues that needed resolution – Fallujah is essentially a wild, wild west kind of place and the Mahdi Army is a bunch of thugs and criminals looking to gain significant power. Unfortunately with the Arba’een upon us, the timing is rather poor. There is some suggestion that this is a critical point in our operations in Iraq – the outcome of the current round of hostilities may point to a continuation of the nation-building process or disintegration into a major crisis. It will be interesting to see how historians will view this period in the war in years to come. If anything, I think that the perpetual desire for offensive/kinetic operations to the detriment of humanitarian and reconstruction activities will be seen as a key failing. It is sad to see that it is the people of Iraq and the soldiers on the ground who will suffer from these policies that we pursue. Offensive operations are often warranted and there are certainly some who fully deserve the violent death that they so often strive for. Unfortunately a lot of innocent people get in the way.

I think that the war footing in Iraq is perhaps becoming a bit more personal within our office. Another of our number has had a very close shave with the afterlife, this time through a Blackhawk flight which was fraternising with a power line. One of the intel officers from the headquarters here was also badly wounded in action in An Najaf the other day. A few days prior, he was sitting in our office with my boss and I being told telling him what we needed him to and I don’t think that any of us envisaged that his military career was about to come to an abrupt end. There are some amazing stories of bravery and sacrifice here and in some respects it paints us staff weenies in a rather poor position. Our dalliances with danger are nowhere near as personal as some of the men and women engaged in the tactical fight – in some places, fifty per cent of units have been wounded or killed. Even still, there has certainly been more activity on base tonight than we have seen for quite a while – lots of outgoing (and incoming stuff).

10 April 04

It is now after midnight and I find myself on piquet and starting a new letter yet again. These two hour picket sessions every fortnight are somewhat boring, but at least I am able to spend time writing things that I am sure will keep you spellbound for hours. Of course, I am completely focused on watching out for Zulus or stray cats that might try and wander into our sleeping quarters. From my vantage point, it is fascinating to look out towards the great metropolis that is Baghdad and see the multitude of lights that signify this as a rather busy location – street lights, vehicles, a refinery flare tower in the distance, homes, and the airport. It would be remiss if I didn’t mention the night activity that makes night a unique experience over here – the odd tracer round, explosions, helicopters and the odd fast mover. It will be good being back in our green and pleasant land where it is quiet – some people stay up far too late blowing things up and generally disrupting my sleep. If someone recorded all the snoring and people talking in their sleep that occurs in my quarters, I am sure that some modern composer could turn it into one of those horrendous contemporary works. I think a fatwa would be completely appropriate against modern composers – most of them take notes or chords that sound perfectly nice by themselves and then throw them together in some vile mixture that resembles baby food or something. This rile against modern composers has not been caused by anything in particular, although it may be a side effect of listening to some mournful tune about Jeb loosing his cow or my Lou’s left and taken the dog. Admittedly I am being somewhat harsh – it would be wrong of me to suggest that there is a complete saturation of country music over here (and of course I do have a small weakness for Garth Brooks music).

I have been a good boy and have not gallivanted around the countryside in the last few days. This has meant that my weekly photo-taking quota has not been truly satisfied. I must say though that I now have photographic evidence of the world’s biggest popcorn container which now adorns the kitchen, with a rapidly diminishing supply of three different flavours of popcorn – salted butter, caramel and cheese (a little like Twistees). It is huge – it is truly like a great big coloured bin. Again, it is something that looks like it was specifically designed for use during a humanitarian aid mission to the upper Congo, although I somewhat doubt the popularity of caramel popcorn there (they might prefer salted rhinoceros tail or something).

Some of us have taken to getting up on the roof of our building as a form of solitude and to introduce a degree of separation between us and the hoi polloi. This does not mean that we are throwing crumbs at the masses as they pass below however. In the search for spectacular pictures it provides a reasonable vantage point from which to try and capture some unique moment on camera or have a quiet place to read (not that there is much time to do any reading for the purpose of leisure or relaxation). The lack of leisure time is rather unfortunate, although we do watch DVDs on occasion. It is a fairly cheap and enjoyable form of entertainment, and the humour targeted at the ten-year-old, pre-pubescent male (the American Pie genre) is very appealing to us all. Actually the last two words of that last sentence remind me of another horrific component of the pigeon English spoken over here. They alter the words “you all” to yawl, yall or y arl or something equally disturbing. I wish they would come to terms with the use of “all of you” or something else referring to assembled masses that doesn’t sound like some ethnic term for a yeti or something. My poor deluded colleagues continue to wander around in a state of darkness with their language. It is relieving that most of my close associates have a reasonable grasp of language – there are some over here who are combining the odd English word with some ancient tongue lost three millennia ago and some curious accent that makes them look like there is a significant amount of inbreeding in their recent family history. Perhaps this is a little cruel.

Well, yesterday was Good Friday, a very religious day in the Christian calendar, and a rather bloody one in the Iraqi calendar. Unfortunately, there was minimal pause in our workplace due to the general craziness throughout the country. We did however watch the Mel Gibson film on the Passion a few weeks ago. I am fairly certain that we were watching a pirated copy purchased locally which is of course slightly incongruous – an observant bystander would be forgiven for thinking that a relatively religious group of people watching something religious would be using a legitimate copy of the relevant program. It is always amusing seeing pirated copies of things where you can see people wandering around at the bottom of the screen though.

One sad thing about only providing contributions to these letters when in a state somewhat akin to that of a zombie is that all thoughts are focused towards staying awake rather than making advances in the search for uproariously funny comments. It is now almost time to depart for bed – pass over the sentry duty stuff to someone else and so on. There isn’t too much to report, except that the sentry stuff continues to be rather boring. I did buy the film Zulu the other day and there were plenty of Zulus trying to misbehave in it, but they probably don’t count – they all died anyway and I must remember that it is no longer 1879 – we live in a thoroughly modern civilised world if I recall correctly. At least my last two hours has been accompanied by my trusty laptop, which is a definite saviour for my sanity in this wonderful environment.

11 April 04

There is possibly or actually a degree of stupidity associated with some of our efforts to take pictures from the roof of the office. When rockets and the like come in, we seem to race for the roof to see what is going on instead of sheltering under our desks with out body armour on. Up until recently we often made the drive between Camp Victory and the Green Zone in a humvee with no doors or windows and were therefore rather exposed if anyone wanted to take a shot at us. It was always particularly disconcerting in one area where we were driving at the same level as many roof tops – many places for an enemy sniper to be. Sometimes we were a bit complacent on these trips much to the chagrin of our support staff who would generally point their M16 at anyone who looked in our direction. The overriding desire by many to protect themselves is always understandable, but also unfortunate given the perception that it can give off. Sometimes soldiers will aggressively do things for their own protection which may not assist in winning the hearts and minds of locals. The tragedy is that when some commanders have tried to be less assertive in this and let their guard down to some extent, the enemy has always been there to exploit it and the outcome has been more Coalition casualties.

12 April 04

Well the Easter weekend has passed, and in its passing, a oversupply of easter-related junk food has come to take its place in the kitchen, in our stomachs and no doubt in the lining of our blood vessels where it will inevitably prove to be somewhat detrimental to our collective health. You may recall my comments of about three weeks ago talking about an article in the US highlighting the problem of starving Coalition soldiers. The point man for this deluge of craziness, Greg, has just received another supply that might have been confused for an aid shipment to the starving multitudes in the third world somewhere. It has included handmade parcels of teeth rotting material of the highest order and lots of other goodies, all designed to boost our morale (which it does) and boost the future earning potential of weight-loss programs the world over in years to come. We now have the dubious privilege of wearing our body armour everywhere we go, which I think is done to introduce a forced kind of physical exercise because of rising levels of obesity in the Coalition (as opposed to some local chap who is rather overenthusiastic with the fireworks). It really is quite rude to have to walk around with Kevlar plates and assorted stuff adorning our body. The body armour is overly heavy and definitely unfashionable – hardly stuff seen on the catwalks of the fashion capitals of the world. Indeed, I am sure no gentleman’s outfitters would be seen dead trying to sell such beastly garb and certainly the dress requirements of any proper dining establishment would preclude the patronage of anyone dressed in such a manner. That being said, some fashion designers seem to have a penchant for the bizarre.

Well, it is now but one month before I am in my native land and I can almost taste the first gin and tonic that will pass my lips in approximately 700 hours time. It shall be a wondrous moment which I will set as my beacon for freedom in the weeks ahead. I will certainly feel strange thing wearing normal clothing again and have the ability to wander the streets of Brisbane in a free manner.

17 April 04

The recent craziness in Iraq has reduced the lettuce supply in the dining facility and indeed the quality of the plastic fork has reached a new low. There is even some suggestion that we may need to move to the consumption of ration packs … which is of course quite shocking and unexpected in a war zone. This factor, plus our new painful dress standards and the impending doom of summer, has caused many of us to barricade ourselves within our office building, fending off intruders with easter eggs and the like. However, we have our kitchen which is able to provide in this time of hardship. Tonight we had pizzas, last night we supped on Polish fare and tomorrow night we will have some pavlova probably after a Cajun rice dish of some description. The call might even go out to unleash the alcohol-free merlot as the fake beer supply is running low.

I must complain bitterly that my parents have recently left me high and dry in the food stakes – am feeling very unloved. Concerned that they may need to roll me off the plane by virtue of four months of gluttony (as opposed to one too many gin and tonics on the plane), they have denied Tim Tam and Mintie sustenance for the last week or two. I must admit though that Anzac biscuits are enroute however in time for 25 Apr. Luckily, my brother officers have been on hand to take up the slack. The propaganda in the US media resulted in yet another bundle of presents and cards sent in the direction of the disadvantaged allied soldier in Iraq. And my good friend Scott, who is in the T-72 tank photo with me in the previous email, attempted to kill me today with an overdose of sugary food. It would be somewhat embarrassing if Australia’s first death in Iraq was due to an oversized chocolate easter bunny or something. However, I was introduced today to the Twinky. I initially described it as fat covered in fat, but a more accurate description would suggest fat-covered sugar coated in fatty sugar. It is actually a cream-filled sponge cake thing of true evil. For once, I have found a confectionary item that was almost too sweet for me. It was truly sickening, and if it wasn’t for a quick cup of Early Grey, I would have been curled up in the foetal position somewhere for at least a month.

However, it is good to see that one can survive for months only consuming coffee, sugar and the occasional vitamin supplement. On a more positive note for the dieticians among my readers (or worried family members), I do on the odd day have some brown rice and chicken and some of that green stuff, which my dictionary calls vegetables or something along that line.

Work continues on at a cracking pace and I think I have now settled into a work routine of around 100-110 hours per week, which seems to be working reasonably well at this point. However, the vagaries of this place can cause one to gallop in a new direction very quickly which is not very beneficial for trying to maintain a work routine, and have a scheduled time for morning tea. I am in my longest stretch of remaining confined to Baghdad which is a little unfortunate as it is quite refreshing to get out to the provinces. Often the conditions in outlying bases are better as well (particularly in the all-important food department), which is good to see as it is the soldiers in the outlying bases who end up having close and rather personal meetings with bad people on a far too regular basis. It is actually surprising to see the number of Indian workers spread throughout here. Whether in Mosul, Babylon or Fallujah, I have had conversations with chaps highlighting of course that we have the best cricket team in the world. There was even an English fellow in the latter location who felt that I needed to be reminded about some English team winning some competition in 2003, something that comes around every four years, was played in Australia and of course it is unfortunate that I can’t remember. It was good though to highlight to him that the English Rugby Union side was doing rather poorly in the current competition in Europe. A fairly steady work commitment is taking pictures of the team to send back to our support crew back in the states with us holding up cards or cups or cookies or whatever else we have been sent. We recently even had a photo shoot for Kadhim, our resident Iraqi who is a cultural advisor to one of the senior people over here, for his future political aspirations here. His family, who paid dearly for their resistance to Saddam, is from down south where a lot of the trouble is at present – he is also completely addicted to Anzac biscuits which is amusing.

Most of the team I work with come from the US Third Corps from Texas (a place that I have been ordered to visit), but there are a number of fiends and intruders among the group from other units, services (air force, navy, marines) and of course the ‘underprivileged’ Coalition members. Gute, our F16 pilot departed today, finishing up his tour of three months. As with all departures, it is sad when someone leaves, although it does remind us of our own departures that aren’t too far away. Gute is probably the best fighter pilot I have had the privilege of knowing from the good chap perspective – he and I soldiered on through March with our horrendous moustaches to the derision of others in the office, his ability to hook up a Blackhawk ride for us was great, and his quiet, but endless sense of humour was enjoyed by all. We now have a tradition of getting an old Iraqi army helmet and autographing it for the departing member, presenting it whilst drinking fake beer and smoking Cuban cigars (which our US brethren aren’t meant to have). I feel sorry for the Third Corps guys though as their departure is nine months away – at least I can see the half way point of my deployment just around the corner.

I will end there for the evening I think – I have now written 15,000 words in my dispatches (I am sure that the words Tim Tam, Mintie and food take up a solid percentage however). The war rages on in a rather uncertain manner at present, with uneasy truces abounding and propaganda all over the place. It is a very unique time to be here however as we move towards independence. I think the overarching hope is that despite the death and destruction, the new Iraq will be able to overcome many of the problems faced here over many years and develop into what could potentially be a truly amazing country…

21 April 04

My work computer has decided to misbehave, so I have an opportunity to pen, or rather type, a few lines while enjoying a Cajun rice dish for lunch. I have now compiled most of the ingredients required for the pavlova, so I think I shall destroy the kitchen this evening. The ovens have been able to stand the rigours of pizza making, and therefore a precedent exists for their successful use in pavlova making. In line with the latest concerns from Australia about my march towards obesity and a range of bad food-related diseases and pestilence, a cunning plan has been instituted. I am now concentrating my soda consumption (that is American for soft drink) in the realm of the diet beverage, and indeed I am trying to use fake sugar in my tea and coffee. After repenting over trying to kill me with a Twinky, Scott has provided me with lots of Slim Jims, which sounds like a diet food for people called James. While the Slim Jim is quite enjoyable, I don’t envisage that it has any of the health attributes that are conjured up when one thinks of a slim Jim. It is a spicy, smoked snack with the most amazing ingredient list. Of course the list includes boring stuff such as beef, salt, paprika and corn syrup. The fascination however is with ‘lactic acid starter culture’ which evokes images of strange experiments one did in high school chemistry. And the big one is mechanically-separated chicken, which sounds something like a cross between the Spanish inquisition and a poultry farm (I presume a necessary component if chickens are involved). Apparently it is not even a politically correct way of saying minced chicken and relates to some strange scraping thing that is done in the abattoir.

Well the Spanish are departing the show – it is a shame as their coffee shop down south was very nice, and I was hoping to pop in again prior to departing this foreign land. A few other nations have decided to follow suit, although without coffee shops, the impact on my life is not as great. It is good that John Winston is standing firm – departure would be rather ungentlemanly and uncalled for.

We have been made aware of some more sad deaths over here: yesterday, 120 Iraqi casualties during an enemy attack on the prison a few kilometres from here and today, lots of school children and Iraqi police killed down in Basra by our crazy Islamic extremist psychopaths – I suppose we are legitimate targets, but I don’t think our charming enemy have any moral repulsion in killing school children. It is always predictable, amusing and saddeing to see the spin that Al Jazeera uses to report these matters.

Anyway, I hope the western world is going well for all and sundry, and I expect that all will be good and go to Anzac Day services on Sunday. With but three weeks until my return, I think there will be only one more dispatch before my holidays.

Fondest regards,

James

Anzac Day 04

The time has come to commemorate another Anzac Day, the 89th to be exact. It is my normal practice to get up at a rather ungodly hour, arrive at a city centre appropriately booted and spurred, replete with a couple of medals, and wait in the hushed masses, ready to remember those who have served our nation, and perhaps spare a thought for those who presently serve in far flung fields in the service of Queen and Country. On Australian military bases, it is not uncommon for there to be a few smoke grenades or the firing of blanks in the background to give a bit of effect to the occasion.

It was perhaps a little different over here – more sombre, but still an element of the semi-mystical that surrounds the dawn service, whether in Brisbane, Canberra or indeed here in Baghdad. Instead of a suit and/or the obligatory RM Williams boots, the desert camouflage uniform replete with rifle; instead of pretend fire in the background, a few odd, angry shots somewhere in the neighbourhood. And instead of a predominantly Australian crowd rugged up for a cool morning, soldiers from the Coalition, including a Turkish soldier. In place of lunch at the club and a leisurely afternoon having a few beverages, a morning tea with the glorious leader of our nation and then back to the war, not against an enemy fifty yards to our front in a trench (as in previous wars), but scattered throughout the country of Iraq conducting an insurgent war. Actually I think John Winston even commented that it was his first Anzac Day conducted with automatic fire accompaniment. We have seen a lot of blood shed over here recently. Over one hundred Coalition soldiers have been killed in action already this month, and in the last week, over one hundred civilians have been killed in four attacks by the enemy. It is certainly unique being in a war zone and having the opportunity to participate in what is the most holy day in the Australian military calendar.

I think John Winston enjoyed the trip – he seems to enjoy meeting the troops, and he was certainly warmly received by the group. While there is undoubtedly some political consideration given to such a trip, it is special for the leader of the government to spend this important occasion with the chaps in the front line, and it is appreciated. The announcement about a campaign medal was also appreciated, not least by me. One of the fellows forgot to post something home in time for his son’s birthday, so he asked John Winston to send it upon his return to Australia, which he was more than happy to do. I think a lot of my American colleagues were quite impressed at his close familiarity with the chaps. The announcement that we would continue to have soldiers here for at least another year was also good. The reconstruction of Iraq is an important process that we are involved in (albeit in a fairly small way), and it is wrong to leave prematurely. Of course I know that you are all in complete agreement and that you shall all do your utmost to ensure that the glorious leader does not suffer defeat later this year to a group of fiends and scoundrels, who are schooled in nothing other than the pursuit of lunacy and stupidity, with a dose of communism thrown in for good measure.

You may be surprised to know that for once, I am almost at a loss as to what to discuss in this missive. The day of the short respite back in Australia draws nigh, and I think it will be good for the personal constitution. The spark of life becomes rapidly consumed by the pace of life over here. With only four hours sleep in the last 40 hours, the onset of exhaustion is but a step away.

However, I should probably return to the normal, happy babble and occasionally witty banter which perhaps characterises these letters – I would hate to think that my writings would suffer from being truly bland and boring, somewhat like gardening. I normally find my letters rather amusing, as do some of my brother officers and I am concerned that some of my writings at present will not make me laugh or smile knowingly about some matter of childish amusement that I write. Of course, in the end it is handy if some entertainment can also be derived by you.

Anyway, I have now cooked my first pavlova, or perhaps the word baked is more appropriate. It was a reasonable success. While we lamented the lack of fresh cream and the occasional strawberry (which, strangely enough, is not readily available in a war zone), the sugary experience was fun. Indeed, with the token fruit involvement (a tin of passionfruit), I felt that I had raised the bar in healthy living. A word of advice that I can pass on, based on my newfound experience, is that it is generally handy if one is in possession of an electric beater thing of some description during the mixing stage. Whipping the sugary mixture stuff up to the right texture with a fork does not lend itself to making the stuff quickly. Indeed an assembly line of chaps to help was critical as it took an hour to do the whipping thing. I apologise for not knowing the right set of words that one should use for kitchen activities – my abilities lie more in the ability to select a good restaurant and a decent bottle of wine, rather than all of those domestic things that I shy away from.

Sadly, the twine that holds the sword of Damocles in place seems to be about to break and nasty things are on the verge of happening. It is with teary eye that I must report that our beloved kitchen, and indeed our office building, may become but a pleasant memory that we will only be able to remember with fondness when, in years to come, we are having bypass operations to compensate for an overindulgent appetite whilst in Baghdad. If I was speaking in common tongue, or indeed the vernacular of the plebeian, I would perhaps say that we are moving. Those three mere words (i.e. we are moving) do not express the heartfelt sorrow and utter devastation that is rending our hearts inoperable. Our office, and more importantly the kitchen (and abundant supply of badness) has been our strength and salvation in the dark months that have passed before us. In the way in which time passes, and nature takes its course, the organisation in which we work changes shape, and with that change, sacrifice. In the tradition that talks about greater man hath no love or greater love no hath man, or something to that effect, we have sacrificed our office to transform ourselves. Our dear general, one of only two Canadian military personnel in the Coalition, is now striving valiantly in our cause. I told him that we would petition the pope for his beatification if he could but protect our kitchen from the slings and arrows of outrageous change. Even as an Anglican, I would be willing to make a call to the head of the Church of Rome in pursuit of this most noble of causes…

Isn’t it lovely that, with the English language, we can meander through many lovely words to express what is but a small item or thing. Not so with the evil of the Americanisation of the language of heaven. Every day, I become exposed to a new phrase or usage of a word with which I am familiar. Our poor friends do not know “fortnight” or “full stop”. It is “biweekly” or “period”, both far more vulgar expressions. The list of language crimes grows longer every day.

I have been granted a translator however. I have to write a particular assessment which is sent to a lot of rather senior people. In order to do this properly, I have been given a half colonel to spell badly and use simple words on my behalf. Indeed, if it wasn’t enough for them to institute a regime of “z” instead of “s”, they use the latter instead of a “c” as well.

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