Dispatches from the Front – Jan and Feb

Jan-Feb Overview

The transition from 2003 to 2004 had a range of key events: Saddam was captured in December (his two sons having been killed months earlier) while significant questions are raised about the validity of the Weapons of Mass Destruction justification for invading Iraq.

The US Army Fifth Corps starts to return home to Germany after fighting a conventional war, then being struck with the requirement to act as an occupying power. Work is progressing on the interim constitution while the Iraqi Governing Council struggles to gain credibility and be seen as legitimate in Iraq and elsewhere. And in the middle are the Iraqi people who continue to pay a horrible price for the war often at the hands of suicide bombers. A question is asked by a journalist about a prison called Abu Ghurayb where some allegations have arisen…
27 January 04

Well it is rather remarkable sitting here on the precipice. While we are now on the doorstep of the world’s current focal point, the war still seems a long way away. Although not quite like wandering around in purgatory, spending time in this (I suppose) relative oasis of Kuwait, it is interesting to contemplate this whole venture and to wonder how history will judge what we are doing. The easy pace here lets one’s thoughts wander into areas that one should steer clear of.

I know that Mum and Dad and many others have already judged this war to be a horrible and tragic error on the part of the United States, Great Britain and other Coalition countries. I am sure that my parents etc will look upon Bush, Blair, Howard et al as somewhat akin to Satan’s servants for ever. It puts one in a somewhat invidious position by being involved in something that is strongly opposed by parents and family. Admittedly, they were worried by my going to East Timor and the like but they at least recognised the value of other recent operations that Australia has been involved in. I wonder whether my being in Iraq will change the perception that many family members have or perhaps even just fortify and personalise their current stance.

Going into a real war zone causes one to contemplate mortality more so than normal. It may perhaps have an enduring impact on me and cause me to be far more mindful of this. Before departing, I discussed this with one of my good friends and felt that there was some benefit in writing a note for the family just in case something bad happened. This is a rather morbid and certainly strange thing to do, but I thought it important and found writing such a thing is quite emotive. I presume that most people live in blissful ignorance of death, but where I am headed perhaps brings this issue into sharp focus. We are hardly going over the top to certain death as was so visually represented in the movie Gallipoli but it is not exactly safe.

27 January 04

Dear all,

On 27 Jan, the time for waiting had ended and I was off to the biggest shooting match of the century, although perhaps most of the shooting was over. My departure had been preceded by a range of festive boards that would have challenged all but the most dedicated of gluttons. Unfortunately, I was not equal to the task and finally succumbed to a spring roll on Australia Day. I strove valiantly, but it was an unequal fight.

The day of departure provided little by way of respite. The saddest thing was that I was desperately hoping to have a good last supper, however, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were most unkind. I am sure that I will dream about the missed salmon steak on a bed of garlic mash that I was looking forward to. I am sure that this unhappy incident will come back to haunt me over the next few months.

My anguish over this was somewhat ameliorated by the culinary delights offered at Camp Doha, a US base in Kuwait. It is bizarre to consider that the high point of my adventures to date has been deciding whether I will have a white chocolate mocha or caramel macchiato at the Starbucks here on base – war is certainly a difficult thing. To break the monotony, I had a six-inch sweet onion chicken teriyaki subway with horseradish sauce this evening. This was perhaps nicer than the one I had in Canberra a week or two ago. I think my next few emails will reflect the overwhelming novelty value that is attached to some of the delights of being at a US base such as this.

The plane flight over had its high and low points; I was able to watch the 1940 black and white version of Pride and Prejudice which was enjoyable and read a PG Wodehouse book in its entirety. Unfortunately, on arriving at the duty free Mecca of Dubai, I had to walk rather briskly to get a connecting flight without being able to spend anything on my visa card – quite a tragic moment. As promised in my first group email, I have started the Epic of Gilgamesh – somehow I don’t think that another copy of it exists in the Coalition. The range of reading material to buy or borrow here is rather limited to the extent that I dare not even use the word literature.

I think that the base is best likened to a university campus, albeit with people in uniforms and some carrying guns, although neither of these is universally true. There is even a range of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds that one would expect to find at a university. It is a truly unique experience – I have never had a selection of donuts on offer for breakfast. I shall have one tomorrow morning though (at least I am having breakfast mum). I think that over the next few weeks, I will search for the most patriotic thing available for sale, so that I can send it to someone who is unimpressed by Australia’s involvement in the war and hence my small excursion to the cradle of civilisation. Luckily, there are a lot of options that have presented themselves, particularly with postcards and t-shirts. I think my dad will receive a mysterious card thanking him for supporting the war effort. Furthermore, there are a range of Valentines Day cards that even defy bad taste. Does anyone want one? Given that, as per usual, Valentines Day involves zero involvement from yours truly, I am happy to send anyone a card with two cartoon camels cuddling on the front or worse.

Over my life in the military, I have used my school boarding house experience as perhaps the low benchmark for communal living. To date, there has not been a situation which has been worse (although there was a military base in southern Malaysia that came close). I am happy to say that the low standard set by boarding school for the worst possible communal living arrangement in the world has not been beaten here. In fact I think a new high standard has been set in the range of amenities provided here in Kuwait.

Anyway, I shall sign off here. I am sure that you will all understand that my emails are going to have to focus on the flippant dimension of this trip as it is not appropriate to discuss actual work things. Therefore, I apologise if I discuss the vagaries of Starbucks running out of large take-away cups rather than the future direction of the Iraqi provisional government.

I hope you are all well, and that life in the first world finds you enjoying its delights and pleasures while we defend your freedom (was that too corny…). I think a few more horrendous lines like this will be coming forth in later emails.

Fondest regards,

James

30 January 04

Well the time has come again for me to start penning another dispatch. I hope this one finds you all well and in good spirits. The last email was sent via my sister Katrina as I had some dramas with sending a group email.

It is quite an interesting experience operating within a war machine that is truly enormous. There is an amazingly diverse range of people and equipment within the US military. At any particular rank level or grouping, there is a true “melting pot”. For junior officers, one could see a strange, anaemic-looking fellow who looked like he desperately needed a bed in a mental health establishment, a stereotypical big strong warrior or a cute little blond lass with pigtails (in uniform) all within the space of a minute or two which served to highlight this diversity. One of the few adjectives that can be prescribed for the whole establishment over here is the word huge – there are huge arrays of equipment and personnel. Even the hire cars are huge – they all seem to make 4WDs in Australia rather minute.

There are quite a few nations represented here – I did a badge swap with a sergeant from a Danish Battalion that is stationed with the British Division in Basra. I think most Eastern European nations have chaps here at the moment. I even saw a couple of Japanese fellows – I imagine the last time that Australians and Japanese saw each other in an operational environment was world war two, where things were not quite so cordial between the two nations. And no, they weren’t on bicycles wielding samurai swords.

Unfortunately, my time in Kuwait was predominantly spent within the US military juggernaut so my only exposure to Kuwait was limited to travelling between the various airports and military bases. This was sufficient to show that the only real difference between Kuwait and Brunei was the number of trees. The ostentatious highways and impressive houses, as well as the homicidal maniac drivers, all reminded me of my childhood in Brunei (admittedly there are a few more camels here).

My last day here was tinged with sadness as I said goodbye to the soothing effects of Starbucks coffee, but I did have a donut with caramel icing for breakfast. Surprisingly, I think it was healthier than some of the other available options. However I was able to offset my sadness by the purchase of half a dozen horrendous cards – one of them has now provided me with the recipe for cooking a whole camel, which I am sure will be thoroughly beneficial when I next need to cater for about one hunderd people. I now have photographic records of the cards, and there is some real “talent” displayed for the vulgar and appalling. One feels truly honoured by the ability to see and own such artwork. I have set a personal goal to try and find a card that would even be too tasteless for the National Gallery – they seem to have very low standards.

It is fascinating to see how self-contained a US base is. It really seems to provide America to the soldiers – there would be little culture shock as there does not seem to be much interaction with local cultures, with the exception of one or two souvenir-style shops that adjoin the KFC and Starbucks. The news in the mess is all US cable television, particularly Fox. This is of course complimented by the obligatory military news papers that have afflicted militaries for many years, and popularly portrayed in the last series of Blackadder. We finally saw some non-US news – apparently the BBC is a leftist hotbed and has been proven to have acted disgracefully towards George Bush and Tony Blair … and curiously, the fact that the US media is not government sponsored means that it is unbiased. Of course I would be amazed if anyone was incredulous at this claim.

31 January 04

In Australia seeing a couple of C130s or tanks is a big deal, but the range and quantity of military hardware here leaves one flabbergasted. There is a strange kind of culture shock when becoming part of this great machine. Most impressions of the US military are drawn from Hollywood or the range of political comments made in the media lauding or criticising it. Just before I came over I watched the whole Band of Brothers series, an extremely moving work on some of the experiences of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War Two. And now wandering around in Kuwait you see a lot of guys from the same ‘outfit.’ It is surreal seeing the living bit of this military monolith and at times there is a strange temptation to go up and say “hey, I saw that great film about you guys in world war two”. Coming from a situation where you could play computer games driving around in Abrams tanks killing computer-generated Iraqis to seeing it all in real life causes one to realise that such games definitely relate to a more deadly and tangible fight.

01 February 04

Well, I think I could get very used to living in a palace permanently. While Saddam was happy to let his people suffer the depravations of poverty and international sanctions, he was content with building a range of palace complexes, one of which I now live in. Perhaps he knew that I was going to be in residence at some point, so he recognised the need to have appropriate accommodation ready for my arrival.

The whole experience to date has been predominantly of novelty value – first, the fast food extravaganza in Kuwait and now the ability to sit back on a four-seater, gilt-edged couch in a building replete with marbled floors and obese chandeliers writing this email (life is truly tough). I think my life in Brunei has once again served me well as one living there becomes used to ostentatious homes made with expensive materials but constructed in a shockingly slipshod manner. I think the interior decorator had a major inability to select nice light fittings as well. The choice of chairs though is great – I have discovered a favourite chair which will be well used by me over the next month.

It is with sadness that I have discovered that there are no fast food outlets where I am based, but there is still a cake display in the mess (or chow hall or whatever acronym is currently used for the place in which we eat). There is also a smaller range of appalling cards to buy, so my desire to purchase something akin to a National Gallery acquisition has suffered a setback.

I am about to plunge into my job; unfortunately I can’t really discuss it. Of course, the reason for this is to frustrate my parents. However, I think my experiences in Brunei’s Islamic society, in addition to some of my university studies (related to intervention missions and Islamic extremism) will be beneficial considering the work I have been tasked with. Unfortunately, I am starting to think that I will soon run out of big things to talk about as work becomes all consuming (it looks like I will work about eighty hours a week), so I will lay off mentioning a few items of interest and insert them in at some point when there is little else that I can talk about. Given that I have a workaholic streak to me, I think that the long days will not be a big problem. Luckily, I am pretty much able to turn up about nine am in the morning for work (and obviously finish at around ten at night). This is a good arrangement for me, as I am not at my best in the morning (I freely admit that I shouldn’t drive until I have had my first coffee).

At this point in writing, I have absolutely no idea whether there has been any fallout from my last group email – complaints about my poor sense of humour and the like, perhaps. I hope it wasn’t too bad. I am not used to going this long without my phone and internet connectivity to the world – I am not spending an hour a day on my mobile coming up with cunning plans to expand the Swanston Empire or reading/writing fifty emails. It is perhaps good to take a step back from my life to get a different perspective on how I am tracking with everything.

03 February 04

Essentially, I live in on of many palatial residences surrounded by lakes. It is actually quite pleasant to walk along the water’s edge. There are even little lights and seats and the like – it must have been a little romantic getaway for members of the regime where they could rest and play after hectic days of subjugating the Iraqi populace. One can imagine a gondola to appearing from underneath one of the bridges with a senior Ba’ath party official courting some young lady. – perhaps that was part of the attraction of this one-time playground of the regime. On occasion, there are some couples chatting – perhaps it is the most pleasant thing to do around here for couples (although given the US military policy on fraternisation, I am sure they only discuss work-related issues). Where we live, there is also a balcony where it is peaceful to sit and watch the sun set over the international airport, and have a moment alone. I am spending a bit of time here, musing about life, the universe and everything.

Each week, there is a BBQ on this balcony where there is a cast of thousands (actually, most of the Australians here on base as well as some of our Coalition brethren). It is a nice activity, as it is rare to be able to get the assembled masses together. It is rather fortuitous that I know and like a number of the Australians here quite well due to previous jobs in the army. It is perhaps a testament to the small size of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that in an “isolated” outpost such as here in Baghdad, one can meet up with lots of people whom one knows well.

04 February 04

In Brunei, an ostensibly rich country, there were still plenty of slums, predominantly inhabited by Bangladeshi workers and the like. It was always a sad spectacle. My exposure here in Iraq to date has only been to wander around in one of the many former playgrounds of the former regime, not a palace compound dating back to the height of power of an ancient Caliphate but the modern construction of a brutal despot. I can remember looking on with disgust as many in the West protested against the humanitarian disaster in Iraq as a result of sanctions against the regime. Seeing the ostentatious display of wealth in places such as this was never really part of that whole dialogue which is rather hypocritical – particularly given that these palaces have all been built while some of these sanctions have been in place. There is a problem with the argument of the “left”. While their concerns with the actions of the Coalition are sometimes justified, their unwillingness to confront the atrocities of the former regime is seriously flawed.

I have thankfully ended up getting a job in the US headquarters planning staff, rather than the Australian HQ. This means that I am involved in the actual war here, rather than being an observer which I think would have been frustrating. Trying to support real things which result in people living and dying is what we train for in the Australian military. However, we rarely go past the exercise stage and perhaps that isn’t overly realistic at times. The feeling of being dropped into the deep end is certainly an apt analogy, particularly if you add a few nasty things into the mix to spice life up.

The Australian staff who we are replacing seem to be glad to depart for home, rather tired after months of huge workloads for which there is little respite from the pressures associated with serving in a war-focused establishment. While George W said that combat operations were over last May, the reality is different. There was an end to conventional military operations in a sense but the more difficult insurgent warfare, Malayan Emergency style, is in full swing.

09 February 04

The notion of death is interesting to explore. Each day the base and/or the adjoining airport is attacked, either by rockets or mortars or small arms fire. It is very strange to think that whenever these attacks occur, someone might have just died or have been wounded. Given the randomness of where the bombs land, I am amazed that one doesn’t wipe out half a dozen people or so.

Walking home at midnight, there was a huge fire fight and a few explosions at the front gate. This gate is only 800 metres away where a few guys were perhaps fighting off some bad guys. Remarkably, there was no one killed or injured, so perhaps it was a new guy on the front gate who was simply scared. Earlier the same evening, a few rockets landed within a kilometre of where I work – there was some poor soldier who was frightened and sought refuge in our office. It is very strange to be conditioned to the daily attacks to the degree that you just get on with life, rather than be overwhelmed by an enemy that is fairly determined to kill Coalition soldiers (and anyone who doesn’t support them). A recent trip to Babylon was a somewhat sobering experience in this regard. The flight down was great fun – flying at fifty feet off the deck going 140 knots and weaving all over the place, until you were sobered by the thought that the purpose of these manoeuvres was to reduce the ability of anyone with a surface to air missile (SAM) to get you. The return flight was at night and fairly eerie. The night was not overly dark and we had to fly higher and slower and there were continuous flashes from the moon reflecting off small waterways. In similar conditions two nights earlier, the helo crews we had were attacked but survived. They didn’t seem to enjoy the experience either. For those of us not used to the night flights around here, the first couple of “moon flashes” were very disconcerting for obvious reasons. I think I will try and limit flying at night…

Taking a fatalistic approach to life is certainly the way to go over here, somewhat like the Insha’allah concept in Islam (sort of a doctrine of predestination – if something happens, it is obviously God’s will, so just accept it). Individual instances of violence and attacks here are seemingly random although part of a determined campaign of violence aimed at stopping any hope for Iraq to become a functioning society. The Iraq people are sad victims here, coming out of thirty years of state-led violence and now in the midst of a less structured but no less tragic set of terrible circumstances predominantly caused by many of the same evil people that were allowed to hide behind the notion of sovereignty or something for far too long.

11 February 04

For the first time in my life I have been inundated by valentines day cards – well actually this isn’t strictly true. I work in an area with twenty US guys and we were inundated with cards coloured in by school kids wishing us a happy valentines day and thanking us for the great job we are doing. It is sort of a shame that the Australian contingent actually seems to get more community support from the US than it does from Australia. Regardless of the politics of the situation, soldiers serving overseas should still get some recognition from their communities.

I have been very lucky to get the job I am in – it is an unique opportunity to have this involvement. The guys I work with are great, although I continue to be saddened by their inability to spell properly. I will continue to fly the flag for the Queen’s English of course (unfortunately my lack of editing time here will probably mean that you will be tortured by spelling mistakes and so on). The side burns have become a bit of a hit and I am now known as Chops. For some amusement, I had a haircut today – it is rather short, but critically the sideburns remain in place (albeit a little slimmer). It was a scary experience, trying to ensure that the non-English speaking barber recognised the prominence of these important facial features.

The work pace is very intense. It now averages between fifteen and seventeen hours a day, which is absolutely fantastic for a masochistic workaholic like me. However, it is a very intellectually stimulating job and as I think I might have said at an earlier point, my masters studies have been beneficial. With the hectic workload, I am not able to take advantage of living in a palace – again I harken back to those sacrifices that one must make for Queen and country (and of course our Coalition brethren).

The base is still undergoing a lot of work, so I have been lacking the benefits of a Starbucks coffee. Unfortunately for my waistline, we have a veritable festive board at which we all spread out the food packages from home. I can’t wait for the Tim Tams to arrive – I have a lot of potential fans desperate to try them – the notion of heroin for chocoholics is quite attractive.

Well, I now have a picture of me at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or whatever is left of it – unfortunately Xerxes had stepped out, so I wasn’t able to get a picture with him. I would have suggested that he needed to do a bit of upkeep as Babylon was in a state of disrepair.

I see that the lefties won the Queensland election again – not that it really matters. With Johnny at the helm in Canberra, all will be sweetness and light. With that as my final salvo, I think I will attempt to send this off via my sister. I am still having issues with sending out group emails. I have included two pictures. The first is of me at Babylon (at the tourist entrance to the ruins) and the second is of me with my direct boss (on the right) and two mates – they are all guys I work closely with. Unfortunately we are not drinking real beers, but it was still a surreal experience having fake beers and cigars in Baghdad. And no, I have not taken up smoking.

Anyway, love to all. I hope the land of freedom and democratic virtue is treating you all well. I ask for everyone’s support and prayers – trying to get my brother officers from the United States to enjoy Vegemite is an overwhelming task.

Fondest regards,

James

PS As I finish this off, I am having some deer jerky that was sent to us by the neighbour of one of the guys I work with – a very unique taste.

14 February 04

Hello all again.

I hope no one is really offended by my being unable to send off a lot of individual emails, or perhaps unimpressed by my lack of significant things to talk about – sorry. It is just that I am getting a few rude comments from those in Australia suggesting a lack of mental ability on my part, possibly for supporting John Winston. Are they suggesting a correlation between the two?

At the time of writing today’s contribution though, there is a unique moment to think about what I am saying. Aside from my rather long work days, I am blessed with the opportunity to do a two hour phone piquet until two this morning. Can anyone beat that for a romantic experience on valentines day? I know I have harked on about it a bit (particularly given that I generally forget when it occurs). Valentines day is quite surprising as it almost receives the same attention that I thought Christmas would get. Our office is adorned by about fifty or sixty cards and the presents (and therefore the food) is bountiful. Hopefully it will soon be over and the pathetic single souls among us can forget our singledom, although everyone I work closely with is married (many have at least a million kids as well). It is so different to back in Australia – really quite crazy.

As I am generally rather tired when adding to this volume of literary brilliance, I forgot to mention the video which I have now acquired. As you know I live in one of Saddam’s palace complexes. It is possible to get a video of a birthday party of Uday Hussein (one of Saddam’s psychopathic sons who is thankfully dead now) that was held somewhere around here, which of course I copied onto my computer and are making copies of for a few of the guys here. The video starts off with a camera zooming in on his face to the sounds of My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. Somehow I don’t think Celine Dion had this in mind when she first recorded the song. Anyway, the highlight is when they show some close ups of him, and of course he has a weird expression that is a mix of ‘not only am I drunk and totally delusional, but I would like to torture your family pet.’ He is handed an AK-47 from one of his henchmen and just fires up into the roof without aiming or anything. He seems really calculated when doing it however – smiling, putting the magazine on the weapon and then putting his ear plugs in before firing. He then hands the weapon to an aide, as if there was nothing abnormal going on. The guests just seem to ignore it – obviously it must have been a party trick of his that they were all used to.

I am discovering more of the American way of life every day – the wife of a mate sent over some marshmallow rice crispie things which were horrendously bad for you (and so of course I was a big fan). I have also found out that the Wiggles are absolutely huge in the US. People perceive my language as rather quaint as well, which leads me to a conundrum. On a note of sadness, there are storm clouds appearing in the east…

The mutilation of the Queen’s English is tearing at my heart. I strive valiantly to preserve armour, manoeuvre, sabre, organisation (instead of armor, maneuver, saber, organization) and so on, but I fear it is in vain. I have even moved my small library into my office so that I can spread the good word and leave a legacy of men and women who can spell properly and use proper grammatical structures – I should perhaps make a further disclaimer at this point regarding my own abilities in this matter. So there is a conundrum – do I fly the flag of Vegemite or the flag of the English language? I do not know if a mortal can withstand the pressures of both. If I were a hero of ancient Greek mythology, then perhaps there would be a chance. However I am a mere human and not blessed with the fortitude required for this quest.

16 February 04

I think the enemy has now sunk to a new low, with the killing of a few school children in Baghdad, within a few days of about one hundred Iraqis being killed and wounded in attacks against the newly emerging government agencies. In one respect, it is understandable why we in the Coalition get attacked – we are “legitimate targets” for want of a better term. Unfortunately, the extremist philosophy of some of the enemy forces does not lend itself to make any distinction except for, in the words of GW Bush, “you’re either with us or against us”. There is a substantial amount of evil within any belief construct that allows the wanton slaughter of anyone who doesn’t agree with you. I can recall writing about this issue in my Master’s thesis on Islamic extremism, and now I can bear witness to it close up. It is a paper that I often refer to in an attempt to understand the mindset of these people.

I have been here for less than a month and already the deaths seem to fade from being individual instances of tragedy to a growing statistic. There have been a few instances in my life where death has ‘touched’ my life, perhaps no more so than in Brunei where funerals involved seeing the body of the deceased (sometimes melting in the heat). This is very much unlike the sanitised performances where the only physical manifestation of the dead person is the coffin. In East Timor there were a couple of instances where militia or locals were killed or wounded. The situation here is different, that while I have yet to see someone die in front of me, one is almost bombarded by the steady stream of statistics of soldiers and civilians dying in various parts of Iraq. I don’t really care about the increasing number of enemy that die in some respects. The one main exception is the deaths of young Iraqis who out of economic necessity take up arms against the Coalition – sometimes those who do the shooting are the poor victims who just like us saw Saddam as an evil tyrant. There is almost a degree of delight however associated with the death of a hard-core terrorist.

18 February 04

Big news which hasn’t hit the press yet. Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction have now been found. Furthermore, we have discovered the manner in which they were hid from weapons inspectors for years. The weapons program is truly frightening and it is a great thing for mankind that we found them. The spread of such evil must be stopped, which will hopefully be a result of our wanderings in Iraq. We don’t even need to head into Syria because they are right here.

The codename for them is Chicken Kiev or perhaps Cordon Bleu (or something vaguely evoking notions of poultry and possibly even food) and they were discovered at dinner three nights ago. From the kitchens of Beelzebub and made with a recipe concocted by someone with the record for being kicked out of all cooking classes that were in existence in the 12th century BC, it is a shocking mix of cardboard with hint of chicken enclosing bizarre green stuff that is reminiscent of green slime from a 1960’s movie about Mars attacking Earth. This is perhaps a mean thing to say about the food here, however there may be a greater plot afoot. Most of the kitchen staff are Indian and rather focused on cricket, so perhaps it is their chance in life to get back at their mortal enemies from the best cricket nation in the world…

The weather continues to be bizarre. The nights are very cold, which is never overly pleasant when I perambulate home at around one or so each morning. The days can be absolutely lovely, although we are starting to see big dust storms which is novel for the first few minutes and then rather uncomfortable. I must try and get a picture of it at some point. I am very happy with the digital camera that I have – it is getting a lot of use.

I have now been in the big palace. I have enclosed a picture of it – when it is lit up like this, I think that half the power in Baghdad goes out (well not quite, but it sounds amusing). It is certainly impressive – it is good to yet again see that the Oil for Food dollars were well spent during the UN sanctions period to help the people of Iraq. I might have to steal some of the furniture from over here as it is rather comfortable and looks good. By good, I mean totally devoid of modernity and in line with my conservative tastes.

When I was in East Timor several years ago, there was an oversupply of Christmas cake which was difficult to get through. Instead of people begging on the streets, bloated soldiers would beg to be relieved of their festive cheer. The days subsequent to valentines day have been quite similar in our office, although I fear that the festive board will remain steadfastly in place. I think we are all getting huge amounts of incredibly healthy, vitamin-enriched food which mothers would love (or did I mean an amazing array of the most delightful junk food in the world). Our never-ending supply has been called the grazing table and it is a special experience. I was sent some of those lovely chocolate orange stick things you have with coffee and they were inhaled in a flash – the speed with which they vanished makes the word eaten rather inappropriate and slow. I am becoming a fan of the Oreo biscuit (or cookie in the American vernacular), although my brother officers look upon me with a mix of outrage and incredulity when I indicate that the Oreo is a poor second next to the Tim Tam. I am hoping to get the first load today – the word has spread far and wide and so the rollup shall be interesting if people find out that the Tim Tam experience has landed in Baghdad. It is sort of pathetic to acknowledge that the pillars of the Australian food experience, Tim Tams, Minties and Vegemite, are not exactly owned by us. I am coming to terms with the difficulties associated with selling the Vegemite concept to the locals. To those who offered pagan sacrifices for this quest, I think I have at least secured one new true believer. As a result of the somewhat psychotic work pace that many have where I work, the grazing table serves as an ample backup. And when disheartened by a meal in the dining facility, we know the sun is shining and the birds are singing in food land (aka the grazing table), as long as we can muster the strength to walk back to the office. We are getting a BBQ setup arranged out the back of the office so that we can expand our horizons into the realm of outdoor dining experiences.

20 February 04

It is nice to be able to call home a lot to say hi to the family. I have tried to call home before I go somewhere and when I get back just in case something bad happens, and certainly to reassure them of my “safety” and will continue to do so while I am here. I have one of those cards at home that my great grandfather sent when he was serving in world war one. It is hard to think of the pressure that must have accompanied the lack of awareness of what was happening to loved ones in those terrible times. One could scarcely imagine how people had to rely upon pouring over death lists in newspapers in desperate hope that the name of their loved one would not appear or at worst be greeted with by a  priest or telegram with sad news. The start of Saving Private Ryan is quite heart-breaking when the mother is told of the death of her son on some far-flung battlefield.

I think I forgot to mention that I am not meant to call the enemy the enemy by our government and military. Apparently there are legal issues with using the term enemy when referring to those doing their best trying to kill us (perhaps I skipped that class in law school which is highly likely since I did my best to skip most classes). I am reasonably comfortable with admitting to myself that they are the enemy – it is unfortunate within our culture of ever-expanding political correctness that we can’t use the proper vocabulary when referring to our charming adversaries. Of course, they have no similar constraints.

Yet again I was reminded of why it would suck being in a trailer that was the target of an attack. A mortar or rocket landed 500-600m away and the place shook like anything which was not overly amusing. One of my mates was shot at the other day while driving back to Camp Victory – not overly amusing either. Again, that good old fatalism seems to be the winning horse in this race. Another of my mates has been somewhat unlucky with his mail and washing with bits of both being lost to enemy action. While it is sort of funny that he now only has one uniform to wear, there is an underlying theme of this random violence that permeates throughout the country.

24 February 04

It is hard to believe that I now been here for only three and a half weeks – the time has gone by with amazing speed, and yet I feel like I have been here for an eternity as I am completely immersed in work. As I continue to write these small excerpts, it will be fascinating to see how long I can continue to discuss the amusing features of life here. Perhaps in a month, people will be deleting my emails as soon as they get them due to utter boredom with hearing about the culinary delights associated with my work.

This weekend a conference was held at the main palace here (also known as the Water Palace). Many of us were able to do the tourist thing and take a mass of photographic records for posterity. I have included one or two with this email. Once again, I was grateful to Saddam for having had sufficient foresight to know that I would require an appropriate residence and place of work when in Baghdad.

The Tim Tam has arrived and slaughtered, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Fans of the Oreo are surprisingly quiet, the even bigger fans of the Oreo have guilty looks on their faces, and they cover their heads in ash and tear at their clothes. I look on in an understanding manner, knowing that the battle is over and the righteous have won. Like St Thomas of biblical times, the doubters have seen the light and look upon the Tim Tam as manna from heaven. Perhaps I exaggerate to some degree, but I am sure you understand the sentiment.

Can you remember when you found at that Santa wasn’t real or that your parents actually did the Easter bunny thing, or your dad took out some change to put under your pillow in exchange for a tooth? It is the same when my colleagues compare the Tim Tam with the Oreo. There is perhaps one more taste off … with girl guide cookies. These are thin chocolate mint biscuits (I have had a couple already and they are pretty good).

28 February 04

It is now the end of the month so I think I shall send this off soon. It is rather embarrassing to admit this, but there is a Britney craze going through the work place at the moment and I not going to say any more about it …

The US public continues to humble us with the amount of support and devotion that they display for their soldiers overseas. I have now received half a dozen cards from absolute strangers and we have all consumed about five kg of homemade cookies from a radio station. It must be a compulsory subject in primary school whereby each student must write and/or make at least three cards for military personnel overseas. It is a level of practical patriotism which is very nice to see. There has been a resurgence of the Girl Guide cookie known as the Thin Mint. Several kilograms of them arrived yesterday and there is a dizzying array of threats to the Tim Tam. Unfortunately I don’t have the Tim Tam and Mintie resources to fight back.

I recently visited a huge logistics base with just under 20,000 personnel. As expected with logistics bases, it had all the gear – an indoor swimming pool, mini shopping complex and a small sports stadium (a left over from the old Iraqi air force complex that was here). There was a reasonably-sized store, so I was able to spend some money (for the first time in about two weeks).

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