Here Be Dragons

Ann Jones

There’s a remarkably speedy laundry and, as for the toilets and showers – I can speak only for those few designated “Female” – they were the best I’d seen anywhere in Afghanistan. A sign politely suggested limiting your shower to five minutes, a nod to the expense of paying for-profit contractors to hire truckers to haul in the necessary water, and then haul out to undisclosed locations the copious effluence of American latrines. (At Bagram, that effluence goes into a conveniently nearby river, a water source for countless Afghans.)

The other detritus from this expanding FOB is dumped into a pit and burned, including a staggering, but undisclosed, number of plastic water bottles. All this helps explain the annual cost of maintaining a single American soldier in Afghanistan, currently estimated at US$1 million.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for filthy trenches. But why should war be gussied up like home? If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as it truly is, it might also tend to be short. Soldiers freed from illusions might mutiny, as many did in Vietnam, or desert and go home. But this modern, cushier kind of pseudo-war is different.

Many young soldiers told me that they actually live better in the army, even when deployed, than they did in civilian life, where they couldn’t make ends meet, especially when they were trying to pay for college or raise a family by working one or two low-wage jobs. They won’t mutiny. They’re doing better than many of their friends back home. (And they’re dutiful, which makes for acts of personal heroism, even in a foolhardy cause.)

They are likely to re-enlist, though many told me they’d prefer to quit the army and go to work for much higher pay with the for-profit private contractors that now “service” American war. But the odd thing is that no one seems to question the relative cushiness of this life at war (nor the inequity of the hardscrabble civilian life left behind) – least of all those best able to observe firsthand the contrast between our garrisons and the humble equipment and living conditions of Afghans, both friend and foe. Rather, the contrast seems to inspire many soldiers with renewed appreciation of “our American way of life” and a determination to “do good things” for the Afghan people, just as many feel they did for the people of Iraq.< I emphasize all this because nothing I'd read about soldiering prepared me for the extent of these comforts - or the tedium that attends them. Plenty of soldiers don't leave the base. They hold down desk jobs, issue supplies, manage logistics, repair vehicles or radios, refuel generators and trucks, plan "development" projects, handle public affairs, or update tactical maps inscribed (at certain locations I am obliged not to name) with admonitions like "Here Be Dragons" or "Here Do Bad Stuff". They face the boredom of ordinary, unheroic, repetitive tasks.