At Large

Concertina Wires

Speedy dispatches from Baghdad's mess halls, chapels, and airport checkpoints.

By 6.29.05

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BAGHDAD -- All of us here got some bad news several weeks ago. The Army (or someone) decided to cancel all the DoD badges and issue a new one with much greater restrictions on it. I have mentioned a number of times that the most valuable thing I have in Iraq is my DoD badge. It is what lets me go anywhere, eat anywhere, and shop anywhere, while doing it in the company of others if I want to. Apparently, the Army recently discovered that this very expansive and generous policy has resulted in the Army mess hall system feeding half of Iraq because they never imposed any access limits. It may also be what accounts for all the money Halliburton makes here -- they are paid on a per capita basis and they operate the mess halls. Those of you who are critics of Halliburton should know one thing, however: they run one hell of a good mess hall.

The DoD badge is to be replaced with an "All Iraq" card. This one clearly violates the "Truth in Labeling" law since it lets you go practically nowhere in Iraq! It appears I will not be able to go to the mess halls to eat, or to the PX's to shop. We will be forced into the streets of Baghdad to shop, and to eat in our own dining facility, a dismal prospect indeed. There is a sign posted in one of the mess halls that a lawyer someplace, in some sort of class-action, is willing to represent the survivors of anyone killed or wounded as a result of being forced "into the streets of Baghdad." I suspect the sign was actually posted by a soldier, probably a chronic malcontent, since no self-respecting American lawyer would harbor such a self-serving notion.

Initially, I reacted to the switch to the new badge with relief. My present DoD badge carries the wrong Social Security number. It is on the back and I never looked at the back of the card until I had had it for a couple of months. God knows why it is on the card in the first place, since one is always warned to be very careful with his SS number. Besides, we all carry passports everywhere we go. I would certainly accept a passport as proper ID before a DoD badge. In my case all nine digits in the Social Security number are wrong; obviously someone else is walking around with my number on his card.

I felt the new card would be a chance to correct this error before it might affect me. An Army officer had told me ominously: "You better get it fixed or you might have trouble when you are leaving the country."

We went to get our pictures taken for our new cards three days ago. When I was looking at the pre-printed form I had to sign, I discovered they showed the wrong passport number and attributed someone else's middle name to me. Next time someone comes up to you and says, "I'm from the government, I am here to help you," give him a weird look.

***

THOSE WHO ARE COUNTING the days until we leave Iraq should probably start counting again. This morning, we received a Request for Proposal (RFP) to build a chapel at Camp Striker, which is inside the huge Camp Victory complex in Baghdad. (Wouldn't you have loved to be on the committee that named these camps?)

The chapel will occupy 7,000 square feet and have 12 stained glass windows, two chaplain's offices and two offices for their assistants. In addition, it will have a large counseling office, which is now always de rigueur in such undertakings.

Building chapels doesn't exactly equate with a quick exit strategy.

***

ALL RFP'S HAVE SOME PROVISION for a thing called "liquidated damages." This is akin to a penalty clause if you fail to perform some item on time, or as required by the contract. For example, the contract for the Detention Center in Kham Banisad states there is a penalty of $50,000 per day for every day you are late beyond the agreed-on schedule.

We received an RFP the other day that contains an interesting variation on this provision. It says, "Liquidated damages: There will be NO liquidated damages on this project. Failure to complete on time without adequate explanation MIGHT result negatively on the company's consideration for future work."

That should put the fear of God into them!

***

TODAY HAS BEEN ONE OF THOSE days that brings into very sharp focus one's sense of the absurd and preposterous.

I just went to the Post Office to check on the arrival of a box of radar parts for the system we are building. When we got to the Green Zone entrance we came to a halt as required. The place we stopped is just a long throw to first base from the very spot where a suicide bomber killed 23 people yesterday at lunchtime. Another ghastly Baghdad event! That restaurant was still oozing blood this afternoon when I went by it.

The soldier on duty at the Green Zone gate checked my DoD badge and, as he started to wave us through, said: "There is a group of Massachusetts traffic experts here to check out our systems, and they are looking at 'seat belt discipline.' They are 75 yards up the road. You better buckle up."

Iraq is a country without traffic regulations. Virtually no car has a seat belt. It has no posted speed limits anywhere. It has no traffic laws. It does not recognize a concept of "right of way"; everyone has an equal right to speed through an intersection at the same time. It is a country where no one would stop for a red light (even if they had one) because to stop in traffic is to invite the guy in the next car to shoot you. If you are stopped in a small traffic jam you have invited someone to detonate a car bomb beside you.

To this very same country has come a bunch of "traffic experts" from Massachusetts whose first expert opinion is that the entire country will be safer if everyone wears a seat belt! To a country with a huge suicide bomber problem they have brought a seat belt solution! It is quite apparent that these mindless fools have no experience with the problems facing this country. They haven't read a newspaper, and haven't bothered to learn that a seat belt won't go around an armored jacket. Anyway, my armored jacket is a much superior device to a seat belt for Iraqi driving conditions.

What saves lives in Iraq is speed! Speed doesn't kill in Iraq; it gets you out of harm's way.

***

ON MY WAY BACK from the Post Office today I learned something new about concertina wire. Those are the endlessly long rolls of razor wire that impede the progress of soldiers in battle, and of people on the streets. You see them everywhere on the evening news, even in places where there appears no earthly use for it.

I learned today that the reason it is left strewn absolutely everywhere in the city is that when the wind blows, all the trash, and candy wrappers, and garbage, and newspapers, and plastic shopping bags get blown into the wire and trapped there permanently. It is a masterful piece of strategy for isolating all the filth in one place!

The RFP's now issued for city cleanup call for the last item on the agenda to be the collection and disposal of all the concertina wire. When that is gathered up Baghdad will look 75% cleaner in an instant.

Here is a totally un-related aside about concertina wire....One day I saw two girls about six or seven years old playing what looked like a version of hop-scotch through hoops of the stuff. One poor kid kept catching her street length skirt on one of the razors.

My last thought about the subject of trash in Baghdad is this: Why should the clean-up of this filthy city be part of the $18 billion the U.S. taxpayers are footing? Why the hell don't the Iraqis clean up their own city?

***

HEIDER, OUR CHIEF OF SURVEYORS, came into my office about 2 p.m. and said that Khattab and CJ had called from the checkpoint at the entrance to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to say they had witnessed a monster car bomb explode no more than 200 meters away. Neither was hurt, but both were very badly shaken. They originally thought the rear window had been blown in, but it turned out only to have been cracked.

What happened was that when they reached the checkpoint, a car loaded with artillery shells squeezed its way between two security company SUVs and detonated itself. One reason why these SUVs are a problem is that they are a very high profile means of getting around. All the big SUVs are owned and operated by security companies and that is synonymous with U.S. sponsorship. When you see a GMC Suburban you know there are at least four Americans aboard. Today, one pulled up next to our car and I was able to discern through the tinted windows that it contained an armored "capsule" that gave them added protection inside the armored SUV! The capsule even had what I think were bullet-proof glass windows.

According to Heider, Khattab said there were "many dead." What is strange is that there was no mention of this car bomb by the news network next door to our house, the Associated Press, Reuters, or Yahoo News until at least five hours later. They reported "one dead." I saw the pictures of the bloody scene taken by CJ and Khattab. If my theory that each detached head represents a fatality is a reasonable working assumption, then there are four dead. Both my associates are positive there were more dead than represented by the four heads in the pictures.

CJ and Khattab were going to the airport to pick up Steve, the president of an American company. He was returning from three weeks of home leave. I had originally planned to go with them because I haven't been to BIAP in a long time. I have therefore not had a chance to personally see the new look of seven miles of Iraqi soldiers guarding the entire length of the trip. And, until today, the results of the 100% protection had worked very well.

***

THIS ITEM REPRESENTS A PEAK of frustration. Our Internet was down today for seven hours because it was "dusty" outdoors! That means the phones were also inoperative because they are Internet-based.

The reason we have this system is that it's free! Cheap is cheap, as the saying goes.

There was one time our Internet was down for ten straight days. That's tough for a company whose only sources of revenue are proposals that win contracts, and those proposals are required to be sent by e-mail.

How many companies, I wonder, have ever "saved" themselves into bankruptcy?

***

SOMEWHERE UP ABOVE I wrote about going to have a picture taken for the new "All Iraq" badge. I mentioned that the application I was asked to sign had a wrong middle name and an incorrect passport number. I did not mention that this was the second set of applications that had been submitted. The first set was lost.

Today we sent someone to pick up the new badges. All of them are lost! That, on its face, is unbelievable. Our chief surveyor knows exactly what happened to our ID cards. He says someone was able to get them and is now downtown selling them to the insurgents! Maybe someone in the contractors' office is doing it. Why is that any less plausible than saying they "got lost"?

A legitimate ID card in the hands of an insurgent has a 90% chance of being accepted at most checkpoints. All you have to do is to wave the card at a sleepy guard who is about to collapse from sunstroke. The guard decides if it is legitimate based on color patterns. He doesn't look at your picture, and even if he did, they are so bad as to be unrecognizable as a photo of the owner. A legitimate ID Badge, with all its encoded information about the owner, is a bar of gold.

What about that first set of applications that got "lost"? Prepared by each of us individually, they contained our Social Security and passport numbers, in addition to original signatures. Pretty good stuff for anyone interested in such things, it seems to me.

***

BY 7:00 P.M. THE DUST had killed the Internet, so we are here flying blind again.

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