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I discover, through a story by Rowan Scarborough in the Washington Times,* that military catastrophe has overtaken the US Air Force in Afghanistan, and is being concealed from the American public. Complaints of inhuman conditions from troops at the air base at Bagram are frightening. Insiders at the Pentagon speak quietly of imminent withdrawal, perhaps even mutiny.

It’s because the Air Force has damp laundry.

Yes. Not really soggy but, well, humid. Morale is plummeting. This and other hardships are chronicled in a series of photographs from Afghanistan obtained by Scarborough.

The Times quotes an airman regarding the laundromat, “Unfortunately, they recycle their water too many times, and they do not ensure your clothes are completely dry. Therefore, when your wadded-up, bagged clothes are placed back in the bin, they sit there.”

Grim. One thinks of the siege of Stalingrad, of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia when men dropped, spent, in the snow to die, or the Death March of Bataan. Yet those were not as terrible as things faced daily at Bagram. None of those men had to endure damp laundry.

Of course, one might wonder what bagged clothes are expected to do when placed in a bin, other than sit there. Clothes by their nature are not very active, sharing the world view of tree sloths. Suppose they had gotten up and wandered off. The airmen would have had to spend time catching them. Would this have been better for the war effort?

There is worse. “Troops sleep in crowded tents, work out in inadequate fitness centers and volleyball courts, and squeeze into small bathrooms. Lines are long at the base exchange and the chow hall.”

The country never learns. The Marines storming ashore at Iwo Jima also had inadequate volleyball courts. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a serve over the net in the sand of a tropical island? It’s all very easy for us at home to get by without adequate volleyball courts. We can endure long lines at the sushi bar, since we are not subject to the stress of war. It’s different in a combat zone. Men need the best in sports equipment.

A worrisome question: How much time do these fellows spend squeezing into small bathrooms?

The Air Force unit at Bagram was not identified, but sounds like the 22nd Tutu Repair Battalion. The story mentioned runways. The airmen in question may be runway models. This will not surprise Marines, who have long suspected as much.

I do not doubt that our airmen, damp though they be, strike fear into the hearts of the Afghans, twelfth-century peasants who can live for months in deep snow with minimal clothing, eating half-decayed meat, and sodomizing young boys slow enough to be caught.

Reports Scarborough, “Air Force troops have grown accustomed to some of the best amenities when they deploy to far-off lands. They often are bedded down in air-conditioned tents, enjoy televisions and modern fitness centers, and eat the best chow.”

And now they don’t. The shock to their delicate systems must be deplorable. It must be almost like being in the military.

Actually there was some doubt in journalistic circles as to whether these killers wanted air-conditioners or hair conditioners, and perhaps skin lotions. No one denies, however, that conditions are gruesome. Combat zones are like that. A photo obtained by the Times shows a woman brushing her teeth in a small bathroom. The caption says, “One sink and three showers for all the women in the AF village.” One gathers that when an airperson hears that war is hell, she thinks it means being out of range of a flush toilet.

Some of the accounts are gut-wrenching. (I’ve always wondered what a gut wrench might be.) A devastating hardship in Bagram, the kind that wears a man down until he loses the will to live, and lies down, and expires on the spot, is long lines for breakfast. Our warriors complain, “You wait through the line even if you just want to grab cereal, milk and fruit.”

It’s more than flesh can bear. Think of it. Even if you don’t want eggs, you still have to wait. You get up in the morning, looking forward to a bowl of Tootsie Wootsie Pops, and I’ll bet all they have is corn flakes. But you still have to stand there. I’d be tho mad!

Other perils stalk the unwary fly-person. “The dust is about two inches thick on the road, the consistency of talcum powder. Doesn’t brush off. Just sticks to you. Gets up your nose, in your eyes and mouth. You cannot get away from it.”

Marines I knew in Viet Nam came close to tears over dust. I remember one hardened veteran sobbing quietly to himself, “I can’t stand it. It just ruins my nails. I can’t do anything with them. Dust.”

It isn’t right. If we can’t put our devil dogs and doggesses in a hotel with decent room service, we shouldn’t send them to strange places where there might be fighting.

We owe them better. The answer might be Mall Simulation Companies to give our lethal emissaries the surroundings they are used to. Maybe an inflatable Gap store, a video arcade (but no games with violent themes), and a hangout with really comfy seats–just like in Patton’s army.

Little things mean so much to troops dealing with dust that doesn’t brush off. We could add diapers to their MREs and maybe a security blanket and a rattle. Perhaps a squad of Combat Damp-Laundry Grief Counselors would help the afflicted understand that they are still Good Persons, and that it’s OK to have feelings about that yucky damp feel. A suicide hotline is imperative.

I remember a paragraph from The Sharp End, a book about the daily life, and death, of soldiers in WW II, as for example the disadvantages of being trapped in a tank:


“A tank that is mortally hit belches forth long searing tongues of orange flame from every hatch. As ammunition explodes in the interior, the hull is racked by violent convulsions and sparks erupt from the spout of the barrel like the fireballs of a Roman candle. Silver rivulets of molten aluminum pour from the engine like tears…When the inferno subsides, gallons of lubricating oil in the power train and hundreds of pounds of rubber in the tracks and bogey wheels continue to burn, spewing dense clouds of black smoke over the funeral pyre.” I wonder whether the 22nd Tutu Repair are quite ready for this.

*October 30, 2002

(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan 
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