23 January 2004
Five clicks away from Fallujah, currently reported to be one of the most dangerous towns in the world (at least for those carrying U.S. passports), is the base camp of the third brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. America’s Guard of Honor occupies a concrete-block compound formerly operated by the Iraqi army.
The Division’s singing group, the All American Chorus, on a tour of every paratrooper camp in Iraq, was in the third brigade’s area of operation the night I was there. In an auditorium built during the reign of Saddam Hussein, men and women with winged-parachutes stitched above the left-breast pockets of their desert fatigues gathered together out of interest, boredom, or at the suggestion of their commander to hear familiar lyrics and comforting melodies.
While filthy Fedayeen bad guys in dimly lit garages just outside the wire plotted their next ambush, and filthy, tired American officers in dimly lit tactical operations centers much closer by plotted their next raid, the young, clean-cut Devils in Baggy Pants tapped their toes and mouthed the words to songs by The Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk”), the Beach Boys (“Surfer Girl”), and, oddly, Bette Midler (“Wind Beneath My Wings”). The sight of the most heroic young men in America listening with rapt attention to a hit from the Divine Miss M made me laugh. It’s all a matter of context, really. A hundred fit young men sitting in a room listening to other fit young men sing a song from Beaches would be incredibly gay if it were taking place in the West Village. On the other hand, in the middle of the war-torn Mesopotamian plain, it seemed…well…actually, it still seemed pretty gay.
The strains of this torch song did not make it much further than the concrete area immediately surrounding the makeshift concert hall. Beyond the melody stretched a silent, rough and rocky desert blanketed by a cold, inky-black sky. This quiet, lonesome, hard darkness rolled passed barbed wire and concrete barriers right up to the first brown-brick dwellings of Fallujah, where the cranking rumble of small outdoor generators provided enough electricity to those inside planning their next move.
Earlier in the day, we’d motored through downtown Fallujah on our way to see some run-down factories we hoped could be reopened to produce tons of needed building materials and hundreds of needed local jobs. From litter-strewn sidewalks and ram-shackle junk shops, dirty men with wrapped heads stared blankly at us as we drove by. One young man spat and gave our convoy the finger. While the acts of violence carried out by some in Fallujah are unacceptable, this boy’s harmless defiance was understandable. If a foreign army came to my town, I wouldn’t be too thrilled. Yet if we can deliver on our promise of economic development, I do believe we’ll make lasting friends out of these temporary foes. Smiling kindly, I raised my hand to the boy…and returned a like salute.
Back in the auditorium, the fellowship of song continued. As Fort Bragg is the home of the 82nd Airborne, the All American Chorus sang James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” as one of their final numbers. I’d spent seven weeks at Bragg before deploying to Iraq; long enough to develop an affection for the sand hills and soft pines. “Can’t you see the sunshine?” the soloist asked, “Can’t you just feel the moonshine?” I didn’t see it coming, but the words and the melody “hit me from behind” and I found myself suddenly missing home and caring little for the mission.
The next day, we moved south of Fallujah, along a road that ran right beside the magnificent blue-green Euphrates. Our column of armored humvees rolled past a beautiful countryside of date palms and verdant farmers’ fields full of developing vegetables, and populated by the occasional small gray donkey and little white lamb. Unlike the boys in the fetid town, the children of these lush fields smiled at our appearance. Just like that, my sense of purpose returned. My spirits were lifted by their tiny waving hands; hands that stirred the air into a gentle…ahem…wind beneath my wings.