Roving thoughts and provocations

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Dairy Queen and Barbed Wire: The New Reality of US Occupation

US soldiers at an ice cream shop, Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, October 1, 2009 (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Back in September, I read an article in The New York Times about an American base in Iraq that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. It describes a U.S. military installation in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad that houses 28,000 American troops and has a busy airport, two power plants, two sewage plants, and two water treatment plants that can purify 1.9 million gallons of water a day for showers, swimming pools and golf courses, and eighty to hundred buses any given moment crisscrossing the area on fifteen bus routes.

Joint Base Balad, as the place is called, is surrounded by towns and villages that lack working electricity, proper sanitation, and transportation. The Iraqis who live in them are not permitted to enter the base for security reasons, except in one designated area enclosed by barbed wire and blast walls, where they are free to sell pirated movies, discounted cigarettes, and electronics.

The fast food joints, the various stores, and three massage parlors are staffed by workers brought over from Uganda, Philippines, Bangladesh, India, and Kyrgyzstan, who are employed by private American security agencies. They live off base and are escorted to and back from work under guard. These neo-colonial, ethnically segregated little cities rose up all over Iraq while we supposedly sought to “win hearts and minds” of the local population. Their folly and their huge expense go unquestioned like so many other things about these wars; now we are building similar military cities in southern Afghanistan to house the thousands of new troops being sent there.

I know a bit about army bases having been stationed at one in Germany, and then in in Eastern France, almost fifty years ago. Except for the PX, with its inexpensive cigarettes and other American goodies which the locals craved, our living conditions were pretty modest. The Germans and the French, who worked on these bases, both as manual and office workers, could see for themselves how broke we usually were. Despite our open policy, the population in surrounding communities was not overly friendly. They at best tolerated us, because even former allies don’t like to see armed foreign soldiers on their soil.

Everybody on earth seems to understand that but us, convinced of our moral superiority and good intentions. Only such blindness could explain these bases in Iraq and now Afghanistan, which most certainly deeply antagonize the local populations. Can one imagine what it’s like for an ordinary Pashtun or Iraqi to pass by one of these monuments to our wealth and our arrogance? Even if we didn’t bomb, mistreat, arrest, or shoot anyone dear to them, I cannot imagine that they wish us well.

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