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Farewell Camp Victory – Baghdad’s Boomtown, Death Star and OK Corral rolled into one.

December 3, 2011 - 9:38 AM | by: Dominic Di-Natale

By Dominic Di-Natale, World Affairs Contributor
There was no better way to arrive at Camp Victory than by the Rhino, an armored bus lined with Kevlar so thick the vehicle’s suspension coils would pop quicker than prom queen’s garter.
The Rhino would run from the Green Zone (before it was renamed the IZ) through Baghdad’s affluent neighborhoods and down the airport road that during the height of the violence was named Sniper’s Alley.
Being RPG-ed at or hearing the zing of a sharp shooter’s round bounce off the three-inch plating was an adrenalin-inducing introduction to an equally enthralling ride – life at Victory Base Complex (VBC).
Despite indirect fire constantly hitting the base, the unfeasibly indoctrinated and anally bureaucratic coalition forces’ press officers and the fact that everything from the latrines to the dining hall was referred to in a bewildering lexicon of acronyms that even the people who used them daily didn’t know what the abbreviations stood for, foreign journalists thrived on visits to VBC.
The Western press corps’ extortionately expensive but largely disheveled dwellings in the city were often no match for the most elaborately resourced military base that history has so far witnessed in an active combat zone.
For the 84,000 soldiers and contractors who lived there at its peak, the US built an elaborate, multi-billion-dollar cocoon of home comforts to ease the strains of punishing 15-month deployments in the most wretched war since Vietnam.
Chow halls (DFACs) served prime rib and lobster tail, with Baskin Robins for desert (hot fudge and all). There was the Green Beans chain of cafés that served up convincingly good lattes, frappucinos and smoothies. So-called morale, welfare and recreation centers (MWRs) were stacked with Xbox and Playstations networked together so that, perversely, soldiers could gun the living daylights out of each other in a multiplayer online orgy of Call of Duty. And there was even a beauty parlor where rugged male warriors would unstrap their battle-worn boots and revel in a pedicure and backrub from a bevvy of Tajik female stylists, all glammed up in blast-walls of Maybelline, false lashes and a French polish finish. They did greater wonders for military esteem more than the games consoles ever did.
A lucky journalist on embed could be billeted in the Joint Visitors’ Bureau instead of being bunked in a dusty, drafty transit tent over at Striker Stables. The JVB was a smart villa (by Saddam’s gaudy standards) on an artificial lake filled variably with an exponentially uncontrollable growth of creature-feature pondweed and the most oversized and deformed carp that ever did swim – should additional evidence have been needed both had fine potential as examples of Iraq’s chemical and biological chicanery.
The bedrooms at the JVB, with their mesmerizing headboards festooned like a Pride parade with rainbow decals and pastel flourishes were matched in their tackiness by the fake gold fixtures in the faux marble bathrooms, not to mention the bad wiring of the garish lighting, whose erratic flickering triggered epileptic seizures in passersby (well, just me, actually).
Across the lake was a swimming pool – which from early on was the domain of the Army (3rd ID, I think) until the all-assuming Air Force came along and kicked them out.
The lip-smacking smell of sizzling pork chops from the frequent poolside barbecues would waft across the water to the local Iraqis, whose job it was to dredge the untamable infestation of tangled weed and who were almost all exclusively Muslim. They would raise their nostrils to the scent in curiosity. I heard a soldier once cruelly tell them they would go to hell for passive pork inhalation.
These were the early and not-so-early days when reverence to local cultural sensitivities was not a fully-observed SOP (standard operating procedure). The “Hajis,” even the helpful ones, were routinely abused, ridiculed and scorned by coalition servicemen and women. At the military shopping plaza known as the PX, you could buy tongue-in-cheek souvenir t-shirts declaring, “It’s Time to Rake the Lake,” and, startlingly, “If it Ain’t Sunni, It Ain’t Shi’ite.”
Perhaps the most benign yet unlikely segment of VBC lake life was the Fishing Club of Baghdad. To my knowledge, it was never officially incorporated, nor is it clear who actually founded it but until as late as 2010, members of the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division were reportedly still trying to land those freaky three-foot, 35lbs+ carp as many others had in the seven years before them.
The only occasion I encountered a FCoB member was one night in October 2006. A rogue incoming round from suspected Sunni militants landed in VBC’s ammo dump around 2am and threw the entire camp out of bed.
Alarmed soldiers and civilians staggered out of their cots to watch in an ironic fix of awe and wonder as thousands of precious coalition shells cooked off in the tremendous heat of the explosion and rained down deafeningly across the base.
I vividly remember one soldier at the water’s edge whipping out his rod in that moment and casting a line to the deformed fish basking in the reflection of the massive maroon-orange mushroom cloud that thrust from the inferno and apocalyptically loomed over the base until dawn.
Perhaps the greatest highlight, but also the greatest challenge, for some members of the media corps was resisting U.S. soldiers’ pleas and ruses to help them disobey General Order #1 – no sauce and no sex. Strictly so.
Even for an Islamic capital city, Baghdad has always been big on booze but it was strictly forbidden to American soldiers. And if any of the other stuff was found to be happening, the soldiers (most often the females) got ejected out of theatre, pronto.
There was only so much we could ethically do to aide morale of the soldiers who protected us but my fellow British countrymen were given free reign to relative vice and, tantalizingly, even ran their own pub, The British House, on Victory.
It was helpfully set somewhat away from the prying eyes of the US-led command on the opposite side of the lake in Al Faw palace, which is why it was not uncommon to see the occasional serviceman of a certain nationality slip in on a busy night and quietly sip a pint in the corner, with no questions asked by Her Majesty’s patrons nor her bar tenders.
But this was VBC, Baghdad’s Boomtown, Death Star and OK Corral rolled into one for those who loved it, loathed it and lived it. For the foreign press corps, many of whom like myself became the current generation of war correspondents by spending pivotal points in our careers within its T-walls, it was not merely a conflict command center amid a military circus but a lifeline of (ab)normality; a surreal yet familiar escape from the fighting while still being at the very epicenter of it.