The military is not as unified as it may seem. But for those who think they know the true divide within our armed forces, take note: it’s not any of the usual suspects. Oh, sure, there is the occasional renegade general or soldier expressing discontent from within the ranks about policy, troop levels, or the military’s future direction, but those distract us from the real issue. The military is a victim of its own egalitarian principles: we don’t care what color you are, who you worship, where you’re from, or who you like. Yet, we are an organization, the most trusted wing of the government, divided against itself. Oddly enough, the split occurs where we eat.
The process of getting food at a chow hall is a comfortable ritual for anyone who’s ever been to Iraq: show the ol’ ID, make sure any and all weapons are safe at the high-tech weapons-clearing station (really an oil drum turned on its side with sand in it), remove your cover as you come in, and wash your hands in the anteroom. Now grab a poorly dried tray, a few napkins, and some plastic cutlery in preparation for actually piling the chow onto a flimsy partitioned plastic plate. Then point out your choices to the latex-gloved, paper-hat-wearing Indian contract employees, hope you end up with half of what you actually asked for, carefully balance your tray as you weave through hungry troops, then stride courageously out of the serving area and into destiny.
At this point you may not understand the choice awaiting you before taking a seat, so a little architectural and historical background information is necessary. We’ve been here for five years now, and despite the wide variety of chow halls in Iraq — particularly in Al Anbar province — almost all share one feature beyond the perennial “quantity over quality” ethos of military dining facilities: you must go either left or right when walking into the dining area. “So what?” you say innocently, unaware of the implications held within those 180 degrees, “Just pick a spot and sit down.” Sorry to break it to you, rookie, but it doesn’t work like that.
At either end of the aforementioned dining area rests a television. Displayed on these TVs is the only network in Iraq: the Armed Forces Network, or AFN. There are a few different channels AFN shows, and carried within the Trojan Horse of media specialization rests the possible doom of the entire military structure. It divides us all, segregates us, turns us against each other. So it’s not just a place to sit, it’s a lifestyle choice you’re deciding on as you contemplate your future there at the seemingly innocent crossroads, shifting from foot to foot nervously under the fluorescent lights.
To the right: news and intellectual stimulation. To the left: sports and hormone secretion.
Now maybe you can begin to understand the magnitude of this decision. Yes, you can be a middle-of-the-road type and sit as close to the middle as possible, but everyone still knows what you’re saying: I like sports/news but I can’t commit to anything and don’t want to rustle any feathers. Or, possibly it’s that you have friends who sit on the other side and you don’t want to make a big deal out of the difference. Well, guess what? It is a big deal. It’s the biggest deal there is. Since the fateful introduction of the second AFN network and the fragmentation of visual media in deployed zones, the military has slowly polarized, coalescing into two gigantic camps, arrayed against one another in preparation for a titanic showdown of food and fists.
Of course, the sports guys will win, right? I mean, they are the active ones, so they must have some kind of upper hand physically. Normally that would be true, but the people sitting on both sides of this chow hall are part of the most disciplined, powerful, and deadly military the world has ever seen; they’re all killers to the core, even the vegetarians. Plus, they all have weapons, a phenomenon that tends to reduce any physical disparities between groups pretty quickly. Even the guy eating the parfait over there in the corner can hold his own. Keep in mind the passion of these groups is pretty equal as well: there are those who feel just as strongly about Nascar as NAFTA, baseball as Barack, assists as interest rates. And if you look at the numbers on any given day, there are just as many hunched-down figures alternating between stuffing their mouths and staring at the TV on both sides. In a sad testament to politics, it’s often hard to say which side has the slackest jaw on average.
With these two evenly matched armies assembled in such close proximity — fighting over the scarce edible resources placed attractively betwixt them — can there be any doubt an apocalypse awaits? Who is strong enough to stem the tide of tacit tension brimming over? No champion has emerged on either side, and so unsteady stalemate continues each day: we are forced to walk out of the stagnant heat of Iraq and into the chow hall’s blistering atmosphere of hatred, mistrust, and gluttony. And there is no low-calorie option in this battle; we’re on the brink of some deep-fried, trans-fatted, gravy-soaked mayhem.