The paved road stops at Al Qaim, a military base in northwestern Al Anbar province. Another 40 kilometers further along muddy and half-formed paths is a small combat outpost near the Syrian border. Surrounded by concertina wire and rickety guard towers, it’s a bleak place where everything is a shade of brown or gray and completely covered in dust. Looking in from the guarded perimeter reveals a strangely empty landscape with several small tent cities and a few hardened buildings. There’s a fuel-supply point, armory, command post, parking for armored and commercial vehicles, and living quarters.
All the tents are the same; a few were recently replaced with spartan wooden buildings courtesy of the United States Navy Seabees, a huge step up and one the Marines here are grateful for. Between some of the living spaces, wooden planks serve as sidewalks, but for the most part, everything is just dirt when it’s dry and mud when it’s wet. Despite the stormy early spring weather (much colder than central Iraq), visibility is usually quite good; no one worries about being ambushed or about large surprise assaults when everything can be seen for miles in all directions.
Even with its isolation, certain creature comforts have been improvised on the outpost. One centrally located tent serves as the “café.” They have gigantic stockpiles of nonperishable food, two ancient fridges chugging along at five or ten degrees cooler than the ambient temperature, and a freezer for long-term storage. Getting resupplied is always a crap shoot, so measures are in place to ensure at least frozen bread, canned vegetables, and beef jerky will always be plentiful. And, of course, there are always Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The only problem with them is that while the food may be ready, the person dining on it is rarely so prepared.
Out the café to the left about 20 meters is the gym. Its existence on this tiny base betrays an interesting axiom of American military life: the availability of chow, sleep, and weights will keep most Marines happy for a long time. The ethos of “doing more with less” allows many to be content — even thrive — with the bare minimum, and this gym is no exception. Jerry-rigged weights of tape, sandbags, boards, concrete, and rope are lined up neatly on the floor or on a handmade rack resting in one corner. There are also some actual dumbbells; recent additions marking the length of time the base has been occupied now. A few motivational posters of spandexed women holding dumbbells and another with the Marine Corps emblem round out the decor.
Despite being miles away from the nearest hard phone line, communication is relatively consistent; they even have a satellite that gets AFN, plugging the unit into the world at large. An old 22-inch TV runs pretty much nonstop; there are always Marines up doing various jobs or supervising Iraqis as they train. As these men are constantly reminded, complacency kills.
The most clichéd piece of the whole base is a sign next to one of the sleeping tents. Running down it are names and distances to various locations representing hometowns of Marines stationed here. Driven deep into the ground and protected by some sand-filled barriers behind it, the sign is a sort of daily Mecca for many of the guys here, a place to remind them of loved ones back home. And here on one of Iraq’s backwoods outposts, where everything is insulated from foreign influence, even a simple sign with English names reminds the men of development, of comfort, of America.
Sanitation is a huge problem: there is no running water or sewage collection. Marines use plastic bags; Marines also don’t inquire too much about what the Iraqis do. Having only men around, the second hygienic problem is answered in eloquent simplicity in the form of the aptly named piss tube. It’s exactly what it sounds like and only does what a tube can do, but everyone agrees it’s the best stop-gap measure until real facilities are built.
True to the finest traditions of America, there is a mascot, a young puppy brought in by one of the Iraqis. Left alone after being dropped on the base, the dog was informally adopted by the Marines. She now spends her time harassing everyone and everything while avoiding playful retributive swipes by worn-out men at the end of every long day. No place in Iraq avoids dust, especially not a dog with a heavy coat of fur living at a desert outpost. Pet the dog (she remains anonymous because the argument over prospective names always turned physical) and clouds of dust jump off her coat and onto anything nearby; oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to deter most of the guys from doing it.
The entire base is small and houses few people. The Marines here are set for a seven-month rotation and are ready to leave once their time is up. Little fights flare up, stupid mistakes get repeated, and tempers get lost; training the Iraqis presents challenges daily that they can’t train for and have to deal with as they come. From the senior leader to the most junior guy, valuable lessons are learned; each one of these Marines is also notable for picking up a sense of humor peculiar to those who have daily interaction with Iraqis. A different appreciation of time, a more skeptical approach to promises and business transactions, and the mandatory adoption of the mantra “trust, but verify.” For the most part, they also reluctantly admit the superiority of the dishdasha (“man-dress”) in the Iraqi climate.
There’s a layer of irony overlaying everything about this outpost: the men are confined to this small area except for training missions and convoys, yet they have nothing but wide open space around them. It’s a uniquely boring, annoying, dangerous, but totally necessary job these Marines fulfill here on the Iraqi border. Yet they managed to bring a little bit of America here, surrounded by a sea of sand stretching out into an infinite desert horizon.