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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Then and Now

It is about time the Green Zone is closed for business. The day after the Samarra bombing, my Soldiers and I were in Baghdad. Given that Route Irish was closed to Iraqi traffic because of the Samarra bombing, I decided we should go see the Green Zone, since I had heard rumors about its opulence. Thank God for my Spanish speaking driver who convinced a security guard at the palace gate in the Green Zone that we were special security for a general; the guard let us in.

It was probably the best field trip I could have given my Soldiers... they talked about it for the rest of the deployment - the best day of the deployment. We were the only Soldiers inside the Green Zone in fatigues. We entered the palace covered in dust, with rifles (not handguns), and we were greeting with looks of utmost disgust. Every third person or so asked us if we needed directions or why we were there; we were special security, of course. We saw a library in a gigantic domed marble room with a mural of Scud missiles being launched into the heavens and decided to get coffee from the co-located Starbucks (not Green Bean Coffee, but Starbucks in the Green Zone...of course). We drank high-calorie, sugared up lattes in said library looking at the murals, enjoying 50 degree air conditioning, and we were all amazed that the barista knew our ranks and addressed us formally as our "RANK, LAST NAME."

We smelled females before we saw them despite drinking coffee; coffee beans are supposed to neutralize the smells of perfume, but failed this time. We hadn't seen many females in Iraq, but we hit the jackpot in the Green Zone. American State Dept. civilians, many just 22 or 23-years-old wearing, as the article linked above said, "low-cut necklines," walking around us and carrying on awkward conversations with my Soldiers because they were the first females they had seen in months. One female had just graduated from USC and was very surprised when my Soldiers told her that their platoon leader had went to college! Wow, that is like totally cool!!! Undoubtedly, the State Dept. employees and military aide-de-camps in dress uniform (Army Class B equivalent), were disgusted with us being in their pleasure palace and ruining their real life game of RISK. I myself had an awkward converation with a Marine 1LT in dress uniform, undoubtedly a general's aide; how could I be nice to this fellow officer? I did my best. Thoughts raced inside my head. Why don't you go outside the wire and touch the dragon, 1LT MARINE? Earn that Bronze Star your boss will get you, I thought to myself... they won't even approve a Purple Heart for one of my Soldiers who took shrapnel to the face!!?!?!!!

My Soldiers and I could not take pictures - inside the palace or outside. Outside the palace was a beautiful pool with a bar. Yes, a tiki bar. Soldiers cannot drink in Iraq, but there was a bar in the Green Zone. We played poolside ping pong and relaxed all afternoon. Afterall, we didn't have a mission so we hung out in the Green Zone, where we weren't supposed to be. My Soldiers (or I) could not believe their eyes - we all wanted to take pictures of this magical paradise to send back to our families and friends, but couldn't. We followed the rules and didn't take any pictures of the luxury the civilians and top military brass lived in... in a war zone. It sickened me (and my Soldiers). I guess that is why we weren't supposed to be there.

The Washington Post article linked above has some good pictures of Baghdad today (without retaining walls) and describes the Green Zone as it once was. Finally! Now that the media is done reporting on Iraq, they can report all about the luxury the government workers and journalists lived in during a war. Notice how almost all of the media reports in 2005-2006 came out of Baghdad (aka the Green Zone), where all of the data was aggregated and the "journalists" could just sit in luxury and write a piece on a laptop, poolside, while sipping a margarita.
As the rest of Baghdad, bedeviled by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, descended into lawlessness and near-anarchy in the ensuing years, the Green Zone became increasingly impenetrable and divorced from the reality that unfolded outside its cement walls.

It was a freewheeling city within a crippled one, a bubble where the days were long, the parties wild and the booze plentiful.

The poolside of the Republican Palace became the backdrop for "Baghdad Idol," a spoof of the reality TV show. The pool was used by born-again Christians for baptisms. U.S. diplomats stacked files in Hussein's sunken tub and set up the political section in his bedroom.

A blue U.S. Embassy badge and a low-cut neckline, female diplomats joked, guaranteed unfettered access to the A-list parties. The Green Zone was among the few places in the world where women wore stilettos and holsters without seeming out of place.

There were rooftop parties at the Olive House, a compound run by South African security contractors where sweltering summer nights gave way to wet T-shirt contests. There was the Lock and Load bar near the palace, the FBI bar and the enigmatic CIA bar, which everyone professed to know about but few could point out on a map.

The who's who of the Green Zone convened Thursday nights at the venerable Baghdad Country Club, a bar and restaurant that billed itself as an "oasis of calm" in the "chaos which is Baghdad."

With decent steak, fine wine and occasionally shrimp, however, the sales pitch wasn't necessary. At one point, it drew crowds of more than 600. The establishment closed in 2007 under pressure from the U.S. military...

What was once akin to college life in a war zone has become more like a strict boarding school with often-changing rules.

Last week, Robert Ford, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, held a town hall meeting to announce more-stringent rules. His message -- the Green Zone, folks, is no longer the Green Zone as we knew it -- was hard for some embassy veterans to stomach.

Now they are left to reminisce about onetime hot spots, like the Baghdad Country Club, that are only a memory. "It was designed as a place to let off a little bit of steam," said the club's founder, James Thornett. "It was a period of my life I enjoyed thoroughly."

Below are some pictures of the Green Zone I took from a HMMWV leaving and getting ready to head back up north on Route Tampa right past Samarra the day after the mosque bombing in February 2006 (obviously I'm not a photographer):

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