Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes: First Impressions of Baghdad

August 20, 2008

I’m going to have to backtrack and write about the process of getting here and offer some specific tips on how to prepare better than I did for the transfer.  In the meantime, I wanted to address how my new environment was different than I expected, despite having read through the material on this website several times and spoken to a number of people that have served here.  There were no huge surprises, but the picture that I developed in my mind differed in some details from the reality.  I want to describe some of the little surprises here.

First, my hat is off to Anne.  She must have put countless hours into preparing the website originally, and now, being here, I realize how difficult it is to set aside the time for such personal activities.  Creating the website took tremendous dedication.   Anne’s photographs were tremendously helpful, but, being two-dimensional, they can’t convey the scale of the images captured or the relationship between various locations.

I have been in Baghdad now for three weeks, having arrived on July 31.  The Embassy offices are still located in Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace, but I moved directly into the new “Staff Diplomatic Apartments” (SDAs) in the New Embassy Compound (NEC, pronounced “neck”). 

A shuttle runs every 20 minutes between the NEC and the Palace, and a one-way trip takes about 10 minutes.  I would judge that the distance is about two miles.  People who have lived in both tell me that the apartments are a huge improvement over the trailers, even though there are some inconveniences during the transition period.  Unfortunately, I think the apartment exteriors are quite ugly, reminiscent of the best Stalinist architecture, plain blocks that suggest something hastily built at the lowest possible cost.  (The New Embassy Compound is not cheap, but there is a sizable mark-up for any construction in Iraq that covers the cost of security.)   I’ll have more to say about the NEC and apartments later.

In addition to my not really having a sense of scale or relationships, the terminology used can be misleading.  “New Embassy Compound,” for example, despite including the word “compound,” leads me to think of other embassies and chanceries that I have known.  Even the largest embassies, like Tokyo for example, were located in one or two buildings, although the Tokyo Chancery is nine stories tall.  The Baghdad Embassy offices, however, will be located in three multi-storied buildings with one quite a distance from the other two.  In addition, the apartments are located in six four- and five-story, L-shaped buildings.  The Compound also includes the Ambassador’s and Deputy Chief’s of Mission residences and a multi-purpose building that includes a future PX location, gym, and swimming pool.  The dining facility will be located in yet another building.

“Palace” also makes one think of a relatively compact structure.  The former Republican Palace, where the Embassy currently has its offices, is huge however.  I don’t think it was a residential palace, but a government center with the ornate decorations that are meant to impress, not unlike most of our state capitol buildings.  I understand that it was originally three, separate buildings that were joined together.  I would judge that it is as long as the State Department, the distance between Washington DC’s 21st and 23rd Streets, although narrower and only two stories tall with a basement.

Although I moved directly into an apartment, my officemates who arrived in spring or early summer transitioned from the trailers to the apartments.   Some have yet to move.  They note that there will soon be a new generation of Embassy employee which has never known the trailers.  (One colleague, who must still move, wryly joked that he works in a palace by day and is “trailer trash” at night.)  Similarly, if we keep to the schedule, after the turn of the year, there will be new arrivals who have never worked in the Palace.  Soon, Anne’s photographs will be a historical curiosity.  The Palace has a slapdash, jury-rigged feel that masks its original grandeur.  Except for the “rotunda,” all of the high-ceilinged, open spaces have been filled with shabby new offices constructed from whitewashed, construction-grade plywood.  The added rooms create a maze-like effect that is quite confusing, initially.

An “Embassy,” although containing multiple government agencies, generally is predominantly State Department.  I was surprised at the number of uniformed military in the building, probably at least a third, if not more, of the building’s workers.  Containers to clear weapons are located outside the Palace entrance and in front of the “air lock” to the Palace north wing, where my office is located.  The north wing is a “Controlled Access Area” (CAA), an area of higher security where computers that can process and store classified documents are located.  The “air lock” is a double set of doors set so that only one door at a time can be opened, and only opened when the Marine Security Guard releases the magnetic lock.  As I make the long trek from the south wing entrance to my office, I’ve gotten used to seeing the occasional young lady, who could very well have been on her way to a college English class, instead hustling along in a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) with an M-16 slung over her shoulder, muzzle down.

The passage of time, however, has eased the adrenaline- and testosterone-laden atmosphere described in Imperial Life in the Emerald City and other accounts of the early years of the U.S. presence in Iraq.  The apartments have also resulted in a quantum leap in the quality of life.  Security has been good since my arrival, with very few C-RAM (Counter Rocket and Mortar) or “Duck-and-Cover” alarms.  Other than the security situation, the other two stress factors specific to Embassy Baghdad, and Kabul too, I’m sure, are the unaccompanied status and the sense of confinement.  Although, at 4.8 square miles, the Green Zone is quite large, one still cannot venture outside its limits on one’s own.  Although we have kitchens available in the apartments, groceries are not readily available, and, without cars, getting around even in the Green Zone is relatively difficult.  Thus, weekends can be quite bleak so that going into the office can be a relief.

In Imperial Life, Rajiv Chandrasekaran stressed the artificiality and isolation of the Green Zone.  He noted that the KBR-run (Kellog, Brown, and Root, a Halliburton subsidiary) dining facilities offered a lot of pork dishes and other determinedly American fare.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, at the variety of offerings.  Asian cuisine is a possibility, with Korean kim chee a standard choice from the salad bar, and Japanese beef yakisoba or Filipino Chicken Adobo also a possibility.  Mongolian barbecue is offered weekly.  In addition, a short serving line offers other ethnic cuisine, particularly Middle Eastern dishes that might alternate with Mexican.  While I minimize my patronage of the dining facility, I was pleased to find that soy milk is available, since I am lactose intolerant, and that a very good fruit salad is a standard breakfast option.

Outside of loneliness, separation from family, and the confinement, life at Embassy Baghdad ironically combines some elements of camp and dorm life.  Whether actually or geographically, the vast majority here are single, so casual socializing seems to occur quite often.  I passed up an invitation tonight, for example, to join a scrabble game.  And, after a long hiatus, almost all of us have roommates, although we do each have a separate bedroom in the apartments.  The questionnaire to match roommates, resembling the preferences in selecting a college roommate, inquires whether one prefers a roommate who does not cook with strong spices, does not smoke, is quiet, neat, etc.  And, like at camp, we all assemble to eat in a common dining facility, that is free of charge, and, even though washers and dryers are available, we can walk across the street to drop off our laundry at free laundry and dry-cleaning facilities.  Recalling how my kids personalized the door to their dorm rooms, I put up my name and my roommate’s names on our door, although no one else has followed suit.  Otherwise, a visitor sees identical brown doors with the identical mat with “welcome” in front of each door.