Q: What were you doing there?
Michael: I have an undergraduate degree in International Studies and a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. I had applied for several jobs with NGO’s, international organizations, local charitable organizations. But I couldn’t find a job: so it was financial necessity that compelled me. My job was in logistics, the movement of materials, of everything you need to maintain people in a closed environment. The US military bases are like little cities. You can get some of the things you need locally, but other things you can’t. One of the major things that we moved around, for example, were tyres. It’s not like you could drive into the centre of Baghdad and hit the tyre shop. The same went for all sorts of mundane, non-military things like air-filters that you would normally buy at a hardware or grocery store. So I’m going there to make sure this stuff gets to where it needs to be. Very boring.
Q: What did it feel like arriving in the country that Bush invaded?
Michael: It was pretty nerve-wracking getting there. I don’t remember talking to anybody about what to expect. There were a variety of people on the company’s charter plane: some who have done this before and others who were new. But it wasn’t the kind of flight where you have a conversation with the person next to you, for some reason. The company had told us that we had to go through Iraqi customs: the Iraqis had just taken over security in their own airport. They regarded this as unfortunate. Either they had to pay more money to get us through or we would need an Iraqi VISA, whereas before you would just get hold of a letter granting you permission to be in the country.
But “inconvenient” as it was that these Iraqi people had their own border customs patrol, it was minimal. We went downstairs, we waited in line. Essentially, they opened our passports, took the letter out, made sure it was okay, put the visa in the passport and gave it back to us. It was stamped and then we went to get our luggage. The level of traffic in Baghdad International Airport is so low, as you can imagine: they have these little lanes that you go through and there is no line, just two people there. Picture a big open room. A section to the X-ray machine is roped off with just a cord. No glass: no extra security people. It’s an international airport in a warzone, yet the level of security seems comparable to a museum trying to keep you from touching the paintings.
Even though the airport is close to the major Iraqi US installations, they still have to drive you there in buses with blankets down over the windows. It once was an exceptionally dangerous stretch of road leading from the airport. It’s not so dangerous anymore. But I assumed they didn’t want anybody to be able to tell if the bus was carrying white people or not: a lot of the labour on the bases is South-Asian contract workers, like those who work in Dubai or Bahrain. So you are in this very dark tube: with the only light way at the front. There is the windshield with the driver, and right in front of him is another bus. You see nothing of Baghdad. Nothing at all. You are not there. You could ask me if I have been to Iraq. Well, I haven’t. You never actually get into the country. You exist in this weird Americanized space inside Iraq, but you’re not in Iraq.
Q. Where did you work?
Michael: The first place, called Key West after one of the islands in the chain that goes south from Florida into the Carribean, was in the middle of nowhere, probably halfway between Tikrit and Mosul. The second was actually in Mosul, and the third back in Baghdad. There was a town near Key West with a name beginning with ‘Q’ and it was easier for everybody to pronounce it as Q West. That’s how that happened. The base at Mosul was called Marez, after a small town in the area and in Baghdad, the base was called “Camp Liberty.” There was also a “Camp Parker.” I lived in “Wayne’s World” and I worked in what is called the industrial zone. There was also “Freedom,” you know, inspiring stuff.
Q: Can you say more about the foreign workers?
Michael: Before going, I already knew about the sub-contract workers or ‘third country nationals’ - “SCW’s” or “TCN’s” as the company called them. I think in practice it meant ‘not American’. They were subcontracted through a different company. The company I worked for hired Americans, some Bosnians, Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs: basically people who had started working for this company when the US military was deployed in the Balkans. So there were some other nationalities, but predominantly Americans. They were doing most of the better-paid administrative supervision, the management. General labouring, like driving a forklift truck, unloading crates, sorting merchandise and material, that was all done by Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Filipinos. It was the majority of the work. They have been there the longest. They know the most about what goes on. And even though they are paid the least, the operation couldn’t exist without them. The SCW’s were working ten hours a day, seven days a week. The Americans were working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. But I was averaging between seven and eight thousand dollars a month. Non-Americans - Bosnians for example - were making less, and SCW’s were making far less than that: I believe five or six hundred dollars per month.
Q. What were the working conditions like?
Michael: You are very isolated. In a military base, everything is surrounded by blast proof walls, so you don’t ever see a building. You only see the concrete walls around it. All the working spaces are closed off by concrete or by big earthworks, sandbags and barbed wire. Your horizon is always the space you’re inside. Mosul was a little bit different because we were up on a hill, so it was possible to get to a place where you could see the city of Mosul, but if you were walking towards where you live, you’d be walking besides the blast walls. If you were going to work, because we worked with shipping containers, you would just see a gigantic wall made out of huge sacks filled with dirt, with barbed wires and also a fence on top.
It’s dusty, like working at any construction industry. You don’t have super nice facilities because you work at temporary locations. You might have a warehouse building or a temporary office in a trailer. There are some more permanent buildings and then just large expanses of gravel and dust, full of packed shipping containers. It wasn’t hard work, but tiring because of the long hours, even though safety was a huge concern. Especially as it got hotter in the summer, people were asked to do less and less work. In this respect, the company had very appropriate guidelines for everybody. In fact, we were told frequently, because everybody in the company respects the work that the SCW’s do, to tell them not to work in the sun. They would do so anyway. But we were supposed to look out for each other. What was shocking was how little they were paid and the fact that they regarded those awful conditions as a really “great opportunity.” Most of the people I met working there were supporting wives, children, parents, even siblings on their earnings.
Q: Why awful conditions?
Michael: The first thing is the slog. Everyday you would get up, go to work for twelve hours, go to sleep, get up, go to work, go to sleep, etc. And the work is mind-numbing, for example sitting behind a computer all day. People like me would show up and immediately there are - technically-speaking - five SCW’s working for them, even though they have already been there between three and five years. Americans get three trips home a year, but they don’t get any time off. Officially, everybody I spoke to acknowledged their contribution and respected them for the work they did. But there were people who looked down on them. They were often blamed for things that weren’t their fault, made scapegoats. They knew much more about the operation than most of the people they worked for and that is a source of tension. Especially if your boss is not going to listen to you. For me, it was a very upside down situation.
If I didn’t know how to do something, they would tell me how to do it. I saw this and felt like they should be doing my job. And yet in a year, they are not going to make as much money as I made in a month with no experience. But this was my dilemma: for them, it was a lot of money. Of course they are not ecstatic about being separated from their families: but they had a chance to support their families in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. I could just leave whenever I wanted to: just quit. These SCW’s with dependents couldn’t leave unless they were hurt. And in that case they would get nothing except what they had already earned. No benefits. No health insurance. These companies that do projects in Dubai, Bahrain and other places - they all work in a similar way.
Mathematically, however, the amounts were proportional, because the company based your salary on how much you would make in your home country doing this job, adding in for the danger and the overtime that you worked. But the difference is going to be drastic if you come from the US or Nepal. I had never encountered this very contradictory effect of globalization before. I’m sure the SCW’s think about these questions, but I didn’t feel any personal resentment towards myself. I feel guilty even trying to apprehend how it must have felt for them, because it felt unjust for me to be involved in this situation. You have to maintain a construct in your head of the difference between you and the SCW in order to reconcile the fact that they are working harder and making less money. But that is very unnatural in my experience, because working had always been for me an egalitarian experience.
Q: Can you describe your interaction with the soldiers?
Michael: Contact with the military was minimal. There was a gym where you might encounter them. They had a cafeteria where everybody ate; you might run into the military there. The guns that they always carried with them, even in the gym, were the most visually jarring element about where I was, because the cafeteria looked like a cafeteria, the gym looked like a gym and the store looked like a store. You never see a cafeteria full of people with guns. It was something impossible to overlook. I’d go to sit down at the cafeteria, pull out my chair and there would be the “excuse me” moment because there was an M16 in the way. You can’t help but notice.
Other than that, you might meet them in the stores. Incidentally, the SCW’s were prohibited from entering these small shops run on the base by Iraqis and Turks. They sold pirated movies, cigarettes and souvenirs essentially. The military itself operated an American-style store, where you could go and get Coca Cola and Doritos, Laptops and a Plasma screen TV, Playstation games and Sex and the City season 5. Of course, you could get the pirated version of Sex and the City season 5 at the Iraqi shop for four dollars. The SCW’s could work in these stores, but those who did not work there couldn’t go in. I remember buying socks for the people who worked for me.
Q: When you were deciding to go to Iraq, you rationalized to yourself that it was no problem working at a US military base. But after being there for three months you changed your mind and quit. What happened?
Michael: Of course I rationalized it. I told myself that I was personally unable to improve anything for anybody regarding this conflict, and that it wasn’t such a bad thing to go there and support people, soldiers, who probably don’t want to be there to begin with. My job as a civilian, you see, was not dealing with military materials at all, just simply affording people who are there as members of the military a more comfortable life than they would otherwise have. We were not essential. They could move the military around, house them in tents and give them packaged meals. But we were there, so that they had a gym and a cafeteria, hamburgers, sandwiches and coffee. I didn’t feel too bad about contributing to that kind of activity. In a very abstract way, I felt bad, in the sense that I had opposed the invasion. I didn’t think we should be there and didn’t think it was going to end in anything except a bad way. It’s not possible to justify what has been done in the name of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. It was a wrong act to invade Iraq. But at this point the invasion has already happened. And since I couldn’t do anything to help the US military to pull out any faster or slower than they are already going to, I thought, I couldn’t make anything worse.
I wasn’t killing anybody. I wasn’t directly participating in the oppression of anybody. My approach was pragmatic, and pessimistic. It had become clear to me at that point that the war would continue as long as it was going to continue and it would end when it was going to end. There wasn’t a whole lot that people could do to shape its course. It was such a bad, necessary, lesson in foreign policy and military power that both the people and the politicians in the US want it to end. Nobody wants this conflict to persist: nobody in the military, nobody in the government, nobody in the population. Precisely because of that fact - protesting against it, speaking against it, doesn’t work to achieve its end any faster. You’re just beating a dead horse. Everybody knows it should have never happened. Everybody knows we shouldn’t be there now. Everybody knows it was a terrible drain on money, resources and lives. Everybody - except some very extremely conservative Republicans - knows it has been disastrous for the Iraqi people and horrible for their government.
There will be a post-US Iraq. This is a fact, because the US will pull out. There might be a US military base in Iraq for the next twenty years, but its ability to directly impact Iraqi policy and politics will be almost non-existent. But when I was there, I came to think that prolonging our involvement was actually making the aftermath worse. I did see that what the US was doing was just making things worse.
For example, turning over US military installations to the Iraqi military. The kinds of people who have come to power in Iraq are unlikely to build a democratic, egalitarian, free Iraq. I have the impression that their ability to come to power is based on their ability to guarantee personal security to their political supporters, and the way you do that in a chaotic environment is through violence. So it’s a very Hobbesian situation – a war of all against all. Handing over equipment in that context, even if it’s just generators and fuel and tyres and functioning automobiles, means essentially that you are turning it over to the person who is in a powerful enough position to exploit that for his own political benefit. You are adding resources and furthering their capacities.
Q: But somebody has to be in charge?
Michael: True. Everybody says that a political solution is necessary. There is no military solution to the chaos and problems in Iraq. But I don’t know what to do about it. Because they are an invader, because they are an occupier, the US military and government have no capacity to legitimately interact with Iraqi politics. The US is in a position where everything they do is wrong and carries the potential to make things worse.
Soon, I felt: I am involved in this and therefore I have to leave. I was of the opinion that everybody should leave. US involvement should end tomorrow. Everybody should get on a plane and fly home. Leaving immediately would be chaotic, but it’s chaotic anyway. There might be some sense of order, but it’s the kind of order that has been realized after a decade of violence. We can’t discount the Iraqi people’s ability to overcome what has happened to them. Eventually they will overcome the legacy of this war and will put some kind of more stable political government into place. And when that happens, the Americans will say: “You are welcome. Okay granted, it went a little rocky there, but these were the necessary birth pains of a new Iraq.” I find that revolting.
Q: Do you think actions such as those by WikiLeaks will have a profound impact on the memory of this conflict?
WikiLeaks might have an impact on how Americans remember this conflict, but I seriously doubt it. The popular perception of the Vietnam conflict is that it was one that America lost because the premises were somehow bad or the politicians screwed it up. If Americans can ignore the reality of the war in Iraq when it’s actually going on, don’t you think they can overlook WikiLeaks five or ten years from now? It will be an interesting footnote in the way the conflict was written up. Iraqis are singularly unimpressed by WikiLeaks, because they knew these things all along: for the past ten years. For them, those facts are obvious. Maybe, if we’re optimistic, it will deter America from invading another country for the next fifteen years.