Whitney Terrell is a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His first novel, The Huntsman (Viking) appeared in 2001 and was selected as a notable book of the year by The New York Times. It was also selected as one of the best books of that year by The Kansas City Star and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His second novel, The King of Kings County (Viking) was selected as a best book of 2005 by the Christian Science Monitor and The Kansas City Star. In a recent review, The Washington Post said that its story of real estate and race will “put Kansas City on the literary map with Anne Tyler’s Baltimore and William Kennedy’s Albany.” Terrell is the recipient of a James A. Michener-Copernicus Society Award. He was born and raised in Kansas City. He is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
CAMP VICTORY, IRAQ ‑ Amid the billions in cost overruns, embezzlement, fraud, and uncompleted contracts that have plagued the reconstruction effort in Iraq, the engineers of the U.S. Army 17th Field Artillery Brigade have quietly been assembling one project that actually works: the $200-million Victory-Liberty Base complex. The complex, located just to the west of Baghdad International Airport, covers an area equal to Independence, Missouri. Unlike the rest of Iraq, the electricity runs, the trash gets collected, the roads are graded and paved and best of all, according to Cpt. Derek Wischmann, the utilities chief for the Directorate of Public Works, it may someday actually be part of Iraq.
“We intend this to be a city that Iraqis will return to,” Cpt. Wischmann said from his air-conditioned office at Camp Victory. “This section of Baghdad was the Ba’ath party headquarters. So in my opinion it’s a huge win for the Iraqis if they come in and set up a functioning city in the heart of where they used to be enslaved.”
The city of Victory-Liberty is certainly functioning, though Iraqis can at this time “return” to it only as cooks and janitors—and then after braving death threats from insurgents and background checks from American intelligence personnel. Still, those that do must be amazed at what they see. While the entire country of Iraq can at this point generate roughly 4000 Megawatts of electricity a day, the Victory-Liberty complex alone boasts two oil-fired powerplants that together can generate just under 100 Megawatts, 24 hours a day. They provide power to air-conditioners in over 5,000 trailers that house around 35,000 soldiers, contractors, and foreign national workers. While only 32 percent of Iraq’s 25 million citizens have potable drinking water, Cpt. Wischmann’s team has built a water treatment facility that produces close to 1 million gallons a day. They have also built a functioning sewage system that pumps 500,000 gallons of sewage back into the Baghdad municipal system every day. The city’s pipes have the capacity to deal with the excess load in part because only 20 percent of Iraqis have sewage service.
But what is most impressive — and least reported — about Victory-Liberty is how comfortable the base feels. Shelling has generally ended; gunfire, when it is audible, comes from the Army firing range. In the evenings, as the shadows lengthen and the temperature falls, soldiers in soft gray cotton T-shirts and navy gym shorts swarm the gravel roads, lakeshore paths, cabanas, phone trailers, and bus stops of the camp. Their only protective gear is a reflective yellow waistband, like that of a school crossing guard, designed to save from being run over by the base’s traffic. A majority of these soldiers stationed at Liberty-Victory are “Fobbits” — the nickname for people that never leave the safety of the Forward Operating Base, or FOB. They live in rows of spotless, corrugated metal trailers, double protected by rows of sixteen foot high concrete T-walls, and enormous, wire-mesh baskets of sand called Hesco barriers. Their rooms, roughly 15 ft by 20 ft, are paneled in faux wood, and are equipped with wardrobes, dressers, and beds. There is ample electricity to run air conditioners, play stations, televisions and computers.
Fobbits who are curious to know what life at war might be like can visit the 18,000 square feet of merchandise available at the Camp Liberty PX whose gravel courtyard, in the evenings, resembles the dimly lit quad of a desert collage. There they can buy a copy of the movie Jarhead from a 35-yard-long wall of DVDs. They can buy a 52” flat screen TV to watch it on, a set of Kenwood or JVC speakers to provide full, stereophonic sound, a charcoal grill to set up outside the Hesco barriers beside their trailer, and frozen T-bone steaks and Lay’s potato chips to eat. And just in case, somehow, they’ve forgotten to leave their children at home, they can buy a baby stroller, if the need be.
The PX is only about a 20-minute drive — though in terms of psychic reality, it feels like a thousand miles—from the sweltering schoolhouse where, on a recent afternoon, LTC Craig A. Osborne met with a group of six local sheiks. A mule brayed in the side yard. The ammonia scent of animal dung wafted through the open windows of a classroom that had been reserved for the colonel’s audience. “I’m not going to give them the answer they want about this bridge,” LTC Osborne had told his soldiers before entering the school, “so they’re not going to be happy.”
And he was right. LTC Osborne had ordered the bridge closed in order to prevent Sunni insurgents from attacking Shia neighborhoods to the south of it. “What can you do to prevent militias from moving through your area?” he asked the gathered men, all of whom were Sunnis. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t block the bridge.”
“You can surround Al-Shula,” one sheikh suggested.
“I can’t surround Al-Shula,” Osborne replied.
“Because I don’t have enough forces to do that and that is Iraqi Army territory. It would take a division.”
“Then get a division.”
“I do not command a division,” Osborne said.
The meeting was exhausting, a three-hour long affair, conducted in the midday heat with no air-conditioning or even a fan. At one point, the spokesman for the sheikhs very politely doled out Pepsis to all the gathered guests, including the soldiers in the room—a costly gift and one that called to mind the humming electric coolers of soda, Gatorade, and power drinks that filled the mess halls back at the soldiers’ camp.
And yet, at no point during the exchange did Osborne lose his temper or even raise his voice—at least not until he’d arrived back at the Liberty-Victory complex, late for a meeting and in a hurry, only to find his three-humvee convoy backed up behind a half-mile long line of semis. “Can you go around him?” he asked his driver, gesturing at a truck for Oasis International Water, the camp’s water bottling plant. But the road was too narrow and instead the colonel, helpless, fresh from the war, had to wait a half an hour to reach his battalion headquarters as the semis inched ahead.
Soldiers like LTC Osborne who do go outside the wire regularly see the increasing civilization of their base with suspicion. They appreciate the amenities, to be sure, but at the same time worry that as the complex metastasizes, requiring more and more support personnel, it threatens to become even more of a parallel and self-encompassing world— one that exists to perpetuate itself, rather than to...