Monday, January 02, 2006

Tales from Mutie Territory (no, not the Wairarapa)

It's that time of year when last year's stuff gets repeated, so here's something I wrote last Jan 1. Some of it's since outdated, eg the Americans have been equipped with properly-armoured vehicles since mid-way through the year, but the rest of it applies depressingly as much today as it did a year ago:

Another episode of Tales from Mutie Territory, but this time the Americans are up to bat. Lots of depressing stuff going on for the poor old Yanks lately.

Last week in Stars and Stripes there was an article about how this is the most intensive call-up of national guard and reservists since WW2, which means the average age of the soldiers is higher than in the last 50 years' conflicts, and worse, a correspondingly higher proportion of the deaths are of parents. The army's talking about orphan affairs becoming more of a priority than veterans' affairs for the next few years ("orphan" including loss of one parent in this case). They've even had three mothers killed, unsurprising given that restricting women to "non-combat" roles like transport actually puts them in the front line in this war. Just about every week there's a story about some poor schmuck who never made it back for the birth, but the wife got to take the baby to see the coffin. They even reprint the guys' last letters home, which I curse myself for reading but can't help it. It makes you feel sick when you think about how little purpose there is in any of it.

I was talking to a doctor in the reserves who'd been called up for an unspecified period, he told me he wasn't too worried because Congress requires his employer to keep his job open for up to 5 years. I told him personally I'd consider that an extremely worrying piece of information if I was him! Apparently the 5 years part is because it was brought in to cover WW2, not anything to do with expectations for this war, but I still reckon he ought to be very worried.

You probably noticed the ruckus about vehicle armour in the news, it's been a big issue for a while given the demand for soldiers to drive big petrol tankers (or aviation fuel - worse!) just about the length of Iraq with just about every known kind of munitions short of nuclear littering the place. There's an extensive cottage industry among the Camp Arifjan engineers constructing vehicle armour out of surplus plate steel, you see the home-made results driving around all the time looking like extras from Mad Max. They're easy to spot because they have regular truck or HMMV cabs with sheets of plate steel bolted on the doors, with a piece going up to shield the driver's head, so that they have to lean forward to be able to look out sideways. Apparently the initial templates were marked out with a ruler and gatorade bottle caps to round off the corners, then cut out with a welding torch. Now the original ruler-and-gatorade design is stored in a CAD program and they've kitted out 2000 trucks with it. I'd love to take photos of some of this stuff but the photographer in Marketing told me he was caught both times he's tried it, and the next time he'll lose his job. I could do without the aggravation.

Gun trucks are another improvisation lots of people are working on. The HMMV with heavy machine gun on the roof is the ubiquitous convoy escort, but these days more firepower is desirable. The best home-made truck was in the camp magazine - some of the engineers built a 7000-lb platform that slots into the trailer mounting point on an articulated truck tractor unit, it can be fitted in just 15 minutes and provides several heavy machine guns about 15 feet up so they can fire clear over the top of the convoy if necessary. It comes with steel plate armour, with kevlar plates mounted 6 inches in front to provide some protection against anti-tank rockets. 7000 lbs is pretty heavy, so they mounted it on a tank transporter. As the magazine put it, "the gun platform at 7000 lbs is considerably lighter than the transporter's standard load of a 60-ton M1 Abrams tank, so a useful turn of speed is available". Understatement! The thing could probably chase down whatever vehicles the Iraqis are using.

The home-made armour on the HMMVs makes for its own problems now that the rains have started. When you put 1000 lbs of extra steel, a heavy machine gun and its mount, a few ammuntion cases, and someone to man the gun into the upper body of a HMMV it doesn't drive quite the way it did before, as you can imagine. You see them belting down the expressway with the guy sticking out of the top in his helmet and goggles and feel really glad you're not him (or her, quite often). When we had the first rain of the season one of them flipped over up in Iraq - another horrendous Stars and Stripes story. The first rain for at least 6 months makes the roads unspeakably greasy, I guess it lifts 6 months of road film. There were new automotive sculptures at the side of the roads all over Kuwait the next morning. Anyway, the story described how the S&S reporter went with a convoy to Baghdad, the convoy doesn't drop below 80kph for any reason because it's harder to shoot at the faster it goes, and anyone who gets in the way gets shunted. The leading HMMVs just crash into anything that isn't moving 80 and doesn't get out of the way quick enough. One of the HMMVs with the armour and the machine gun skidded and rolled in the wet, the gunner survived with a bunch of broken bones, must have got thrown clear is the only thing I can imagine.

Most depressing of all, I had a war movie cliche come to life the other day - I had to write a letter home for a soldier. It wasn't quite "worst MASH episode ever", he pretty much had the letter scrawled out but couldn't handle a keyboard to save his life, so needed me to type the email for him. I cannot understand how someone who likes to keep himself to himself as much as I do gets into so many of these situations. This was the most embarassing one since the old Arab gave me his card and PIN number at the ATM and asked me to get a couple of hundred KD out for him. So, I wrote out the guy's income and outgoings, broken down to what gets spent on what, for his wife, then I got to tell her that he really wasn't hung up on money, but she can see the ends are only just meeting and it's turned real cold here and he's got to get some vitamins and a hat to put on his head, and if he's sticking through all this and she's thinking about leaving him that would be kind of hard. I thought so too. I'm not sure how I could feel so much wealthier and luckier afterwards, and so depressed at the same time.

On the Kuwaiti front, someone seems to be selling fake international calling cards with my cellphone number on them, mostly to Pakistanis judging by all the calls I'm getting from people who want to be put through to Pakistan. At least if they can speak English I can tell them they've been ripped off, but the ones that speak Arabic tend to just hang up and then call back a couple of minutes later in the hope that the crazy white switchboard operator's been replaced by a normal person - very annoying. Personally I'd think twice about ripping these guys off, most of them strike me as having very little sense of humour about it.