Flaunting Imperial Dominion

Mission imperial
Monday February 19, 2007
The Guardian

While Iraqis struggled in the chaos of Baghdad after the invasion, the Americans sent to rebuild the nation led a cocooned existence in the centre of the capital – complete with booze, hot dogs and luxury villas. In the first of three extracts from his new book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran exposes life in the Green Zone.

Unlike almost anywhere else in Baghdad, you could dine at the cafeteria in the Republican Palace in the heart of the Green Zone for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab. The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration in Iraq, and the food was always American, often with a Southern flavour. A buffet featured grits, cornbread and a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food.

None of the succulent tomatoes or crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the US.

When the Americans arrived, the engineers assigned to transform Saddam’s palace into the seat of the American occupation chose a marble-floored conference room the size of a gymnasium to serve as the mess hall. Halliburton, the defence contractor hired to run the palace, brought in dozens of tables, hundreds of stacking chairs and a score of glass-covered buffets. Seven days a week, the Americans ate under Saddam’s crystal chandeliers.

A mural of the World Trade Centre adorned one of the entrances. The twin towers were framed within the outstretched wings of a bald eagle. Each branch of the US military – the army, air force, marines and navy – had its seal on a different corner of the mural. In the middle were the logos of the New York City police and fire departments, and on top of the towers were the words, “Thank God for the coalition forces & freedom fighters at home and abroad.”

At another of the three entrances was a bulletin board with posted notices, including those that read:

– Bible study: Wednesdays at 7pm.

– Go running with the hash house harriers!

– Feeling stressed? Come visit us at the combat stress clinic.

– For sale: like-new hunting knife.

– Lost camera. Reward offered.

The seating was as tribal as that at a high-school cafeteria. The Iraqi support staffers kept to themselves. They loaded their lunch trays with enough calories for three meals. Soldiers, private contractors and mercenaries also segregated themselves. So did the representatives of the “coalition of the willing” – the Brits, the Aussies, the Poles, the Spaniards, and the Italians. The American civilians who worked for the occupation government had their own cliques: the big-shot political appointees, the twentysomethings fresh out of college, the old hands who had arrived in Baghdad in the first weeks of occupation. In conversation at their tables, they observed an unspoken protocol. It was always appropriate to praise “the mission” – the Bush administration’s campaign to transform Iraq into a peaceful, modern, secular democracy where everyone, regardless of sect or ethnicity, would get along. Tirades about how Saddam had ruined the country and descriptions of how you were going to resuscitate it were also fine. But unless you knew someone really, really well, you didn’t question American policy over a meal.

Read the rest here.

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