I had a wonderful time on the high-dive and getting a mid-war manicure.
The author sitting by the pool at Saddam Hussein's palace.
Baghdad, July 15, 2003 –
As far as I was concerned, the war was over. The President said so and we weren’t shooting anyone; we were just killing time, waiting for the word to go home. We spent our days moping around, trying not to sweat too much in our cement buildings as the Iraqi summer heat got hotter. We still did missions, but they felt more like a way of keeping us from going completely stir crazy than anything else – the way your dad might suddenly decide to take you to the park after spending the whole day watching cartoons.
One morning, our battalion chaplain came to our small firebase in Baghdad, told us that he had to go to one of Saddam’s palaces for meetings and wanted to take a couple of infantry squads with him so we could enjoy the facilities. He said there was a big pool and told us we could spend the day swimming, eating good food and calling home.
It was an easy sell to our commanders, who were already looking for ways to raise morale. And, luckily for me, I was in one of the first two squads chosen to visit the palace.
That evening we excitedly packed all of our army-regulation holiday gear into camouflage assault packs. A good friend had a giant orange and yellow towel sent to him from home. We took the piss out of him for it, but he packed it anyway.
Laying in our cots in the dark, we schemed about how we would attack our day at the palace.
“Okay, so we agree that we’ll start at the pool, swim for a while, get something to eat and then make some phone calls,” someone said from the corner of the room.
“I just want to sit in the air conditioning, man,” came a response.
“Go to sleep!” barked an angry NCO.
The author getting changed to go swimming at Saddam's palace.
We woke up early the next morning and lined up outside, waiting for the chaplain. He arrived soon after, stepping out of his truck with a wide grin on his face. Walking over, he greeted each of us individually with a handshake and a smile. Even in war, chaplains are always overly positive – a peculiar trait I’ve only ever seen replicated on the faces of LA store attendants and quietly suicidal kids’ TV presenters.
“Are y’all ready for a relaxing day?” he asked us with a smile.
“Hoo-ah!” came an excited response from a few of us.
We loaded into the truck and took our usual positions. We didn’t really want to pull security – AKA enforce security measures – that day; we were going on vacation and it felt wrong to tarnish a vacation with war. We all felt immune from attack, anyway.
The truck started rolling and we bounced around in the back, full of excitement. None of us had been to the palace before.
After a short ride along the infamous Highway 8, we snaked through a bunch of checkpoints, entering what would later become known as “The Green Zone”, a large area in central Baghdad that was secured by a long perimeter. Once inside, you could let your guard down.
As we entered, the few of us who were actually paying attention pulled our weapons inside the truck. The streets in the Green Zone were eerily quiet – wide streets were empty and what was once bustling downtown Baghdad was now deserted.
At one point, a grey SUV approached us on the opposite side of the road. It was new and large and stood out on the roads of Baghdad, where I was much more accustomed to seeing rickety little cars struggling to run. Inside, I saw a middle-aged white man in a nice suit behind the wheel.
“Well, would you look at this,” I said, incredulously. A buddy poked his head out the side of the truck and laughed: “What the hell?”
After months of war, it was an incredibly strange sight. Seeing any Westerners in Baghdad was usually pre-empted by talks and security briefings, but here was a guy comfortably driving a brand new SUV through the Green Zone. I instantly had the thought that this was why I had come to war – so that this guy could drive his huge car around Baghdad. Stupid and immature as it sounds, that thought feels no less true now than it did back then.
We soon spotted giant statues of Saddam Hussein’s head and knew we must be close. The truck came to a stop and we all jumped out, looking out over the vast concrete car park to the palace in the distance, hidden behind tall black fences and palm trees.
“Alright gentlemen,” the chaplain drawled, “there’s a lot of brass here. I need y’all to be on your best behaviour.”
We smiled and nodded.
There were more checkpoints to pass through before we got to the palace. A short, stocky Nepalese sentry stopped us before we could pass through the last fence into the palace compound. He didn’t speak English, but motioned for us to open our bags. I smiled and opened mine. He waved me through.
The author (centre) with some more soldiers at Saddam's pool.
Emerging, quite literally, like an oasis in the desert, we reached the pool. Our eyes, accustomed to the dull, earthy colours of war devoured the bright blue of the water. Men and, more importantly, women lounged around the pool, sunbathing. We stopped walking, just to watch.
The chaplain, sensing our amazement, goaded us forward: “Come on, guys, there’s a place to change behind these trees.”
We followed him into the trees, a line of dirty infantrymen. Our uniforms were stiff with old salt and dry sweat. A sunbather raised his sunglasses on his head and watched us pass by, seemingly agitated. I stared at him hard, confident in the thought that I was the reason he was able to lay there and sunbathe.
Changed into our black army shorts, we moved to the pool. We looked like thin ghosts – body armour and military uniform leave very little skin exposed to the sun. A couple of us jumped right into the pool, laughing.
I stood back for a moment, watching. I couldn’t get over the scene at the pool. Who were these people? What kind of jobs did they have that allowed them to just hang out at Saddam’s pool? This was supposed to be war.
After a while, swimming became boring. We began to dare each other to jump off of the high board – a 30-foot diving board that had so far gone unused. No one would do it.
For some reason, I felt emboldened. Maybe it was the excitement of the day, but I volunteered. After climbing to the top, I jumped and tumbled forward, watching the blue water quickly swallow my entire field of vision before smacking me right in the face.
Somehow I surfaced at the side of the pool. My ears were completely clogged with water and my nose was bleeding.
“That was awesome,” someone said, “you totally ate it.”
We had been in the pool for a couple of hours and were already exhausted from the sun. The chaplain pulled us in close: “Alright gentlemen, go ahead and get changed. There’s a great dining facility inside the palace where you can eat. There’s also a place you can call home and some small shops. We’re going to meet back up in the parking lot at 1800. Have fun, but again, don’t ruin it for your buddies. Be on your best behaviour and we can keep coming back.”
I imagined the agitated sunbather listening in, sighing.
From here, we broke off into groups. A friend and I first entered the palace in awe and headed straight to the dining facility for lunch, which was stocked with good food, sodas and desserts – a much welcome break from a steady diet of pre-packaged MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
After lunch, we explored, walking down hallways we shouldn’t have, prompting perplexed looks from flower-sniffing State Department officials. We strutted through the halls like it was our own personal palace, poking heads into doors to see what was on the other side.
I got the sense that everyone there felt how strange the whole experience was. There we were – the Americans and her allies in Saddam’s captured palace, which we’d turned into our war resort.
The author (on the left) getting his nails done at the manicurist in Saddam's palace.
After more exploring, we found a beauty salon run by some Iraqi women. No one was using it. At the risk of being ridiculed by our hyper-masculine peers, we decided to get our nails done for the sheer luxury and spectacle of it. After all, how many infantrymen can say they had their nails done by Saddam’s personal manicurists?
With my time at the palace quickly coming to an end, I set off to see what else there was to do. My friend and I leaned against a marble pillar in the lobby in front of a large mansion-staircase and people-watched. It was such a departure from the normal grim drudgery of Baghdad; beautiful, educated people moved swiftly in nice clothing. High heels and leather shoes clicked against the marble floor, echoing with privilege.
Then, moving slowly into the room, came L Paul Bremer, the Viceroy of Iraq. An entourage of reporters with cameras and notepads followed him. Flashbulbs flashed. A team of aides tried to protect him. He smiled and answered questions fired at him quickly. He stopped briefly, said a few words to the reporters then turned to get away. I was staring at him and he caught me. With his lips tightly pursed, he gave me a slight nod as he passed.
“That was L Paul Bremer,” I said to my friend as he passed by.
“Big deal,” he replied.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s go find a Gurkha knife.”
I was referring to the Kukri, a famous combat knife carried by the Nepalese guards who were responsible for security at the palace. The knives were large, curved and incredibly powerful – everything you want in a knife. So we set out to find a guard who might be willing to sell one.
We spoke to a guard checking IDs at the front door. He didn’t speak English particularly well, but understood what I wanted, telling us that all the guards lived in rooms downstairs.
Down in the basement of the palace, things were quiet. I felt like I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Probably because I wasn’t supposed to be there. After walking down a hallway of closed doors, I finally came across an open door and poked my head inside. There were three Nepalese soldiers laying in beds. A fourth stood in front of me, taking off his gear. I excused myself, and made my intentions known.
“Yes, I will sell Kukri,” the guard said.
“Great – I have $20 American,” I said.
“No, this is good Kukri – $120,” he replied.
I didn’t have the money and there was no way I was going to scrounge it together before we had to leave the palace. I looked to my friend who shrugged. We left the room, defeated.
The author sitting in one of Saddam's thrones.
Our time was dwindling. We continued walking around the palace, looking for things to do. We found a throne room with a large painting of America-bound Iraqi rockets in the background. We sat in the throne and took pictures.
Back in the basement, we opened a set of wooden doors that stuck out as we’d been walking through the marble hallway. Inside was Saddam Hussein’s private theatre. A few marines were sitting in large leather chairs, sleeping. The air conditioning was blasting. The end credits of a movie rolled.
My friend and I nodded to each other and found seats – giant, soft things that swallowed us whole. A movie started as soon as the credits finished. It was 1963’s The Great Escape, a movie about allied World War II soldiers escaping from a German prisoner camp. The marching music started when my friend turned to me and said, “Wake me up when we have to go.”
I stared at the screen and soaked up the cold air. I was exhausted, my skin was hot and I smelled like chlorine. Looking around, everyone in the theatre was sleeping. I looked down at my watch and set my alarm for 1730, 30 minutes before we had to be back in the truck.
I fell asleep.
By 1800, we were all assembled in the car park, ready to go back to our firebase in southwest Baghdad. We traded stories from the day, most of us hopped up on sugar but exhausted from the time spent in the pool under the sun.
Our truck wasn’t there. It was supposed to be, but they were delayed for some reason. Time dragged on as we sat, waiting and talking.
The sun set and it got dark. We stood around in a circle and somehow started talking about Free Masons. One of our senior NCOs said he was a Mason. I started pestering him with questions. I had read recently in some magazine that the big secret behind Masons is that there is no secret – that they thrive on the public’s general ignorance and tendency to seek conspiracy.
The conversation became a contest between him and I. He stood there holding a stick, picking at the concrete and flipping pebbles as he answered my probing questions, eyes on the ground:
“Why is it so secretive? How do you get in? Is it true that...?”
Eventually he got annoyed and told me to shut up. I felt annoyed – we were at war together, how can anything be more sacred than that?
Finally, at around 2100, our truck arrived. We climbed into the back and counted off, making sure we were all there. The sound of Velcro and shuffling filled our ears as our body armour and helmets went back on.
“Hey, good job, paratroopers,” the chaplain said, his head poking up above the tail of the truck. “You guys behaved yourselves today. I hope you enjoyed the day out.”
From the darkness, a chorus of “Hoo-ah!”s. The canvas flap closed and we went home. No one pulled security.
Follow Don on Twitter: @dongomezjr
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