When we arrived at the transfer base in Kuwait, one of the first things I noticed was the casual atmosphere. Soldiers in logo t-shirts played pickup basketball at two o'clock in the morning, and the recreation tent was full of troops both in and out of uniform, playing games on Nintendo Wiis or watching Fast & Furious on a projector.
The military realities of life on base were still prevalent; checkpoints were extremely tightly controlled and there were forms to fill out and command hierarchies to navigate at every turn. Also, the relaxed nature of some of the soldiers could be explained away by the fact that many of them were on their way out of the war, either for a few weeks of leave or for good. Still, you could almost forget that there was a war going on, and how close by the base was to the "front," if the notion of "fronts" still applies in modern warfare.
When we boarded the "Daytime Rhino" in Baghdad yesterday, the difference in tone from Kuwait was unmistakable. The "Rhino" is a short convoy of heavily armored vehicles known as MRAPs (short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that travel between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone, through some of the most attack-prone territory in the city. The woman manning the turret was friendly but extremely firm as she explained what to do if our vehicle was attacked.
As we rumbled down the streets of Baghdad, no attack seemed forthcoming, and it seemed again like the war was a concept that existed someplace far away. Despite all of the security, I began to wonder exactly how dangerous the situation really was.
Just outside the entrance to the Green Zone, the convoy rolled to a halt. No one seemed to understand what was going on, and apprehension filled the air inside the vehicle. The turret gunner swiveled back and forth, anticipating a possible attack from an uncertain direction.
After a few minutes, the gunner knelt down and passed on what she had heard over the radio: An IED had exploded on our route minutes before we arrived, and the Iraqi Army was locking down the Green Zone. No word had yet been given on potential casualties. We were turning around and heading back to the airport immediately, presumably to avoid being sitting ducks for a second attack.
The realization that we were minutes away from having triggered an IED triggered a reaction that came like a flood:
This is a war, and while as embeds we might sometimes be divorced from the immediate realities of the fighting, our lives are in the hands of the people whose job it is to never get complacent, to never forget where they are and what the consequences are if they let their guard down.
I hope they do a better job remembering that than I did.