Best Defense

A letter from 4th deployment purgatory

An officer wards off boredom with bad food, booze, and Russia Today during a layover in Al Udeid.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tate Whitener, a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, prepares for takeoff at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 3. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tate Whitener, a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, prepares for takeoff at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 3. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks)

 

By “Justin Time”
Best Defense department of deployment affairs

On this, the 2nd day of the 17th year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, I’m on my fifth day of waiting for a flight from Al Udeid to Bagram. Or maybe the sixth? It’s unknowable. I’m beyond a week of travel for a trip requiring about 18 hours of flight time. Time has abstracted. That’s apt, given that the war’s duration also seems to have lost all significance or national interest.

Yesterday’s flight was cancelled, plausibly because the Air Force’s airlift fleet is straining at full capacity to also assist Puerto Rico. A person can only absorb so much aimlessness, but I’m not upset by this outcome. American airpower can deliver aid to Americans in need or it can deliver me to war in Afghanistan for the fourth time. It’s refreshing to see the military hit a limit and choose the correct priority. And if the facts prove otherwise about my cancelled flight, as rumors suggest? Perhaps it’s a test of faith. Why believe the less pleasant version when both could remain unknowable?

This must be a test of faith, because Al Udeid truly is purgatory. It imposes rumination. It is both bad and good in near equal measure, but with a discernible punitive tilt. The searing heat is offset by air conditioning set to meat locker. For the blinding sun, sunglasses. For 60-person barracks inevitably occupied by at least one person with sleep apnea and an atmosphere in which farts supplant nitrogen, there are earplugs and the evolutionary miracle of olfactory adaptation. The free food is brutal.

So are the paid options, yet Taco Bell and Pizza Hut gain appeal day by day. Three drinks daily are available. This is too little to satisfy — always alcohol’s curse — and just right to take the edge off without a hangover. Inhibitions drop but not enough to do anything regrettable. The booze is brilliantly calibrated to average the same alcohol content regardless of selection. Hopefully nowhere else on earth are people routinely ordering triple Bombays and juice. You can be drunk briefly or buzzed for a while. Neither is great.

What tips the scale, typical for an etiquette-conscious introvert, is other people. Every door slams; few people bother to close them gently. Bunkmates call home from bed early in the morning. Electrical outlets are hogged. A newcomer to a quiet darkened lounge blithely busts open a packaged sandwich and a bag of chips in a recliner. War is other people.

Omens portend. Instead of Fox News — the standard in military waiting rooms — Russia Today is on in the sports bar. A wash politically, and equally disconcerting. After two beers, such things assume outsized significance. A B-52 flew overhead yesterday, the first sign from the transient camp that this is a functioning air base. Coming back from the base mall, I crossed Linebacker Avenue. Later in the bar, shortly after Tom Petty died, American Girl came on the radio. It was quickly cut off and replaced with Run Through the Jungle, then Purple Haze. Airstrikes — the modern body count — are climbing. Last week the Secretary of Defense called for increases in tactical advisors. A sense of regression to 1963 is unshakeable. I caved and got a pizza, which was terrible. Afghanistan lumbers on into the past. Vietnam, however, ended.

“Justin Time” is the nom de guerre of an officer on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan, if you weren’t paying attention.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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