Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The nose knows

When they first came here in 2003, the base was basic.  It was founded at a previous military training site of Saddam's, but had to be greatly expanded.  The living quarters to support the vast numbers of troops here had to be constructed.  For months, human excrement was removed via burning (by the lowest ranking), and they lived in tents with the ants and scorpions, before semi-permanent facilities were brought in and constructed.  All of this is chronicled well by photos and video.  The whooping of the Chinooks and Blackhawks, crescendoing thunder of the F16, and the churning of MRAP convoys live on, but I imagine the war orchestra once included far more fortondoando, back in the day. 

But one thing you just have to imagine is the smell.  The sulfuric bouquet of cordite and burning rubber still remains, but to a much lesser degree since closing the "burn pit" (more on this at a later date).  The greatest sensory change over the past decade has got to be olfactory, not just the carbon-stained outside air, but the air inside a tent or building or vehicle or aircraft.  And this, likely due to the genesis of showers.  In 2003, the men-and they mostly were men-didn't really take too many showers.  Washing was brid-bath style, and on ocassion, via the sun-warmed shower bag.  The 15 gallon transparent bags of water drained to gravity and served as makeshift showers, and still do, at forward locales.  The sun would warm the water during the day, and depending on the time of year, become too hot by early afternoon, and they chill again to near freezing by dawn.  This meant a rush for a limited supply of suitable water between 1000-1300.  I reckon many a stinky soldier.

The Cadillacs have come and we are now on version 2.0, or something.  There are separate shower and toilet stalls.  There are actually hot water heaters, so thre is usually hot water.  Sometimes, there is even some water pressure.  I only have to walk 50 yards or so myself, but some folks walk 300 yards.  Just as with the toilets, you find a favorite shower, and you find yourself going to that shower only.  Maybe you like the way the curtain hangs, the situation of the stall, or perhaps the hooks outside the curtain for your things.  It doesn't matter what it is, but something about that particular shower captures you.  I have a specific advantage insofar as i work in the hospital, which has probably the most Western version of a shower around.  The water pressure is good, the water is always hot, and the walls and floor and clean tile; not the thin mold-ridden composite plastic that lines the semi-private Cadillac stalls.  This huge advantage is a reminder of home, and does make things more comfortable.  The humanity of a hot shower is only obvious to he who lacks it.

The mortars do not fly as they did, and the burning has near ceased.  The crops grow, again, around the outside of the wire, exchanges exchanging carbon gases for new oxygen.  But not long ago, the bombs fell, and burned, plumbing was a luxury, not commonplace, and hygiene standards rose to a much lower threshold than they do now.  Take all of this and compound with necrotic rotting flesh, months of standing water and excrement, and just imagine what the trenches of Avingon or Gallipoli smelled like.  It is merciful that visual and audio war history are so much easier to comprehend than olfactory accounts.

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