• Bureaucratic Chlamydia: What to Wear to a War?

    April 11, 2011

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    Vatican The first part of my book details the half-assed nature of preparing people like me to live and work in a war zone. State Department personnel are recruited for Iraq without much attention to their background, physical fitness or experience. This is not much of a problem for the majority who will serve at the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, a $1 billion dollar complex constantly referred to as “bigger than the Vatican,” a really odd comparison until you remember the Vatican burned people at the stake for believing the earth was round.

    The Department, however, never told us headed to the field what to bring along. Foreign Service Officers were expected to pass this info around by word-of-mouth, a kind of bureaucratic chlamydia.

    Worrying about what to pack might seem trivial. However, for those like me sent out to the boonies to embed with a military unit and live alongside them without many creature comforts, things like what to bring can matter a lot; if you arrive without the proper gear there is no REI store to pop into, no way to mail order things easily. Without the right stuff, you instantly shift from possible asset to the military to Another Thing They Have to Take Care Of.

    I got all of three weeks training, with all the intellectual stimulation of a sick day afternoon watching The Price is Right and no advice on what to bring. The State Department is of course still recruiting for Iraq, both within the halls of Foggy Bottom and on the web for contractors as the organization seeks to take over police training from the military. The advice on what to bring for contractors online is a good three years old, predating the opening of the Vatican compound and thus pretty useless. Actually, it was pretty useless three years ago with tips like “Sunglasses are strongly recommended,” but now it is old and useless.

    When I asked around for help, several people pointed me to a web site, originally created by a Foreign Service Officer who insisted on calling herself “Baghdad Anne” as a nom de guerre. The site, while also about five years out-of-date (there is a Geocities link, groovey), was a little more colorful. For example, if you look at Mike’s list on the blog he notes “I like to weigh myself daily, but the fitness center does not have a scale and there are only two scales randomly placed in the Palace hallways, so I was glad that I shipped a bathroom scale.” Not much help.

    Another blog recommended was named “Wingtips on the Ground,” maybe not a promising sign. Its packing list chides “I’m not suggesting you bring all your Thomas Pink shirts and ties, but if you wear French cuff shirts back home, bring a cheaper, no-iron version with you.” As for those damn shoes, the blog author writes “You’ll also want to bring a pair of dress shoes. You may not wear them often, but it’s good to have them on hand. I went up to Baghdad for a conference and felt a little out of place with my boots.”

    BBQ LaptopThe photo is from the blog, of the author wearing a native headdress and appearing to barbeque a laptop. Again, not much help.

    So, I brought a bunch of stuff to Iraq that I didn’t need, did not bring a lot of stuff that I did need and generally looked like a dork for the majority of the time. I am certain this impressed my military colleagues, and their calls of “hey, numb nuts” where all meant affectionately.

    Luckily, the problem is solved now for future State Department people headed to Iraq, in that the Department has created a semi-official Packing List. It is even dated March 2011, so this baby is right on topic.

    The best thing about this list is its specificity to the unique conditions of Iraq. Have a look yourself, and imagine packing up for an assignment out to the Sandbox. Be sure to pay attention to items like “Your favorite makeup and nail polish” (assumption: women only?), “Posters and small personal items to make your apartment more homey” and the best line of the day, the admonition that “You might also want to bring a Halloween costume and/or ball attire for special events.”

    Leaving aside the idea that the State Department is reminding its employees to bring a Halloween costume to a war, perhaps it is more important to wonder what events might be held that would be proper for either a costume or ball attire. In my book I write at length about Bagdaddy’s, the Embassy’s own bar, and after reading my description maybe you can imagine some off-label costume uses (“I never thought it would happen to me, but…”)

    If only I’d known about the Halloween costume my tour would have no doubt worked out better.

    I know it is all different, but just for fun feel free to compare the State list against what soldiers tell each other to bring along.

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