Saturday, July 14, 2007


What is today, is almost never what was.

The last Honor Guards lie on the edge of a scrapyard, just off the perimeter road, near the north end of the compound. Their tails throw long shadows in the evening sun, and even after years of dust and neglect, the canopies still shine with the pride of an era forgotten.

Before America, before the war, before 9/11, my post was once a sprawling Iraqi airfield. Much of it's original infrastructure, spared by the initial offensive, remains standing. As a result, unlike places like Adder or Warhorse, which consist mainly of tent cities and crude shacks, Anaconda boasts tree-lined boulevards and an array of hardened facilities in the Arabic style of architecture. Some joke that Anaconda is just like garrison, and in many ways it is. Still, I find it interesting that with so many indicators of the past, so few would stop to consider the life of this place before our arrival. I wonder why so few pick up on the deeper lesson.

I first saw the Honor Guards, as I call them, one day several weeks ago, after helping operate a qualification range for the 240Bs. I was driving back to the trailers--I'd borrowed Elder's Humvee for the task, when I saw them. At first, I had to squint through the harsh glare of late evening sun. However, as we drew closer, I finally saw the shapes for what they were.


Mikoyan-Grevich MiG-23; NATO designation, "Flogger." Second-generation Russian multirole jet fighter; saw its heyday in the mid-1970s. Cheap and easy to maintain, the craft has seen heavy use across the Arab world since the early 1980s, and was a staple of the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam Hussein. The Flogger is a single-seat craft, marked by a Tomcat-style variable ("swing") wing and an oversized rear stabilizer. I remember seeing the Flogger in an old book my father gave me as a kid--"Modern Warplanes" by Douglas Richardson--but this incident marked the first time I'd ever seen a Mig--ANY Mig--up close and personal.

My dad worked on F/A-18s during his time in the Navy, so needless to say, I've had a love for military aviation since an early age. I had to struggle to stay on the road as we drove by--every nerve in my body screamed for a closer look. There were at least twelve of them, an entire squadron's worth, lined up nose-to-tail, facing east. They were smaller than I had imagined; each one had to be only a little longer than a Blackhawk chopper. Many of them were missing parts--a wing here, an intake cowling there--and on each one, the dappled green-and-beige paint schemes that once adorned their fuselages were defaced by vomitous Jackson Pollock displays of multicolored graffiti. I remember feeling a wave of sadness at this, along with sadness that I could get out of the vehicle and explore further. I've begged Oz to shotgun me over there in the Humvee several times since, but he never assents.

The whole period of exposure lasted maybe thirty seconds; thirty seconds which, I'm ashamed to admit, I spent more time looking out my window than actually keeping my eyes on the road. All the same though, the experience got me thinking. Technically, I understand that these machines are former technology of the enemy, unserviceable if not obsolete, and that their fate must be a long slow decay in the graveyard before eventual destruction. Still, it seems to me a tragedy. Such fine machines, and none to remember their legacy.

Who were the men who piloted these craft? What were they like? What did they feel as they rocketed across Mesopotamian sky? Did they jink their wings on takeoff as we do; rolling sharply to one side in salute, as they shrieked skyward for morning maneuvers? Did they die in combat? Did they even make it to their planes on those last fateful mornings? Are any of them still alive? These are the questions which surround me.

Just as I am connected to the events and places of my own past, so too am I compelled to seek out the past in this place; a place, indeed, with more of a past than any of us in the proud Empire can begin to imagine. Talk to me all you wish of the wickedness of Saddam Hussein. Talk to me of the madness of his sons, of the corruption that marked their reign. In evil places, and in evil times, there can always be found good, even among the warriors who serve such evil. Talk to me of these, and I will remember driving by those Floggers. I will remember them, and I will close my eyes, and imagine them as they must have been. I will imagine them, sitting proudly on the flight line, surrounded by throngs of crew chiefs and technicians. I will imagine their pilots, tall and resplendent in their flight coveralls, pointing out deficiences and listing requests for parts. I will imagine them, striding proudly around the tarmac in the late-afternoon sun, and I will wonder when the last day as that any of these these men, and their planes, ever truly knew peace.

When I close my eyes, I will wonder of the past that is now forever lost to us, and I will see it in those abandoned planes. I want to see something, anything, of what came before. I want to see this place as more than just the United States of Iraq.

Forgetting is a sin. Even worse is remaining ignorant.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once found myself looking at a temple and I wondered, "who were these people?"

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an aircraft museum in Sacramento at the site of McClellan AFB, and it has a few old Soviet aircraft. I was amazed at the emotions that seeing those planes caused me. It wasn't emotions of hatred towards our old enemies, but of sadness. I still don't understand that. But, your post gets me closer to understanding.

12:47 AM  
Anonymous mamaworecombatboots said...

If only they could talk, eh?

The aircraft carrier my huband began his career on, the USS Ranger, is now in mothballs here in Washington. We went to see her in our boat one gorgeous summer day. He said it was like looking at the body of a dear friend in their coffin. So familiar, but utterly alien. So many days and nights on board that mighty ship, and now here she sits, chained and forgotten. It was a poignant (and pointed) reminder that "for all things there is a season...."

2:18 AM  
Blogger Blue Wren said...

Fabulous post. Thank you.

6:07 AM  
Blogger liberal army wife said...

my DH was there.. and sent me pictures of them. eerie.

take care.


5:28 AM  
Blogger Pixie said...

Are you still there?



7:08 AM  
Anonymous Anne said...

Never fear, he's still around. As before, things have just been busy. That, and Milo's working hard on a novel that he's totally geeked out about.

It's so cute when he gets all drawn into a project. :D

10:06 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

Ah, novels. They Eat Your Brain.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Neil O'C said...


Thanks for a poignant reminder of Anaconda/Balad. I remember seeing the Floggers duringmy first week, heading up over North Post to visit a Trans Co up there. Finally dispatched myself (hey...O5 privilege) over to walk among them. Sad, bemused, curious...what a mix of emotions.

You may be interested to know that a large number of the former I-AF folks live in that little village out the East Gate. The former COL in charge of their air traffic control was one of our contractors and a frequent visitor. Lots of brief comments from him about "old days", always ending with a quiet intent to return.

Stay safe, bud. Talill was quiet in my day, but I've heard it's been noisier since. If you can...and it's "safe"....make sure you visit the Ziggaurat and the Ur ruins. That takes one's breath away.....

Neil O'C

7:27 PM  

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