The Hills Are Alive

23 Mar 2009

The Chinook helicopter dumped me in Firebase Vegas. The rotors were still spinning as I ran into the dust carrying my belongings. I’d waited several days for this supply run from the brigade’s headquarters in Jalalabad. My destination bore no resemblance to its namesake, Las Vegas. It was one of the furthermost combat operation posts that the US forces have in the Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. It is area that is under Taliban control, about 30 kilometres from the Pakistan border. The Americans call Korangal the ‘Valley of Death’.

Sgt Mario Martinez greeted me. “If you can see the hills, they can see you,” he warned as we entered the base. I looked around and we were surrounded by hills. He gave me a tour. “The toilet is in line of sight so always wear full body armour when visiting. But there is a more convenient urinal behind the bunker.” He pointed to the casing from a rocket launcher that had been jammed into the ground.

Firebase Vegas is a dismal outpost; half a dozen wooden structures constructed behind sand bags and barbed wire, high on a barren, rocky hillside. It is attacked almost every day by fire from the Taliban forces that rule the surrounding mountains. I was with the Third Platoon of ‘Punishers’. Their name is derived from the Marvel cartoon anti-hero who considers killing, kidnapping and torture to be acceptable tactics in the war on crime. They were a tough group of men; their role was essentially to be bait in order to draw the Taliban out from their mountain lairs. On the day I arrived, a group of Taliban fighters shot at the base. The resulting gun battle lasted half and hour.

It was a platoon of around 25 soldiers. The man who had the responsibility of feeding them was a Costa Rica-born Corporal, Randal Campos. “Everyone complains about the food but I go the extra mile”, he told me, as those around him laughed. “I cook two types of food” he explained. “Real food that I can flavour and the ‘heat and serve’ kind that come in big sacks and are shelf stable”.

“Like the Tunacken”, blurted Sgt Martinez. ‘Tunacken’ was the name given to a dish famous because no one could be sure whether it was tuna or chicken.
There is no shortage of food at Firebase Vegas. “If we eat all the candy and cookies from care packages, the army will need to deploy a dentist on base,” Sgt Martinez quipped. There was a dark, cracker-barrel humour surrounding life here. And ‘Cookie’ Campos was the butt of many jokes.

One of the men suggested that Cookie dragged back bodies of dead Taliban fighters and turned them into the dish described as ‘corned beef hash’. Another pondered why the surrounding villages were full of chickens and yet the only eggs that they consumed were reconstituted from powder.
All the popular American breakfast cereals were available with milk for breakfast. But a hot breakfast was also on the menu, including pork sausages. Corporal Campos was only duty-bound to feed the troops in the morning and evening but he also cooked lunch on demand.

Lunch was usually a cold MRE, or ‘meal ready to eat’. It was marketed as a ‘First Strike Ration’ to help soldiers perform at their peak. It was certainly a full meal. I could only eat one or two of the nearly twenty sachets inside. I had a honey-barbecued beef sandwich, which was dense and filling. Energy bars included flavours such as cranberry, and every bag contained a packet of ‘Stay Alert’ chewing gum with a 400mg dose of caffeine.

‘Cookie’ was diligent and concerned about his men in this bleak environment. He had shelves of spices, including nearly a dozen varieties of hot pepper sauce. That night, he melted processed cheese with macaroni. “It sings with a little garlic and paprika,” he said as he heaped in powdered flavourings.
As the soldiers sat around chatting, I asked what they thought their role was in this desolate wilderness. “We are fighting the terrorists here so that they don’t attack a coffee shop or office building in the United States or Europe,” explained Sgt Martinez. “We keep them busy,” he smiled. While he accepted that some saw them as an occupation force, he believed that the western-backed Afghan government and the Afghan National Army were genuine expressions of that nation’s democracy. But politics was not his job, he added.

A few weeks before my arrival, the base had suffered a setback. While the volume of food was ample, there was no longer anything fresh. “We used to get steaks and doughnuts,” mused Corporal Campos, “until our supplier was fried at the LZ.” The LZ refers to the base’s helicopter pad, or ‘Landing Zone’. A helicopter flown by Russian contractors had brought in fresh vegetables and other perishable food. But a few months earlier, as the troops looked on, gunfire struck its fuel line as it approached the landing zone. The helicopter burst into flames and the co-pilot died. Two other crew members leapt to safety but suffered serious burns.

“Water, bullets, bombs and food. An army needs them in that order,” according to Private Drnec, a sharp-witted soldier from one of the southern states. On that day, he enjoyed his favourite dish, Seafood Gumbo, which his mother had sent in a mail package. “We also get burgers and pizza from the Army, so it’s just another day in paradise.” It took me a minute to realise that he was being sarcastic.

There is no alcohol at a US Military facility; that’s quite different to the officer’s mess of European or Asian armies where a scotch is usually served to visiting journalists. And while I didn’t expect cordon bleu food at Firebase Vegas, it was clear that the US military thought in terms of volume rather than quality.
While Vegas was at the frontline of the US ‘war on terror’, the conflict had become institutionalised at the command headquarters. The former Soviet airfield at Bagram, north of Kabul, has become the nerve centre for the International Security Force in Afghanistan. It has grown to the size of a small town, with more than 10,000 residents, brick homes, a cinema, traffic jams, and shops selling everything from discount clothes to souvenirs.
And of course, Bagram has a Pizza Hut, Burger King and Popeyes, though supplies are a little unpredictable. When I arrived, Whoppers were unavailable at Burger King, but the Green Beans restaurant was serving cappuccino and macchiato as well as milk shakes and chocolate cookies. “It’s a bit of home,” smiled one captain.
Polish and French soldiers mingle with their American allies in the ‘war on terror’. According to my military escort, “The world is fighting the terrorists in these hills”. He pointed to the mountains surrounding Bagram. Of course, he, like most others in support jobs, had never left the base.
It was Napoleon who apparently said that an army marches on it stomach. If so, the western forces will do well in Afghanistan. If it needs heart rather than stomach, it has little chance of success. As one Taliban fighter told me recently in Pakistan, “We have defeated the British three times. We have kicked out the Russians and we will defeat Americans”. He even looked forward to a future battle with Asia’s emerging superpower. “We will also fight the Chinese and we will win.”
Napoleon was wrong. An army needs food but also a clear reason to fight.

Taken from the magazine Slowfood (38)

Phil Rees is a London-based journalist, writer and broadcaster

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