Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Atlanta to Baghdad

So there I am in this bar in the Atlanta airport, Concourse D, waiting for my 7:45 flight, having arrived at 5:00 in the hope of getting an earlier one and discovering (duh) that you can't check a bag on one flight and get on another. Everywhere the evidence of our interesting times--long lines, anxious faces, small arms, sounds of fear, anger, frustration from both passengers and TSA personnel, huge machines that ingest luggage, and especially the hundreds of soldiers in desert fatigues. They crowd the back room of this small bar (maximum capacity 50, the sign says) where Taya, Marlon, and Ellie, the bartenders, will let them smoke.

Actually, I got to the airport long before 5:00, but there were many obstacles between me and Concourse D. To begin with, my driver's license expired at the end of October. So after a half-hour wait in the line that screens coach passengers, I'm told, "No, sir, we can't even let you through security, you hafta go back to Continental and see what they say." The kind folks at Continental say, "Ooh, you gotta renew this thing, son," mark my boarding pass with a sinister SSSS, cut me into the first-class line, then deliver me unto the glass hallway for the dangerous and benighted and posssibly unlawful. I'm thinking cavity search at this point, but I see no curtains ahead, and lo, a bright young man opens the door and asks me to sit down and take off my shoes. Then I stand and hold the arms out, as directed, for the ceremonial waving of the metal-detecting wand, all in full view of other passengers and TSA types.

But he looks worried after several passes, so I am, too. Maybe this isn't just ritual. Maybe I am dangerous and benighted and possibly unlawful; after all, my driver's license has expired. He finally says, "There's something here," pointing to my right front pants pocket. I dig around in there among the folds for about 20 seconds, starting to sweat--even asking myself "What am I concealing?"--and come up with a dime. I hold it up happily, I can feel myself starting to grin madly, and I ask, in all innocence, "Could this set off your wand?"

He looks at me suspiciously, then looks down and shakes his head as if to say, "Nobody understands this device." Instead he says, "You're good to go, sir, I just gotta have a look at your briefcase." The phone recharger gets a serious tapping, but after that he's going through the motions.

Clear sailing to Concourse D, and finally to Sojourner's, the bar next to my gate. There's a complicated rope line that fends off the unwitting patrons who want to just walk up to the bar from the corridor, and there's a sign that says Please Wait to be Seated at the narrow entrance created by the ropes. I lean over the guy in front of me and say, "Fucking Atlanta, what is this? There's two seats at the bar." He turns and says, "Yeah, that's the non-smoking section. But you better wait to be seated, these people are serious, they'll remove you."

So we wait for those seats. Once we're in them, we are real estate barons: we have more room and more access to the bartenders than anyone else in the place. We're suddenly pivotal figures in the unfolding drama of a place that contains a lot of drunken soldiers on the way to Iraq.

There's about 25 of them back there in the smoking section, but they come and go, typically without any directions from Taya, Marlon, and Ellie, who are otherwise vigilant in enforcing the rule of waiting to be seated. Actually, a lot of people are not seated--they're assigned a highly specific place on the walls near the bar, at counters, where they can stand and smoke as long as they spend $3.75 on a beverage. Beer is $4.50, Absolut is $8.50, so many of these transients in need of a smoke (you can't do it out there in Concourse D) choose a bottle of Coke. Those who are standing at the counters put the place well over its maximum capacity; they're mostly soldiers and they all smoke. It is not unpleasant. The smell of burning tobacco reminds me of home--not the home I'm headed for, no, the original one, where everybody smoked all the time--and so it makes me want to have another beer. It lets me look at these young men without grimacing, without remembering that my kids are old enough to be in uniform.

The guy I waited to be seated with is Jeff. He runs a Yamaha dealership in North Miami. He's pissed at AirTran for taking nine hours to get him to Atlanta on Friday. He's pissed at Bush for starting a war that wasn't necessary. But he has a face that deflects any anger--he looks away, toward the mirror behind the bar, or at the TV behind us, when I turn toward him with questions about politics, and when he does turn toward me, he looks over my right shoulder as he talks. As he should. This is a bar, not a seminar. The guy to my right is Warren, who runs a printing business in Massachusetts and owns a horse farm as well as a residence in New Hampshire. He's pissed at the bartenders for offering him Bud Light or Killian's Red. He's a Republican, he says, and he's going to leave because he can't drink that swill. But he has a Bud in a 23-ounce glass, and then he relaxes a little. At least his shoulders sag and his body starts to curl forward; he looks like a student who wants to nap in class. Sure enough, he puts his forearms on the bar and lowers his head.

Me, I'm pissed that there's a really loud man in an Izod golf shirt and expensive slacks walking up and down in the smoking section, announcing that he's from Jersey and that he's buying a round for the "boys in suits." Suits? Christ, I'm in a suit, these poor bastards are in uniforms, and they're on their way to hell, why is this asshole calling attention to himself, and, for that matter, to New Jersey? But then I think, what a good idea, they should drink for free while they're alive in such a godforsaken place. Atlanta, that is, where the downtown concierges have brochures explaining how to take a tour of CNN, and the adjacent airport, where nothing works except the trains and the toilets.

I rouse Warren, but he leaves, muttering about Budweiser. I turn to Jeff and say, "Let's buy these poor fucks a drink before they're dead." He says, "C'mon, man, they're already drunk." And he's right. But I don't care, they should be. So I persuade him to go halves on a round for the soldiers in desert fatigues. We both insist that this must be an anonymous gift, and Taya, the genius who turns out to be the manager of the place as well as bartender par excellence, figures out the tab (this is a woman who should be running Microsoft--everything in her head, everything under control). We use our credit cards to split it. Jeff says, "I'm gonna write it off, anyway. Hell, this is a business trip." And I think, damn straight, me, too. My way of supporting our troops.

But once we pay, we're public, because Taya very discreetly tells a couple of the boys at the counter on the wall under the TV, and then it's handshakes and fives all around. They're giddy, these boys--they've been in the airport since 7:00 AM, and the bar opened at 11:00, I believe. Sam Benton and John Dungan, First Infantry Division. Sam is older, wiser, darker; John the blond buzzcut with the big nose is clearly a piece of work, the kind of guy bouncers and bartenders want to bind and gag upon entry. Sam was a steelworker who joined the Army because he hurt his back and couldn't get any work. John was, and is, a redneck who joined for fun and adventure: "for the heck of it," as he put it. They're equally disturbing because they're both seething with some strange athletic energy--they might as well be two football players in the locker room right before a game, banging each other's pads to shed their fear. Not that they have anything to fear in this place. Here they might as well be giants.

Sam's eyes suddenly light up. He reaches into his backpack, pulls out a small, sleek laptop, puts it on the bar in front of Jeff, turns it so I can see the screen without leaning, and says, "Company's greatest hits, baby, this is the shit you won't see on CNN. Watch now, wait a minute, let me get this goin' here, all right. Gotta have the soundtrack." John's head starts bobbing as Sam adjusts the settings. The music is part heavy metal, part hip-hop, all male: crunching chords, screeching solos, staccato vocals. All the music stops and starts, but it still bridges the gaps between the images now on screen. These are images of this war, their war. They've already been to Baghdad, they're ready to go back, and they want us to see what they have seen. It's too late to say no.

There are stills and there are moving pictures. The stills are in color, heads and torsos of First Infantry friends sticking out of armored vehicles, posing for the digital camera in a glaring, sand-scoured landscape that looks so desolate it serves nicely as mere backdrop--the kind of barely contoured canvas photographers drape behind models--to the figures who dominate the frame.

The moving pictures are black and white because they they were mostly shot at night, with infrared lenses. We watch from above as insurgents clutching their weapons run across a square beneath a statue, trying, and failing, to avoid American fire. We watch as a man hides, motionless, behind a truck, hoping he cannot be seen. Sam says, "They think we can't see 'em, but we don't need to. Watch, all he's got to do is move and the heat sensors show us exactly where he is. We just wait and, see, there he is, boom! That's what I'm talkin' about."

High fives all around. Me, too, I'm impressed with the technology sitting on the bar and killing people in Iraq. Finally, I'm acting locally and thinking globally.

But then there is the repeated close-range image of the insurgent being dismembered by American fire. This was the company's greatest hit, presumably, because it appeared three times in a ten-minute video. No bird's eye view this time: we see the man from his left, at about 150 feet, as he is felled by fire from our left. When he falls backward, his arms open wide and his left arm is blown off--it sails off screen, drawing our attention from his collapse as a moving corpse onto the curb behind him.

Maybe that's why we needed to see it three times. Maybe that's why the volume of Sam and John's whooping diminished as we got to the last time. Maybe that's why I went to the bathroom. Jeff saved my seat. Then he went, too.