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War is Hell

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, wrote an article for the Atlantic, "The Kabul-ki Dance", on the air war over Afghanistan, as seen from the viewpoint of pilots of the 391st Fighter Squadron out of Idaho. Air Force practice is to make the lives of pilots as comfortable as possible while on the ground, so as to make them more focused and efficient while in the air, and Bowden describes in detail what this means in daily life:

[F]light crews are, by virtue of being flesh and blood, one of the weak links in the war machine. The Air Force tries to regulate them like delicate instruments, with pills to clog their bowels and pills to clean their bowels, "go" pills to speed crews up and "no go" pills to slow them down. The crews are pampered, not out of kindness but out of necessity. The job demands a great deal of mental and emotional clarity. So the base at al Jaber [Kuwait] is by no means a hardship post. Crew members share air-conditioned mobile homes with a bathroom and a shower, cable TV, a DVD player, and PlayStation 2. They have hearty food, workout facilities, and an officers' club with a paperback library, twenty La-Z-Boy recliners, a big screen for movie viewing, a popcorn machine, and snacks (but no alcohol). The cable TV carries all the major networks and European MTV, and -- perhaps owing to the generosity of the installer -- receives unsolicited X-rated fare late at night. AJ got to see more of his beloved Green Bay Packers' games that fall than he ever gets to see at home in Idaho.

The crew members were entitled to one fifteen-minute satellite phone call home each week, and unlimited Internet access, resulting in constant e-mail traffic with spouses, family, and friends. Some of the fliers got in trouble for revealing too much in their excited stories. They quickly learned that the recipients were forwarding their private electronic messages to other friends, who forwarded them again, until the crews were getting return mail from perfect strangers all over the world. Each crew usually had a sortie to Afghanistan only every three or four days, and although they also flew missions over the no-fly zone in Iraq, there was still plenty of downtime. When she wasn't dropping bombs, Baldie, ever the multi-tasker, spent much of her time completing course work for a master's degree in engineering from Oklahoma State University. (Her professors FedExed her videotapes of their classes.) Some of the fliers drove into Kuwait City on occasion to dine out at restaurants or shop at the Western-style malls. AJ and some others even attended an air show in Dubai, the third largest in the world. War was never like this before.

"War is hell," indeed.


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