Transcript

266:

I'm From the Private Sector and I'm Here to Help
Transcript

Originally aired 06.04.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/266

Prologue.

Ira Glass

William is part of a team that's rebuilding one of the power plants outside Baghdad. And for everything that you've probably heard about how dangerous it is to be in Iraq, and how difficult much of the work is, here's one occupational hazard you probably haven't heard of.

William

Working seven days a week, it's very easy to lose track of the time. There's no difference in a Monday, or a Friday, or a Sunday. It's all the same day.

Jerry

Well, we jokingly refer to it as a groundhog day.

Ira Glass

Jerry's training Iraqi police.

Jerry

Because you're not sure what day it is. And when you come right down to it, it's not much different than yesterday. And it's going to be the same as tomorrow. Visits to the Green Zone, some business in the palace, some business at the police stations.

Ira Glass

Don works out at the airport for a private security firm. He says everybody loses track of time.

Don Ritchie

We had a guy in a vehicle that hit a landmine. And miraculously, nobody got hurt. And when they brought him to the doctor, the doctor asked, what day is it? I can't tell you what day it is most days, and I haven't been hit by a landmine. That was kind of an unfair question.

Ira Glass

Today's radio show came from a simple set of questions. We keep hearing about these private contractors who are working in Iraq. These are civilians, doing everything for US troops from serving meals and building housing to maintaining weapons systems. Private contractors interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Other contractors are the people who are actually rebuilding Iraq's sewage, and water, and electrical infrastructure.

And here at our radio show we wondered, who are these people who signed up for this, who decided that the very best job that they could get was going to be in the middle of a war zone? Should we just see them as mercenaries? Are they motivated by feelings that are more idealistic than that?

Civilians are part of this war in unprecedented numbers. They're an important part of the war effort. They're part of what is going to determine if we're successful in Iraq or not. Nobody knows for sure, but it is at least 20,000 people in Iraq, working just as soldiers-for-hire, escorting convoys, protecting stuff. That's more than any of the countries in the Coalition of the Willing have sent. Britain, who sent the most, only sent 9,000 troops.

Private contractors, in a sense, are our biggest allies in Iraq, the coalition partners that nobody ever talks about, partly because they're private companies, who don't usually give access to reporters, under no obligation to give access. As a result, we don't even know how many of their employees have died. There's a website called icasualties.org, which lists 243 confirmed deaths, actual names. This is far more casualties than all of our allies combined.

About a year ago, April 2004-- this is right at the moment when the violence in Iraq was really heating up-- one of our contributing editors, Nancy Updike, headed into Iraq, and managed to spend three weeks with employees of several different companies who are operating there. We're devoting our entire program today to her report.

From Chicago Public Radio, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. And we start at the airport.

Act One. Airport.

Nancy Updike

The US military and the private security contractors working in Iraq, who are often ex-military themselves, usually get along. But not always. I was driving around Baghdad International Airport on a Tuesday afternoon with Dave Shoe, a six foot four, former middle school social studies teacher, former Army Sergeant, current employee of Custer Battles, when he pulled up next to two guys jogging in gray t-shirts that said, ARMY.

Dave Shoe

Hey, guys. Got a minute? You're not supposed to be running back here, fellas.

Soldier

Says who?

Dave Shoe

Well, number one, says me, OK?

Soldier

You're not even my boss.

Dave Shoe

Well--

Soldier

My boss is Major General Dempsey, who's in charge of the five million people that are in the city of Baghdad, you included.

Dave Shoe

Well, Major Dempsey then--

Soldier

Major General Dempsey.

Dave Shoe

Well, Major General Dempsey, then, is the one who informed us. And a matter of fact, MOTC, ministry of transportation--

Soldier

Well, [BEEP] the ministry of transportation.

Dave Shoe

OK.

Nancy Updike

Dave climbed down from his truck, and this became a 10-minute argument, complete with finger pointing, getting in each other's faces, almost touching chests. There are tens of thousands of US soldiers living on the airport grounds, which are huge, 11 square miles. And many of them don't realize that even though the airport is used by military helicopters and planes, it's also a civilian airport, guarded in part by a civilian company. And some areas are off-limits, even to US soldiers.

So Dave spends a lot of time kicking people out of places. Very few respond graciously.

Dave Shoe

Number one, I ain't in your army, OK?

Soldier

I know you're not.

Dave Shoe

Now, I came up here and said, hey, how about you doing me a favor. Now you want to make it an issue, we can make it an issue.

Soldier

OK, make it an issue! First of all--

Dave Shoe

Now, let me tell you something, Major. No, you let me tell you.

Soldier

Go ahead! Tell me!

Dave Shoe

Let me tell you! I pulled up to you. I asked you politely. You got an attitude.

Soldier

You're damn right I got an attitude! I've got civilians that have been here a couple months--

Dave Shoe

I've been here since freaking July, pal.

Soldier

Oh, whoopdedoo.

Dave Shoe

How long you been here?

Soldier

I've been here since March.

Dave Shoe

Good for you, you're doing your job! But let me tell you something. I asked you politely. Now if you got to make an issue out of it, why don't we take it on up to Mayor [? Seller. ?]

Soldier

Well, right now, I'm practicing my right!

Dave Shoe

Right now, I'm telling you, you are unauthorized to be here. You got that?

Soldier

I got that. You're really stressing me.

Dave Shoe

Move out!

Soldier

[BEEP] you!

Nancy Updike

As we drove away, Dave put the incident in context.

Dave Shoe

That's the kind of bull [BEEP] I put up with all day long. Right there.

Nancy Updike

Because it's not clear who controls--

Dave Shoe

No, it's clear.

Nancy Updike

--what area?

Dave Shoe

No, it's clear. That guy's an ass [BEEP].

Nancy Updike

So is there generally tension between you guys and army guys?

Dave Shoe

No. That guy's an ass [BEEP].

Nancy Updike

Of course, almost any job involves dealing with a few people you wish you could eject into deep space. But most jobs don't have, on top of that, the stress of daily shootings and bombings, and being thousands of miles from home. So I asked everyone, why come to Baghdad?

Don Ritchie

A couple of reasons, and I'll be honest, money is one of them.

Nancy Updike

Don Ritchie oversees Custer Battles security operations at the airport. When he retired from the military at 43, he needed to find a job.

Don Ritchie

19 and a half years in the military, two master's degrees, only job I could find in real American business was as a clerk at Blue Cross in South Carolina. $17,000 a year. I started as a clerk. Humbling experience, very humbling experience.

Adam Mccall

I would say the main reason is money. The main reason is money.

Nancy Updike

Adam McCall does patrols at the airport. He says he took 9/11 personally, and got himself a job for a while at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. He still wants to make a difference, but the money is better here in Iraq.

Nancy Updike

Do you have debts that you're trying to pay off?

Adam Mccall

Absolutely, yeah. Who doesn't? Yeah, absolutely. Welcome to America, yes. Yes, I have lots of debts. $30,000, $40,000.

Nancy Updike

That's a big chunk of change.

Adam Mccall

Exactly. And frankly, I wasn't making it when I was Department of Homeland Security. I just wasn't making it. So, you know, I had to come here.

Nancy Updike

The median income in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, is a bit over $40,000 a year. In Iraq, Americans working for private companies usually start at around $80,000, tax-free. Some get more for overtime or hazardous duty. Security guys make over $100,000 a year. Again, the first $80,000 isn't taxed if they stay outside the states for 330 days. Housing and meals are free. If you can tolerate the tension, heat, long hours, uneven phone service, loneliness, sexual frustration, and fear, Baghdad can be a good place not just to make money, but also to make enough money to maybe turn your life around.

People told me they now have savings for the first time. They'd be able to send their kids to the universities they want. Or put that divorce behind them. Henry [? Bosarge's ?] job is repairing guns for Custer Battles at the airport. He was in the military for nine years, and puts it in perspective this way, bringing up one of the biggest private companies in Iraq, KBR, Kellogg Brown & Root.

Henry

A specialist who has to climb under a truck and work 12 hours a day makes $1,500 a month.

Nancy Updike

In the military.

Henry

In the military. The same guy, working for KBR, the same guy across the street from him, is making $10,000 a month.

Nancy Updike

$10,000?

Henry

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

How on earth are we saving money with private contractors when you guys are making so much money?

Henry

You're not. You're not.

Nancy Updike

Money, the idea that private contractors will save taxpayer money, is just one reason behind the boom in hiring civilians to do these jobs. The other reason is that the military is shrinking. There were two million active duty US military personnel in 1990. Now it's 1.4 million. Private contractors are filling in the jobs that the old, bigger military used to do for itself: peeling potatoes, fixing equipment, building housing. The idea is to free up soldiers for what the Pentagon calls war-making, combat.

The line's gotten blurry, though. More and more, private contractors are hired to guard, patrol, escort people and food and equipment through dangerous places, jobs that end up putting them in combat. Military commanders have said they're afraid the vastly higher salaries in these private companies, essentially for-profit armies, will drain the military of experienced people.

Act Two. Hank.

Hank

Steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals.

Nancy Updike

It's possible Hank came up with this description by looking in the mirror. He's a 49-year-old man with small blue eyes, a former paratrooper and ranger, the son of a decorated soldier, married to the daughter of a soldier, father of two soldiers, one of whom was in Iraq and is now in Afghanistan on a mission he can't talk about. Hank is cryptic. He doesn't want me to use his last name. He won't even tell me what rank he achieved. I looked it up later. Lieutenant colonel. He's done private security work overseas before, he won't give details, of course. But he will-- and this is the thing about Hank-- he will poke fun at it.

Hank

So you've got to be the look, the security guy-look: serious, I'm dead serious about this business; I'm steely-eyed, and I'm scanning the horizon constantly. And usually when you go to, like, if I go to Africa or someplace like that, and you're on some kind of security mission, it takes you about two seconds just to get off the plane, look around, and say, oh, there's somebody else on a mission.

And you kind of saddle up to them and you go, SAS? And they go, they nod and then they go, rangers? And you go, you kind of nod. And then finally you ask, who you working for? Of course he can't tell. He asks you, and you can't tell. And then you-- [LAUGHTER] wander off, you see? But you had that initial, like, dogs sniffing each other, you do. But it's very easy to pick the guys out. They all got the look.

Nancy Updike

So he wants his PSD guys to have to look.

Hank

Steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals.

Nancy Updike

And he walks around doing that look, but he also knows it's all a bit of a put-on, a man dance, as he calls it. And with tens of thousands of American military and ex-military and private military in Iraq right now, it's very possible that we are standing in the middle of the largest man dance on the planet.

Hank

Tomorrow at 7:00, we gotta get on the range. And then we've got weapons training we'll do when we come back in the afternoon--

Nancy Updike

Hank has called a meeting of the personal security detail guys to go over the week's schedule and work out solutions to some of the problems they've been having. The meeting is in a long room off the main dining area of their hotel. The guys are sitting scattered around the room, mostly Americans, a few from other countries, England, Ireland, Nepal. They're all on year-long contracts as shooters, armed protection.

Hank is roaming the room and occasionally clicking to change the slide on the projector. A lot of the meeting is about cars, because a lot of PSD work is just driving people safely from A to B: Baghdad to Mosul, Mosul to Basra. Safely in Iraq, by the way, means driving as fast as they can at all times, to avoid getting shot or blown up. All the security companies do this. And Custer Battles, in order to keep their security guys free to scan the road and shoot, if necessary, uses Iraqi drivers. Baghdad Bob, AKA Hustler, sees a problem with this, because it seems the Iraqis they've hired, very understandably, have been balking at some of the driving instructions they get.

Baghdad Bob

These guys own their vehicles. They're not going to ram anybody. They're not going to run anybody over. And the guy told me, quote, unquote yesterday, I go, go! Woo woo woo! "My vehicle." OK, that told me volumes. He ain't going to hit a bump, he ain't going to go, he ain't going to ram somebody.

Nancy Updike

The PSD guys, meanwhile, depend on aggressive driving to protect themselves. If they're surrounded by a hostile crowd, for instance, or if other cars try to box them in for an ambush. But, as Baghdad Bob points out, driving aggressively at the wrong time could also get everyone shot.

Baghdad Bob

We should have the training with the Iraqi drivers. Us sitting in the seat next to an Iraqi driver, this is what you do when you hit a roundabout, this is what you do when you hit a military convoy. Because this is three days in a row I almost got shot by GI Joe. Man, that ain't a good feeling.

Nancy Updike

It becomes clear that the US military is just as much of a danger for the PSD guys as the Iraqi insurgents. Finally, Hank interrupts the discussion with a decision.

Hank

We tell them to ram somebody, we tell them to move over, we buy, we pay for the repairs.

Man

Problem is, we haven't had a good track record.

Nancy Updike

Hank is trying to change some things about the operation. He's here to establish rules and procedures. One result of America's sudden and unprecedented reliance on private security in this war, is that Custer Battles, like many security companies in Iraq, hired a lot of new people very quickly. And Hank is trying to transform them from a bunch of ex-military guys assembled ad hoc to a smooth, standardized workforce, where everyone gets first aid training and regular target practice, good weapons and ammunition, a cell phone, and a uniform, khaki pants, and a navy polo that says Custer Battles on it.

Hank believes in America's mission here in Iraq. He believes private security work is the linchpin in that mission's success. It goes like this. Security guys protect the businessmen trying to start companies in Iraq, and the contractors rebuilding the infrastructure.

Hank

If the contractors get the work done, the economy takes off. The average Iraqi looks around and says, we're better off. Kids are going to school. They're making some money. They're buying a used, beat-up Ford Taurus, but they're getting one in their family. They're going to start turning on these, I think, mostly foreign elements. Maybe I ought to contact the authorities. And we're going to find them and root them out, and we're going to make this country great.

Nancy Updike

Hank is not just out to fix Custer Battles. No opportunity for instruction or improvement is missed.

Hank

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Nancy Updike

I was paying for my lunch one day, and Hank was talking to the hotel's wait staff. And all of a sudden, Hank and one of the Iraqi staff were gripping hands across the counter and trying to pull each other over. Hank finally grabbed the guy's other hand, so he had both of them, and dragged him halfway across.

[LAUGHTER]

I stood there watching in amazement.

Nancy Updike

Oh my God. Do you do that with him every day or something?

Hank

We have a game of some kind.

Nancy Updike

Reach across the counter and just try to pull each other over?

Hank

That was a new one. That was a new game.

Nancy Updike

It was a little disturbing to watch.

Hank

Usually we arm wrestle, or you know, you had a balance game, where you yank the other guy off balance.

Nancy Updike

This game of Hank's is not just a game, it's one of his projects. Iraqi men need to work on their upper body strength, he told me more than once. It's very American to say, as George Bush has said, we're not here to change you, we don't want you to become Americans. But we can't help ourselves. Look at Hank. He wants to help, and he knows what will help you. His generosity is interventionist in nature. In the elevator, he explains, it's OK for men to touch each other if they're trying to haul one another over a counter. What's not OK is what he sees Arab men doing every day on the streets of Baghdad.

Hank

I'm trying to train the Arabs to be less effeminate and quit holding hands, and get to the culture where they--

Nancy Updike

Jesus Christ, let them be! I love that they hold hands.

Hank

OK.

Nancy Updike

The guys walk around arm in arm.

Hank

Yeah, it's not right.

Nancy Updike

Don't train that out of them.

Hank

Don't you think that that's not right?

Nancy Updike

No, I don't think that that's not right.

Hank

OK. [CLEARS THROAT] Well, let's go down to 314.

[GUITAR PLAYING AND SINGING]

Nancy Updike

Every Saturday night, Custer Battles PSD guys gather at what they call the viking table in the dining room of the Sinbad Hotel for a big dinner. Tonight, a new guy nicknamed Elvis, because he sings and his last name is Presley, brought his guitar. The table is only half-seated, maybe 15 people out of Custer Battles' 60 PSD guys. I end up sitting near Scott, AKA Grumpy, a heavy Vietnam vet who smokes tiny cigars called Swisher Sweets. Scott's been in Iraq for five months.

Scott

I'll probably stay a year. I was going to stay another year, but I don't think my wife's going to buy that. I've been either in the military or law enforcement or security since I was 18 years old. I'm 57 now. So everybody thinks I need to grow up and come on home.

Nancy Updike

What do you think?

Scott

I'm not sure I'm ready to hang up my guns yet. As long as you feel like you can do the job and make a contribution, then you should be here.

Nancy Updike

It's not all about the money, he says. And the guy across from him nods. Most of the PSD guys I talked to said some version of this, the money's good, but I'm also here to help. A few said, I'm here for the adventure. Only two fully embraced the word mercenary. A man named Rob who told me about a mercenary bar in the jungles of Cambodia called Sharky's. They get good bands, he said. And a British guy named Richard who said, I'm here for the money, and so is everyone else.

I asked the PSD guys if they think we did the right thing by invading Iraq. The responses-- and this ended up being true with everyone I talked to, not just PSD guys-- the responses broke down like this. Around 20% were completely gung-ho: yes, we should have invaded exactly when we did, no questions. Maybe 10% expressed some doubts. And the rest felt like David, an earnest man in his mid-30s with gold-rimmed glasses.

David

You know what? I don't care. It's over. That part of it's over, it's done with. We're here now. The best thing that we can do is to help these people. And why we're here is over and done.

Nancy Updike

I talked to Tara, a tiny blonde from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who screens passengers out at the Baghdad Airport. An honorary viking princess, Hank calls her. Before coming to Iraq, she'd never been away from home for more than two weeks. She had breakfast with her mom every Tuesday. And while Hank is trying to eliminate physical affection between Iraqi men, Tara has stumbled into her own cheerful project to spread American values.

Tara

I talked to one kid today. He was a cleaner. He cleans the floors at the airport. His wife wears a burka. And it's his choice. He wants her to wear one. And he wanted a cigarette from me. And I said, I'll make a deal with you. I'll give you a cigarette if you let your wife go a week without wearing that.

Nancy Updike

And what did he say?

Tara

He thought about it really hard, and he agreed to it.

Nancy Updike

Oh my God. And did you see her without the burka? Did you confirm that he held up his end of the bargain?

Tara

Yes, yes.

Nancy Updike

And she came in for a week without it?

Tara

It actually hasn't been a week yet, but he said, I like it without it. I like her without it on.

Nancy Updike

Before I started doing a story about Custer Battles, a few people advised me against it. That company doesn't have a good reputation, a person pretty high up in the Coalition Provisional Authority told me. I ran all this by Hank, who copped to it immediately.

Hank

We got a bad reputation, probably as gunslingers. In some circles. My guys I'm riding with right now are coming back soon. I want to have Custer Battles back. But that's within, you know, the last month. Before that, there was some concerns.

Nancy Updike

Gunslingers was only part of what I'd heard. I told Hank a rumor someone had told me, that Custer Battles had engaged in a huge gun fight at their old hotel, the Al Hayat one night. And when the smoke cleared, it turned out they'd been firing at each other the whole time. No enemy, just Custer Battles guys hearing their own continued gunfire, and believing that meant they were still under attack. Hank confirmed that an event like this had taken place, but it was started by an initial RPG attack on the hotel. He told me what he'd heard from the guys themselves. He got to Iraq after it had happened.

Hank

There was over 3,000 thousand rounds that were launched from the hotel, except for an RPG attack. Everybody seen everybody in the streets, and everybody was hanging out their windows, emptying magazines into the shadows. And then the report was that we had four dead guys out there that we'd gotten.

And of course, I always ask-- I wasn't here then-- I'd say, did you bring the bodies in? No. Did you get a blood trail? No, they dragged him off. They scrubbed the blood trails up. Damn those people, those bastards. How are we going to win this war? They're so quick to sterilize the scene. Answer was, opening day jitters. Everybody's seeing shadows, everybody else is shooting like crazy.

Nancy Updike

To be clear, all this shooting, those 3,000 rounds fired from the hotel, went out into a residential neighborhood in Baghdad. It's likely that, as Hank believes, no one was injured or killed, in spite of all this firepower. Nobody came forward with bodies. But, and this is an important but, there was no formal investigation of the incident, not by the Iraqi police, not by the US military. And Custer Battles, though it did its own internal investigation, wasn't required to report it to anyone.

The Custer Battles people I met seemed to be steady men, not trigger happy. Hank, for instance, has never shot a person in his life, even after years in the army and months in Iraq. But all of them, like the employees of every other security company in Iraq, are operating in a context where the rules aren't clear. This is all so new, having over 60 private security firms, some with their own helicopters, their own heavy arms, operating in the middle of a war zone, not subject to the same rules as the military, but not necessarily subject to any other rules.

Right now, the US government is trying to invent some new guidelines. But they're not in place yet. In Iraq, there are no clear consequences for making a mistake, or for being reckless.

Hank

People are shooting and not being held accountable for shooting people? Ah, I suppose there's a lot of that going on. And I think in this brief period of time, just like in the Wild West, you control your own company. You can assert a little bit of control in your own little world and hold people accountable there. I guess, to answer your question, I'm not that concerned about it.

Nancy Updike

Hank's handle on the walkie talkie system is Krom, K-R-O-M, the god Conan prays to in Conan the Barbarian. Mighty Duck is the operations manager.

Hank

Mighty Duck, Krom. Just got a call from Rock. There's about 2,000 protesters at gates 1, 2, and 3 into the Green Zone. Break.

Mighty Duck

Roger.

Hank

They expect the crowd to get violent and to increase in size. Can you get word out via Arachna to our teams that are out?

Mighty Duck

Roger.

Scott

This protest on April 2 was the beginning of the violent struggle between the US and followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, the beginning of the deadliest month for US forces since the start of the war. It was also two days after four private security guys from a company called Blackwater were killed in Fallujah, and parts of their bodies hung from a bridge, a grinning crowd of Iraqis surrounding their burnt car. If they got Blackwater, a Custer Battles guy told me, it's scary, because Blackwater's the best.

Nancy Updike

Is there anything that could happen, that you know now as sort of that's your enough-is-enough mark?

Hank

Me personally?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, you personally.

Hank

No. You mean as far as things getting so bad I want to get out of here?

Nancy Updike

Yeah.

Hank

That would be cowardice, if things got bad and you wanted to get out. Wouldn't it? So even if I really wanted to get out, I probably wouldn't admit it to myself.

Nancy Updike

In the weeks after I left, right after Fallujah, the violence escalated, not because of the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, Hank told me. Those weren't the turning point. Even before the pictures were made public, there were three weeks, Hank said, when it was hard to go anywhere without getting shot at. Americans hunkered down in hotels, including security people.

When there were missions, his men would ask about whether they were really necessary, and the quality of the available intelligence. Four different times, men refused to go on missions, Hank said. And there were casualties. Elvis, who played guitar at the viking dinner, was shot in the leg when the hotel was sprayed with gunfire. Dave Shoe, the guy you heard at the beginning of the show, who got into that argument with the major at the airport, was ambushed in his car and shot in the head. He's OK.

And one of their British guys was killed execution-style, pulled from his car in a crowd and shot in the back of the head. People were badly shaken, Hank said. But no one's quit so far.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike. In the year since we first broadcast this program, Hank says that 11 Custer Battles security guys have been killed. And Custer Battles itself has been banned from getting government contracts in Iraq, after federal investigators found that it billed for all kinds of work that it never did, defrauding the war effort of at least $50 million, allegedly. The company denies the charges. The case is in court. Other private contractors face similar charges. Halliburton has $1.8 billion, that's billion, in disputed billings in Iraq. Coming up, when is a shovel not a shovel? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Green Zone.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, we're devoting our entire program to Nancy Updike's report on civilian contractors in Iraq. She was there in April 2004, and we first broadcast her story a year ago. But the situation with private military contractors working in Iraq hasn't changed that much. It's still one private contractor for every six US military personnel. To give you a sense of how unprecedented that number is, having that many civilians working alongside the US army in the middle of a war zone, back in the first Gulf War, it was one private contractor for every 60 military personnel. By some estimates, a quarter of all the reconstruction money for Iraq will go to these private security firms.

We resume Nancy's story at the Green Zone, which at the time was where the American operation in Iraq was based, A four-square-mile area in Baghdad, surrounded by 15-foot walls and barbed wire, with US soldiers guarding the only entrances. Lots of private contractors live or work there, alongside thousands of soldiers and government workers. Here's Nancy.

Nancy Updike

The Green Zone is a sprawl, like Los Angeles, a big, hot, paved sprawl full of humvees and SUVs, and men and women jogging along the wide roads in shorts. You never see that anywhere else in Baghdad. There's a disco at the Al Rashid hotel on Saturday nights in the Green Zone, karaoke on Friday's, taekwondo, an internet cafe, and a long outdoor flea market with Iraqi kids selling CDs, or movies and porn on DVD, fanny packs, makeup, satellite dishes, also a variety of Saddam-themed lighters and watches. It seems the final stage of a brutal dictatorship is kitsch.

A few restaurants have also sprung up in the Green Zone, including a Chinese place that is so obscurely located, it's like the gay bars of the 50s. You have to go with someone who already knows where it is. Otherwise, why would you ever walk through the chipped opening in the stone wall next to the hospital, and go down the long, rubble filled alley? And if you did, how would you know to make a left into the small, crab-grassy courtyard with plastic chairs and tables with boxes of tissue on them?

In any other part of the world, this place would not survive. In addition to its difficult-to-find entrance, the restaurant is right next to a helipad. But this place is thriving. It is a monument to the power of word of mouth, and to the desperation created by the fact that daily fare for most Americans in the Green Zone is meals at a cafeteria where food is prepared for thousands of people at a time. Dragon Chinese restaurant is also a testament to the axiom, which I'm coining here, that Kung Pao chicken will always find a way to exist wherever Americans are present.

Man

I want the Kung Pao chicken.

Restaurant Worker

Number eight?

Man

Yeah, number eight.

Nancy Updike

I've come to the restaurant with a group of guys who work for Fluor Corporation, which is under contract to the Army Corps of Engineers to help rebuild the electricity system in Iraq. Fluor asked me to use only the first names of their employees for their safety and that of their families. Everyone here has had a long day, mostly sitting at the airport in Kuwait waiting for a military transport plane to Baghdad. We begin drinking immediately.

Perhaps in the spirit of imagining ways to unwind, the Fluor guys start talking about whether it's true what they've heard about there being a brothel in the Green Zone. And if that's true, is it possible that a person could, as it were, order in?

Nancy Updike

You were told that for $50--

Man 1

Might have been $20, I don't know. I'd have paid-- I don't do it, but, somebody said it was either $20 or $50, you could have them brought to you, to your trailer. [LAUGHTER]

Man 2

Do some investigative reporting.

Man 3

And you let us know! And if you do find one, let me know what the address is.

Nancy Updike

By the time I was listening to this conversation at this restaurant, I had been in Baghdad two weeks. And I'd stopped counting the number of times a day when I thought, wow, it really is all men here.

Mike from Texas starts out on a small tear. He's 30 years old with dark blue eyes, and a blonde moustache growing down the sides of his mouth. He instigates the brothel conversation, then orders a bottle of Captain Morgan rum, for himself. But the evening surprisingly gets less rowdy as it goes on. It turns out Mike is a geek, though a kind I've never encountered before, a power plant geek. He's really, really into what he does: the job, the tools.

Mike

Absolutely, I want to see the kind of equipment they've got. Not only plant equipment and power producing equipment, I want to see what kind of cranes and logistical equipment we've got on site, and that sort of thing.

Nancy Updike

He wants to see the cranes. The conversation gets more and more inside. Shim stock. Couplings. Pipe guys versus mechanical guys.

Mike

And then you got civil guys that want you to set the pipe and set the machinery to the grade of the concrete. It's like, no, it don't work like that.

Nancy Updike

There are guys who come to Iraq who know guns, and do guns. And then there are guys who come to Iraq who are technicians, or specialists, in some area. Geeks. Sewage geeks. Water geeks. Refinery geeks. Electricity geeks.

Act Four. Electricity.

Nancy Updike

These kids are standing and waving and giving you the thumbs up. Does this happen every time you come by?

Lee

Oh, yeah. Yeah. When you don't see the children, there's a problem. If you don't see the kids that you normally see, you need to stop and find another way to it, because there's probably something out there that you don't want to get into, whether it's an IED--

Nancy Updike

IED, improvised explosive device.

Lee

--an ambush, one of 100 different things it could be.

Nancy Updike

Lee is unflappable. I know this, because 40 minutes before we saw these kids waving, we were in a traffic jam leaving Baghdad and got ambushed and shot at. It happened fast. My tape machine was off because Lee had been telling me about Fluor's security procedures and I'd agreed not to record that in order to keep them secret. As he was talking, we both saw a black BMW weaving aggressively in between the cars. We noted, without alarm, that this was, according to the private security guys in Iraq, the typical bad guy car. And it was driving in the typical bad guy way that private security guys were always warning about.

And then, suddenly, it cut right in front of the first car in our convoy, the one just ahead of us, and stopped short. And we heard the fake sounding pop pop of real gunfire, and saw Fluor's security guys in the car ahead of us get out and start shooting.

Lee

OK, OK. You're fine.

Nancy Updike

You can hear Lee and his driver reassuring me, OK, OK, you're all right, you're fine. The driver even tapped the glass to remind me we were in an armored car. I'd forgotten, but I don't think I would have been less frightened if I'd remembered. Cars were stopped all around us, ordinary Iraqis caught in a shoot-out. We were trapped too, until the BMW sped off and disappeared into traffic. Then we drove off. We never found out where the car went, who was in it.

Nancy Updike

I saw them come in front of us and stop.

Lee

You're all right. You're fine. [LAUGHTER] It ain't going to bother me.

Nancy Updike

[LAUGHING] Why, why are you laughing? We just got shot at.

Lee

I've been here for nine months. This is probably the hundredth time.

Nancy Updike

You've been shot at?

Lee

I've had RPGs across the roof. I've had 62-millimeter mortar rounds hit in front. I've had the back end blown out of two vehicles. Some IEDs.

Nancy Updike

Are you a drinking man?

Lee

Nope, nope. Doesn't bother me.

Nancy Updike

Just explain that.

Lee

I've worked in too many countries that's been in violent conflicts. East Timor. Vietnam. Cambodia. Chad. Peru, during the Shining Path. I mean, this is just a common occurrence.

Nancy Updike

Is this better or worse?

Lee

This is more intense here. We've not had any incidents with our people. We've had none of our Western ex-pats have been hurt.

Nancy Updike

Have any Iraqi workers been hurt?

Lee

Well, that's another story. That is, yes, that is a fact.

Nancy Updike

Lee asked me to turn the tape machine off again, though he said I could write down what he was saying. Six of Fluor's Iraqi security guards were killed when they blocked a suicide bomber's car. His own secretary, an Iraqi woman, was gunned down and killed in front of her house. He doesn't know why. He assumes it's because she was working for an American, him.

A power plant is magnificent. If you ever get a chance to walk around inside one, do it. It's a world on another scale. 60-foot fuel tanks and hundreds of yards of huge metal tubing. A transformer that looks like a multi-armed robot on its way out to crush houses. Cranes, just like Mike from the Chinese restaurant wanted to see.

Lee

This is a 450-ton crane. Biggest crane in Iraq.

Nancy Updike

Right here.

Lee

Right here.

Nancy Updike

You know that thing in your house that kind of works but is really falling apart, and needs to be just taken out and replaced, or at least given a total overhaul, but, unless it breaks down completely, you're just going to keep it the way it is? That is Iraq's entire electricity system. Lee spent over an hour spelling out its problems for me.

Even before the war, electricity would go on and off. Very little of the power grid was damaged during the war, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The bigger problem is that most power plants in Iraq are at least 20 years old, and were starved by Saddam Hussein of money and parts for years. During sanctions, the plants fell apart even more. Iraqis who were glad to see America get rid of Saddam Hussein, now don't understand why, more than a year after the US invaded, promising to make their lives better, they're still dealing with blackouts every day.

Electricity, after security, is the number-one frustration for a lot of Iraqis. Lee knows this. Fluor employees are working seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, trying to fix six plants at once, at each one, cramming work that should take a year or more into seven months. Everything is a problem. Every one of the 28 power plants in Iraq, like a snowflake, is a unique apparatus, jerry-rigged and retrofitted and carefully taped together by Iraqi workers for years. This means repair at every plant must also be unique.

All parts and equipment need to be imported. There's no manufacturing inside Iraq. There's also a worldwide shortage right now of exactly the big machines that are the guts of power plants. Plus, there's the looting, which everyone talks about, but it's hard to picture just how devastating it must have been, until you're standing in a 320-acre power plant, in which every gauge, valve, wire, small motor, and scrap of metal that wasn't nailed down or too heavy to move, was carted off.

Rick Moore, the site manager, a tall, thin man from Oklahoma who needs to use more sunblock, says anything left behind was junky at a very special and rarely seen level of junkiness.

Rick Moore

You know, even something as simple as a shovel, when we first got here, a shovel would be wore out, if you could really think that you could do that. But the metal would actually have been wore almost all the way down because they'd used it so much.

Act Five. Karen.

Nancy Updike

Karen Hahn is different from most people you've heard so far. She doesn't work with big equipment. She's never been in the military. She's from north of the Mason Dixon line. She's a she. And she loves being in Iraq. She loves it so much that she sounds happy, even if she's talking about screening bags at the Baghdad airport, which is the first job she had when she got here last summer. Here's why Iraq has made her so happy.

A year ago, she was a divorced, underemployed single mother who was deeply in debt and felt cursed. She'd get a job, and a few months later, like clockwork, the company or branch would go under. This happened six times. She got to the point where she would say in job interviews, if you hire me, your company is doomed. She was broke. She was depressed.

Finally, she got a job as a screener at the Greater Rochester International Airport. She'd only been doing it a few months when they asked for volunteers to go to Baghdad. Her hand shot up, to her own surprise. She flew out 10 days later, leaving her 11-year-old daughter with her ex-husband. Working for Custer Battles has changed her life. She's been promoted three times in the last year, and is now running their human resources department in Iraq, living a life she couldn't have imagined a year ago, and making bank.

Karen Hahn

It's incredible to me. I can't imagine my life getting any better than it is now with work and life experiences.

Nancy Updike

Wow.

Karen Hahn

Yeah. Well, that's why I wake up happy every day. Some people wake up and they go, oh, it's another beautiful day in Baghdad. But I mean it. That's another thing. My boss likes to tease me about the Baghdad weight loss plan, because I lost about 25 pounds since I've been here.

Nancy Updike

Get out.

Karen Hahn

No.

Nancy Updike

That's amazing. Why do you think that is?

Karen Han

Well, the lack of depression-eating. That always helps. Doesn't that sound funny? [LAUGHTER]

Nancy Updike

You came to Baghdad to relax and lose weight.

Karen Hahn

Yes. My Baghdad spa.

Nancy Updike

Karen knows it's a luxury to feel this way in Baghdad. She's living at the airport as well as working there, and it's a big, protected American enclave, like the Green Zone, surrounded by walls and guarded by soldiers, mostly insulated from the hazards of the rest of Baghdad. She tells a story about an Iraqi woman who flew into the airport. Her husband, child, and mother-in-law had just been killed. From a car bomb, Karen thinks.

Karen Hahn

She flies in. And we're just trying to get this woman, this horribly, horribly distraught woman. I don't know how she did it. A cry I've never heard before in my life. We just, you know, got their vehicles airside, and helped out with immigration quite a bit, and we sent somebody to go get their bags, and made it so that she hardly didn't have to move and had some privacy. Oh, I was crying. I was crying so much. But I still have to do my job. But I'm just doing it crying.

And they came back a week later to thank me, stopped to thank me. And I wasn't even working that day. And I got called down from my office to go and talk to them so that they could all give me hugs and kisses and thank me. And they said, I couldn't believe it! They said, I'm looking up and I'm crying, and all of a sudden, I see this tall woman wearing a gun, crying like a baby. And I said, I'm so sorry, I'm just so sorry. And I hugged and kissed all of them. And I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad that was me.

Act Six. Cops.

Nancy Updike

The major crimes unit in Baghdad is in a small, grungy yellow building, like an old public school, with corridors dotted with small offices, each one with a desk, and a chair, and a guy, no computers. Jerry Burke is here for an inspection. He's a 57-year-old former Boston beat cop and detective, hired by the Department of Justice to be a mentor and adviser for Iraqi police, to help them build a modern police force. He's exactly the guy you'd want to be in Iraq, doing his job and meeting Iraqis. He respects and understands police work and human rights laws. He's patient, knowledgeable, and, frankly, cuddly.

Jerry Burke

Unannounced, they don't know I'm coming.

Nancy Updike

The kind of cuddly, though, that believes in surprise inspections. The Iraqi police guarding the jail open a locked metal door and show us into an area that opens to a filthy bathroom on one end, and has two rooms off to the right, stuffy, but relatively clean, each with about 50 men sitting on blankets on the floor, staring at us.

Jerry Burke

This here is the most serious criminals: murderers, rapists, robbers, carjackers.

Nancy Updike

What are you looking for?

Jerry Burke

Just generally appearance, make sure none of the prisoners have been beaten, or seemingly injured while in custody. They do seem to be intimidated by the staff. They are getting on their knees.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, they are sort of getting in cross-legged position. So what do you take from that?

Jerry Burke

That the jail staff probably are sometimes forcing compliance.

Nancy Updike

And what do you do about that?

Jerry Burke

At this point, we talk to the General, just make sure none of them are being beaten. And I don't see any obvious signs of beatings, no bandages, no black eyes, no bloody scars or anything like that. I mean, this is good compared to before.

Nancy Updike

When he first got to Baghdad, Jerry says, beatings were common in jail and food was not. If your family brought you food, great. If they didn't, too bad. Now Baghdad jails are providing two meals a day, he said, the Red Cross standard. Overcrowding can still be a problem, sometimes over 100 men packed into a room that's full at 50. Jerry checks in with the commander, General Rod, confers about the prisoners, and we head to the next station.

Nancy Updike

So how did that inspection go? How do you think that station's doing?

Jerry Burke

I think it's doing very well. The prisoner count is down. The prisoner conditions are not as bad as they were. Station's cleaner. There seemed to be a patrol returning when we were leaving, there was a group of IPs coming back in--

Nancy Updike

IPs, Iraqi police.

Jerry Burke

--coming back in, that seemed to be coming back in off patrol or prisoner transport, perhaps. Under the previous regime, under Saddam's regime, they were discouraged, actively discouraged, from doing proactive policing, from getting out on the street. And the police did not do much in the way of investigations. They had no training, very little experience at it.

A couple of bombings, the Jordanian embassy, the UN bombing, even the bombing at our hotel, when the police arrived at the scene of these bombings, they pretty much didn't know what to, except pick up the injured people, and then stand around. They had no sense of forensic investigations.

Nancy Updike

There's more. Iraqi cops would never get weapons training under Saddam Hussein. They'd just get a weapon. No target practice. So they don't know how to shoot. Corruption was endemic, and many older cops see no reason to change.

Jerry has the tiniest translator possible, with a tiny voice. Osma is 27, but can, and sometimes does, pass herself off as a teenager. She has long, straight brown hair, a small face, and is draped in what looks like a massive, sleeveless shawl, but is, in fact, Jerry's special lightweight bulletproof vest from home. He had it sent over for her. She's too small to support the weight of a regular vest.

They have a routine. Jerry keeps trying to set her up with his driver, [? Hatten. ?] She amuses herself by making up stories that she tries to convince Jerry are true. For instance, an April fool's joke she played on him, which Jerry explains, with Osma shaking her head and correcting him.

Jerry Burke

She told me that she got engaged to someone she did not know, that her family had arranged the engagement, and that she was going to be leaving Iraq. I called her bluff on their engagement.

Nancy Updike

You knew that it was a lie?

Jerry Burke

Yeah.

Osma

No, no.

Jerry Burke

Of course I did, you're always--

Osma

I swear, Abu Matthew.

Nancy Updike

Osma calls him Abu Matthew, father of Matthew, his son's name. It's a term of respect and endearment.

Osma

This is not testimony.

Jerry Burke

It's not testimony? I knew you were lying.

Osma

No, you didn't.

Jerry Burke

Because you would not go in to an arranged marriage. You told me you would not let your mother and father pick your husband.

Osma

But, Iraq is going to be changed.

Jerry Burke

You told me that you would not do that.

Osma

I will be changed as Iraq will be. The whole country will be changed, so you don't think I am going to change my mind?

Jerry Burke

I just don't think you would let your mother and father pick your husband for you.

Osma

This is a new democracy.

Jerry Burke

She has freedom now to do whatever she wants to do.

Osma

Yeah. This is a new Iraq.

Nancy Updike

This is the idea of democracy as it's filtered down to the street, Osma said. Iraqis doing things they know probably aren't right, like driving down the wrong side of the highway, for instance, and saying, well, this is democracy, this is freedom.

[MILITARY COMMAND]

[DRUMROLL]

It's graduation day for the first batch of Iraqi police recruits to complete the new eight-week training program at the police academy in Baghdad. Almost 500 men and a few women in bright blue shirts and navy pants. They're heading into the most dangerous job an Iraqi can have, Jerry says. Nearly 500 Iraqi police have been killed in attacks by insurgents since the war ended. Two officers Jerry knew, leaders in reforming the police, were murdered.

Some police officers have joined the insurgents. Some refuse to fight them. One tried to suicide-bomb the chief of police. The recruits march around, then stop and stand at attention in front of a raised platform with a canopy over it, where Iraqi and American dignitaries are sitting. Jerry is up there, also Paul Bremer, who gives a speech that's translated into Arabic as he goes along. He starts out with the Arabic greeting, peace be upon you.

Paul Bremer

The men and women who are standing before us today are the line between civilization and barbarism.

Nancy Updike

Bremer is delivering this speech the day after the killing and mutilation of the four private security guys in Fallujah. He has to address this, and he does, over and over again.

Paul Bremer

Yesterday's events in Fallujah are a dramatic example of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism, that have put to shame the human jackals who defiled the streets of Fallujah. The cowards and ghouls who acted yesterday represent the worst of society.

Nancy Updike

The central idea of the speech, that the people who mutilated the bodies of four Americans in Fallujah represent the worst of Iraq, and you, the new police recruits, represent the best, isn't a bad point. But by framing every compliment as a contrast to Fallujah, and by never mentioning how big a risk these recruits are taking by putting on police uniforms, Bremer makes clear he's speaking more to the home audience, to the cameras that will replay clips in America, than he is to the people standing in front of him.

Paul Bremer

Taxpayers of the United States are providing almost $19 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq. We are spending billions of dollars to create--

Jerry Burke

The Marshall plan for Europe, George Marshall started writing that in 1942, even before we knew we were going to win the war in Europe. He was prepared for the reconstruction of Germany. So we didn't have that detailed a plan for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Nancy Updike

Jerry is frustrated at the pace of reconstruction, both overall and in the police system. It took six months to get the Coalition Provisional Authority to buy guns and bulletproof vests for Iraqi police, he says. Not enough Americans were brought in to work with the new cops. And there's still a lot of corruption among the old cops, not just bribery, but cases of rape, murder, and kidnapping. Just last month, shots were fired at his translator Osma's house. Rather than take it to the police, she decided to resolve it with a tribal mediator, which even Jerry thought would be more effective.

Act Seven. Hank Redux.

Hank

How's it going, men? It's a great day to be an American. I'm going to shoot some weapons.

Nancy Updike

The last day I spent with Hank, the Custer Battles guy from the first half of the show, we pulled up to a soldier who was guarding the entrance to a shooting range where Hank and the Custer Battles guys were heading to get some target practice. Just before we stopped to get out, Hank said--

Hank

We are the frontier freedom. We are the centurions that stand post on the long frontier of freedom.

Nancy Updike

This ended up being the theme of the morning, though it's the kind of thing Hanks says all the time.

Hank

Once again, in this small perimeter, freedom has been advanced. You can smell it, can't you? Right here. If nothing else, our time together, Nancy, you should learn to smell the freedom. Freedom is the smell of good loads that have just gone down range, the wafting of a powder burned in the cause, a noble cause.

Nancy Updike

There was a question I'd been trying to ask Hank the whole time I spent in Iraq about exactly this, the frontier of freedom, and his relationship to it. But I could never quite get it right, so I tried once more. And the question amounted to, do you ever have doubts about what you're doing here?

Hank

I mean, a soldier's got a pretty perfect world, because he just takes his orders. And at the end of the day, you just say, maybe, maybe they were a little crazy with that order, but I did my part. You know, I held the barricade.

Nancy Updike

Right, but that's, I mean, that's soldiers, and that's being in the army. And you're not in the army anymore. You're a civilian in a democracy. Don't you have questions along those lines?

Hank

Well, not right now, because I'm actually kind of back right now.

Nancy Updike

Back in a military mindset.

Hank

Yeah. But yeah, on a daily basis. I've got a son that's in the army. So you sit back at a TV screen when you're not here, and you're going, God, I hope they know what the hell they're doing when they send my kid in harm's way. And the sad part is, you spend your whole life with a kid protecting him, keeping him out of the street. Get out of the street! Put on your bicycle helmet. What are you doing? Then, next thing you know, you're watching him deploy to combat. You're going, God, what have I done?

So you've got an ambivalence, because he's out in the middle of the street. And you just hope, somewhere, that there's some tremendously bright guys that are sitting around a whiteboard and figuring it all out, and they have a plan. Unfortunately, every once in a while you meet one of the guys. And you should say, tell me you're his double.

[SIDE CONVERSATION]

I'm coming. I've only fired 20 rounds. I'm getting all 20 of those.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike. Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder.

In the year since today's program was first broadcast, the number of Iraqi police and military killed has climbed from 500, as Nancy said, to at least 2,200. And in fact the real number may be more like 3,000.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You know, you can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia, who is not afraid of your guff.

Lee

I've RPGs across the roof. I've had 62-millimeter mortar rounds hit in front.

Ira Glass

Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.