Dispatches from FOBistan: The Latrine Graffiti of Kuwait

by Joshua Foust on 1/25/2009 · 3 comments

ALI AL SALEM, KUWAIT — Inspired by my friend Steven Featherstone’s photo essay on latrine graffiti in Kuwait and Afghanistan, I thought, “why not add to the mix?” I’ve been sitting in Kuwait for a while now, and going completely stir-crazy: Imagine being stuck in this vast, sleepless, dust-filled campground ringed by concrete walls and dotted with loudly buzzing diesel generators and flood lamps, only you’re not really sure what you’re doing there and you have to make twice-daily trips to the terminal to hope against hope you can grab a flight to your destination. It’s sort of like being in a prison camp, only there’s less to do. The waiting really gets to you.

Steven was stranded here for a week. I don’t have it as bad (maybe 2-3 days total), but I am not happy at being here alone. Transiting a place of transience sucks anyway, but wandering around by myself makes it tough to stay busy. I’ve gone through a few books, the PX doesn’t have my kind of magazine, and there is limited Internet access. My traveling companions have all found flights elsewhere, and I am at the back of the standby list.

Making things worse is my baggage. I’ve been outfitted with a rather substantial amount of gear—a full military issue, in fact, which is quite terrible overkill. My trip will last, at the most, three months. I really don’t need five pairs of boots and a full set of arctic gear, for example. The end result is three big duffle bags, a rucksack (a huge hiking backpack), and my laptop bag, combined weighing a little more than 260 pounds. There are a few perks, like the sleeping bag—no one seems to talk much about those, but they’re really nice. I’ve also learned that my three best friends are hand sanitizer, an inflatable travel pillow, and a shamWOW (no joke, it’s magic in the shower). Well, and my Nintendo DS. Without Mario Kart and Brain Age, I would perish. Anyway, Steven photos are of the very same latrines I now must use, and a part of that is the amusingly crude sloganeering.

One thing I have come to understand a bit more is the problem with contractors. I used to deeply resent the opprobrium leveled at the concept, since I’ve been a DOD contractor most of my adult life. I would consider myself to work hard, and really believe in what I do. A lot of the guys I’ve met here, though, are not that idealistic. The picture below captures some of the resentment soldiers here feel. And in that sense, I really understand—there are some tasks, like esoteric analytic requirements or unique and short term jobs, for which it is wholly appropriate to use contractors. But a lot of contractor jobs are redundancies, to the point where I’ve met several guys who worked the exact same job as a soldier they now do as a contractor… only now they make nearly three times as much money, get more vacation, and don’t have to wear a uniform and get yelled at.

In that sense, I can see how there is such resentment towards we who do not wear uniforms. On our way here, at a fueling stop in Bangor, Maine, there was a line of elderly folk—many vets among them—shaking our hands, military and civilian, and thanking us for our service. I felt deeply uncomfortable during the process. I have enormous respect for the commitment required to take 12 months out of your life to go risk yourself in a war. The crap I do? Three month tours with lots of privileges? I don’t deserve anyone’s thanks. Making matters worse: in some circumstances I’ll have to wear ACUs. I haven’t earned those, either.

Then again, I can’t really do anything to break the cycle. I’ve at least made friends with the servants here. “The who,” you might ask? I’m referring to all the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Filipinos who work as the base’s (and all of CENTCOM’s, it seems) second-class citizens. They don’t get bonuses like we do, but they work their tails off to send money back home to their families. They also seem to be held in utter contempt by a depressing number of people here, uniform or no. That idea, of importing servants to do our dirty jobs, may be just how things work, but it is a bit depressing.

I should be in Afghanistan soon. I hope. I’ll update things again when I am. In the meantime, go ahead and read Steven’s thoughts on these transition places, and what they say about us (and maybe what they force us to become). I really wish I could add much or say it better, but I can’t. And maybe soon I can sleep a little.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

Mark Hamm January 25, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Good post Joshua! When i was in college (pre-internet days) I always enjoyed the graffiti in the Science building toilets. I thought then someone should collect it all, most was very clever.

Eli January 26, 2009 at 6:54 am

Maybe you should stay there longer, to make sure you don’t miss any interesting graffiti from the more remote latrines!

Blazingsuth January 27, 2009 at 8:38 am

Not sure of you’re allowed to try this, your traveling orders might not allow for it, but if you can get a hop to Qatar, it’s a lot easier to get a hop to Afghanistan.

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