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Pop culture helps GIs pass the time

Books, music and movies are all welcome reminders of home for the military in Iraq.

January 29, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

HADITHA DAM, IRAQ — There is no doubt that when the American military goes to war, American popular culture tags along.

Spend six weeks with the Marine Corps in the field and you'll see. Paperback novels, movies on DVD, video games and music in various delivery systems are all so common you'd figure they were standard GI gear. The modern Marine doesn't go anywhere without his daily dose of entertainment-style Americana.

Take books. Please.

The political debate is whether the U.S. sent enough troops to Iraq. There is no debate that it sent more than enough paperbacks. Every base, even forward bases where the living conditions can generously be called austere, is swimming in books -- largely sent by folks back home.

Marines are readers.

A few observations on their tastes: They're big on war stories, sci-fi and adventure stories but not so eager for mysteries and courtroom dramas. The American fighting man -- and woman -- is simpatico with Robin Cook, Stephen Coonts, Stephen King and W.E.B. Griffith.

But hundreds, maybe thousands, of copies of Sue Grafton, Scott Turow and Ann Rule are sitting unread from Baghdad to the Syrian border. Also, who is the well-meaning American who thought the troops needed "Amy Vanderbilt's Book of Etiquette"?

One Navy chaplain devoured a Louis L'Amour cowboy novel on a bumpy overland convoy in the back of a 7-ton truck. High-brow stuff is represented too. At the library at the base at Al Qaim, a corporal was reading Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." He tried in vain to strike up a discussion on Stendhal's "The Red and the Black," but the years have been too many since I tackled that one.

There was the gunnery sergeant who picked up a copy of Bob Woodward's "The Commanders" and put it down like it had burned his fingers. He thought it was fiction, he said, not a recounting of the 1991 Persian Gulf War: "Been there, done that."

Music mostly breaks down into country-western and rap, the two favorites of American Forces Radio, which has a strong signal everywhere except along the Syrian border. There, you can get a station from Damascus that alternates Arabic ballads and rap. Go figure.

Movie lovers

The consumption of most of these cultural ties to home is done in private, with small screens and headphones. But movies are often communal and allow a peek into the combat zone zeitgeist. In a crowded room at the airstrip in Fallouja while waiting for a helicopter, I watched "American Pie 5: The Naked Mile" -- several times. The helicopters were late. Really.

Marines in an outpost in a farming community outside Fallouja were partial to "The Lord of the Rings" and the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" about an Army unit in World War II. Taking a break from war, they decompressed by watching a war movie. The explanation they offered was that "Band" offered a certainty and finality that their own war does not -- too many variables in Iraq and Washington.

And even among Marines, everyone's a critic. A young Marine outside Ramadi rushed back to his Humvee and explained that he had just bartered away a Sylvester Stallone DVD for "Godfather 3." A colleague upbraided him with the notion that the third installment can't compare to the first two in the series.

The language of Marines shows the impact of the entertainment society. While it may never rival World War II's "Kilroy Was Here," the slogan of the Iraq war seems to be "Git R Done," the catchphrase of blue-collar comedian Larry the Cable Guy. The thought adorns vehicles, buildings and even the inside walls of portable toilets. The phrase "Livin' the Dream" is popular here too -- big both as a bumper sticker on vehicles and doors and as a sardonic expression of just how wonderful the troops find Iraq. Among other antecedents for the phrase is a popular country-western song.

Sometimes pop references creep into the official or unofficial names given to military operations. When the Marines went hunting for an Iraqi sniper of diminutive stature who had killed or wounded several troops the operation was called "Get Shorty." And yes, Shorty was gotten.

For cultural incongruity, the prize belongs here at the massive dam built by the Soviet bloc in the 1970s for hydro-electric power. Its innards have fungus on the walls and smell of sulfur. Marines and a battalion of starchy-uniformed Azerbaijanis guard the dam from insurgent attacks. On the way to the chow hall on the seventh floor -- all stairs, no elevators -- the tones of a mellow but insistent saxophone wafted through the air. The sax could be heard down the hall and around the corner, drowning out the sounds of water rushing over the spillway and the ever-present whining of decrepit machinery.

The jazz joint

Turning the corner into the chow hall -- a cavernous, bone-chilling, poorly lighted place where troops eat hot meals for breakfast and dinner -- the assistant chow hall director had hooked his music collection up to the oversized speakers that are generally used to broadcast ESPN and CNN.

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