Come for the war, stay for the swimming pool: the Green Zones of Baghdad and Mogadishu as heterotopic spaces

This blog post is part of the Experience of War conference, March 24, 2023, funded by the WARFUN project.

There has been significant scholarly interest in the militarised and enclaved spaces of international intervention and war(Chandrasekaran, 2010; Fisher, 2017; Weigand and Andersson, 2019). Afghanistan’s “kabbuble”, Baghdad’s ‘Emerald City’, or Mogadishu’s airport ‘green zone’, are among the most well-known examples. Yet from Bamako to Juba, sprawling networks of fortified international compounds have proliferated, providing full-spectrum ‘life support’ facilities to international staff (Duffield, 2010; Autesserre, 2014). Indeed, the fortified enclave seems to be an integral facet of contemporary western intervention in war zones and post-conflict societies across the globe. 

The literature has importantly criticised this bunkerisation for undermining the stated aims of liberal intervention and/or humanitarian aid, the radical inequality it produces and sustains, the coloniality of these spaces, commodifying intervention, attributed it to remote warfare, or as a physical manifestation of the ‘forever war’. Less attention, however, has been given to the lived experience within these so-called green zones, to what the military personnel actually do within them. In particular, the overlooked yet – we argue – salient role that leisure, entertainment, and recreation play in how soldiers and military contractors negotiate the frustrations and boredom of life within the “bunker”, and thus, ultimately how the continuation of Western remote warfare and liberal interventionism are enabled.

Drawing on comparative insights from fieldwork in the green zones of Mogadishu and a week-long stay at the US operating base Union III in the heart of the Green Zone in Baghdad, as well as over 80 interviews with soldiers, security contractors, military advisors and trainers, this blog post will explore the tensions, pleasures and frustrations of contemporary life in the green zone. Whilst green zones tend to be thought of as sterile, austere featureless ‘non-places’ (Auge, 1996), we argue that they may rather be seen as distinctive, heterotopic social worlds (Foucault, 1986). They are alternate spaces both unreal and absolutely real, near utopias where palm trees, swimming pools and continuous electricity set them apart from the war-torn societies they are ostensibly part of, while the watchtowers, checkpoints, T-walls and container homes simultaneously create prison-like spaces of confinement. As heterotopias they uncannily combine incompatible spaces such as the exotic holiday destination and the prison camp. We argue that in these heterotopic sites significant energy and investment is expended on keeping up the excitement and routinize recreational activities to stave off the boredom and frustration that results from the bunker condition. Leisure facilities and activities have thus expanded to the extent that bunkerised spaces have, for some, become not just tolerable, but even fun or comforting to be in. 

Bunkerised life

Danger. Combat. Explosions. All things that do not typically happen in the green zone. Many soldiers and military contractors deployed to Baghdad and Mogadishu’s green zones, at first had strong expectations about life in a war zone and were disappointed to find themselves confined behind blast walls with minimal contact with the outside and limited opportunities to travel. At Union III in Baghdad’s Green Zone about 75 % of the military personnel are not even allowed to exit the military camp – i.e. entering the wider Green Zone – and the camp is generally referred to as “the open prison”. As the dreams of adventure recede, the frustration that they will not get to ‘experience’ Mogadishu or Baghdad or any form of ‘real’ warfare sets in. In Mogadishu, the blame often lands on risk-averse or inept bureaucracies in their home countries, or in the case of Baghdad the very conservative US intelligence evaluations that the Coalition forces are dependent on.   

Green zones are not only populated by soldiers and military contractors. They are crammed with people working for different organisations, under different mandates, bureaucratic responsibilities and risk thresholds. In Mogadishu, for example, security contractors enjoy far more freedom to move within the green zone and outside of it, relative to many military contingents who have stringent force protection protocols on mobility and security. In Baghdad any trip from the military base to the wider Green Zone requires four armoured vehicles and 12 men from the Force Protection Team. It is evidently extremely resource-demanding and very few -often the most senior commanders – are therefore allowed to enter the wider Green Zone. Life within Union III has become so bunkerised that even the Green Zone is considered going “outside”.

Negotiating the confinement 

For many, the gap created by the disjuncture between expectation and reality is filled by routine. You circulate from one compound to the next, eat in the same canteen, with the same people, stay in the same air-conditioned container. In Baghdad, cleaning is on Sundays and movie nights on Thursdays. In Mogadishu, ‘make your own pizza’ night is Friday evening’s entertainment. Hard physical training also offers a way to fill time. In Mogadishu, there are regular touch rugby games and on weekend afternoons, the beachfront is packed with runners, who jog up and down like hamsters in a cage. At Union III in Baghdad, most of the military personnel spend the evening jogging in circles along the outer walls of the small camp. There are competitions over who can run the most kilometers during their six months deployment. “You get your name on the board if you reach 500 kilometers”, explains a Croatian soldier from the Force Protection team, “I’ll get there, and maybe I’ll go for the next level of 840 kilometers, there is really nothing else to do”. Working out may also offer a substitute for ‘real action’ and a way to engage the hyper masculinity of the military. At the intermittent quarters of the force protection teams, young men were spending hours pumping iron in front of the mirror – and each other. Even the Lieutenant General commanding the Mission, despite being close to the age of retirement, was known to do heavy weightlifting every morning with his team.

Telling war stories from other conflict zones, or – if you can –  about journeys ‘outside of the wire’ can similarly act as substitutes for “action” and as meaning creating practices. At Union III every week the military advisors of the coalition forces would meet for an informal talk in the evening.  The Finns for instance would share a story of the famous sniper Simo Häyhä fighting the Russians, and the Danes would relate the notorious “Operation Bøllebank” a Danish led battle against Serbian forces in the Balkans in the 1990s. Their present rather uneventful deployment could thereby be linked to a continuous history of heroic war-making and humanitarian interventionism. Others had stories of the occasional missile attacks from Shia militias into the Green Zone, at times countered by exciting noise from the American C-Ram. 

Those dreaming of getting outside the walls would need to come up with creative exit plans. A flyer on a bulletin board in Union III ironically asked “Tired of life in the open prison? Come teach at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense”. Over time, the desire to transgress the boundaries of the green zone may diminish. One individual who had been circulating in and out of Mogadishu’s green zone, boasted of having been there for almost a year and having never spoken to a Somali. Many questioned why they were even here, sat in a container, when they could be doing exactly the same job in Nairobi. A Canadian lieutenant in Baghdad similarly revealed that he was offered a trip outside (i.e. the Green Zone) by his commander “but why should I” he shrugged. Yet many were longing for a bit of light and a glimpse of the outside. They were going to the rooftop of one of Saddam Hussein’s former government buildings in the heart of Union III to escape the darkness and confinement of the T walls. Here they would get a peek of Baghdad city, the clocktower and Saddam Hussein’s two famous crossing swords. This would be the closest most would ever be to Baghdad. 

Can camp life be entertaining?

The problem of frustration and boredom – and simply having too much time to spare in a confined space – is of course nothing new to the military. As Meredith Lair has observed in her book on consumerism and soldiering in Vietnam, the US war machine went to great lengths to provide entertainment and recreation in an effort to stave off dissent and trouble-making. 

In present Baghdad, the US military similarly provides mainstream American entertainment for the coalition forces, from a sneak premiere of a Star Wars movie to a concert with the country singer Toby Keith. In Mogadishu, entertainment is mainly provided by market forces. It has now become a business with strong parallels to (war) tourism (e.g. Lisle, 2016).In one securitised hotel, container homes are organised into carefully arranged ‘streets’ named after famous London roads, such as ‘Covent Garden’ and ‘Baker Street’, invoking a caricatured ‘Britishness’ reminiscent of colonial bourgeois cultures, or British tourist enclaves in Spain. The number of swimming pools, gastro-pubs and hotel bars has also proliferated in Mogadishu’s green zone. A common quip was that you could now do a pub crawl around the green zone, due to the proliferation of drinking establishments – in a Muslim country, where alcohol is strictly forbidden. One side of the green zone is a seafront that has become a private beach for the international community. A liminal space of leisure and escapism, the beach is where UN staff may be found barbecuing imported Italian meats, security contractors might go spear fishing, or peacekeepers paddle in the water. Outside the airport, one can buy shark jaws and other curios to take home as souvenirs. In Baghdad diplomats and government officials still meet at al Rasheed hotel overlooking the palm trees and the Tigris river, as they have ever since the US-led invasion in 2003.  

As bunkerisation has fortified, entertainment and routinization seem no less important than during the Vietnam War. As heterotopic spaces the green zones enfold multiple imaginaries of place into one compressed space, thereby juxtaposing seemingly incompatible lived experiences – close to both tourism and prison life – yet sufficiently tolerable to make the denizens remain. This shows how war – often seen as an exceptional and radically contingent event – is in fact a part of everyday life. Boredom and pleasure-seeking are as much aspects of contemporary war as the thrill of combat is. Many may have come for the war, but most stayed on for the swimming pools.


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