We're Not on the Pacific Coast Highway Anymore, TotoBy Dan Neil, Dan Neil writes "Rumble Seat," The Times' column on cars.
Two kinds of people arrive at Baghdad International Airport. One group walks out of the terminal and is met by bull-necked men wearing body armor, fingerless gloves, Oakley sunglasses and extremely cool guns. These are personal security specialists — though I like to think of them as death generalists — who warily escort their new charges to enormous, armored Chevy Suburbans parked only a few feet from the terminal. The White Zone is for liberators only.
The bodyguards form a phalanx around the new arrivals, to avoid — in the argot of the profession — leaving the "package" out in the open.
The second group steps blinking and squinting into the scalding sunlight of central Iraq to be met by, well, nobody.
These are Iraqis, foreign aid workers, journalists and other low-value targets — which isn't to say they aren't worth attacking. It's just that they aren't worth guarding.
At this moment visitors become aware of, become a part of, Baghdad's caste system of the protected and the unprotected, the powerful and the powerless.
For them — and me — the trip into Baghdad begins on a dusty, bullet-riddled bus with a smashed windshield being propped up with a large wooden board.
Veteran passengers, I note, put their luggage against the windows to shield themselves from snipers. As I wedge my Andiamo against the glass I wonder, just how ballistic is "Ballistic Cordura" fabric?
This is the moment when all of Baghdad's unescorted, naked-in-the-wind visitors ask themselves, "What am I doing here?" I am not a war correspondent. I am The Times' automotive writer, whose previous exposure to risk amounted to driving fast in a Ferrari.
I have come to Baghdad, believe it or not, to write about the automotive war — the Humvees and armored personnel carriers, the convoys and suicide car bombs.
It seemed like such a clever idea for a story, back in Los Angeles. The bus — to which some refer, in all seriousness, as the "courtesy" bus — takes me to Checkpoint One at the airport perimeter, along a two-mile route of blast walls, revetments and concrete guard towers that mark the fence line of Camp Victory, the U.S. military base on the airport property. Along the way, the bus wends through chicanes of Jersey barriers and through fields of pavement ruptured by mortar fire.
The bus drops passengers off in a fenced-in parking lot, a couple of acres of sand scoured out of a thorny plain, where they can meet their transportation into the city itself. The 15-foot concrete walls thwarting snipers end here. Now it gets dangerous. Let the cringing begin.
The Matar Saddam Al-Duwali highway connecting the airport to the city is one of the most reliably hazardous roads in the country, plagued with sniper fire, car bombs and "improvised explosive devices," known by everyone here as IEDs — though, in my adrenaline-fueled jocularity I call them IUDs and recount to my Iraqi driver the Food and Drug Administration's heroic battle against them.
I get no love.
I tell him I am interested in the technology of car bombs. I've never seen a car bomb, I say, but I once owned a Ford Pinto.
Baghdad is a tough room.
The shoulders of the highway are bruised black-and-blue in places where car bombs have exploded or convoys have been attacked and vehicles burned. Here and there, the fused remains of a burned-out civilian car have been pushed off the road. Military vehicles are quickly removed. Black banners eulogizing the dead hang from blast walls, near graffiti calling down the wrath of Allah on the infidels.
Well, honestly, that's only what I, in my paranoid state, think it says. It could say "Baghdad High School Rocks! Go Scorpions!" OK, I admit it. I'm scared. There is nothing, absolutely nothing funny about the death and misery crowding the streets of Baghdad, no jibe to turn away the waste of life and wealth.
I made up a little song.
It's a hell of a town.
The Tigris is up
Saddam's statue is down.
And people go around
Blowing holes in the ground.
It's a hell of a TOWWWN!
I'm humming this to myself as we drive into the central city. At several points along the road we are passed by white armored Suburbans and Toyota Land Cruisers, each crammed with Western contractors. My driver slows down to put some distance between us. What gives?
It turns out the big SUVs are targets. The insurgents know that key figures in the occupation — technical and military contractors, embassy people, Iraqi politicians — travel in hardened cars, almost exclusively SUVs. A military bomb-squad expert I talk to later calls them "IED magnets."
Ironically then, the safest vehicles on the road are not the bunkers on wheels but tatty, nondescript vehicles like the beater Mercedes I'm riding in, flying below the jihadi radar.
It just seems like one more way we have got it wrong in Iraq. If I were a poor Iraqi taxi driver, trying to nurse my orange-and-white Volkswagen taxi a few more miles for a few more dinars, I too might despise the shiny new Suburbans. I too might want to penetrate their armor of impunity.
And, wait … there is a place where simply driving an SUV is a life-threatening event? Where the suburban steamrollers are even more hated than in Santa Monica?
Could this be an unholy alliance between Abu Musab Zaqarwi and Arianna Huffington?
OK, now that's funny.