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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

THE SECOND LIFE OF BAGHDAD, PART II

Continued from Monday...

To get away from the Phantasie Isle Beach party, I take Dach Stryker to Games Park island, where board games like Mah Jong are played, except on boards the size of tennis courts.

Before he came to Iraq as a civilian, Dach was in the Air Force. "I enjoy the civilian contractor aspect of it better," he says. "For one, the pay is better. We are pretty isolated here, though, not a lot of fighting or anything." Behind us, as we talk, a game of gargantuan chess is being played out; man-sized pawns and other pieces hover in mid-air, for each move. I ask Dach what he thought, as a fellow civilian contractor, of Nicholas Berg's gruesome murder at the hands of Zarqawi's terrorist network.

"That was messed up," Stryker says. "But I heard that guy was kind of a freelancer... running around Baghdad looking for work or something. It was a little weird at first, but I got used to it, and the base is pretty safe. When I first got here the mortar attacks and alarms woke me up at least once a day. Now they are like once a week." Then again, while the frequency of attacks has gone down, they can still be lethal, when they come. "[W]e do have solders get hit and die here, unfortunately. One [mortar strike] hit a few of the Filipinos who do the laundry and killed two of them before I got here."

Meanwhile, I'm also showing Dach Stryker how to import digital photos into the world, and display them as textures on objects he creates, because he has some pictures from Iraq he wants to bring into Second Life.

"I have a pic of a medical Blackhawk chopper that I took," Dach says, "I am uploading it now."

I create a block, stretch it into a flat panel, and display an image of my own, on it.

"That pic of me in a Humvee is for a game called Tank War," I say, rather lamely, "which we can try out later."

After a few false starts, Dach finally gets a photograph of his office in-world.

"Wow," I say. "You live there?"

"Yeah man. Roughin' it. Thank God for the Internet, right?"

"So mortars have hit nearby?"

"Nah, not near me. About a mile away was the closest... [I]t is a huge base [and] they are mostly after the airplanes."

Earlier, I ask Dach if being in an expansive online world while confined on an airbase in the middle of hostile territory helps control his inevitable bouts of stir craziness, or just makes them worse.

"No, it's good on days off, to fill the time. I get some exercise if I get too stir crazy." There's a gym on his base, and an indoor pool. He doesn't have much interaction with the Iraqi people, or even coalition troops. "A few of the [Iraqi] locals work in the chow hall and whatnot," says Dach, "but not like the soldiers down in Baghdad. I almost feel like I am on an American base sometimes. Kinda weird... a little different than [what] I thought it would be, but it all depends on the location. I don't talk to the soldiers a lot. This is a logistic base-- a lot of supply stuff." So much of what he knows about what happens beyond the walls comes to him second or even third hand. "There is some stuff in the base paper about soldiers going into the villages and giving the kids toys and stuff, which is cool."

A cherub named Devlin Gallant walks up to us, takes a look at the tent, and turns to Dach.

"You in Iraq?"

"Yup," Dach answers.

"Military or civilian?"

"Civilian now."

The cherub chuckles. "CIA, then."

"No. Communication. Phones."

"That's where he lives now," I tell Devlin, referring to the tent surrounded by sandbags.

"Wow, Iraq looks like Second Life," Devlin Gallant decides. With that, the cherub trundles off, harp in hand, wings fluttering behind him.

Dach is trying to upload another image from his laptop in Balad to a server in San Francisco, but his satellite connection is starting to sputter. "Damn, keeps timing out."

Longtime resident Nergal Fallingbridge comes up to Dach, to advise. "[File] too big?"

"360K," says Dach. Not unreasonably big, but then, I remind him, "You're probably the first person to logging in from so far."

Fallingbridge turns to me. "Wait, Dach is overseas?" As Nergal asks that, I bring up his in-world profile, and notice that's he's a member of Liberals, Leftists and Lunatics, one of Second Life's largest groups-- many of whose members were part of the anti-Iraq war protest during the Jessie Wall conflict.

"Yeah," Stryker tells him. "Iraq-- north of Baghdad."

Uh oh, I think to myself, here it comes.

"Oh, cool," says Nergal. "Do you get decent throughput from over there?"

Dach doesn't answer, because he's finally managed to import a photograph of the laptop he's using to be inword. "That is the Alienware Area51m," he says, proudly.

"Nice!" Nergal Fallingbridge says, admiring the image. "[I] wanna new laptop."

I point out that it's an expensive piece of equipment to bring into a war zone.

"True," says Dach, "but I am [a tech worker], not a soldier. Plus, I had to have a good laptop, being stuck over here for a year."

* * *

On the 16th, a week after meeting Dach, he sends me an Instant Message.

"Well, we got mortared today, and a couple of soldiers died, and about 25 [were] injured. Did you see the news on it?" I saw the headlines about the deaths, yes, but I didn't know about the injuries, or where they occured, or how. "But were the soldiers on your base?" I ask.

"Yeah, [at] the PX about 3/4 miles from where I sleep... the crazy part is that I slept right through it."

I go in-world to talk more with Dach, and as it happens, I meet up with him right next to the headquarters of a group called the United States Embassy to Second Life.

"It's the embassy for a group that wants the residents to run a self-governed society based on the US constitution," I tell Dach, when he asks. (Or as the group's founder Alexander Jacobs explained to me earlier, to give “a taste of a virtual democracy to those players to yet to have it in their home country”.)

"Speaking of which," I ask Dach, "what do you think will happen when we turn over sovereignty to the Iraqis, at the end of this month?"

"I think that it is going to get a little worse before it gets better," Dach tells me, from Balad. "We will still be here to keep the peace for a while. I do not know much more than that. I just think that if we pull out the people of Iraq are open to invasion from neighboring countries."

I ask him to tell me more about the latest mortar strike.

"It is pretty messed up," he says, relatively unruffled, "but that stuff has been happening since I have been here. They usually miss most of the people and assets when they fire at us."

In any case, he didn't even know about it, until after he got out of bed. "It was my day off, and I sleep during the days anyway. I found out because my dad had e-mailed me, asking if I was OK." In other words, Dach learned about the latest fatal attack that happened in walking distance outside his tent, only after reading an e-mail sent to him from half a world away. And I found out the details of that attack, only because I was in-world when our man in Balad was online, to tell them to me. And so the troubles of the world outside find one more way to reach us here, deep in the datastream that covers the globe like a swarm of agitated fireflies.

I tell Dach that I'd like to make these talks of ours a regular thing, and he says he might do that. "[A]s long as I am still in the same place with Internet access." I ask him to take more photos of Iraq, as he can, and to bring them here, in-world. And meanwhile, to stay safe. Meantime, outside my home, the roiling debate on whether people like Dach should be where they are, at all, goes on; outside Dach's home, people are preparing to put their own point of view across with another mortar barrage, one more time. Eight days from now, things for him and the country beyond the walls may get worse, or better, or both.

And whatever happens, he has eleven more months in country to go.


UPDATE: Belated thanks of the highest order to veteran balloonist and submariner Cubey Terra, for tipping me on to Mr. Stryker. 6/25 - WJA

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