June 1, 2006  

View from the FOB

The perks and pitfalls of forward operating bases

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have introduced a large, new vocabulary of acronyms and abbreviations into the American experience of war: GWOT, GSAVE, IED, SVBIED, MOAB, OEF, OIF and on and on. But perhaps the most important for understanding the soldier’s experience during the war on terrorism is FOB, the term for the more than 100 forward operating bases where the majority of soldiers and airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan are stationed. FOBs provide the infrastructure of American presence in the theater, ranging from massive air bases into which men and materiel flow to the staging outposts from which daily vehicle patrols and combat operations are launched.

“Smith,” who was an air defense infantryman at FOB Warrior, the massive coalition installation built around Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, describes one of the most advanced FOBs at his blog, American at Heart. FOB Warrior contains a “major airport, … an Army and an [Air Force] gym, … a PX, … a [monthly, Iraqi-run] bazaar, … a Burger King, and a Pizza Hut, … the pool, … [KBR] laundry service” and, in case troops would rather use the same fabric softener as Mom, a self-service laundry.

The opposite end of the FOB spectrum is described by “X,” a signal corpsman who was sent in August to establish communications at FOB Red Falcon in Afghanistan. As he points out at Life in X Minor, “in the military, new is not necessarily a good thing,” as FOB Red Falcon had “no kitchen, no showers and no A/C.” The men there are left to sweat, stink and live on a diet of Meals, Ready to Eat.

The majority of FOBs in Iraq and Afghanistan fall between these two extremes. They provide facilities where the troops can eat hot chow, sleep in air-conditioned quarters and escape the reality of war through video games, DVDs and the Internet; all this in a setting where they are relatively safe from the insurgency, with the exception of occasional (and generally inaccurate) mortar attacks.

One great benefit of FOBs is they permit soldiers to maintain regular e-mail, instant messaging and voice over Internet Protocol telephony contact with their families and friends. Also, to the degree that we can enjoy the proliferation of in-theater war blogs, FOBs provide the sanctuary and technology that permit soldiers to conduct a vehicle patrol in the afternoon and post their thoughts on the progress of the war in the evening. Indeed, “back at the FOB” is one of the most common phrases one encounters in the milblogosphere.

In their monograph “CU @ The FOB: How the Forward Operating Base is Changing the Life of Combat Soldiers,” U.S. Army War College scholars Leonard Wong and Stephen Garras assess the impact of FOBs on the lives of the men and women in Iraq. Their assessment is overwhelmingly positive, finding that the ability for some 92 percent of soldiers in theater to maintain e-mail contact with their families has improved morale and post-tour resocialization. Wong and Garras acknowledge the potential detrimental effects on unit cohesion and operational security but suggest these detriments can be overcome through informed leadership.

The war blogs of soldiers in Iraq suggest an additional detrimental consequence of the FOBs, as the soldiers who go “outside the line” for patrols disparage their comrades who do not leave the base. Many milbloggers refer to these as “Fobbits,” in mocking reference to the homebound “Hobbits” of the fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings.” “SSG FEL” at Confessions of a Dangerous Mind … Iraq points out that his “animosity” toward those who remain “safely tucked behind the walls” springs from the naïveté that allows them to describe insurgent activity as insignificant if only one American soldier was killed in recent days. “Dreadcow” at Fun with Hand Grenades drips with disdain toward Fobbits, implying that because they never venture into the real Iraq, they do not understand anything more than the morale-boosting propaganda they read in Stars and Stripes.

Although there has always been mutual antagonism between the fighting “tooth” and the logistical “tail” in the military, FOBs allow a countrywide intermingling that is only likely to exacerbate this long-standing tension. They also place support troops in a position of intermediate danger when FOBs come under attack. In partial response, the Army has created a Combat Action Badge that will recognize troops on FOBs as having made contact with the enemy, albeit indirectly. As Scott Melton writes at Hello from Hell, “Even though I am a ‘FOBBIT,’ bullets and explosives do not distinguish between us and ground-pounders!”

The impact of FOBs on the war-fighting ability of the military in Afghanistan and Iraq raises more troubling questions. The forward operating bases have been quite secure, despite sporadic (and in some locations, regular) insurgent mortar fire against them. The only successful major attack against an FOB came in December 2004, when an insurgent masquerading as an Iraqi National Guardsman detonated a suicide bomb inside a mess hall at an FOB near Mosul, killing 22 and injuring 69. Likewise, a recent Taliban assault against a Canadian FOB in Afghanistan raises the prospect that FOBs, especially in Afghanistan, will become ever more prominent targets for the enemy. But to date, FOBs have provided high levels of force protection in a hostile environment.

As a base for offensive operations, FOBs have supported a continuous troop presence for such major successful operations as the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s securing of Tal Afar, Iraq, from its base at FOB Sykes in late 2005. But U.S. plans, as reported by The New Yorker Magazine’s George Packer, among others, call for gradually consolidating forces into some 14 massive “enduring FOBs” while shifting responsibility for smaller bases to Iraqi units.

Although this strategy makes sense if the Iraqi forces stand up, it is also tempting as an excuse for gradual withdrawal, even if Iraqi forces fail. War blogger Chris Bray, a UCLA history graduate student and soldier based at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, cuts to the quick when he observes at the group blog Cliopatra that the question is not the near-term American abandonment of Iraq but whether, given the focus on guaranteeing safe, comfortable lives in FOBs, they were ever really there: “It’s hard to imagine the eventual success of an effort that so far appears to be focused on getting Baskin-Robbins to the war zone, while the long-present civil affairs officers have to look in the handbook to see who lives in their area of operations.”

If the FOBs are to support U.S. war aims, they have to provide two essential attributes: presence and continuity. It is necessary that troop presence be maintained at high enough levels for stability to spread outward from the areas where it has been achieved. Using FOBs either to garrison troops without daily interaction with the Iraqi civilian population or as a means to shift troops to ever larger enduring bases will undermine U.S. goals. Likewise, unless successful operations are adopted into U.S. Central Command doctrine and passed among rotating troop units, local success will always prove fleeting.

FOBs, in sum, are a certain way to improve the lives of the men and women who are fighting the war on terrorism. They provide access to the technology that can bind them to their families and friends, as well as the broader community at home through blogs.

The outstanding challenge is for the military and civilian-defense leadership to guarantee that they are not used as a reason for the military to avoid the hard challenges of fighting a counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan or as a means to scale back the U.S. commitment in those countries before victory is assured.

• • •


How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:

• American at Heart

• Cliopatra

• Confessions of a Dangerous Mind … Iraq

• Fun with Hand Grenades

• Hello from Hell

• Life in X Minor

• The monograph “CU @ The FOB: How the Forward Operating Base is Changing the Life of Combat Soldiers” can be downloaded from the Web site of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a researcher in the Asian Studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.