In my 1950s childhood, Ripley's Believe It or Not was part of everyday life, a syndicated comics page feature where you could stumble upon such mind-boggling facts as: "If all the Chinese in the world were to march four abreast past a given point, they would never finish passing though they marched forever and forever." Or if you were young and iconoclastic, you could chuckle over Mad magazine's parody, "Ripup's Believe It or Don't!"
With our Afghan and Iraq wars on my mind, I've been wondering whether Ripley's moment hasn't returned. Here, for instance, are some figures offered in a Washington Post piece by Lieutenant General James H. Pillsbury, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, who is deeply involved in the "drawdown of the logistics operation in Iraq": "There are... more than 341 facilities; 263,000 soldiers, Defense Department civilians and contractor employees; 83,000 containers; 42,000 vehicles; 3 million equipment items; and roughly $54 billion in assets that will ultimately be removed from Iraq."
Admittedly, that list lacks the "believe it or not" tagline, but otherwise Ripley's couldn't have put it more staggeringly. And here's Pillsbury's Ripley-esque kicker: the American drawdown will be the "equivalent, in personnel terms alone, of relocating the entire population of Buffalo, New York."
When it comes to that slo-mo drawdown, all the numbers turn out to be staggering. They are also a reminder of just how the Pentagon has been fighting its wars in these last years -- like a compulsive shopper without a 12-step recovery program in sight. Whether it's 3.1 million items of equipment, or 3 million, 2.8 million, or 1.5 million, whether 341 "facilities" (not including perhaps ten mega-bases which will still be operating in 2011 with tens of thousands of American soldiers, civilians, and private contractors working and living on them), or more than 350 forward operating facilities, or 290 bases are to be shut down, the numbers from Iraq are simply out of this world.
Those sorts of figures define the U.S. military in the Bush era -- and now Obama's -- as the most materiel-profligate war-making machine ever. Where armies once had baggage trains and camp followers, our camp followers now help plant our military in foreign soil, build its housing and defenses, and then supply it with vast quantities of food, water, fuel, and god knows what else. In this way, our troops carry not just packs on their backs, but a total, transplantable society right down to the PXs, massage parlors, food courts, and miniature golf courses. At Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan, there was until recently a "boardwalk" that typically included a "Burger King, a Subway sandwich shop, three cafes, several general stores, a Cold Mountain Creamery, [and an] Oakley sunglasses outlet." Atypically enough, however, a TGI Friday's, which had just joined the line-up, was recently ordered shut down along with some of the other stores by Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal as inimical to the war effort.
In Ripley's terms, if you were to put all the vehicles, equipment, and other materiel we managed to transport to Iraq and Afghanistan "four abreast," they, too, might stretch a fair way around the planet. And wouldn't that be an illustration worthy of the old Ripley's cartoon -- all those coffee makers and port-a-potties and Internet cafes, even that imported sand which, if more widely known about, might change the phrase "taking coals to Newcastle" to "bringing sand to Iraq"?
For all the sand Iraq did have, from the point of view of the U.S. military it didn't have the perfect type for making the miles of protective "blast walls" that became a common feature of the post-invasion landscape. So, according to Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, U.S. taxpayer dollars floated in boatloads of foreign sand from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to create those 15-ton blast walls at $3,500 a pop. U.S. planners are now evidently wondering whether to ship some of the leftover walls thousands of miles by staggeringly roundabout routes to Afghanistan at a transportation cost of $15,000 each.