In Baghdad's Green Zone, mortar shells come flying in so regularly that the Americans working there run office betting pools on when the next will arrive.
Other than that, life in the Green Zone is a lot like life in an American small town, William Langewiesche reports in "Welcome to the Green Zone," a long, fascinating article in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
For more than a year, Americans have heard countless references to the Green Zone, aka the International Zone, where American officials and the new Iraqi government are headquartered, without learning much about what life is like there. But Langewiesche, a National Magazine Award-winning reporter, has a gift for conveying the feel of a place.
"After standing in a long, tense line and undergoing two body searches and identity checks," he writes, "you pass through the pedestrian gate and find yourself suddenly among green lawns, where office workers in combat boots stroll to lunch or simply wait at one of the shaded bus stops, chatting about NFL football, a General Motors recall, or some sitcom they saw on television last night. When the bus arrives, it is driven by an aging, affable Texan and he's got Alanis Morissette wailing psychobabble on Armed Forces Radio with the air conditioning cranked up really high."
Before the Americans invaded, this was the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's government -- "villas, palaces and monuments set in a parklike expanse that spreads for four square miles inside a meander of the Tigris River," Langewiesche writes.
When the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003, they set up headquarters in those palaces and villas, including the villa where Hussein's son Uday kept his pet lions.
In another part of the Green Zone, about 5,000 Iraqi squatters moved into buildings, and they're still there, living in a district that Langewiesche calls "the Green Zone's slum."
For the first few weeks in the Zone, life in the bomb-damaged buildings was primitive, with sporadic electricity, no air conditioning and precious little booze, except what was found in Uday's villa. But soon, American know-how made the place pretty comfortable for the roughly 5,000 Americans who live there.
"They live in large, sandbagged compounds or prefabricated, factory-furnished housing modules, which are actually modified shipping containers," Langewiesche writes. "They eat standard American food, almost all of it brought in from abroad. . . . They also have satellite TV, computers, DVDs and telephones with U.S. area codes, which function as if they were in New York or Virginia, and thus require people to make long-distance overseas calls, even to the city just next door."
In the early days, the Americans frequently left the Green Zone and ventured into Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. But since the anti-American insurgency escalated last spring, such trips have become exceedingly dangerous and most Americans seldom leave the Zone.
"Why bother?" Langewiesche writes with acid sarcasm. "A more prudent choice was to stay in the zone and require the Iraqis to come to you if for some rare reason you really needed to deal with them face-to-face."
The last scene in the article is a dry but devastating portrait of this year's Fourth of July party in the Green Zone, held about a week after the turnover of power to the new Iraqi government. There were patriotic songs, horseplay in the pool and lots of drinking.
"I saw no Iraqis there at all," Langewiesche writes. "I walked through the crowd looking at the characters, wondering as I had before what this enterprise was all about."
Are you mad as hell about the plague of frivolous lawsuits that's ruining this great country?
So was I until I read "False Alarm," by Stephanie Mencimer in October's Washington Monthly. It's an eye-opening expose of how the insurance industry -- aided by gullible reporters -- has hyped a "lawsuit crisis" by disseminating dubious stories of idiotic lawsuits.
Remember the story of the guy who won a $500,000 lawsuit against a lawn mower manufacturer after he hurt himself while using the mower as a hedge clipper? It never happened.
How about the guy who won a $300,000 jury verdict against a ladder manufacturer after he fell off a ladder he'd set in a pile of manure? Pure baloney -- there was no manure. And the story of the woman who threw a drink at her boyfriend in a restaurant, then won $100,000 suing the restaurant because she slipped in the puddle and hurt herself? More baloney.
All those stories were reported in the mainstream media and, Mencimer says, all were either totally fictitious or wildly distorted.
These horror stories are hyped by insurance industry groups and their allies to convince Americans that we're in a "lawsuit crisis." Actually, Mencimer writes, the rate of lawsuits has been falling since 1975, and the median jury award to plaintiffs who manage to win has dropped from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000 in 2001.
Mencimer makes a convincing case, but perhaps she should have gone deeper into the much-publicized issue of medical malpractice and its effect on doctors, particularly obstetricians.
In the presidential debate Friday night, President Bush cited malpractice lawsuits as a key factor in the rising cost of medical care. President Bush wouldn't mislead the American people, would he?
They Recline Among Us
Remember the Raelians?
They're the cult of UFO believers who announced in 2002 that they'd cloned a human -- a boast they failed to prove to the satisfaction of scientists.
Now, Playboy has uncovered and exposed this group, literally. In its October issue, Playboy has published several pages of photos of naked female Raelians, along with quotes on their beliefs, including this one, about their "sensual meditation" practice: "Be careful -- you may end up getting an orgasm from the strawberry you're eating!"
After long and careful study of both the pictures and the quotes, I have come to a simple conclusion: The bodies -- worth cloning. The minds -- maybe not.