The small spiral notepad by Spec. Wes Stracham's cot contains densely scribbled notes, most in a blocky script in English, others looping right-to-left in an unsteady Arabic. Stracham has been consulting the pad in spare moments, practicing pronunciations, puzzling out key Arabic words by sight, quizzing himself on meaning.
"Salem nefsak. That means surrender," said Stracham, a heavy-equipment operator with the 82nd Airborne Division's 618th Engineer Company. "I don't know how I'd ever get to use this stuff, but I guess it's good to have it in my head just in case."
With war seeming closer every day, several hundred U.S. soldiers have been attending informal language courses conducted by the handful of Arabic speakers in the camp.
Members of military police units offered another form of cultural orientation: how to perform body searches of civilians in a Muslim culture.
"The key point is to not search females in the open in front of other guys, unless you're certain you can control those guys if they decide they don't like the way you're treating that female," said Capt. Koby Langley, a judge advocate general with the division's legal team.
Days after commanders here declared the division ready to airdrop into Iraq, this kind of brushing up is a common way to kill spare time in a camp where things are effectively on hold. The paratroopers have heard stories from Persian Gulf War veterans of mass Iraqi surrenders, and the urban warfare drills they recently completed have led many to believe they could come face-to-face with Iraqi troops or civilians.
The camp's five linguists, each of whom completed a 63-month Arabic course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., have distributed laminated cards that contain Arabic translations of phrases such as "Are there armed men here?" and "Do not resist."
The problem with the cards, however, is that they do not indicate how the transliterations should be pronounced, said Spec. James Cobb. The 23-year-old was among those who tried to get into the camp's chapel tent to hear the linguists talk about the basics of Arabic pronunciation and offer a cursory cultural overview, but he couldn't get in.
Cobb, a medic, said he doubted the Iraqis could decipher meaning through his Tennessee accent. "I don't know that they'll understand us when we get over there."
In interviews, the linguists said they now spend most of their time monitoring radio communications, but that job description could change wildly in the event of war. Two of them are slated to become part of an interrogation team. The others could be lent to any of the division's units.
"We don't have a ton of Arabic speakers here, so we kind of run around doing whatever's needed," said one of them, Sgt. Seth Harvey.
If the 82nd is among the first units going into Iraq, it could get Arabic-speaking reinforcements, according to the division commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr. With the lopsided realities of supply and demand, such allocations are likely to be decided only at the last minute.
"We've already put in a request that should we go in early, we get linguists delivered to us," Swannack said.
The division's military police would likely be on the front end of prisoner-of-war and civilian interactions. One military police sergeant who served in the Gulf War said that in some ways the Iraqi soldiers would be easier to handle than civilians, with or without the practiced Arabic phrases translated as "calm down" and "we will help you."
"They're in the military, which means they at least have some discipline," said the sergeant, who did not want to be identified. "Civilians can be trickier."
The processing of civilians would be coordinated by a five-member civil affairs team that has been attached to the division. Because Arab-world specialists are at such a premium, the division's civil affairs team is made up of specialists from other regions, including Africa and East Asia.
"A lot of the Middle East specialists are in Afghanistan," said Capt. Thomas Luft, a Korean linguist who was transferred to the division's civil affairs team last week. "Those guys have been working very hard."