KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- It may look a little shabby. But when a soldier leaves a remote combat outpost where life is fragile and amenities are scarce, and convoys safely past IEDs and ambushes, and it's been weeks or maybe months since he's had a pizza or shopped for toothpaste or baby wipes, then the Boardwalk at Kandahar Air Field starts looking like the Mall of America
KAF, as it's known, is the major U.S. and NATO military hub and base in southern Afghanistan. The men who work at its secretive and bunkered command center say KAF has the busiest runway in the world, with 5,360 takeoffs and landings a week. No reason to doubt that, given the shrill whine of four-engine cargo liners, robot drones, helicopters and fighter jets in the air. Twenty-six thousand people have learned to live here despite the noise.
And they live relatively well, with air-conditioned offices and sleeping quarters, five massive dining halls, occasional rocket attacks, and all the dust you can inhale.
The Boardwalk is actually a boardwalk, a raised sidewalk of . . . boards, enclosing an acre of sand dust. Arrayed along the boardwalk are a kaleidoscope of shops, including T.G.I. Friday's ("Here It's Always Friday'') in its familiar red and white stripes, KFC, marked by a long line of hungry GIs; Mama Mia's Pizza and the French patisserie.
Along the boardwalk are a clutch of shops selling Afghan rugs, soapstone candlesticks, garish paintings and whatnots, electronics stores (cell phones and MP3 players are big sellers), a barber shop, an Afghan tailor shop with a ghastly suit in the window, and the Green Beans
Take your latte and sit on the bench here and watch the floor hockey and beach volleyball games being played out on the acre of sand that the boardwalk encloses. There are soldiers watching volleyball and there are soldiers watching women play volleyball. In the hockey rink, Canadians predominate.
And on come our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, some in workout shorts, gym shoes and T-shirts (M-4 carbines slung over their shoulders because this IS a war zone), strolling along clutching KFC milkshakes with the glazed look of glutted consumers one sees at dawn on the sidewalks of Las Vegas. And not just Americans
. Here come Norwegians, Slovaks, Germans, French, Albanians, Aussies, Italians, Armenians, Croatians and Canadians. Bearded guys with ropey muscles, fatigues with no insignia, and serious weapons strapped on must be Special Forces. Guys whose jeans and sagging beer bellies mark them as contractors.
At one end of the boardwalk the crowds pour down steps and onto the shoulder of the dirt road, flowing like a swarm of starving army ants toward the ultimate destination here: the PX, post exchange, i.e., store.
Push through the door and swallow hard: Here's a bit of the American Dream. Not much but enough. Towels and shampoo, cigarettes, and dip. There are souvenir ball caps (''Infidels R Us''), action-thriller DVDs, Afghanistan T-shirts, mini-flashlights, chips and jars of salsa, extension cords, flashlights, deodorant, ammo pouches and holsters, baby powder, headlamps, laptops, candy bars by the gross. Magazine racks: Maxim, Iron Man Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Hand Guns magazine, Men's Health ("Sex Tips!''), Army Times. Socks, backpacks, knives, canned Vienna sausages, batteries, cigars.
And happily exhausted shoppers emerge with their white plastic bags, snapping open that new can of Monster, sporting that new ball cap. They flow along the shoulder of the road, beside the traffic inching along in its own curtains of dust: a convoy of five armored personnel carriers, each with a scarf-swathed turret gunner sweating behind his .50-cal, two armored flatbed trucks piled with crates of ammunition belted down tight, dust-coated SUVs, a minibus of Marines, a giant forklift with hefting a pallet of shrink-wrapped cargo.
It's dusk now and the boardwalk's twinkling lights beckon; time for one more iced latte and one of the new cigars, and just sit and watch the passing crowds, gaze into the distance and think about nothing.
Convoys back to the war start leaving at 4 a.m.