Latrine Graffiti, Kuwait and Afghanistan

American soldiers’ restroom graffiti in Afghanistan and Kuwait
Bagram Air Base, near Kabul
I stumbled off the dark, curtained bus into the blinding desert sunlight. A sergeant shouted for volunteers to unload gear. I lit a cigarette in the marginal shade afforded by a mesh tarp staked out in the sand and watched as soldiers from the 82nd Airborne tossed heavy canvas duffel bags into heaps from the backs of trucks. The temperature was already 45 C, and it wasn’t quite 9am.

A young Marine with an M-16 slung over his shoulder pulled a bottle of water from a nearby pallet and unscrewed the top. I recognized him from the bus. He’d sat in the front seat, one of two designated shooters who were authorized to return fire in the unlikely event our bus was attacked on the highway.

“Hey shooter,” I said. “Not much to shoot at in Kuwait.”

He swished the warm water around in his mouth, spat into the dust, and grinned. “Yeah, but I’m ready,” he said. He was nineteen years old, and this was his first tour. He was headed for Iraq. I was headed for Afghanistan, on assignment for Harper’s Magazine. I snapped a photo of him, M-16 in one hand, bottle of water in the other, his chin tilted up like a boxer about to enter the ring.

We dragged our gear to a fleet of buses that took us to Camp Ali Al Salem, an airbase not far from the border with Iraq. Ali Al Salem was a transition point for soldiers rotating into and out of the war zone. Unlike the bases in combat areas that belonged to particular military units, Ali Al Salem didn’t belong to anybody. It had the listless atmosphere of a rural bus station. I didn’t expect to be there more than a day or two, but I was stranded there for a week.

Huge concrete blast walls ringed the camp. Inside the walls were row upon row of tents laid out in a grid, with wide, sandy lanes between blocks. Soldiers wandered from their air-conditioned tents to the air-conditioned mess hall or the air-conditioned MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) buildings where they played ping-pong or checked their email. The sound of Ali Al Salem was a chorus of clicks and whirs as hundreds of air conditioning units cycled on and off, undercut by the steady drone of diesel generators the size of minivans.

It was late July, and hot. The temperature rose above fifty degrees during the day. The steel doorknobs on the latrine and shower trailers were hot to the touch. I spent a lot of time in the latrine trailers, reading the graffiti I found there because I had nothing better to do. Much of it was arcane, full of military acronyms and slang that only soldiers could understand. But one main theme stood out: soldiers were being stretched to the limits of endurance.

A few months earlier, in April 2007, the U.S. Department of Defense had extended combat tours from twelve to fifteen months. In the graffiti, soldiers expressed their growing fatigue and anger—mostly with each other. When they weren’t scribbling Chuck Norris jokes or questioning the fighting ability of other units, they were slamming soldiers who dared give voice to their dissatisfaction.

I can still vividly recall the upper case ballpoint handwriting of one soldier who listed the number of men killed and wounded in his unit. He didn’t plead for sympathy or prayer; he simply wrote down the numbers. The response was harsh for its tone of glib detachment. “Should’ve worn their eye-pro (short for “eye protection,” or goggles) one soldier wrote. Another soldier suggested that the wounded and killed should’ve trained harder, as if any soldier in the war had been trained to survive an IED blast, or to avoid getting shot by someone who looked to them like every other Iraqi civilian.

I began photographing the graffiti because I realized that it would soon be erased by the cleaning crews who regularly swabbed the stalls. I made a point of visiting every latrine trailer on base, squeezing into more than 100 stalls and shooting in the dead of night to avoid suspicion. The air conditioning in some of the trailers had broken down and the oppressive heat and stench made me dizzy. The graffiti you see here is almost certainly gone now.

I got a C-17 flight from Kuwait to Bagram Air Field (BAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I spent three days. BAF was similar to Ali Al Salem insofar as it was a point of transition, except it was much larger, and it was set amid a bustling city, separated from it by razor wire, dirt-filled Hesco barriers, and concrete blast walls. Some areas of the base had yet to be cleared of Soviet-era landmines. The thousands of soldiers stationed at BAF, including many international troops, lived in metal Conex trailer ghettos, or in low concrete buildings behind gates and armed guards.

Most soldiers, however, passed through BAF en route to remote bases in the Afghan countryside. At BAF they stayed near the terminal in tents for a night or two, and relieved themselves in rows of Port-a-Johns. The graffiti I found in those Port-a-Johns was specific to soldiers serving in Afghanistan. For instance, ISAF—International Security and Assistance Force, or NATO soldiers in Afghanistan—took quite a beating. But overall, it shared the same form and spirit of the graffiti I’d read in the latrine stalls at Ali Al Salem. All soldiers were suspicious that rival units were having an easier time of it, and they were ruthless in their criticism of each other.

I flew from BAF to my final destination, Forward Operating Base (fob) Salerno, located in Khost, Afghanistan, within artillery range of the Pakistan border. fob Salerno was nothing like Ali Al Salem or BAF. The place was immaculate, including the latrines, perhaps because the base belonged to a single unit, the 82nd Airborne’s 4th brigade combat team. It was their home for an entire year, and I suppose it was a point of pride to keep the place tidy (they paid crews of local Afghans to pick up trash and clean the latrines).

A few weeks later, I returned to BAF on my way out of Afghanistan. I stayed there for a few more days, walking the sprawling base from one end to the other, looking for Port-A-Johns I’d missed the first time around. The day before I left BAF, on a hot August afternoon that brought a dusty wind whistling down from the mountains, turning the air a murky beige color, my camera suddenly stopped working, and my survey of latrine graffiti came to an end.

It’s tempting to view these photographs as the “true” or “authentic” voice of American soldiers. But that would be missing the point. Graffiti is public by definition—it’s not a private confession. It’s a surface effect of something far broader and infinitely more complicated than what can be contained in a hastily scribbled line or two.

I look at these photographs and read the words in the same way I read the expression on the face of that 19-year old Marine I met on my first day in Kuwait. When I snapped his picture, he took a moment to pose. He wanted anyone who might later look at the photograph to know that he was tough, that he wasn’t frightened, that he was ready for whatever was coming his way in Iraq. But his expression at that moment wasn’t the sum of who he was, just as the graffiti you’re reading here isn’t the whole truth about what American soldiers think and feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So how should you look at the graffiti in these photographs? As a fleeting moment in a six year-old war—nothing more. The words on these walls are snatches of an overheard and ongoing conversation that changes by the day, soldier’s talking to other soldiers at a time when soldiers are being asked to give more than they have been giving, which is already too much.
Steve Featherstone can be contacted at steve dot featherstone at gmail dot com.

25 comment(s)

GooseMarch 24, 2008 00:31 EST

Astounding. I'd love to see hi-res ones which were easier to read. Do you have an album somewhere, or even a book?

FeatherstoneMarch 25, 2008 06:08 EST

Thanks for the kind words, Goose. A literary journal called "A Public Space" has published 10 latrine graffiti photos in their current issue (#5). The photos are mostly different than the ones you see here. You can order a copy through their website, I believe, at www.apublicspace.org.

Eric MorseApril 06, 2008 09:57 EST

One of the grafitti shown mentions the Romans in Mesopotamia. One of the admitted archaeological deficiencies of Roman military latrines is that they had no stall partitions. However the Roman grafitti that have been found at military sites around the Empire (and on slingstones and similar munitions) suggest that not much has changed. One would give a lot to have found as many grafitti at Dura-Europus or Hadrian's Wall as have been found at Pompeii. (X Fretensis RULES!)

AnonymousApril 09, 2008 18:19 EST

I find it very disturbing to see variations on the Nazi Swastika in the bottom right of the last picture...

FeatherstoneApril 10, 2008 06:28 EST

I've been told that what appear to be 'variations on the Nazi Swastika' in the last image are, in fact, anarchy symbols and not Swastikas. However, Swastikas were apparent on other walls not shown here.

...and thanks for the info about the Romans, Eric. Very interesting.

noodlemanApril 16, 2008 18:22 EST

The swastika was/is also used extensively in Asia ... well before the Common Era began. So it's not an exclusively Native American symbol.

AnonymousApril 16, 2008 19:39 EST

In my extensive experience drawing and viewing symbols of anarchy, I've only seen images like those when looking at variants of the swastika.

That being said, the swastika has a long history but most of those uses would be classified as archaic, if this sort of thing were collected in a dictionary.

mr trail safetyApril 17, 2008 11:59 EST

the 3-sided 'swastika' is the white-power glyph. The r/w Afrikaaners use it as their mark.

LeonApril 20, 2008 13:46 EST

Re: photo number 9 - do we see the results of military censor's work? Are censors flying to every latrine to do their job?

FeatherstoneApril 26, 2008 19:42 EST

...a 'white power glyph'... very interesting mr. trail safety. Thanks for the info. I didn't see a lot of those. In fact, if someone wanted to draw a Swastika, they simply just drew one, usually backwards (in one image not shown here, someone drew a backwards swastika and someone else crossed it out and drew one in the correct orientation), but there wasn't much of that king of thing at all. As for censors, that's a good question Leon. I doubt very much that there's a military censor, Sharpie-equipped, going around blacking out words. Why bother when the cleaning crews could do the job much easier. But I did find it interesting that people seemed to take as much time blacking out graffiti as they did writing their own.

Scott TurnerSeptember 12, 2008 21:27 EST

My youngest son is at Ali Al Salem. Having been in the Army from 69-71 I worry about him. I wish I was with him so I could protect him. Of course he is now a man and must take care of himself. Young men are filled with bravado and bullshit. That helps them face the horrors and keeps them alive. They will face the terror of what they have done and seen in their dreams. Love and a good women will bring you through. I didn't give a flying ship about anything.——-My wife of 31 years saved my usless ass.

gfountainJune 24, 2009 02:10 EST

I was stationed at Salem last year and I know the exact "stinch" you are talking about in the bathrooms! The graffiti is still being written and it won't ever stop. The caliber of "soldier" that are getting into the army is sad. Yea it sucks being over there for 15 months or whatever, but they all signed up for it knowing that it was possible. The whole base is disgusting, I honestly don't see how anyone can sit in those bathrooms long enough to write on the walls anyway.

minigamesSeptember 23, 2009 12:21 EST

What a great way to depict the war. A great first person account. I would love to see a book made out of this subject. Art Historians would eat this up.

car seatsOctober 29, 2009 09:14 EST

I can see how Graffiti can be looked as art... but when you do it in another country that you do not belong to... i think it's disrespectful. Leave it to its citizens to do the graffiti. Also, if you make a graffiti with your gang sign... you deserve some punishment for it.

classic video gamesOctober 31, 2009 19:23 EST

can see how Graffiti can be looked as art... but when you do it in another country that you do not belong to... i think it's disrespectful. Leave it to its citizens to do the graffiti. Also, if you make a graffiti with your gang sign... you deserve some punishment for it.

SteveDecember 16, 2009 11:07 EST

wow, lots of comments since the last time i checked this page. thanks all for commenting. for the people who think this would make a good book, i think so, too, but really, i think there's only a handful of us.

FinasterideJanuary 15, 2010 02:08 EST

When the war was over in Kuwait and Afghanistan?

KartentricksJanuary 24, 2010 12:07 EST

Great article. Super cool photos. Reminds me of the old times :) Thanks for the effort you put in the article.

Justin @ Twitter DesignsFebruary 06, 2010 00:54 EST


This is really a wonderful topic to discuss. Graffiti made by steve is a piece work of art :) looking for more good post from you steve. thanks!

AnonymousFebruary 06, 2010 13:01 EST

very nice. i got a bit about Kuwait Airbase.

AnonymousNovember 04, 2010 21:32 EST

I am in the U.S. Navy, I have done three 9 month tours in Kuwait. I was stationed all three times at Ali Al Salem, it is a good place and it could be a very bad place sometimes. The living conditions for perm party is not that bad, three to a POD, you have to walk to showers which is OK and the chow hall is about 50 feet away with alright food, better than MRE's.
I think of the real hero's in Afghanistan and Iraq taking bullets, mortars and IED's, I was very lucky, but my heart is always with the troops in harms way.
The only thing that I detested there was the grafiti, very racist and vulgar. When I first saw it I was shocked, we tried to curb it, but you can't. The Navy even painted over the walls on the customs compound and like a day later there was grafiti again. You can't stop it no matter what you do. I think that the chain-of-command doesn't want it to stop. I suggested that before a unit leaves that we check behind them to see if the grafiti was writen again and if it was we would have them repaint the walls in the latrines, of course that idea got shot down.

Steve FeatherstoneSeptember 20, 2011 23:16 EST

@Anonymous - When did you do your tours? The surprising thing to me, as a civilian, was the relative lack of racism and vulgarity I saw in the latrines. Okay, maybe not vulgarity, but it certainly wasn't more vulgar than what you might see at a truck stop in Oklahoma. I guess I expected to see a lot more racism and vulgarity than what I did see. But I don't pretend to know any more than what I saw in the week that I was there in 2007.

judeseamusOctober 12, 2011 08:39 EST

I served aboard the U.S.S. America in the Navy as well as in Kuwait and Iraq with the Army and what always surprised me about the graffiti was how witty and thought-provoking the humor and observations could be. It\'s a strange thing to be sitting in a port-a-jon in the middle of the desert and laughing heartily. Yes, it could also be vulgar and racist, but like you mentioned earlier, most of it seemed to be directed toward their lot in life. While there were few enlisted personnel I knew of that held formal degrees, most were highly skilled in defining the world around them, talking trash, and calling a spade a spade.

davidMay 04, 2012 07:56 EST

To all those folks worried about the "nazi like" symbol.
It is a Triskelion. It is the symbol of a peaceful fraternity known as Tau Gamma Phi. Here is the link for those with no Google Fu today.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tau_Gamma_Phi

Andrew stagecoachJuly 16, 2012 07:09 EST

I was in Ali-al-Salem during the start of the war. I "wrote" a book called Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Tour of 289 Portable Toilets in Ali-Al-Salem, Kuwait. I simply wrote down letter for lette what was written on the walls...

Add a comment

  
I agree to walrusmagazine.com’s comments policy.

Canada & its place in the world. Published by
the non-profit charitable Walrus Foundation
TwitterFacebookTumblr
The Walrus SoapBox
The Walrus Laughs
Walrus TV