Baghdad Country Club

Welcome to a place where even beer runs are a matter of life and death.

By Joshuah Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 10

Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Magazine, and is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.

Editor: Alissa Quart
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Research and Production: Gray Beltran
Animations, Illustrations, and Cover: Colleen Cox

Published in December 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter 1

Terminal 2 was a mess, as usual. James was booked on the daily charter from Dubai to Baghdad, a notoriously erratic flight. It was September 2005, and this was the main way to fly into Iraq’s capital from the Gulf. Whether that plane was going to take off—or even show up—was an open question. 

Even in good weather, you’d arrive in the morning at Terminal 2, put your bags through, and wait. The place was dreary; the only food came from a basic sandwich shop and a coffee trolley that occasionally rolled around. If you were lucky, you’d seat yourself in one of the few plastic chairs, sip your burnt coffee, and hope to leave that day. If nothing happened by three in the afternoon or so, someone in a uniform would wander in and say, “Sorry everyone. Try again tomorrow.”

James had already spent three days there when a well-dressed Iraqi named Ahmed sat next to him and struck up a conversation. James was the only white guy in sight. Ahmed spoke excellent English, and to James his blue eyes suggested that he was likely Kurdish. They recognized each other from around BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, and got along immediately. James was a British soldier turned contractor, Ahmed a businessman, and at a certain level of Iraqi commerce everyone who was anyone crossed paths. 

James didn’t want to reveal too much about himself at first. As he puts it, these were the bad old days in Baghdad, and if you didn’t know exactly who you were talking to, it was best to stay quiet. But he found himself with plenty of time to discover that Ahmed had lived in Manchester, not far from where James grew up, in Leeds, and that they had some mutual friends. Ahmed, James realized, was an especially well connected businessman, the kind of guy who knew how to get 50 tractors or 10 tons of copper wiring or a meeting with the president. 

“And I also own Iraq’s duty-free rights,” Ahmed announced. 

“You don’t say,” James replied. “Then maybe you can bring in some booze, mate! There’s nothing decent to drink in country.” 

Since the invasion, eighteen months earlier, alcohol had been hard to come by in the Green Zone, the fortified compound at the heart of the city, which now housed both the Iraqi Transitional Government and American diplomats and soldiers. Theater-wide, U.S. military personnel were prohibited from drinking by General Order No. 1, a policy meant as a gesture of cultural understanding, despite the fact that, for the previous forty years, cities like Baghdad had a vibrant nightlife.

GO-1 notwithstanding, there was an entire occupying force in Iraq, and drinking followed. The Green Zone’s rump of a social scene was informally carried out in containers, tents, and trailers inside one fortified encampment or another. 

James had been coming to Iraq since the invasion, and he had done plenty of grimy drinking in various makeshift quarters. He knew recreation was lacking. Like so much about Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war planners had given little thought to the logistics of leisure. Which meant that, like everything else about Operation Iraqi Freedom, even R&R was ripe for enterprise. 

Another reason alcohol was a rare commodity in the Green Zone was the insurgency, which was raging out of control and making all commerce difficult—especially commerce in something like booze, which was haram, forbidden by Islamic law. Before 2005, you could drink in the open all over the city, but a Shia ascendancy and accompanying violence had changed that. 

Ahmed, it seemed, had access to imported alcohol. “Alcohol is not a problem,” he told James. But he couldn’t get it into the Green Zone, the biggest market. Supply was tragically separated from demand. James realized Ahmed was suggesting they go into business together. 

“I can get you many brands,” Ahmed said. “In volume.” 

“Call me when we’re in Baghdad,” said James. 

They exchanged numbers and went their separate ways. James didn’t think much more of it at the time. He told a few people about the guy he’d met in Dubai, but Iraqis have a saying: One coincidence is worth a thousand meetings. James wasn’t expecting it when, three weeks later, Ahmed called. 

“Are we on, James?” Ahmed said. “Reference our discussion.” 

Not long ago, they were two guys chatting in an airport. Now Ahmed was talking about container shipments full of booze already heading south. That’s how easily deals can be made in Baghdad. 

“We’ll split it down the middle,” Ahmed said. “I’ll take some off the top for expenses.”

Chapter 2

A few weeks later, James was cursing himself for getting into the bootlegging business. He had never handled that much of his own money before—$150,000—much less handed it over to someone he barely knew, in cash. His entire life savings was now denominated in liquor, which he had piled into an 18-wheeler and driven through hostile Baghdad. He wound up circling the Green Zone several times, unsuccessfully seeking entry—wrong badges, wrong checkpoints, wrong turns through the often deadly downtown—and was starting to get nervous when he eventually made it through Checkpoint 18.

Within days, James’s alcohol supply was sold through, at quite a margin. He had doubled his money, and that was just from informal sales through a small rented storefront. Now his ambition grew from accidental entrepreneur to impresario. James liked to talk about how the best things in life just happen to you sometimes. The key, he believed, was being ready to embrace them. He’d seen a lot of people talk themselves out of great opportunities. Not him. Not here. The way of Baghdad was to figure out what no one else was doing and make that your game.

And so James became an extreme restaurateur, opening the only authentic bar and restaurant in the Green Zone. It would be the one place where anyone—mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis—could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:


Chapter 3

Like all institutions in occupied Iraq, the Baghdad Country Club was organized on the fly. James didn’t plan to open a bar when he first arrived there in 2003, with the British Army contingent of the coalition of the willing. He was an active-duty major from the elite ranks—the tip of the tip of the spear, securing Basra and the cities around it.

When his tour was up six months later and he returned to London, James was about to be promoted to a desk job, but at 30, he says, he “wasn’t yet ready for a slow death.” Two months after quitting the service, he was contacted by a friend who had started a security company.

“We’ve got something going on in Baghdad,” his friend told him. “Are you in?”

London felt lifeless to him. James’s first question was “When do I leave?”

Having fought in the South, James was new to Iraq’s capital, which was still a free-for-all, even inside the Green Zone. The war’s poor planning had plunged Baghdad into chaos, from which the Green Zone was an attempted redoubt, a fortified city within a city: four square miles bordered by the tan flow of the Tigris river on two sides and by walls on the rest. All checkpoints were militarized, providing refuge for the thousands of people who lived and worked at the various military bases and private compounds. The perimeter also housed Iraqi political headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.

At the time, the embassy resided in Saddam’s famous Republican Palace and was operated by KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root), then a subsidiary of Halliburton. It was, after all, the first privatized war, and the Green Zone was full of profit seekers: thousands of civilian contractors looking for action in everything from paving roads to oil services to reforming Iraqi school curricula. It was contractors who built the new military bases, who cooked the soldiers’ food and laundered their uniforms. And it was contractors who formed their own parallel informal army, made up of ex–law enforcement and ex-military soldiers of fortune, flooding the country for lucrative PSDs, or private security details.

James knew people from the big outfits like Blackwater, which was quickly developing a reputation as the Wal-Mart of security: high volume and, many thought, poor quality. It was Blackwater that received enormous no-bid contracts to provide security first to Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and then to the State Department, at incredible cost and with little accountability. Enlisted soldiers were frustrated by the ubiquitous presence of better-paid mercenaries bullying the roads in gleaming armored SUVs and engaging with seeming impunity. Blackwater had been involved in a number of civilian shootings and, like many other contractor groups, would be accused of systematically defrauding the U.S. government. But not all contractors were like that. The companies James worked for were smaller, more focused, and, in his view, more professional. One of James’s first details with Global Risk Strategies, the outfit formed by his friend, was at the U.S. Embassy, securing the inner perimeter with about 500 Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers known for their fearsome fighting. Later, James provided security for the UN-supported elections.

For James, Iraq held a primal appeal: He liked living in a world without rules, where you made things up as you went along. He fit neatly into the country’s trader environment, and spent a lot of time driving around Baghdad with lots of cash, “finding things that were hard to find.” He was director of intelligence for Global, and part of his job was knowing a wide swath of people: Military and mercenary, Western and Iraqi. And unlike the twitchy guys who drove around in battle mode despite the fact that they rarely went outside the Green Zone’s concrete T-walls—camp commandos, as they were called—James was unafraid to go out into the Red Zone, as everyone referred to the rest of Baghdad.

James bought a contraband moped, a Honda 150, and scooted around Green Zone wearing bespoke suits brought from home. Just because you’re in country, he thought, doesn’t mean your standards have to slip. He was a soldier of fortune, but of a gentlemanly sort. Friends thought James so connected, mysterious, and daring that they considered him the closest they’d come to meeting James Bond in person. He told of having snuck into Fallujah in September 2004, at the height of a frenzy of kidnappings and beheadings, undercover and alone, wearing a dishdasha and a grenade strapped to his leg —all an attempt to rescue a British engineer who was being held by Al Qaeda in Iraq. (The engineer, Kenneth Bigley, was ultimately beheaded.) Back in the Green Zone, James did favors, cashed in quid pro quos, and made quite a reputation for himself in the process.

His chance encounter with Ahmed had now propelled him into hospitality. There had been a couple locales for drinkers early on in the occupation: the Ishtar out at the airport; the Al-Rasheed Hotel (of rooftop-reporting fame during the first Gulf War), with its decrepit disco and illuminated dance floor adorned with the Baath Party star; the Green Zone Café, which offered hookahs and live Arabic music. But by 2004, the Al-Rasheed had been hit with rockets—one volley was fired from a donkey—and now housed a U.S. military cafeteria. Similarly, the Green Zone Café closed after it was blasted by a suicide bomber. And the Ishtar didn’t last, probably because Iraq’s transportation minister banned the sale of alcohol at the airport in 2005.

James was well poised to fill this vacuum. Besides the guarantee of Ahmed’s liquor supply, he knew everyone. He already went to all the parties, and like club owners from New York City to Tokyo, he also knew how to make the party come to him. In Baghdad, success was about relationships. The same was true for the Baghdad Country Club.


Chapter 4

To get anything done in Iraq, you needed to be like James: to know a guy who knows a guy. Still, to build and run a bar in Baghdad, James needed someone with deeper connections than even he possessed. Local connections. He needed a guy who knew lots of guys. He needed Ajax.

Ajax was an Iraqi, a wiry little chain smoker who was trusted by everyone. He had worked as a translator for the Army and had opened several businesses in the Green Zone—a Smoothie King in Camp Prosperity, the Fubi Internet Café, a Laundromat, and a concrete concern, providing 14-foot T-walls to the U.S. military in bulk. After some time in Iraq, James had come to sense that many Iraqis avoided making decisions, because they grew up in a place where the wrong choice could get you killed. But Ajax was different. He thought like an executive.

James began employing Ajax as a fixer. He had the right clearances and knew the right people. He could source anything, an incredible asset in Baghdad, as Iraqi logistics tends to follow the creed of inshallah—it will happen when it happens, God willing. Ajax never took notes but remembered almost everything. He knew the authorities, and he knew the underground. James didn’t want to hear how he did it half the time, but Ajax could solve any problem. Need a generator? Done. A crane? No problem. A flatbed truck? Ajax would have one parked outside the next day. And if the truck broke down, Ajax could get out, lift the hood, and probably fix that, too.

It was Ajax who helped find the villa that would become the BCC. “What’s the first rule of business?” Ajax says now. “Location! And this place was good.” He knew the owner and set up a meeting. Cash was king in Baghdad, where there were still no ATMs. James loaded $200,000 into a plastic sack, took a deep breath, and handed it over.

He would spend almost that much on renovation. The villa looked like a junkyard. It took the crew Ajax assembled about two months to get it ready. Walls came down and a kitchen was installed, along with six backup refrigerators on the second floor in case of war-related supply-chain interruptions. James, a onetime architecture student, had a grand vision of a gentleman’s club in Arabic style. One of his favorite movies was Casablanca, and he’d always loved the idea of Rick’s Café Américain.

In the end, the bar didn’t quite achieve the charm of the film’s arabesque hideaway, but it was as close as James could get under the circumstances. Ajax scoured the markets for matching wooden chairs and tables, a luxury in the Green Zone, where so much was made out of corrugated metal and plastic. They hung local art on the walls. They imported materials from Dubai, and Ajax built a bar made from Italian marble.

Outside was James’s obsession: a walled courtyard of hard-packed mud he would turn into a lush garden. “He was crazy,” Ajax recalls. “He wanted grass out there so badly.” His colleagues made fun of him for his gardening passion, like a horticultural Ahab demanding more sod, watering, kneeling down in the yard every day to feel the soil and monitor the progress of the young blades. “But he got that grass in the end,” Ajax says. It may not have been Wimbledon, but it was green. The first time James turned on the lighting that he’d installed in the surrounding trees, he knew it was worth the effort. There would be one place in the Green Zone where you could sit outside, a cold beer in hand, and watch one of those blistering 110-degree Baghdad days slide into a surprisingly pleasant evening.

That’s just the type of night it was when the first customers showed up for what was supposed to be “a little preview.” It was a Thursday in August of 2006, the start of the weekend in the Middle East, the day before Friday prayers. James let a few people in to check out the new bar. Somehow word got around, and by seven the place was packed solid.

James guessed there must have been 300 people there. It was impossible to move,  and a few hours later the 50 cases of beer they’d put on ice were gone. As was the Dewar’s, Bacardi, and Jim Beam. Ajax was frantically trying to restock the bar. Jodie and Richie, ex-paratrooper friends of James’s, jumped in as reinforcements behind the bar. “It was crazy,” Ajax remembers. “We had to lock the gates.”

By two in the morning, the Baghdad Country Club was nearly dry but still packed. James and Ajax took a break from the crowd and went up to the BCC’s roof. It looked out over a jigsaw puzzle of armored SUVs in every direction. The local cluster of villas that once housed Saddam’s elite was now home to government offices like the Ministry of Environment and the headquarters of the peshmergas—Kurdish militias—whose generals had already started coming by to supplement their regular doses of Chivas Regal.

In the distance, the turquoise dome of the Republican Palace presided over the empty streets of the Green Zone. The last case of Corona was cooling in a tub, and James pulled out two for himself and Ajax. Down below, mounted on a wall above James’s hard-won lawn was the bar’s light-up shingle, commissioned by James in cursive neon over black, flickering the bar’s name, Miami beachfront style. People were already taking pictures in front of it, beers in hand, commemorating the grand opening of the Baghdad Country Club.

Chapter 5

As the BCC took off, Ajax and James could often be seen together around the Green Zone on bar business. Ajax had a new Mercedes and a penchant for $400 loafers imported from Istanbul. Even James, a dandy of the Green Zone, found the shoes excessive. “Where’d you get those?” he would say. “You look like a pimp!”

Considering their business, James thought it wise to keep a low profile. And besides, he wondered, what was the point of having a fancy vehicle when there were speed bumps everywhere? That didn’t stop Ajax from rolling past Baghdad’s iconic Saddam-era sculpture, the Swords of Qadisiyah, in his black CS500, foot on the gas in his fancy loafers, wads of cash in his pockets. “If you saw me and James together,” Ajax says, “you would think that I was the boss.”

After a long day, Ajax and James often unwound on the BCC’s roof, drinking Red Label on ice. They sat perched on cases of hooch, watching choppers fly overhead. They were close friends from two entirely different worlds, bound by an entrepreneurial spirit. Much of Ajax’s own family had already fled Baghdad, but Ajax saw himself as a businessman, and his business was in the city. Before he’d left, Ajax’s father, a former surgeon for Saddam, had arranged a marriage for his son. Now Ajax’s fiancée, a Sunni, was in Egypt with her family; Ajax had sent her there for safety until things settled down back home.

All of these departures unsettled Ajax’s personal life. Already a regular drinker, he became profligate when problems flared up with his distant bride-to-be. He drank whiskey around Americans; with Iraqis he’d fill a glass with arak, an anise-derived national liquor that goes milky with ice. Danny, the bar’s manager, recalls Ajax getting blitzed and causing problems with the staff on more than one occasion. Even in that state, though, he remained in top form. “His business mind never faltered,” Danny says. “No matter how drunk or lovelorn.”

Ajax’s constant presence around the bar was certainly a rarity, as few Iraqis played prominent roles in Green Zone businesses. The BCC was Ajax’s natural environment, though, a place where he could obtain the kind of status and exposure few other locals had. Suspicion of Iraqis was common in the Green Zone, but if anyone disrespected Ajax they were removed from the premises.

Ajax and James had a unique relationship: they were loyal to one another in a place where allegiance was always questioned. Besides James, Ajax was one of only two other people with the combination to the bar’s safe. The second was Heide, one of the bartenders, and for her there was a note inside the safe that provided a number and instructed, “If you have a problem, call Ajax.”

Heide was Ajax’s opposite. Like her wares, she was imported: a 22-year-old blond escapee from Tampa, Florida. The sister of one of James’s friends, she didn’t know James very well when she agreed to come. It takes a certain type of person to sign up sight unseen for under-the-counter work in war-torn Baghdad, but Heide was sick of Florida, where she worked for a real estate company during the Sunshine State’s housing peak. She was restless, and when she got a phone call from Iraq asking if she could be there in two weeks, she hesitated only briefly before saying yes.

She found the whole experience bizarre, starting with the corkscrew combat landing designed to dodge missiles at the airport (where one clock was frozen at 22:43 p.m., perhaps a relic from 2003 when the country was shocked and awed). She was clearly the youngest person on the flight and the only woman. She caught a lot of glances that said, What are you doing on this plane? After her flight hit the tarmac, James quickly put her in body armor and ushered her into the center car of a caravan of three armored SUVs. “Just a precaution, you know?” he said as they embarked on the treacherous drive into town.

In addition to tending bar alongside several Iraqi Christians, Heide manned the wholesale bottle shop that James and Ajax ran out of a guard shack on the property. The shelves stocked the finest spirits the pair could find, which sometimes meant actual quality, alongside gift-store items—T-shirts, mugs, and hats emblazoned with the BCC logo and motto: “It Takes Real Balls to Play Here.”

Heide was especially popular with the BCC’s male-heavy clientele, although she remained oblivious to their advances. “I am just naturally friendly,” she says now. “Later I realized a lot of people probably thought I was flirting with them.”

Indeed, the Baghdad Country Club developed a reputation as one of the few places that a man might meet a woman. Kevin, a Special Forces soldier on his sixth tour in Iraq, routinely violated GO-1 to hang out there. “After working that long and not having fun or getting laid,” he says, “sometimes you at least wanted to see a woman with a drink in her hand.”

While Heide attracted attention, Danny quietly managed the place: greeting patrons, dealing with staff, and running the kitchen. James wanted the menu to be good, which wasn’t easy. Whereas much of the food in the Green Zone was processed, packaged, shipped, and reconstituted, Ajax got fresh produce and meat for the kitchen. Danny got along well with Iraqis, and he made sure to serve the national dish of masgouf—fish with onion and pickles—alongside Western-style bruschetta, salads, and steaks. He brought in a chef named Dino to come up with recipes and marinades. Good fish was difficult to come by in Baghdad, but James knew a guy who knew a guy who could sometimes get trout flown in on Delta Force choppers. And Ahmed’s regular shipments of spirits kept the bar stocked for proper cocktails.

“We never hoped to get a Michelin star,” Danny says. “But we managed to give people the one thing you don’t have in Baghdad: a choice.”


Chapter 6

Over time, the BCC became Baghdad’s watering hole, filled nightly from dinner through the small hours. “It reminded me of D.C.,” says Tim, a State Department employee and patron of the BCC. “I’d usually go for the late shift. Everyone would be there. You knew the scene would be going strong at 10  or 11.”

At its best, the place had something in common with Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But at times it also tended toward the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. It was, after all, a tavern in a war zone. The atmosphere was full of testosterone, and things could take a sudden turn toward trouble. One night, an obstreperous high-ranking officer refused to relinquish his sidearm. On another, “Down Under” came on over the PA and a pack of blotto Australian PSDs went nuts and had to be forcibly removed. (Danny later removed all Men at Work from the bar’s iPod.)

As the charming maître d’, it was Danny’s job to defuse any commotion. And despite his small (and clearly civilian) stature, he was pretty good at it. James thought Danny’s self-deprecating Jewish-guy-with-glasses routine helped him keep people from killing each other or getting out of control. There was, for instance, the time when Tony the Mouse, a notorious Lebanese pimp, showed up in the BCC brandishing his goods. Tony was short, sleazy, and self-confident; Danny noticed him the moment he walked in. Tony tried to dress like the contractors, but his gear was too big. Danny thought he looked like a kid in his dad’s hunting outfit. With him were several Iraqi girls of questionable age, done up in even more questionable makeup, doused in perfume, and wearing what in theory was passable Islamic dress but in material looked more like harem couture. “You smelled the girls before you saw them,” Danny recalls. He intercepted Tony before he even sat down.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said, “but this is not what we’re going for here.”

“Come on, my friend!” Tony whined back. “It’s no problem.”

James had struggled to keep his bar from feeling like a saloon, and surely hookers weren’t going to help. “Listen,” Danny said. “We need to talk about this somewhere else.” He pulled Tony toward the garden. Tony protested, dropping names: I know this person, I know that person, I know James. When Danny was unmoved, Tony whined: “Don’t do this to me!”

“This is not going to be your showroom,” Danny said. “So you need to take these girls out of here.” Politely but firmly, Danny convinced Tony to leave. Danny had tried to be discreet, but in Baghdad you notice when women come and go, and when it was over several people called out, Hey, why did you kick out the ladies? Is this the Baghdad Sausage Club?

Not every incident at the bar ended in laughs. Diplomacy didn’t always work with inebriated mercenaries. One night, a regular named Jann, a six-foot-six Icelandic hulk of a man everyone called Bear, squared off against an American in a checked shirt that clung tightly to his action-figure physique. The two guys were in a dangerously pugilistic state: They were drunk enough to be aggressive but not enough to stagger away from a fight. In seconds, Bear was clutching a knife, serrated for tactical gutting, in his spring-loaded fist.

Danny leaped into the breach, inserting his five-foot-eight-inch frame between 600 pounds of machismo. “Here in Baghdad, we don’t solve problems with violence,” he said.  A little joke to take the edge off, Danny thought to himself. But the American didn’t laugh. Instead, he sent Danny flying. This is what it’s like to get thrown across the room, Danny thought as he landed against the wall. And by just a flick of one arm. What if this guy had punched me?

James was upstairs when he heard the commotion. He sprinted down to find the combatants at the ready, flanked by motivated comrades. He knew this could turn into a full-on brawl, and that would be bad news for everyone. When he was a soldier, James had seen plenty of action, but he had a rule about bar fights: Don’t face two titans brandishing steel. He had to do something, however. “Think this through,” he said, hands open to show he was unarmed. By now, the Iraqi kitchen staff had appeared, industrial cutlery in hand. He waved them off. “You’re gonna get us shut down,” he said to the two men. “I don’t want that. These people don’t, either. And neither do you. Where else would you go on a Friday night?”

The ploy created just enough of a pause for Ali, the senior doorman and a former Iraqi national bodybuilding champion, to separate everyone. James wanted to throw both Bear and the American out, but the fight would only have rekindled in the street, so he and Ali escorted the American and his buddies to the door first.

“I’ll be back!” yelled the American once he realized he was being singled out. He broke loose of Ali’s grip to take a swing at James before the bouncers dragged him away. “I’ll burn this place down!”

James wasn’t worried. After all, what drinker would destroy the only bar in town? The next day, the American did come back, sober, to apologize. “It won’t happen again,” he told James. “I’d like to be able to return for a drink sometime.”

Chapter 7

Such were the hazards of running a club in a war zone, but dicey scenes were surprisingly rare at the BCC. Like Rick Blaine, James tried hard to maintain decorum. He enforced a dress code—no mean feat in Iraq. If James had his way, everyone would have worn bespoke suits, maybe even white tuxedos, but he had to settle for trousers and shirtsleeves. The khaki, cargo-pocketed “5-11” brand of tactical gear worn by most people looked like shit, he thought, but at least he could forbid shorts and frown on T-shirts to keep things a little classy.

While Danny turned out to be something of a diplomat, making a point of knowing everyone who came in and managing awkward scenes, James maintained a distant presence, studiously aloof. There was an aura around him. He knew everyone else’s business, while few knew his.

Rather than fraternize with the barflies, James preferred the company of his own circle. First among them was Bonnie, his girlfriend. She was in Iraq working on sensitive intelligence issues for an agency that, years later, she prefers not to name. Just before the bar opened, James had spotted her at a smoke-filled temporary drinking den in the compound of RTI, a demining contractor. An attractive, professional woman in the Green Zone was hard to miss.

Bonnie, a longtime Middle East specialist, hadn’t planned on an in-country romance. Both she and James knew that emotions ran wild in a war zone, and they saw themselves as exceptions to the rule: coolheaded and rational. So no one was more surprised than they were to be falling for each other, a development made thornier by Bonnie’s security clearance. She and James couldn’t hold hands or really be seen with each other. She was breaking rules just to come by the bar. James, meanwhile, had a wife back home, but they had separated by the time the club opened. They’d married at 27 but had different expectations about life, and hers did not include running a bar in Baghdad.

Around the BCC, Bonnie and James were discreet about their passions. “We would see them there,” Ajax says. “But they always had to hide.” James, no longer in the army and not attached to any contractor, had his own house in the Green Zone, an unusual luxury in a place where most people bunked with 10 other guys and everyone tended to know each other’s business. James’s place had a big wooden door, Arabic furnishings, and art on the walls. It was cool enough that he could store his wine collection there, a nice perk on quiet evenings. “We could disappear,” James says. “And that allowed a fairly normal relationship.” It was that rare place in Baghdad, Bonnie recalls, where they could truly “shut out the world.”

The BCC, itself a retreat, attracted a coterie of regulars to its walled garden. Kevin, the Special Forces soldier, liked the place so much he started volunteering behind the bar. One retired American couple had left their empty nest back home for Baghdad, of all places, and now they repaired to the BCC every day at six to sip whiskey and water. One of James’s friends—who he says lived a lonely and isolated I Am Legend–type existence as the sole inhabitant of the abandoned El Carthage Hotel, deep in the Red Zone, with guns stashed everywhere—used to brave the Baghdad roads alone just to get a chance to sit on James’s grass. 

Reverend Canon Andrew White, whom Danny called the Mad Bishop but everyone else called the Vicar of Baghdad, was the rector of St. George’s, the last Anglican Church in the Iraqi capital, located just outside the the Green Zone. “I loved coming to the BCC,” White recalls. “It was the one place you could relax in that damn city.”

White often brought people to have dinner at the bar. His self-described “ministry of reconciliation and conflict mediation” required that, like James, he remain well connected. He met with coalition forces, local sectarian factions, and insurgents, always trying to play the role of peacemaker. “Some people thought the sun shone out of his ass,” Danny said. “Other people just thought he was an ass.” White’s mission of peace surely seemed quixotic in Baghdad, where it was dangerous for him to appear at his own parish. Still, White had intervened in more than 160 hostage cases, he says, often at personal risk. One mission to save a Brazilian national found White being held in a room with severed fingers and toes lying around the floor. The Mad Bishop got out of that one alive but lost the hostage. (To this day, White wanders around Baghdad in tattersall shirts with a bow tie and glasses, presenting himself as a self-appointed interfaith missionary.)

White’s security people didn’t like him going to the BCC, but then again they didn’t like him going anywhere. As a clergyman, White wouldn’t dance or drink. The dance floor was, in fact, physically off-limits—White had multiple sclerosis, and he walked with a cane. But he loved that it was there, with people mingling from all walks of life. “I went for work, for diversion, and for the food,” he says now. “They knew how to serve up something proper.”

The BCC was filled every night, from dinner through the small hours, with senior diplomats from the EU and the UN sharing the bar with steel workers coming off 16-hour shifts. Mercenaries from Blackwater and Aegis Defence Services sat alongside workers from the Army Corps of Engineers and State Department managers on hardship posts. Contractors would schedule dinners with Iraqi businessmen.

The Green Zone’s many agencies and companies were compartmentalized and competitive, and no one liked to share information, but the BCC functioned like an informal intelligence network. Over a glass of whiskey, patrons might compare notes about contracts or logistics. If you kept your ears open, you knew if there was action in Hilla, a new telecommunications contract up north, trouble on a pipeline. At the very least, James thought, people could take comfort that they were all in the same boat. Baghdad, he imagined, was something like London during the Blitz. There was a siege mentality that brought people together.


Chapter 8

Iraqis have a word, barra, which means “out there,” and came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in ’75.

To keep the bar adequately stocked so that everyone could forget about barra, James and Ajax had to venture out there themselves regularly. To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armor, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities—if today’s your day, it’s your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.

Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That’s because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad’s warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.

James couldn’t go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shiite territory. “But I knew my way around down there,” he says. “I could get what we needed.” He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. “I had the whole supply chain down, man!”

For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.

“Can you head back downtown?” he asked. “We’re empty.”

Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn’t big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn’t be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.

A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that it would be an unfriendly time downtown, he recalls. Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC’s storage rooms and the giant containers outside, then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.

It might have been the most hazardous beer procurement process in the world at the time, which is why it drove James nuts when Green Zone guys in clean pressed khakis complained about availability or pricing like they were in a grocery store back in New Jersey. “People could get killed for your fucking Corona Light,” he’d tell people at the bar. One day, a contractor suggested to James that he could get beer cheaper himself. “Oh sure,” James said. “Go ahead and drive to Sadr City. See if you can find the warehouse. Make sure you’re armored and locked and loaded, because if anyone sees you, you’re fucking done, mate.”

James himself often braved the deadly Route Irish to pick up Ahmed’s shipments of spirits. The road was a target for snipers and car bombs, resulting in trigger-happy U.S. military personnel and mercenaries. (As late as 2008, U.S. soldiers shot three Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint along the road.) A typical PSD cost basis for heavily armored airport pickup of one passenger was five grand. James had done many such contracted BIAP trips himself. Now he was routinely making the drive in an unarmored vehicle, often alone.

Ajax was a drinker who liked to stay up all night, a combination that left James in lurch most mornings. In addition to IEDs and insurgents, Route Irish had commuter traffic. James really wanted to beat that traffic. Any idle moments stalled in gridlock on the pitted blacktop made you a mark. So by 0630, he’d have a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, spend 10 minutes making futile calls to Ajax’s voice mail, and then ease one of the jeeps out of the driveway himself. People thought James was reckless, hitting Route Irish solo and soft skinned. But he preferred going low-profile, and he always double-checked the spare magazines and smoke grenades in his plate carrier as he left Checkpoint 12 heading west, toward the airport.

Route Irish was once a grand motorway though a bourgeois neighborhood, lined with palms. Now the road was extremely dangerous: Drivers were targets. James would hammer up it, hoping to make the seven miles in ten minutes. Such speed was possible but rare. Instead, the drive was often several harrowing hours, with military call signs barreling the wrong way through wreckage to dodge firefights against insurgents, who were known to release signal pigeons from nearby rooftops.

James’s little jeep looked like Iraqi traffic, so he also had to worry about being fired upon by American soldiers or contractors. They tended to be quick with warning shots, and non-warning shots soon thereafter, when any vehicle came within 100 yards. Now on the other end of coalition military muzzles and bad attitudes, James understood Iraqis’ resentment. But having been a military contractor himself, he also understood the fear that goes with wearing a bull’s-eye. The whole thing was a mess. And here he was, threading the needle every other day to pick up some Dewar’s.

As he drove, James would blast music to distract himself, usually whatever was on Armed Forces radio. Everyone had lost friends on that road, himself included. He’d felt the pressure sucked out of the air by massive explosions and braced for the blast that followed. Once he’d hit the T-walls of Checkpoint 1, the gateway to the relative security of the airport, he’d let go a sigh of relief, but even that wasn’t quite safe. He’d seen car bombs go off right at the checkpoint, and he’d jumped out to assist, only to find people he knew on the ground, too far gone for a medic.

Once through the entrance, James would show up at Ahmed’s compound, jittery smoke in hand. Then he’d stack up his supply, and head back out through the checkpoint for the return trip.

Chapter 9

The insurgency reached its peak in the spring of 2007. Everything was more difficult, including the day-to-day operation of the BCC. Maintaining the pantry meant constantly running Baghdad’s lethal gauntlet. Just to get bread, Ajax had to send a guy into the Red Zone—assuming there were no explosions that day and no curfew. Meat, fish, and higher-priced provisions were becoming harder to find.

Worse still, the booze itself was under threat. James had been supplementing Ahmed’s liquor shipments with supplies from dealers downtown, and now they were getting squeezed by the increasingly powerful religious forces. When the BCC’s Jack Daniels supplier was attacked, Ajax was forced to find a new guy, but the new guy had a monopoly, so the price spiked. Stocking the bar was increasingly a matter of life and death. People Ajax knew downtown were getting killed, and even his own people were under fire: Haider, one of his drivers, was kidnapped while at the wheel of a truck full of beer. It wasn’t clear if the attack was religiously motivated or commercial extortion—a brisk business itself—but it didn’t matter. According to James, the militiamen shot Haider in the knees and demanded a $10,000 ransom, which he paid in cash through a middleman. James then spirited the driver out of the country and into hiding. Then the kidnappers asked for another $10,000 for the truck and cargo. James and Ajax decided that if they paid, it would make every shipment a target. James politely declined. The militia was silent for a bit. Then they sent him video of his beer being detonated.

The vagaries of the wholesale market, combined with a rather surprising elasticity of demand at the retail end—people still balked at price increases—gave James headaches. But deeper trouble came from inside the Green Zone, from the local police.

As the bar got more popular, it started showing up in security bulletins as off-limits. At first that did wonders for business: newcomers to the Green Zone were conveniently alerted to the BCC’s presence. And people were especially intrigued that the bar was categorized as outré. When you see people ditching their own security details to line up for your place, James figured, that’s when you know you’ve made it, Baghdad style.

But before long, the police started taking notice. At the time, policing the Green Zone had been turned over from the active-duty military to a contingent of National Guard reservists. To maintain law and order in a fairly lawless place, they took an aggressive approach, and Green Zone residents complained about overzealous enforcement. Automobile infractions seemed like a nuisance compared with the real problems of daily life in Iraq. But the police would regularly set up speed traps and pull people over for not wearing seat belts, though there was neither a traffic court nor an impound lot. Some residents laminated their tickets as souvenirs. “The whole thing seemed silly,” recalls Bonnie, a friend of whose was interrogated for making a U-turn. “The big things are wildly out of control, so you try to control the most trivial.”

The cops, though, saw it another way. “We didn’t just give out tickets,” says a Captain Barrow, the operations officer for the Security Directorate inside the Green Zone. “There was a Wild West mentality out there, and it was causing problems. Our job was to regain some control.” It wasn’t easy. The Green Zone was full of soldiers from all over the world, mercenaries who thought they were above the law, rockets falling from the sky, and suicide bombers penetrating checkpoints. “It was,” he says, “an extremely challenging law-enforcement environment.”

Barrow was nicknamed the Sheriff of the Green Zone, or El Jefe by the Peruvian contractors who worked for his unit. He was one of the first responders on the scene of a suicide blast inside the Iraqi Parliament building. He raided various dodgy contractors he suspected of selling arms without permits, confiscating elaborately tricked-out assault rifles that looked like “something you’d see in a sci-fi video game.” Barrow also saw a lot of what looked like fraud against the U.S. government. For the most part he kept his head down and did his job.

The way the BCC staff remembers it, Barrow was friendly when he first came around the bar. Heide would see him at the bottle shop. Like other police, he got what James called the civic discount on gear and other items. To James, he seemed like your typical small-town-cop type, and James just wanted to keep him at a comfortable distance. 

But Barrow was suspicious of the BCC, and before long he started asking questions about badges and permits. James had tried to keep everything at the bar aboveboard, but soon the captain was dinging him for code violations, even staking out the place for unauthorized visitors. Once, Barrow came into the shop when Heide was working and suggested that the club’s flashlights were stolen. She showed him the paperwork and he left. BCC employees noticed other police poking around, sometimes in civilian clothes, like they were part of an undercover investigation.

Eventually, the police started raiding the bar in full battle mode. “They used really unnecessary strong-arm tactics,” recalls Kevin, the Special Forces soldier who worked behind the bar and once fled out the back door when the police showed up. “They had muzzles in peoples faces, yelling, flex-tying people, confiscating badges.”

As the manager, Danny tried to handle the intrusions as best he could, but customers started getting jumpy. “We went from being the darlings of the Green Zone to pariahs,” he says. “And we racked our brains to figure out why.” There were rumors, of course: that the bar was a brothel, that there was a gambling room, that weapons were being sold out of the back.

There may have been no specific reason. In Baghdad, the lack of planning and oversight allowed people to carve out spheres of perfect influence for themselves, and the police were no exception. Laura, a State Department official who spent a lot of time at the BCC and was there during one of the captain’s raids, heard the soldiers joking to each other that they could never do this at home—just run in, bust up a place, and arrest people for no reason. To James, it seemed like there was no one policing the police. When you have ultimate authority, it’s hard not to use it. If the police fell victim to the allure of power, it was a familiar story in the Green Zone. You could have said the same thing about the entire war.

By now, high-level friends from the embassy were calling James, saying the BCC was coming up in daily briefings. Similar chatter filtered in from Ajax’s fixer contacts. James was traveling a lot then, doing non-BCC business in Dubai, Amman, and elsewhere. After many years, Baghdad was finally weighing him down. He knew his roots were in temporary soil.

Danny and Heide, on the other hand, wanted to invest more in the place. When James went on an extended trip, they bought a pizza oven, and they’d started talking about flatscreen TVs. Not too many—they didn’t want to bathe the place in HD like a sports bar—but enough to show the news or a game. They got a margarita machine. Their minds were set on the next phase of the Baghdad Country Club. But it was all wishful thinking. There would never be any Acapulco Nights with the margarita machine. And to everyone’s lasting regret, not a single pizza rolled off that oven.


Chapter 10

From the beginning, the Green Zone had been a place of in-betweens. Not exactly Iraq, not America, it was an enclave of confused purpose, sanctioned excess, and a hazy hierarchy its inhabitants called the Grey Zone. The Baghdad Country Club began by growing through the cracks of that ambiguity. That was also how it would end.

James was in Amman when the Green Zone police, together with the FBI, descended on the BCC for a final raid. The place was cleared out, and Heide and Danny were faced with the prospect of losing their badges and getting kicked out into the Red Zone.

James, in his British way, thought the whole thing showed poor manners. How would it look, he huffed to himself, if the Americans threw a British national and one of their own citizens to the wolves at a time when that could be deadly? Heide and Danny were given 24 hours to leave the country, and James had to pull strings to get them on a plane.

According to James, Ajax was bullied and then arrested, along with his brother. Over the next few days, the ultimate fixer managed to work his many contacts in the military to get out and get his badges back, but he knew his freewheeling days of business in the Green Zone were over. When he snuck back to the bar again to get the cash box, it looked as though the police had helped themselves to the tequila. Next to the empty bottles, someone had left out the salt shaker.

Back in Amman, James knew he still had $80,000 of inventory at the club. But he had no way to get it. Calling on his old friend Ahmed’s influence at the airports and the assistance of a regional Blackwater honcho, James snuck back into the Green Zone and into the bar under cover of night. He recalls a sad sight: the booze had been confiscated and the place ransacked. Several of James’s connected friends were disturbed on principle, but they advised him that fighting back was pointless. “There’s no clear jurisdiction,” said one BCC regular, who happened to be a State Department lawyer working on Iraq’s legal transition. “Where would you even go?”

All at once, James lost his bar, his garden, and a whole bunch of money. That’s life, he figured—in a way, the BCC had suffered a more appropriate death than if the bar had simply become unfashionable. And besides, the open-ended freedom of the Baghdad he’d known for years was over for everyone. Eventually, the Americans would be leaving the country anyhow. The bar would never survive.

Former patrons are less stoic. Kevin says that it was “just like the powers that be to fuck up the one good thing going.” The Vicar of Baghdad, still at St. George’s  laments the day he heard that the BCC closed: “Now there really was nowhere to run. We were stuck with the war forever.”

But James had other business, in other parts of the world, and there wasn’t time to linger in Iraq and pine over his pub. On his way out of Baghdad, he ran into an old friend at the airport.

“Things are getting hot for us here, too,” he told James. “Time to get out of Dodge.”

The two men stood in the still dilapidated terminal awaiting their hand-written tickets. The friend was meeting his wife somewhere nice, a place with a beach and no mortar attacks. He wasn’t coming back. But James still felt the thrill of life in a conflict zone, where you can make up your history as you go. In a place like Iraq, there was no one to say who you are or aren’t. As thousands of Americans learned, you could go from soldier to businessman overnight. Incompetents had become millionaires. Warmongers had become liberators. Bureaucrats had become nation builders. And a genial former paratrooper had become the doyen of drinking in the Green Zone. Now, on the way out of town, James wasn’t sure when he’d be back. After he and his friend parted ways, he sat down with his bags and wondered what would be next. He figured something would turn up. After all, anything could happen while waiting in an airport.


James did return to Iraq, trading the nightlife business for reconstruction contracts, including fuel supply runs and a job refurbishing a hotel. His and Bonnie’s wartime romance didn’t last. Heide, in the last days of the BCC, did eventually take a shine to a soldier, and when the bar went south she left with her new boyfriend. Danny’s managerial diplomacy landed him a professional job in managerial diplomacy; he now works for an international humanitarian organization. Ahmed runs duty-free operations in Iraq’s major airports, among other things. Ajax left Baghdad for his own safety: Having served as a translator for the American occupation, he hopes to immigrate to the United States. In the meantime, he’s been plying his trade across the Middle East. He was last seen in Beirut. As the last U.S. troops packed up to leave Iraq in late 2011, General Order 1, which prohibited soldiers’ from drinking, remained in force.