Books and having access to them means a great deal to Brian McNerney, a Lieutenant Colonel and public affairs officer in the US army for the past 25 years. Brian and a group of World War II veterans were the driving forces behind the development of a library at Camp Anaconda – a massive military logistics base in Balad, Iraq.
The Lieutenant Colonel has a profound love of books and believes reading can improve a soldier’s experience while serving overseas, especially in Iraq where access to English-language books is extremely limited.
Brian – now stationed in Germany and nearing the end of his military career – recounts the story behind the birth of the library….
“I created the library during my tour in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. The library actually opened its doors on 16 March 2006. I redeployed to Germany in October 2006, so am not personally there any longer to manage the stacks, but I try hard to keep in touch and assess its progress.
“The books that make up the library in Balad, however, came almost exclusively from donations from World War II veterans from the 65th Infantry Division, which liberated Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in May 1945. I met a number of these gentlemen during a public affairs coverage mission in April 2005, when they were conducting a commemorative visit to Germany to rewalk the battlefields of their youth. I have enormous respect for these men, and should add that they also were instrumental in helping create a Passau branch of the country-wide libraries across Germany immediately after the end of World War II, to help re-initiate democratic opportunities in what was the Nazi homeland.
“These veterans mailed me approximately 15,000 books, which made up the library in Balad as well as provided a donation basis for me to use in taking books to Iraqis. My original intent was to serve Iraqi communities in and around the base at Balad, as much as to provide a source of reading material to the American soldiers and civilians serving on the base.
“Balad, or what we call Camp Anaconda, is home to approximately 20,000 personnel on a fluctuating basis, and I was dismayed when I arrived there to find there was no real source of reading materials, aside from a modest library in the Air Force compound (at that time perhaps 750-1000 volumes of mixed materials). There are a variety of ‘libraries’ across Iraq where Americans are serving, but by and large, these really simply consist of stacks of popular fiction paperbacks, such as mystery and detective thrillers (James Patterson, James Lee Burke, etc.).
“You will have to search pretty hard to find anything similar to what I was able to create there at Balad, which ultimately achieved a remarkable diversity and quality, given what we had to work with. I attribute everything we achieved though to the veterans themselves. Ultimately, their contribution and spirit made the entire endeavor possible, and therefore I named the library in their honor, as the ‘Halberd and Red Circle Memorial Library.’ The Halberd is the 65th Infantry Division's honorary emblem, and the Red Circle is the 71st Infantry Division's.
“I also used their donations to make several attempts to help the local Iraqi towns of Balad and Ad Dujayl to establish English-language libraries of their own. This was an extremely difficult effort, and I am not sure how successful it really was in the end, because of the challenges in security and access. There was a real hunger, and I made some incredible friendships in meeting with sheiks and local citizens of these two communities, but there simply was an unrealistic degree of danger associated with such efforts, because of the taint of association with Americans that made those who I worked with suspect among their native population.
“But I did try, making two deliveries to Balad, mainly to the hospital there where there was already an eager English-speaking population (we delivered considerable numbers of medical texts: the medical library here in Heidelberg, Germany, sent hundreds of medical texts that we were also able to provide gratis). I also participated in two deliveries of diverse materials to the town of Ad Dujayl, a town notable as the basis for the trial that resulted in Saddam Hussein's conviction and eventual execution. Both these towns are predominately Shi'ite, and thus were very amenable to working with us, as the surrounding area is principally Sunni and very inhospitable to these Shi'ite enclaves.
“We also sent dozens of box loads of paperbacks out across Iraq, by ground convoy as well as via air, to soldiers serving literally everywhere, across the entire country.
“Helping create this library proved to be the most gratifying experience of my entire military career. I am in the final weeks of transition leave as I am now retiring, and this experience motivated me to return to graduate school to pursue a degree in library science.
“I may never know concretely what a difference I helped make, on the shoulders of these magnificent World War II veterans, but I will never have any cause for a moment's regret. It made my year in Iraq, the second time I endured war there (I was an artillery battery commander in 1990-1991), sustainable."