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12-10-05, 01:45 PM
War zone smackdown
Wrestlers' performance in Afghanistan offers U.S. troops a respite from combat
- Thomas Coghlan, Chronicle Foreign Service
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan -- It wasn't Bob Hope, but the thousands of U.S. troops craning their necks for a peek at the hulking "superstars" and scantily clad "divas" in the hastily constructed wrestling ring at Bagram Air Base didn't seem to mind.

"I'm just here to watch the chicks wearing pretty much nothing," said Spec. Cody Chandler, 28, of Palmdale (Los Angeles County).

Apache helicopters and A-10 Warthogs with soldiers perched on top formed the backdrop for the holiday spectacle as the stars of World Wrestling Entertainment's Monday Night RAW descended on the base outside Kabul on Friday in a whirlwind of chest-beating patriotism and minutely choreographed mayhem.

In the teeth of a biting cold wind, the WWE stars grappled and grimaced heroically before 7,000 U.S. troops, many flown in from the dangerous southern provinces where Taliban activity remains strongest.

WWE Chairman Vince McMahon said he brought the show over, at the request of the military, to remind the troops of the home they left behind -- and remind people back home that the United States is still fighting a risky and largely forgotten war in Afghanistan.

"We're here to contradict those negative media types back home who have refused to tell your story and have forgotten you," McMahon shouted during a theatrical opening address. "I don't know why,'' he said, "because it's a story with a happy ending."

The soldiers didn't contradict him; it would have spoiled the festive atmosphere to point out that fighting in Afghanistan is actually on the rise. Ninety-five U.S. troops have died in the conflict this year, compared with 52 last year and 48 the year before.

For the troops at Bagram, this was a chance to forget the war, for a little while at least.

The audience bristled with placards as soldiers vied for the cameras' attention. "Lay in the smackdown for the Taliban -- Fort Bliss style," read one. Most were more personal than political, like the one that read simply, "I miss U Coca Munk."

But the biggest draw appeared to be the divas -- a tag wrestling team of four female wrestlers with six-pack abs in fur-trimmed bikinis and Santa Claus hats that evoked memories of the Playboy bunny scene from the Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now" and was no less enthusiastically received.

Afghan builders on a nearby rooftop laid down their tools to gaze in wonderment at the scene below. In Afghan culture, most women never leave home without the cover of a burqa and the company of a male relative.

"I really like these girls," Said Kebir, 22, an Afghan employed by the DHL delivery company, said, "but if an Afghan woman did this, it would be very bad."

After the divas, the grunting athleticism of superstars Big Show, Triple H and the aging Ric "Nature Boy" Flair could hardly excite a similar response.

However, many soldiers said they were grateful for the wrestlers' visit.

"They may not support the war here or in Iraq," said medical officer Ian Svoboda from Modesto, "but at least they are showing they support the troops."

It was the third time that WWE has staged a "Tribute to the Troops" tour. The organization took the show to Iraq the last two years but this time passed that up in favor of Afghanistan.

"We looked at Iraq and the time when we needed to make the trip. The timing of the elections there made it difficult," WWE spokesman Gary Davis said at a news conference before the show, which will be screened on the USA Network on Dec. 19.