The Backside of War

How I saved Iraq's modern art, and other confessions. A noncombatant's diary

Why is Iraq so easy to harm and so hard to help? After eight days of war U.S. troops were approaching Karbala, sixty miles from Baghdad. Misery had arrived everywhere. But humanitarian relief had gotten only as far as Safwan and Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait.

I could see one reason that relief had gone no farther. I was outside Safwan on March 28, on the roof of a Kuwait Red Crescent tractor-trailer full of food donations. Below, a couple of hundred shoving, shouldering, kneeing, kicking Iraqi men and boys were grabbing at boxes of food.

Red Crescent volunteers provided the boxes, gingerly, to the mob. Each white carton would be grasped by three or four or five belligerents and pulled in three or four or five directions—tug-of-Congolese-civil-war.

Every person in the mob seemed to be arguing with every other person. Giving in to impulses to push themselves forward and push others away, shouting Iraqis were propelled in circles. A short, plump, bald man sank in the roil. A small boy, red-faced and crying, was crushed between two bellowing fat men. An old man was trampled trying to join the fray.

The Iraqis were snatching the food as if they were starving, but they couldn't have been starving or they wouldn't have been able to snatch so well. Most looked fully fed. Some were too fit and active. Everyone behind the trailer was expending a lot of calories at noon on a 90° day.

Looking out, I saw irrigated patches in the desert, at about the same density as the patches on the uniform of a mildly diligent Boy Scout. The tomatoes were ripe. Nannies, billies, and kids browsed between garden plots. Goat bolognese was on offer, at least for some locals.

There was no reason for people to clobber one another. Even assuming that each man in the riot—and each boy—was the head of a family, and assuming the family was huge, there was enough food in the truck. Mohammed al-Kandari, a doctor from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, had explained this to the Iraqis when the trailer arrived. Al-Kandari was a forceful explainer. He resembled a beneficent version of Bluto in the Popeye comics, or Bluto in Animal House.

Al-Kandari had persuaded the Iraqis to form ranks. They looked patient and grateful, the way we privately imagine the recipients of food donations looking when we're writing checks to charities. Then the trailer was opened, and everything went to hell.

Al-Kandari marched through the donnybrook and slammed the trailer doors shut. He harangued the Iraqis. They lined up again. The trailer was opened, and everything went to hell.

Al-Kandari waded in and closed the trailer doors again. He swung his large arms in parallel arcs at the Iraqis. "Line up!" he boomed; "Queue!" he thundered—the Arabic-speaking doctor speaking to Arabic-speakers in English, as if no Arabic word existed for the action.

Al-Kandari took a pad of Post-it notes and a marker pen from his lab-coat pocket. "Numbers!" he said, still speaking English. "I will give you all numbers!" A couple of hundred shouldering, shoving Iraqi men and boys grabbed at the Post-it notes.

The doctor gave up and opened the trailer doors. I climbed the ladder behind the truck cab to get a better view.

Aid-seekers in England would queue automatically by needs, disabled war vets and nursing mothers first. Americans would bring lawn chairs and sleeping bags, camp out the night before, and sell their places to the highest bidders. Japanese would text-message one another, creating virtual formations, getting in line to get in line. Germans would await commands from a local official, such as the undersupervisor of the town clock. Even Italians know how to line up, albeit in an ebullient wedge. The happier parts of the world have capacities for self-organization so fundamental and obvious that they appear to be the pillars of civilization. But here—on the road to Ur, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, where civilization has obtained for 5,000 years longer than it has, for example, at a Libertarian Party confab in Phoenix—nothing was supporting the roof.

What I saw, however, wasn't anarchy. British soldiers stood nearby, emirs of everything within rifle shot. The Iraqis did not use weapons or even fists in the aid scramble. Later a British soldier said, "We try to stay out of crowd control, because it looks like we're trying to stop the aid distribution. But we can't let them start fighting." They did start fighting. A few Iraqis hit each other with sticks. They fought, however, at the front end of the truck. British soldiers broke up the fight.

The Iraqis didn't try to climb into the tractor-trailer or break through its side doors. Red Crescent volunteers, coming and going from the back of the truck, were unmolested. Once an aid box was fully in an Iraqi's control and had been pulled free from the commotion, no one tried to take it. I saw four boxes being guarded by a young boy.

I watched a confident gray-haired man push toward the trailer gate. He had wire-rimmed glasses on the end of his nose and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He dove for a box, his glasses flying, cigarette embers burning various gutras and dishdashahs. He disappeared for the better part of a minute. Then he came out on the other side of the throng, box under one arm and glasses somehow back on his face (but minus the cigarette). The gray-haired man looked around and delivered an open-handed whack to someone who, I guess, had indulged in a late hit.

I stared at the rampage for an hour. Now and then I'd be noticed on the trailer roof. Whenever I caught someone's eye, I was greeted with a big, happy smile. The Iraqis were having fun.

Worse fun was to follow. We were out in the countryside because the first aid convoy to Safwan, two days before, had gone into the center of town and had been looted in a less orderly riot. I left the truck roof and interviewed al-Kandari, or tried to. The doctor was still being importuned for worthless numbers on Post-it notes. "We almost get organized," he overstated, "but then some gangs will come from downtown, by running or by truck." They were arriving already, in anything they could get to move—taxis, pickups, ancient Toyota Land Cruisers, bicycles, Russian Belarus tractors, a forklift, a dump truck.

The men from town promptly climbed into the Red Crescent truck. They threw boxes to their buddies. The volunteers fled. In a few minutes one squad of looters had seventeen aid boxes. The box throwers were dancing and singing in the back of the tractor-trailer. A reporter who'd covered the previous convoy said, "I saw these same guys." He pointed to a wolfish-looking fellow who was pulling the tail of his gutra across his face. "You can tell the really bad ones," the reporter said. "They have shoes."

Al-Kandari ordered the driver to start the truck. The British troops cleared the highway. The truck drove back to Safwan with the trailer doors open and looters still inside. The other looters, in their miscellany of rides, gave chase. Men stood on car hoods and in pickup beds, trying to catch boxes being thrown from inside the trailer. Boxes fell, spraying fruit, rice, and powdered milk across the pavement. A flatbed truck passed us, piled with scores of aid boxes. The men standing on the bumpers had shoes. Horn-honking, chanting, and other noises of celebration could be heard in the distance.

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