Man on the Street

P. J. O'Rourke on Iraq, Michael Kelly, and taking a country's measure by just "hanging out." 

If you were a reporter covering the war in Iraq, if embedding with the military wasn't your style, and if you found Kuwait boring, what would you do? If you were P. J. O'Rourke, you would find out the price of a small bottle of Johnnie Walker, watch missiles from the roof of the Kuwait Sheraton, and go shopping in the souks. Oh, and while you were at it, you would put your finger on the pulse of the war.

O'Rourke arrived in Kuwait in early March, eschewing the embedded positions to be a "unilateral" reporter for The Atlantic and ABC Radio. His piece on Kuwait and Iraq, "The Backside of War," appears in the December issue.

O'Rourke is one of the few journalists out there who focuses on the revelations of daily life in a place where war is all around him; in doing so, he introduces the reader to the "backside" of the war in Iraq. This piece, like all his works of foreign correspondence, is a compilation of the history, absurdity, human folly, and odd occurrences he encounters in his travels as a reporter at large. The result is a devastatingly funny and accurate portrait of Kuwait, Iraq, and America's war.

One example of the kind of reporting that O'Rourke favors is his account of a trip organized by the Kuwait Ministry of Information (part of the Department of Moral Guidance, he notes), during which he covered the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society's distribution of food in Safwan, Iraq, just across the Kuwait border. He watched the chaos that ensued from the top of the aid truck:

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 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.

Most of us have never considered that kindergarten's most important lesson - that of lining up - is somehow related to our society's ability to self-govern. For O'Rourke, the mad dash for food in Safwan represented something more than hunger or desperation:

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 ... nothing was supporting the roof.

Michael Kelly, The Atlantic's editor-at-large and a long-time friend of O'Rourke's, was also covering the war in Iraq. In what became a "Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside" arrangement, Mike Kelly was with the 3rd Infantry Division, while O'Rourke remained in Kuwait. On April 4, 2003, Mike Kelly was killed when the front-line unit he was with came under fire. Within a week, the Department of Defense had arranged for O'Rourke to become an unofficial embed with Mike's unit, where he spent much of his time conducting extensive interviews with those who had known Mike. But he did not write about those experiences in "The Backside of War." O'Rourke, who in the past has captured the hellish nature of some of the world's worst areas, said that he "wouldn't have the slightest idea how to write about Mike's death."

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of several books, including The CEO of the Sofa, Holidays in Hell, and Parliament of Whores.

We spoke on October 30.

- Elizabeth Shelburne

[Note: "The Backside of War" is not available for free online. You may obtain it on the newsstand or in our premium archive.]

When you arrived in Kuwait in March did you already have an itinerary or were you just waiting to see what was going to happen and playing it by ear?

I was completely playing it by ear. The only thing we had to go on by way of past experience was the first Gulf War. There everybody had been trapped in Saudi Arabia until the actual ground combat began, and then all discipline broke down and reporters were technically not allowed into Kuwait but were able to go anywhere they wanted. Mike Kelly and I had both been beneficiaries of this. We expected the same thing to be true this time. It wasn't really a plan for us to do a Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside, for Mike to embed and me not to embed. But it seemed like a good idea once it sorted out that way. The one day I spent with Mike in Kuwait before he went in for his embed, he was joking. He said, "I am going to be 389th Latrine-Cleaning Battalion, and you're going to be driving all over liberated Iraq in your rent-a-car, drinking Saddam beer and judging wet abayah contests."

Had you applied for one of the embedded positions?

Not at all. I had no desire to do that whatsoever. Summer camp was bad enough. One of the few benefits of being a journalist is that you're NOT in the Army. The whole idea of putting you in the Army and not giving you a gun - gee, no thanks. That was the sort of thing that the dumber kind of conscientious objector in Vietnam wound up doing.

What was Kuwait like on a day-to-day basis?

BORING! You can get a drink - sort of. It was $140 a bottle for one of those 750 ml Johnnie Walker red labels. So that was out. There really just wasn't much to do. And I didn't have a lot of work to do. You're just sort of sitting there.

The fact that your wife called you from the U.S. and told you that the war had begun seemed to suggest that there wasn't a lot of fear in Kuwait.

I was relaxed and restless. The missile alarms were the big excitement. We'd run up to the roof to see if we could see something get clobbered. Which we never did. It became evident that there weren't enough missiles to keep us amused.

Were you there in Kuwait for the destruction in 1990-91? Can you talk about that?

I got into Kuwait during the first Gulf War before the allied forces did, about thirty-six hours after the ground war began. I was with a convoy of some journalists, some relief workers, and some retired British Army volunteers, with old Enfield rifles and no radios. We were going up near the front lines, allegedly to deliver Red Cross stuff. Our plan was to go up at night and get behind the front lines. We ended up driving right through them, because they were so dispersed. We had this crappy little map from Fodor's Business Guide to the Emirates, and we started seeing buildings. We asked ourselves, "Is there a city between the Saudi border and Kuwait City?" No. "Then what's this city?" We were in Kuwait City.

The next thing we know all these Kuwaiti liberation forces guys (who I think had become liberation forces about fifteen minutes before, when they dropped their Iraqi rifles) come up and start hugging us. They're driving their daddy's Buick around and shooting their AKs off into the air. Fortunately, the Iraqis were gone.

The only news we had was BBC World Radio. And BBC World is saying that there's a tank battle going on out at the airport. We said, "Ok, let's just steer clear of the airport." One of the Red Cross workers said, "I've spent a lot of time here. I know my way around." This guy starts to guide us down these streets - everything is completely black and there's no electricity. There's wreckage all over the place, blown-up tanks and other stuff. We go around the corner and there's this big sign that says "AIRPORT 1 KILOMETER." We're standing out in this road not knowing what to do and we hear the rumble of a tank. And we had no idea - is it ours? Is it theirs? It was ours, fortunately, and these Marines come around the corner. They start screaming at us, asking us what we're doing here. We told them we didn't know. They told us to get inside the perimeter. Get inside the perimeter! When I got to Kuwait City everything was still smoldering.

Was the destruction that you saw in Kuwait anything like what happened in Iraq this time?

No. Not at all. The destruction in Iraq, our military destruction was very precise. It was surgical, as they like to say. Unless you were looking right at a piece of it you wouldn't know that any of it was around. You'd be driving down the street and see no war damage whatsoever and then you would get to the ministry of the interior, which would be gone. And then, of course, there was the looting, but that was just looting.

Kuwait had been vandalized. Not only had it been looted, but the Iraqis had destroyed everything they could get their hands on. They shot holes in the big water tanks that were sort of the symbol of Kuwait. It was really a mess. The Iraqi soldiers themselves, the living conditions they left behind - it was just unbelievably filthy. They were relieving themselves right in the middle of the floor. It was horrible. They set fire to all the markets in downtown Kuwait City, which have now been replaced by all these colorless cement things.

Were you struck by the differences between Iraq and Kuwait?

It's amazing. The Ministry of Information, which is part of the Department of Moral Guidance, ran a few little day trips for reporters, and one of them was with the Kuwaiti Red Crescent to bring food relief to a couple of these towns right over the Kuwait border. It was just amazing when you crossed that border, because Kuwait is very, very rich. I call it in my piece "Houston without Enron - or beer."

Iraq is just impoverished. The town of Safwan is right on the border. It was a collection of cement hovels - a very dirty place, but with little war damage. There was more war damage on the Kuwait side. When things had been destroyed back in '90, the Kuwaitis just left the ruins and built something new beside it. So, there's all this war wreckage out in the Kuwaiti desert that they never bothered to remove. You get on the Iraq side, and there's no visible war damage - maybe some right by the customs gates, but other than that, the town of Safwan is untouched, and it is just a mess. It looks like the old Soviet Union, done in kind of a Mexican style, except without any of the color. And then these old farmsteads out in the semi-desert around there - we're talking really primitive. I've traveled around the Middle East quite a bit. I've seen this kind of poverty in Egypt - no, actually, this was worse.

And did the people reflect that?

The people were a raggedy bunch. They weren't really starving. I didn't see any signs of malnutrition in the children. People were not skeletal. People didn't seem to be starving, but they were really a rag-tag bunch. Baghdad is the same. The great majority of Baghdad is a slum - a lot of it's new, but it's still slum. It's usually this concrete-block, one-room design with a door and a window, arranged one-up, one-down, often with a shop with nothing in it on the first floor, and then a one-room apartment above it. There's street after street after street of that stuff.

When you think of Kuwait City, it sounds like this gorgeous, well-laid out city.

Kuwait City is not gorgeous, actually, but it's got a kind of Epcot Center thing going for it. It's not pretty. But it's striking, I'll give it that. It's not as over-the-top as Abu Dhabi or Dubai. But nearly. It's a little bit more like Riyadh. There are all kinds of striking cities - lots of new, fancy construction with funny things on top. Big wide streets. Kuwait's got a slightly scruffy side where the guest workers live, but slightly scruffy is about as far as you go.

Baghdad is just pretty depressing and bleak in comparison?

Oh, yeah. It has neighborhoods that look flat-out dangerous. Not just dangerous to an American right now, but dangerous all the time. Interspersed with this is this ridiculous monumental architecture, like the two arms coming out of the ground, holding swords crossed at the top. It's a little bit like Washington, D.C., to be frank. But the architecture is much kookier.

Had you planned to go Baghdad at some point when you were in Kuwait?

Well, I had. I just thought as a matter of course that the journalists would be able to go up there. We figured that as the U.S. Army went forward in Iraq, we would be able to go forward in their wake. Not only had I planned to go to Baghdad, but I was doing some broadcasting for ABC and we had plans for where our office was going to be. Then, it became clear that that just wasn't going to happen.

Why couldn't people get in? The Department of Defense wouldn't let them?

In the first place, there were safety considerations. It became clear very quickly that Baghdad was secure, but not safe. The other thing was simple logistics. There were no flights into there, other than military flights, so in order to get there, people had to drive eight hours from the Jordanian border. So that slowed people right down.

In this piece, you talk about being in the souk in Kuwait and walking through another small market in Iraq and being called into the empty stores. And in "Letter From Egypt" (September 2002 Atlantic), you describe shopping in another souk, this time in Cairo. Why are these markets so important to the research you do in these countries?

The souk is the great place to do "man on the street" interviews, because the whole way of Middle Eastern shopping is that there's a fair amount of haggling, but there's also a lot of socializing that goes into shopping. It's a great opportunity to eavesdrop on peoples' conversations and to ask people things, in a way that shopping in Europe or America is not. You end up sitting down, you have some coffee, and you talk to the people about various things. It's a little bit like up here in New Hampshire, especially the smaller towns and the smaller stores. Every errand up here, whether you're stopping by the insurance agent or something else, it's always a social call, and you're considered quite rude if you come immediately to the point about why you're there. You've got to ask after their kids, and they've got to ask about yours, and you've got to talk about the weather a little bit before you order any meat at the meat counter. And in the Middle East it's that way times one hundred.

Also, almost invariably when I've been in the Middle East, I've been there at some time when all the tourists and many of the business travelers have been chased out, so it's lonely in the souks. I had a guy drag me into a store in Aqaba in Jordan one time, saying to me - and he meant it, too - "I don't want you to buy anything, I'm just lonely." It was funny, and I sat around in there for about an hour.

I thought one of the funniest and most disturbing parts of the piece was the aid distribution scene that you describe. Can you talk about what it was like standing up there amidst this chaos?

It wasn't unfriendly. I was never scared or anything. I'm standing up on top of this truck. Actually, I was lying up on top of this truck with my nose over the end of it, sort of like Kilroy Was Here. I'm looking down into this incredible scramble for aid, and this huge fight was going on. Every now and then somebody would catch my eye or somebody would notice that I was up there and - big smile! They were having fun.

One thing that really struck me was that there was a letting-off-steam aspect to this. (This was true of Baghdad, too.) There was a kind of rough-and-tumble fun that had to do with a mob mentality. This mob mentality points to something I don't think has been given enough consideration about Iraq: the Baath Party is a Fascist party. It's like the Falange, it's like the Italian Fascists. I won't say that it's like the Nazi Party - that's going too far. But it's got that same mass movement sort of thing. The ideology is exceedingly cloudy. The purpose of it is entirely for the people at the top of the party to hold power. It's not like Marxism. It's a sort of omnium gatherum of watered-down modern ideas and Social Darwinism and garbage that's really all about power. Fascism is very much a mob movement. It's been very successful in Iraq. It has created a mob mentality and a mob nation. This is one of the big problems that we're facing. That was a pretty benign mob I was looking at out there in the countryside out in Safwan, but obviously they're not always so benign.

What lesson do you think we can draw from the aid distribution scene in Safwan as the need for aid of all kinds grows across the country?

If we're going to be successful in transforming Iraq, a lot of structure is going to be required. Some of it of the authority type - lots of soldiers, lots of police - but some of it needs to be social structures. Their civil society has been completely destroyed. It has to be rebuilt, or we have to somehow allow or encourage it to rebuild itself. It's not going to be easy. This is not a "laissez faire, tear down the wall to East Berlin and the East Berliners will figure it out" type of situation. Don't think Czechoslovakia or Poland or East Germany. Think Romania in terms of the chaos, or the Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan. This place has really been destroyed.

In thinking of all the problems that we're having with the occupation and reconstruction and resistance, it's instructive to remember that the United States alone had more than 1.5 million troops in postwar Germany. That's not counting the French, the British, and of course, the Russians. That many troops in a country that had a lot of infrastructure - both social and civil. This, as opposed to the 130,000 troops that we have Iraq. It just isn't anywhere nearly enough.

The other thing, of course, is that soldiers aren't cops. Those are two different things, as we learned at Kent State thirty-odd years ago. Soldiers are not policemen, and it's very unfair, even for those soldiers who have some police training, to burden them with police duties. It's not what they're trained for, or equipped for.

It's also becoming clear that soldiers aren't aid workers.

Right. They aren't humanitarian workers. One of the colonels I talked to was describing the Army engineers under his command. He said, "My engineers are the break-it kind; they're not the fix-it kind."

What was your impression of the people in Safwan? You say that they were having a really great time. Do you think they were appreciative of the food that was being given out? Do you think they needed it?

I do think they needed it, although it's not as if they were going to die if they didn't have it.

Appreciative, appreciative? You know, the idea of abstract, impersonal charity is not one that figures in the Middle East. People in the Middle East often don't act grateful for distributive, impersonal charity, because it's really not part of their culture. It's humiliating to need this kind of impersonal attention. This is something that your family, your clan, your group, your tribe is supposed to provide to you on a reciprocal basis. Things aren't supposed to get so screwed up that you need strangers to give you food. I think the reason that they don't act grateful is that it's deeply humiliating to have to take it. This is probably true not only in the Middle East; a lot of people around the world are the same.

They can't figure out what you want back. What's the quid pro quo here? If their family members were providing help for them, they would understand the obligations and the reciprocality, but this mystifies them to a certain extent. It's a little bit like Martians coming down and giving out free money, and you just want to grab it.

And not look them in the eye, and just go.

Or not look them in whatever sensory organ it is that they have swiveling on top of their head.

In the piece, you have a humorous take on the abilities of various countries' citizens to line up. If organizational ability offers a comment on society, then what does your comment "everything went to hell" say about Iraq?

One of the enduring problems with certain societies in the world - and this is certainly true of a lot of places in the Middle East - is that the capacity for self-governance and self-organizing just isn't there. It has to do with history. For many places east of the Suez, or west of it in the case of Egypt, there has been absolutely no tradition whatsoever of self-organizing organizations. No guilds, no Protestant churches, no forms of democracy, no feudalism. Because of the fractured nature of Europe, and also because of the Reformation, the guild movement, and certain other organizational and social things that happened, there is tremendous experience among European peoples with self-organizing principles. The people on the Mayflower hit the ground running; they had it all figured out on the boat who was going to run what. You leave people alone, and they automatically self-organize. Acrimoniously, perhaps, but they do.

There are a lot of societies in the world that just aren't like that. The Chinese are pretty good about this. But, for a lot of places in Africa and a lot of places in the Middle East, this is just alien. All authority always comes down from the top. And the idea of authority growing from the bottom just doesn't work. I think that shows in lining up.

At the point when you were in Baghdad, it wasn't obvious to the people there that Saddam was gone for good, was it?

It's hard to say. I think it was. They were in such a state of shock that I'm not sure they had any firm opinions about something like that. They didn't know what the hell was going on. They had been fed this line about what a mighty power they were, and they were told that they were winning, right down until the end. The bombing that they got from us was hardly shock and awe as far as they were concerned, and most of the things that were blown up were things they weren't allowed to go near anyway. The monuments that they could see - the Martyr's Monument and so forth - these were not blown up on very specific orders of the Defense Department. Then all of a sudden, there were these American soldiers everywhere, and their soldiers nowhere, and their government nowhere. They were just agape. They didn't know what to think.

Do you know why the Defense Department didn't want to touch the statues?

Oh, yeah. For psych-ops reasons. They wanted the Iraqis to feel that their evil government had been destroyed, not that their country had.

I'm not sure I would have missed those big arms.

No kidding. I think anyone with any aesthetic sensibilities might have been glad to be rid of them. But, see, a lot of those things commemorate the war against Iran, which was like World War I for Iraq: everybody lost somebody in their family. So the U.S. didn't want to denigrate the memory of the dead troops.

How did you get attached to the various Army units and civil affairs troops that you traveled around with? It seems like you must have had some Department of Defense cooperation.

I don't really know what the machinery involved was, but the Department of Defense got me up to Baghdad within the week that Mike died, and I started traveling around with the 3rd ID, the division Mike had been embedded with.

So you became an unofficial embed for a while?

That's basically what happened.

In reading the piece, I was having trouble understanding the differences between your time in Kuwait and Iraq - first it seemed that you weren't associated with anyone in Kuwait, and then all of a sudden you've got an Army battalion around you.

Yeah - because I didn't want to touch on Mike's death in my piece for reasons of tone, as much as anything. I decided that leaving Mike's death out of the piece was fine with me. I still haven't figured out how to talk about that. I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to write about that.

You spent a lot of time kind of retracing Mike's steps in Iraq.

I did. That's basically what I was doing in Baghdad. Not retracing his steps, but talking to the people he'd been with. Cullen Murphy and I realized that we had to do something to try to preserve what Mike was doing. That was one of the reasons I went to Baghdad - to pump people about what Mike had been asking them. We got some of his notebooks, but they turned out to be cryptic. We lost his laptop, but I think that would have been just as cryptic. Once I started interviewing people, I realized that this was something that someday Mike's kids would want to read, and I wanted to do it for his wife, Max, too.

Were you glad you had a chance to do that?

Oh, yeah. These guys just loved Mike, and they really wanted to talk about it. I mean, everybody from General Blount right down to the sergeant who had been driving Mike around - not the one who was driving when he died, but who had been driving him around when he was with his proper embed, before he sort of wiggled out in order to get up to the front. Every single one of them said, "I've just never met anyone who was interested in the same stuff that I am." For one of them, it would be military history, for another one it would be politics, for one of them it would be logistics and planning. Finally, I get down to this sergeant and he said: "Me and Mike, we used to talk for hours." And I asked, "What'd you talk about?" And - if you'll excuse the language - he said, "Beer and pussy." In fact, Mike had bumped into somebody else I talked to, a photographer for USA Today, Jack Gruber, and he said, "Yeah, I bumped into Mike and he said, 'It's been a long time since I've been around eighteen-year olds - if I have to talk about beer and pussy for one more minute, my head is going to explode.'" But they just all loved him. Mike's enthusiasm, and his way of paying attention to people, and the fact that for at least those moments he was with those people, he did care about that stuff in the way they did - that's part of what made him such a good reporter.

How long had Mike been with these guys?

It wasn't really all that long. The last guys he was with, we're talking about a week to ten days. I was in Kuwait for six weeks before I went up to Baghdad, and Mike had been in the embed for about six weeks. So, at the most he had known these guys for six weeks.

It really seems like he made such an impact. You wonder if the reaction when soldiers in the unit died was similar.

He just made an incredible impression. As for the reaction, I'd say sometimes yes, sometimes no. But for journalists? I mean - who cares about journalists?

You left Iraq in April. If you were there now, doing the research for this piece, what kind of piece do you think you'd be writing?

Actually, I kind of wish I were back there. If so, it would be the same kind of piece, with the same tone. I depend for humor on human folly. I don't go out and make fun of things that people can't help, but there is an ample, large amount of human folly available in Iraq at the moment - ours, theirs, others'.

When you were in Iraq, it seemed like the military kept wanting to do more - especially these civil affairs guys. But, they just didn't have the supplies or the orders or maybe even the training to do it.

Yeah. In the first place, the guys in charge of the military were concerned, and rightly so, about security. Therefore, they didn't want their troops freelancing and going out and mixing with the locals on a casual basis. But the civil affairs guys just ignored that, to a certain extent. There was a great willingness to help among the American soldiers. Americans - particularly American soldiers - love to fix things. But, you're right - the resources weren't there, and there were other considerations. So, the commanding officers didn't have the will to fix things up. Not because they didn't like the Iraqis or didn't want to, but because they were worried about the safety of their troops.

Do you think that's still the case now?

I'm sure it's even more so.

The woman in Baghdad's French Quarter whom you described meeting - the formidable woman in black who seemed to run the neighborhood, or at the very least the complaint department of the neighborhood - she described many of the problems in the French Quarter: the lack of electricity, the lack of water, the lack of infrastructure. Can you talk a little bit about the Iraqi people and their ability to deal with all of this disruption in their lives? When you left, how were things going?

One thing I will say in praise of the Third World is that people who live in rougher infrastructure situations than we do also do better with doing without. Their water and electricity and food supplies dry up periodically for no apparent reason, not just in war. The Iraqis definitely have this capacity. Their ability to self-organize as a society is terrible, but their ability to get the water pump going again with some wire and some rubber bands and a used spark plug from somebody's old car, it's incredible. In the farm area around Safwan, there are amazing old vehicles hung together with Scotch Tape that were still putting around. And everyone had their irrigation pumps going. I don't know how. I mean, they didn't have any electricity. They must have been out there with some sort of diesel engine or something.

These people are tough and resourceful, and they've been through all this crap before. So they deal with things a little bit better than New Yorkers during blackouts. It's a funny two-edged sword: in terms of social organization and civil society, they're sort of helpless and pathetic. But in terms of getting the pilot light re-lit on the furnace, they're not helpless at all.

You describe a scene in your piece where you get lost in a Baghdad slum while you're on your way back to the Museum of Modern Art. What happened?

Not my smartest move, probably. I just took a wrong turn. I took a left too soon, and what looked like a broad street quickly petered out into this little maze of alleys. It was this incredibly depressing neighborhood, partly because, like a lot of the slums in Baghdad, it was quite new. I doubt there was a building in there that was more than ten years old. And yet, it was just hideous.

The people couldn't figure out what I was doing there. Of course, I couldn't figure out what I was doing there, either. I'm obviously an American, but I'm obviously not a soldier. And I don't seem to be a journalist either. There was a certain amount of hostility, a certain amount of welcome, and a certain amount of curiosity also. I felt like a stand in for American foreign policy: I was lost, they were mystified.

Based on what you saw on this trip to Iraq, what do you think we can expect to see over the next five years?

I think Rumsfeld put his finger right on it: "Long slog." My feeling is twofold: I don't think we are going to straighten out this country any time soon; it's going to be a very long haul. On the other hand, vast areas of Iraq are very peaceful and have been rid of a disgusting and repressive government. The other thing is, everyone talks about Iraq not being stable, but when it was stable it attacked Israel in 1967 and in 1973, it attacked Iran, it attacked Kuwait, it fostered terrorism in the Middle East. Who wants a stable Iraq? It's better for us and, in a way, better for the world that this government has been weakened and destroyed. Does it leave a mess behind? Do we owe it to the people of Iraq to try our best to clean up that mess? Yes. But is that mess our fault? No. It's a very complicated situation.

Do you think we're going to stay and clean it up?

That's a magic eight ball question. Answer: cloudy. Ask again later.

How do you go about getting your stories in these countries? You seem to paint a portrait of yourself as a bumbling but informed American just wandering around.

I do two things: I hang out. I just hang out. It's a matter of keeping one's eyes and ears open. And of trying to keep in mind the Heisenberg principle, that by observing something you affect it. So I try and keep a low profile and hang out. And then I do all of my reading on the subject after I've been there. Because if you read beforehand, you're bored and you don't pay any attention. But if you do your research after you've been someplace, you go, "Oh, that's what that was? The Tomb of What? You mean Joseph AND his Technicolor coat are buried right there? I was standing there!"

In your last interview for The Atlantic you mentioned that Chris Buckley and Dave Barry are good friends of yours. What would happen if we locked the three of you in a room - with drinks and cigars, of course - and told you to solve the problems of the Middle East?

First of all, it better be a lot of cigars and a lot of beer! An awful lot of beer, because we're going to be in there for a long, long time. The problems of the Middle East are the problems of mankind since we came out of the trees. They just happen to be a little more intense. When you look at a chaotic region like the Middle East, what you're really seeing is most of human history, and some parts of America and some parts of Europe and a few parts of Asia are glaring exceptions. The kind of peaceful, productive, incredibly wealthy life that we live in these few areas around the world - this has only been going on for a nanosecond as time goes. It's so exceptional I'm not even sure what it means. The whole world might degenerate back into the Middle East, because that's what it's always been. And you can't solve the problem of the Middle East, because it's not a problem, it's a condition. It's the normal condition of mankind.

If you read Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War, it's all there. It's been going on like this, time out of mind. Little islands of human happiness, peace, and prosperity are so exceptional at this point in history that I'm not even sure we can draw lessons from them.

So we shouldn't be trying to make sense out of it?

You don't despair about something like the Middle East, you just do the best you can. Do the right thing and be brave and it will never get any better.