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."