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.
We drove through Safwan. Boys ran alongside our convoy, managing, with deft coordination of purposes, to jeer and beg at the same time. A reporter tossed a bottle of water to a boy. The boy picked it up and threw it at the reporter.
Safwan's houses, placed higgledy-piggledy, were built of tumbling-down mud brick. The other buildings were squat and lumpish, their walls formed of concrete with too much aggregate in the mix—Baath Party adobe. Signs of economic activity were nil. In the one park, playground equipment was rusty and broken. Trash was everywhere. Hundreds of black plastic shopping sacks blew along the streets, snagging in the rest of the rubbish. The people of Iraq may have nothing, but they have the bag it came in.
Safwan was a dump, but not a ruin. There was little war damage. Coalition forces had destroyed almost nothing but the customs sheds, which hadn't been used since 1991, when the Gulf War cease-fire was signed—as it happened, at Safwan.
In an hour and a half we were back in Kuwait City—in the same geography, on the same oil reserves, with the same people, same language, same religion. But Kuwait City is Houston without Enron (and, unfortunately, beer).
Twelve years ago Kuwait City was a dump and a ruin. The Iraqis destroyed what they couldn't steal and left the rubble full of their garbage, including piles of human feces. The hotel where the Gulf War press stayed survived only because it had carpets made from some self-extinguishing synthetic fiber. The Iraqis kept pouring diesel oil on the carpets. The flames kept going out. The hotel stank. There was no electricity. The rooftop cisterns ran dry. The only food was eggs, cooked by the hotel staff over campfires in the parking lot.
Twelve years later in Kuwait City I had tea and smoked-salmon sandwiches and tarts and cakes and sticky treats with an American lawyer who has lived in Kuwait for twenty years. He was trapped by the 1990 invasion and forced to hide. He described the convoy of empty trucks that came from Baghdad every day—"all kinds of trucks, dump trucks included"—and returned every night full of swag. He told about the Baghdad buses that were driven to Kuwait carrying members of the "People's Army"—men and women turned loose in the shopping districts to pull down gates, push in doors, and loot. "The Iraqis," he said, "pried up the reflectors between the lanes in the streets and took them back to Baghdad." Then the lawyer spread his hands to take in the magnificence of the restaurant where we were sitting. "Even after all that," he said, "there was a lot left in Kuwait."
The smelly Gulf War hotel and everything else I remembered had been rebuilt or replaced. Freedom accomplishes extraordinary things. And there is an extraordinary list of things that Kuwait is free of. Kuwait is free of the Wahhabi religious idealism that inspires neighboring Saudi Arabia. There is an evangelical church in Kuwait City, a Coptic church, and a Roman Catholic Holy Family cathedral complex with crosses forty feet high on its gable ends. (I confess to thinking that one way to get a drink in Kuwait was to take communion. But a priest from India drank all the wine.)
Kuwait is free of the lofty goals of pan-Arab socialism that animate the Baath Party. Kuwait is also free of the lofty goals that animate other political parties. Political parties are illegal. To vote in Kuwait one must basically be a son of a family that lived there when oil was something that seeped from the ground and ruined the camel forage. The franchise is denied to women and to most naturalized citizens and to the 62.9 percent of Kuwait's population—mostly guest workers and their dependents—who aren't citizens at all. The national assembly is of dubious political power anyway. Kuwait is more majority-owned than majority-ruled. The relatives of Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah have held title since the eighteenth century.
As a nation, Kuwait has been, arguably, free of freedom itself. Claimed in turn by Constantinople, Riyadh, and Baghdad, Kuwait has survived by playing Turks off Persians, Arabs off one another, and the English off everyone. Kuwait became a British protectorate in 1899. In 1961 the British were asked to leave and then immediately asked to return, to forestall an invasion by a previous Iraqi strongman, Abd al-Karim Qasim.
Now, some would say, Kuwait is an American fief. The Kuwaitis are free of resentment about that. Being an American in Kuwait City was like being a minor celebrity come back home to live. Walking through the souks, I was greeted with shy smiles and hellos from fellow shoppers. Merchants invited me to have coffee after I'd bought something. In the luggage souk two shopkeepers left their stores and showed me around until I'd bought what I wanted from a rival. A teller at the bank told me he liked my haircut. As the war neared, hotels and shopping centers put metal detectors inside their doors. When I was going into the Salhiya Mall, a security guard saw me start to empty the many pockets of my safari jacket. He got up, helped me out of the coat, carried it around the detector stanchions unsearched, and helped me put it back on.
The essential freedom that Kuwaitis have is the freedom to do what they want. What they want to do is shop, eat, and sit around. The Kuwaitis are among the few peoples on earth—teenagers aside—who don't sneer at these freedoms. Apparently, they never did. Kuwait's Popular Traditional Museum is devoted to recapturing "Old Kuwait"—"old" being before 1951, when bountiful oil revenues arrived. In the museum's corridors are life-size models of bazaars, food markets, coffeehouses, kitchens, and home interiors, all filled with mannequins in period dress, sitting around. Exhibited artifacts include early electric fans, gramophones, Brownie cameras, radios with vacuum tubes, and a set of china commemorating the 1937 coronation of George VI.
In the new Kuwait this freedom of ways and means benefits from means that are prodigious. The McDonald's on Arabian Gulf Street has a doorman and a maitre d'. A Mercedes dealership on the west side of town is the size of a county fair. Premium gasoline costs eighty-seven cents a gallon—or, to put that in Kuwaiti currency (at $3.34 to the dinar), nothing. Lunch lasts from noon to five. The gutra on the man in line ahead of me at the McDonald's bore the Dunhill label.
Souk Sharq, on Kuwait Bay near the sheik's palace, might have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, if Wright had been alive in 2000 and in need of a quick job to knock off. The souk has its own yacht harbor. Inside the marketplace is a wide central aisle, space that in an American shopping center would be given over to booths selling sunglasses and caps with sports-team logos. At Souk Sharq one aisle stall was occupied by the De Beers diamond company. The souk's grocery store, the Sultan Center, was Balducci's as Costco. Caviar tins were piled to the ceiling. In the food court the Chinese counter had Peking duck to go.
I interviewed a Bedouin the next day. He was tending his camel herd in the desert west of the city. He wore sandals and a sail-sized dishdashah. His gutra (not from Dunhill) was tucked in manifold gatherings under the agal, or headband. On the back of the Bedouin's riding camel was a carved-wood and tooled-leather footstool of a saddle. The camel's flanks were covered by vividly woven and elaborately tasseled wool provision bags. This was the first time I'd ever seen anyone really use the kind of handicrafts that tourists bring home. The Bedouin milked a mother camel and offered me the bowl. We sat around. He said, "I have three sons in medical school in the United States."
The camel's milk was frothy, light, slightly sweet. It would make an excellent latte. The desert sky was crosshatched with power lines. Pumping stations and tank farms could be seen in the distance. There was a six-lane highway behind the desert patriarch. He was Lawrence of New Jersey.
The liberties of Kuwait may be quotidian, but Kuwaitis are serious about them. Even in New Jersey the right to drive isn't exercised with Kuwaiti vigor. I was on that six-lane highway going 70 miles an hour in the left-hand lane, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, when a Mercedes 500SE sedan blinked its lights behind me. I had nowhere to go. The Mercedes driver cut left onto the unpaved shoulder and proceeded at 90 or 100 down the barely car-width slot between the traffic and the concrete barrier. I could see his taillights wobble. He was terraplaning, gravel-surfing, leaving a mile of stone stars in the windshields of the cars ahead.
The small, ordinary freedoms of life are priceless, especially if you remember to have someone else pay the price. Billboards on the backs of Kuwait's city buses show a photograph of a Kuwaiti hugging an American soldier during the 1991 liberation with the caption, in English and Arabic, "We Never Forget."
In early March of 2003 most American soldiers were too far from town to be hugged. Also, they were about to liberate in the other direction. I wonder whether the Iraqis will say "We never forget." If so, in what tone of voice will they say it?
At Camp Virginia, in northern Kuwait, amenities were few. There were long lines for the hot meals and cold showers. A sergeant took me for a ride in his Bradley fighting vehicle. We went across the desert at terrific speed—"terrific" being about 45 mph. But in a large armored, tracked vehicle this is like 45 mph down the stairs on a cafeteria tray. As we crested a berm, the sergeant said, "Sometimes I don't know why they pay me!" He'd been in Kuwait for six months. Camp Virginia came back into view. "And sometimes," the sergeant said, "they couldn't pay me enough."
His crew wanted to know about my pay. "How much do you get paid to come here?" they asked. "Is this fun for you?" An officer from Army Public Affairs shushed them.
I was shown a mobile command-post tent carried by five trucks and big enough for a circus that has given up aerial acts. But inside it seemed to be a Wall Street bond-trading boiler room. Officers sat at rows of tables, staring at computer terminals. In front of the tables were PowerPoint presentations on three large screens. Map displays showed enemy and coalition military positions in the planned initial combat zone, in Iraq, and in the whole Middle East.
The tent was windowless, the better to protect against NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) threats. The other tents were also windowless. Ordinary soldiers, along with headquarters staff, spend a lot of on-duty time staring at computer terminals. And they spend a lot of time inside NBC suits, behind gas-mask lenses, breathing through filters. In the back of the Bradley fighting vehicle, where six combat infantrymen sit, the only peek at the outside is through periscopic slits. There's something as indoorsy as eBay about the modern military. And from all I know about either part of that simile, something as historically transformative.
The military is indoorsy but not homey. The numerous ducts, tubes, and wiring bundles of modernity—covered by Sheetrock and acoustic tile in civilian life—are left bare in the Army. The hardware seems to expand with exposure. Austere functionality has so overgrown the interior of the Humvee that only four soldiers can fit into that hulking vehicle. Perhaps technology is squeezing human beings out of warfare. But will they want to go?
A Chinook helicopter crew took me along on a live-fire exercise, to practice with the door-mounted M-60 machine gun. We flew to a range on the northern border where Iraqi military junk from the Gulf War had been hauled. One of every so many rounds in the M-60's ammunition belt was a tracer, which left a Fourth of July rocket trail telling where the bullets were going. I asked if it was like shooting a rifle, aiming precisely, or like shooting a shotgun, leading the target. "It's better than either," the gunnery officer said. "It's like walking the dog!" Bullets ambled along toward a Soviet-era Iraqi tank—trot, trot, trot, and mess in the yard.
Flying back from the firing range, I had a moment of clarity about one of the supposed underlying causes of the conflict in Iraq. The Kuwaiti desert is as flat as a patio and as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The entire space appeared to be covered with tanks, artillery pieces, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, transport trucks, and Patriot missile batteries. Streaks of asphalt runway ran in all directions. The tarmac held fighter planes, cargo planes, and hundreds more helicopters: Chinooks, Black Hawks, Apaches, Kiowas. Amid the materiel were Camp Virginia, Camp New York, Camp Pennsylvania, and—from how it looked to me—Camps Other Forty-seven and Camp Puerto Rico and Camp Guam. Military force extended from me to the horizon, 360 degrees of war. It is much cheaper to buy oil than to steal it.
At dawn on Thursday, March 20, when the first American missiles struck Baghdad, I was asleep in a big soft bed. My wife, watching late-night news in the United States, called me in Kuwait to tell me that the war had started. That was embarrassing for a professional journalist in a combat zone. Although we were fighting for freedom—in this case the freedom to go back to sleep in a big soft bed.
I got out of bed, eventually, and went to interview the random bystanders who have become central to news coverage in the modern era. About a third of the stores and businesses in Kuwait City were closed. A bomb-sniffing police dog was digging furiously in a concrete planter outside my hotel, which would have been alarming if the dog hadn't had the unmistakable air of a pooch who smells something deliciously dead.
The Kuwaitis I talked to were confident and enthusiastic. The proprietor of a fabric shop said, "America is here. I feel no problem in Kuwait."
I went to buy additional pens and notebooks, in case other spokesmen for the Arab street were more forthcoming. I asked the stationery-store owner about the onset of hostilities. "This is good," he said. "This is better. I want Saddam finish." He told me about seeing a young Filipina raped by Iraqi troops in 1990, outside his shop door. "I could do nothing," he said. "They loot my store—everything." He put a finger to his temple. "Click," he said. He all but came over the counter with angry enthusiasm. He declared, "I go for a soldier!" Then he sighed. "But my son says, 'You are sixty-seven.'" His Indian shop assistant steered me away from the less expensive pens.
Iraq began firing missiles at Kuwait. Only the first air-raid warning had any effect on the Kuwaitis. When the sirens started, I saw a man in a dishdashah come out of an office building and rush nervously toward his car. Fifteen feet from the vehicle he stopped and pressed the door-lock button on his key-chain remote, and then went back into the office building.
There was a mannequin wearing a gas mask in a store's window display, but it turned out that the store sold equipment to the police and the military. Plastic sheeting and duct tape were displayed in the hardware souk. "Many sales," said a fellow at one of the stalls. "But not because of the war—because of good price."
One of the Kuwaiti soldiers guarding my hotel wanted America to pick up the pace. "Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow," he exhorted, and made the motion of a baseball umpire calling a runner safe. "Boom!" he urged.
A tiny old lady wrapped in a black abayah approached me in the vegetable souk. She had the face of Mother Teresa—or, rather, the face that Mother Teresa deserved but didn't get. "American?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
She gave me a beatific grin, a smile of hope and blessing, and drew her finger across her throat. "Saddam!" she said, beaming.
There was no sign of fear or patience among the Kuwaitis, any more than there had been among the Iraqis at Safwan. Sermons could be preached about the civilizing benefits and progressive influences of fear and patience.
And I've preached all of them to my three- and five-year-old daughters. I suspect I have one or two elements of the Muslim world in my own home.
But only one or two. An article in Kuwait This Month featured the miswak, a twig from the saltbush tree that is employed as a natural toothbrush. "Muslims use it," the article said, "on the recommendations of Prophet Muhammed."
The Prophet is quoted in the text: "Use the miswak, for verily, it purifies the mouth, and it is a pleasure for the Lord." Not only is there no separation of Church and State in the Muslim world, there is no separation of Church and dental hygiene.
The night I returned from Safwan, a missile hit Souk Sharq. The Kuwaitis claimed it was a "Seersucker" missile. Who names these things—leftover old preppies at the CIA? Next the Madras Cummerbund missile and the Lime Green Pants With Little Trout Flies missile. I went to Souk Sharq in the morning. Kuwaiti police officers were lifting the crime-scene tape so that all the other fellows could have a look at the cool destruction.
The damage wasn't great. But in one perfume shop every bottle had been exploded by the warhead's shock wave. The place reeked of Shalimar. A mature, adult American with a perfume store would have been on his cell phone screaming at his insurance agent. The Kuwaiti storeowner was sitting in a chair sipping a little cup of coffee. I introduced myself. The owner pointed cheerfully to the wet pile of broken glass. "Special price!" he said.
Being a "unilateral" reporter in Kuwait, rather than a reporter "embedded" with the military, meant that I watched the war on TV. Except I was too close for comfort—to TV, not war. Cable and broadcast networks had taken over swaths of Kuwait's hotels. I was walking down the hall in the Sheraton and saw a huddle of serious-faced ABC television producers. They were having an animated discussion. Something was up. I moved closer.
"Do you think we should wake Diane?"
"I don't want to wake Diane."
"Maybe we shouldn't wake Diane."
I started to keep a notebook of things said by people sitting behind desks on television:
CNN, 3/19, Larry King to John Major: "I don't think the United States has ever started a war."
CNN, 3/20, several hours after the "decapitation strike" against Saddam Hussein: "It is like a brief intermission in some terrible, but real, movie."
CNN, 3/23, concerning a 101st Airborne soldier who threw a grenade into an officer's tent: "We'd like to point out that the soldier is said to have an Arab- or Muslim-sounding last name, but we'd like to point out that at this time this doesn't mean anything at all."
But I gave it up. I'm not prejudiced against CNN. It was just the first station on my hotel-room channel changer.
Baghdad fell. Iraqi rioting commenced. Looting was undertaken in earnest. Twenty-four-hour television coverage turned into the Shopping Channel. The war was over—not the killing, dying part but the part in which I was involved. I could tell by a sign on the bulletin board at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information press center: "For Sale—Helmet, U.S. Army medium, like new, $100. Flak Vest, concealable, worn once, $350."
Newscasters began mentioning the Laci Peterson murder case. Some attributed the lapsing scrutiny of the war to the short attention span of the American public. But many Americans have given their all—indeed, could be said to have sacrificed their lives—doing their best for people who now hate them. A nation that has teens in the house can't be expected to focus on Iraq forever.
On April 16 I hitched a ride on an Air Force C-17 cargo plane to the Baghdad airport. Bouncing around in the windowless cargo hold was an Oshkosh fire engine.
"A fire engine?" said the Army Public Affairs officer who took charge of me in Baghdad, and whom I'll call Major Bob. "We've already got a fire engine. What we need is water to put in it."
Thousands of troops occupied the airport. Their water was in one-liter plastic bottles. Sometimes there was a little water left over from drinking. Then a shower could be had by poking holes in the bottom of the water bottle, holding it right-side up, and unscrewing the cap.
Hot meals were unavailable. "Meals Ready to Eat" are less of a death penalty to the digestive system than they were during the Gulf War, and more of a life sentence to the school lunchroom. The weather was hot and windy in the daytime and hot and windy at night.
Troops and supplies were being flown to the airport's cargo facilities. The passenger terminal, designed by French architects in a "Harrah's Arabia" style, was being used as a bivouac. The combination of no planes at the gates, dull food, nonfunctioning air-conditioning, and snoring people stretched on uncomfortable boarding-lounge furniture made for a shock of the familiar to a frequent flyer. Except you could smoke. Except everyone was running out of cigarettes.
There was an ad on the airport wall for the place where Iraq's Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, used to regale the international press: "Al Rashid—It's More Than a Hotel."
"It's a target," an Army captain said.
I camped in the airport's administration building, in an office with bookshelves full of Reagan-era Boeing manuals and out-of-date Jeppesen guides to takeoff and landing patterns at international airports. I did not find one for La Guardia with the World Trade Center towers circled in red. What I found instead was culture, or evidence of it.
Looting by Americans was strictly forbidden. But scrounging was okay, and we didn't have coffee cups. The Iraqi airport administrators had a wall of personal lockers, all carefully locked but with doors subject to persuasion with a Leatherman tool. I found a cup in one locker and—along with a bag of loose tea, a sliver of soap, and a spare pair of socks—the crudely printed cover of an English-language Iraqi edition of Waiting for Godot.
Artistic genius, arguably including Samuel Beckett's, has limned the extraordinary experiences of war—terror, desperation, suffering, bravery. Banal discomforts, however, need less brilliant insights to convey them. For example, "sandstorm." The word is too beach, too playground. And Iraq doesn't have sand. It has fine-ground goat droppings and minute particles of gluey clay. When the wind whips up, it's small-craft warnings in the lizard terrarium, a horizontal dirt blizzard. Then the drizzle that comes with spring sandstorms in the Persian Gulf begins, and with every breath the soldiers are fed a slime pie. Months of that and the food and the water, plus those extraordinary experiences of war, such as getting shot at, are wearing.
The lavatory facilities at the airport administration building consisted of one plastic stacking conference-room chair with a hole cut out of the seat. It was placed over a bucket behind the TO BAGHDAD sign on the departure ramp.
Not far from the airport was a palace called, I think, Abu Ghraib, but Iraq's presidential palaces are marked with barbed wire and watchtowers, not park-service signs or historical plaques. The palace was built on an artificial island in a fishpond big enough for water-skiing. There was a swamped speedboat in the shallows. Some soldiers had removed whip antennas from Humvees and rigged the antennas with communication wire and safety pins. A fish fry was planned.
The palace architecture hinted that Iraq had a heritage. There was a dome and a bunch of pointy arches and some elaborate scribbles in Arabic around the front door, which was three stories high. Scale, proportion, and ornamental detail were those of the Ritz-Carlton Tomb of Hammurabi or the Great Mosque in Disney World's Muslimland.
The palace was badly built. Shoddy rubble-wall construction was skimmed with a thin layer of concrete. Lines were scored in the concrete, faking the seams of quarried stone. A missile had blown off the back of the palace, exposing its crawl spaces and utility rooms. The PVC plumbing and low-grade electrical wiring looked like things strewn around by a trailer-park tornado.
Inside, materials were marble, alabaster, mahogany, teak, and mother-of-pearl, elaborately handcrafted by badly skilled workmen. The main reception room was four floors high. A crystal chandelier hung down past two tiers of balconies. I paced off the shadow it cast on the floor. The chandelier was the size of a two-car garage. If a reason to invade Iraq was wanted, felony interior decorating would have done. Imagine Liberace as an inner-city high school basketball star who'd just signed an NBA contract and converted to Islam.
Major Bob and I saw civilians being searched at one of the checkpoints. A village that housed Iraqi airport workers was inside the airport security perimeter. Some of the villagers had fled during the war. Now they were coming back. But they had to be frisked first.
For propriety's sake, the women were asked to frisk themselves. They patted their chadors, or their jeans and T-shirts, with both hands from ankles to shoulders, maintaining a neutrality of expression that is admirable in a forced macarena.
Najah Raheem, age fifty-one, had been hired by the Army to intrepret at the checkpoint for $3.00 a day.
"What did you do before the war?" Major Bob asked him.
"I was an air-traffic controller."
"I'm probably living in your office," Major Bob said.
Najah suggested that we go to the village, called "the French Quarter" because it was built for the airport's French construction crews. "They will be eager to talk to you in the French Quarter," Najah said.
"They" was a formidable woman in black who had several of what seemed to be the village elders meekly in tow and any number of small boys and girls peering from behind her cloaks. "Three hundred families!" she said. "Many big families. Smallest families have five children. Ten days—no water, no electricity, no food, no cars."
One of the elders was brought forward to say, "The water main is broken" and "There are no wells."
"Is this the new Iraq?" the formidable woman said. "No schools. All night it is dark. We need one generator. There is no money. No doctor." She pointed to an old man. He had sores on his feet. He displayed them. "No insulin," the woman said.
Major Bob wanted to know if there had been any looting or threats of violence in the village. "Are you safe?" he asked.
"Safe?" she replied. "Too safe! Ignore safe!"
Major Bob went to the Army Engineers. "We've got a little hearts-and-minds situation in our own back yard," he said. The officer on duty looked harried. The engineers knew about the problems in the French Quarter, but the French Quarter was hooked into the airport, and they hadn't been able to get the airport's main power and water systems working. Anyway, orders would have to come from above.
"Which means a written report," Major Bob said, eyeing me. Major Bob is an infantry officer by training and inclination. But the Army thinks about its field officers what Harvard M.B.A.s think about themselves: They can run anything. "I get to rotate out of Public Affairs next year," Major Bob said.
The most tendentious journalists don't write to accomplish much except getting read. The most meticulous fact-checking departments don't check actual knowledge. It's remarkable how much about pipelines and electrical grids one reporter can be ignorant of. The report was delivered, and it joined, electronically, a queue of complaints, demands, and emergency appeals.
I went into Baghdad, tagging along on military errands. The city looked more like the target of a trash collectors' strike than the target of shock and awe. There were burned-out military vehicles here and there, but garbage was everyplace. The destruction from the air attacks had been highly specific, though awesome within its specificality. Uday Hussein's Olympic-training facility and supposed personal headquarters was erased, the rubble too flat for low hurdles. The surrounding walls were untouched. An Interior Ministry building was a ten-story cinder, like the readable ash from a sheet of burned newspaper. Damage caused by the armor attack on the city was noticeable because it was newer, crisper, and more clean-edged than the general deterioration of Baghdad.
The men in the streets were sullen, and they were enthusiastic, and they were both. They stood with their buddies, glaring at American soldiers, and then rushed up to those soldiers to try to sell them something or change money. The women in the streets looked put-upon and harassed. Keeping the kids from playing on the tanks was just one more damn thing. The little boys carried ballpoint pens and wanted to have their arms signed by the soldiers.
Broken glass and twisted window grates from looting were all over the sidewalks. The improvised stalls of tradesmen were all over the sidewalks too. How much of the trade was in loot I couldn't tell. The citizens of Baghdad were selling a lot of cigarettes and two-liter bottles of Fanta orange soda to one another. They were busy, though not with brooms and mops. I did see one man washing his car, however.
And there was another man, standing by his car in a long line at a gas station, who hid his AK-47 under his dishdashah as we drove by. The sound of AK-47s being fired could be heard, at a distance, wherever American troops happened to be. Some of the shooting was rhythmic, celebratory "happy fire." Some was not, and came in single shots or short, discordant bursts. The gunfire increased after sundown.
If Kuwait City is Houston without Enron, Baghdad is Washington, D.C., without Pierre L'Enfant. Wide boulevards have been plopped down anyplace amid an absurdity of monuments and monumental buildings and monumentally bad taste. A photograph of the soccer stadium could convince tabloid readers of an alien invasion. To commemorate victory (of which there was none) in the Iran-Iraq War, Baghdad's parade ground has a pair of boxcar-size hands popping out of the ground, holding crossed swords in a metal arch seventy feet high. And there's an identical arch at the parade ground's other end, to commemorate victory some more. The arches were untouched by the recent conflict. They form a moving testimony to the discipline, training, and self-restraint of the U.S. Army's tank gunners.
A U.S. armored battalion had occupied another Baghdad monument, a hundred-foot-tall split onion dome with both dome halves covered inside and out in bright-blue glazed ceramic tile. "We call it 'the tits,'" said a sentry at the monument's gate.
"Do you know what that is?" asked a reproving captain in whose Humvee I was riding. "It's the tomb of the Iraqi Unknown Soldier."
"Yes, sir," a second sentry said. "You'll find the colonel somewhere over by the eggshells."
Actually, the Unknown Soldier memorial was back across the river, at the crossed-swords parade ground. The dome sections (which more closely resemble baboon butt cheeks) memorialize known Iraqi soldiers—the million or so killed in the war with Iran. Their names and military units are inscribed in profusion around the structure's base, and inside, glass cases are full of the soldiers' belongings. This "Martyrs' Monument" is dedicated to ordinary Iraqis, although, according to the armored battalion's colonel, the only people allowed to visit it under Saddam's rule were members of the Baath Party. One section of the interior was reserved solely for Saddam and his immediate family.
Saddam's family, or their moral ilk, had been using the Martyrs' Monument as a chop shop for stolen automobiles. An Iraqi carpenter hired to repair the car-thief damage was scared to go into the forbidden Saddam zone.
The looting of antiquities from the Iraq National Museum was not a good example of America's failure to protect Iraq's heritage. Dug in on the museum's grounds were squadrons of paramilitary fedayeen—not a part of Iraq's heritage that needed preserving. And do you shoot looters? A man running down the street with a 200-pound head of Nebuchadnezzar in his arms can't hurt you. If you shoot someone who's got a Winged Lion of Assyria, he'll turn out to be a museum curator taking it home for safekeeping—or it will be a plastic Winged Lion of Assyria lawn ornament.
American tanks were guarding the National Museum with horse-gone, barn-door-closed acuity. I asked a tank crew, "Do you shoot looters?"
"Our operational orders are supposed to be secret," one crew member said.
"No," said another.
The looting of antiquities wasn't a good example of much of anything, considering where the objects in museums come from in the first place. Also, many of the most valuable archaeological treasures were hidden by the museum's staff. Others are trickling back to the museum. The Sumerian Sacred Vase of Warka was restituted by its liberators in June. According to USA Today, "The men returned the vase because they realized its importance to Iraq's heritage, officials said."
The official in charge the day I was at the museum, the director of research, Donny George, said, "Starting from yesterday we've stopped talking to the media." Television camera crews, news photographers, and other journalists had swept through the museum, grabbing images of pillage and snatching quotations from the staff.
One staff member sat atop what archaeologists call—or will call in a thousand years—a midden pile. The museum's lobby was heaped with crumpled records, letters, bills, and receipts. File cabinets had been pulled into the open space, and their locks had been shot open. The locks had been shot open even on some newly delivered file cabinets, empty and still in their shipping wrappers. The staffer, an older man, smoothed pieces of paper. If it was an important piece of paper, he put it in a folder and sighed. If it wasn't, he threw it away and cursed. Every now and then a janitor would shove the discarded papers back into the unsorted pile. The rest of the museum staff sat around.
I'd come to the museum with soldiers from a Civil Affairs battalion. They were reservists with nonmilitary skills—firemen, policemen, engineers. One sergeant was getting his Ph.D. in sociology. With aid agencies yet to arrive, Civil Affairs had the job of fixing everything in Iraq that didn't need to be killed, although Civil Affairs had guns, too. Donny George gave the soldiers a tour of the museum, and I went with them.
The galleries were a crime scene, but the parts of the museum that aren't open to the public were the scene of something else. Windows were broken. Furniture was smashed. Copiers, coffee makers, typewriters, and telephones had been thrown around the rooms, and bullets had been fired into ceilings and walls. Bookshelves had been pulled over, and books and publications had been ripped and tossed. Archive photos were torn. Microfilm was unspooled and festooned like the remains of a ticker-tape parade in negative.
Rows of ancient pots had been staved in. Drawers' worth of carefully catalogued scholarly fragments had been further fragmentized. "Be careful," George said, "because you might be stepping on antiquities." Thousands-of-years-old crunches sounded under our feet.
The restoration studio was ruined. Tools were bent and broken. This wasn't looting. A gold Lyre of Ur had been stripped of its gold leaf; the lyre itself was on the floor. "Vandalism" was not the word. The Vandals controlled the Mediterranean with their sea power and forced the Roman Emperor Valentinian III to make peace. They must have had brains. The people who did this to the National Museum were brainless enough to have gone to college with me. I remember just such a scene visited upon a persnickety landlord of off-campus housing. But I don't think that the worst of my keg buddies would have trashed America's heritage. The looted Sumerians themselves, back from the dead and as drunk as the lords they were, couldn't get this worked up at a museum.
One of the broken statues looked kind of Greek. "Hellenistic period," I said, in a lucky guess, to George. He smiled at me and began answering my media queries before I'd had a chance to make any.
"There were three groups of looters," George said. "First there were the experts." He explained that they had come equipped with glass cutters and battery-operated saws with stone-cutting blades. They knew what they were after and didn't take replicas or objects that had been over-restored. "Then there were the opportunists." He said that they took whatever they could and did most of the damage. "But then there is a third group—I don't know who they are. I don't understand. They are determined to burn all the libraries and archives in Baghdad, in all the colleges, at Baghdad University. They burned the central library. They burned all the postgraduate studies at the colleges. They burned the library here at the museum—just the library, not the other parts."
While I was interviewing George, curators from another museum arrived. This was the Museum of Modern Art, formerly known as the Saddam Hussein Museum of Modern Art, now renamed (for the moment, at least), as are the Saddam International Airport, the Saddam City housing project, the Saddam Hospital, and so on. It takes a certain kind of name to name everything after yourself. "P. J." wouldn't do: Pajama International Airport, Pajama City, Museum of Modern Pajamas.
The Museum of Modern Art had been looted too. "Three or four hours ago we were chasing the looters," one of the curators said. But the staff had managed to get most of the museum's collection locked in the basement. Now, however, Baghdad's sewage system was backing up. Sewage was flooding into the museum cellar, and Iraq's entire collection of modern art was in peril.
The curators appealed to the Civil Affairs soldiers. "We need trucks," one of the curators said, "to bring the paintings here, where they will be guarded." The men from the Museum of Modern Art said it was America's responsibility. They said it was America's duty. They didn't say it was America's fault. But they were thinking it. And I was thinking that among the things America didn't bomb in Baghdad were the sewer outlets into the Tigris.
Major Bob woke me up the next morning. "The Civil Affairs guys scrounged a truck," he said. "We're going to save the modern art of Iraq."
It was 100º by 10:00 A.M. Iraq's works of modern art tend to the large, also the numerous. We moved them from the mucky basement to the dirty truck as carefully as we could. Seeing a piece from a distance, Major Bob would say, "Now, that's a really bad Chagall"—but it would turn out to be painted in Chagall's extremely late period, when he was dead, and would be signed by someone local. "Well," Major Bob said, "it's their heritage, not ours."
The museum building had been rubbished. A couple of modern sculptures, too big to be hidden, were looking edgy and brutalist and, frankly, improved by the vandalism. Broken glass and shredded exhibit posters covered the entranceway. A young man in a disco haircut, sharply creased pants, and shiny expensive shoes came to the gate. "Can I get into the museum?" he asked.
The sergeant who was getting his Ph.D. in sociology said, "It's very closed."
We dropped a truckload of art at the National Museum, half a mile away. I stayed behind to talk to Donny George.
Returning on foot, I got lost. Baghdad was, again, like Washington: I didn't have to wander far from the edifices to get into a slum. But rather than leave the poor to the vagaries of outdated housing stock, the Iraqis build their slums new. The two-story hovels, with a window apiece, were made of cement blocks left unpainted. There were tiny stores along the street. The shelves were vacant. People were loitering. I heard "Hello, American" several times from kids. I got "Welcome, please" from a couple of proprietors of empty stores. There were a few hard stares from young men, who muttered after I'd passed. There were a few fewer wan smiles from old people.
I was in a flak vest that Major Bob insisted I wear for a visit to Baghdad, and my clothes were khaki from dirt. But I was too old to be a soldier, and I didn't have a television camera, so I couldn't be a journalist. I don't know how I appeared to the Iraqis. Mostly I didn't. I was invisible to the majority of people. Seventeen years ago, in Belfast, British troops had this invisibility. Squadrons in battle gear would patrol the Republican stronghold of Divis Flats, and to the Irish they weren't there. The British have ended up spending nine centuries in Ireland.
I found my way back to the Museum of Modern Art. A television crew from Bahrain had arrived. The soldiers were being interviewed about the importance of Iraq's cultural heritage. An eight-foot canvas depicting an innocent Iraqi being smothered by an American flag and pecked by a bald eagle had just been pulled from the cellar. The TV reporter, Saad al-Hasani, was also an assistant professor of English at the University of Baghdad. I asked him if he knew anything about the "third group" of looters who Donny George had said were burning libraries.
Professor al-Hasani had gone to stay with relatives in the country during the war. His apartment in Baghdad had been looted. He'd expected that. But someone had carried all his books down to the apartment building's yard and burned them.
"I teach modern theater," he said. "My specialty is Samuel Beckett and the theater of the absurd. I'd always had trouble explaining Beckett to my students. They didn't comprehend the theater of the absurd. Then, after the war in 1991, my students suddenly were starting to understand Waiting for Godot. I could tell by the questions they asked in class, by their essays. It was as if they were anticipating something. There was a situation in the air. A student came up to me and said, 'This is just like Waiting for Godot. Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It's awful. Nothing to be done.'"
I told Professor al-Hasani about the book cover in the airport administration-building locker. Would air-traffic controllers and aeronautical engineers be reading Godot too?
"Of course," he said.
That evening at the airport a major and a lieutenant colonel from the Civil Affairs battalion drove the truck around scrounging material to build a latrine. The major was a mechanical engineer. The colonel was an electrical engineer. They argued as if they were married.
"We can build a lighter frame if we stress the plywood in monocoque construction."
"Fuck lightness—compression equals strength."
I pounded nails, rather crookedly. It was an innovative outhouse. Cut-down fifty-five-gallon oil drums were set on airport luggage trolleys so that waste cans could be rolled in under the seats.
"You have seen the backside of war," the electrical engineer said.
In the morning Major Bob woke me again. "We're going to the French Quarter with Civil Affairs," he said. I thought proudly about the written report—for a few minutes. Then the Civil Affairs battalion commander said, "Some Special Forces guys were patrolling through there. They told us it was a mess. We're only supposed to do an assessment, but we've scrounged some tools and we were scrounging around in the terminal and found a bunch of antibiotics and medical supplies the Iraqis had hidden."
We were greeted by the village elder who'd said the water main was broken. Without the formidable woman, he was more talkative. He said the American attack on the airport had come through the middle of the French Quarter. The area had been defended by Iraqi secret police, but not very well, to judge by the slight shell and bullet damage. The village elder said he'd been a fire chief for thirty years. The French Quarter was not a cap to his career. After a secret-police vehicle was hit by an American rocket, a house caught fire, and the entire block burned down. Ten families were left homeless, but fortunately they were homeless already, having fled from the war.
Tarik al-Wasty, a carpenter and pipe fitter at the airport, had spent the five days of the bombing and assault lying on the floor of his house with his wife and ten children. He showed me a hole where a tank round had come into his garden, and offered me tea. His two-year-old son was still terrified, would sleep only if curled beneath his father, and was coughing continually. A medical corpsman brought some drugs from the Iraqi cache. The corpsman tried to explain to Tarik, whose English was not good, that steam could be used to help clear the child's chest. Getting a blank stare, the corpsman attempted charades and was prevented from persuading Tarik to boil his toddler in a pot by the family's nine-year-old son, whose English was excellent.
The electrical-engineer lieutenant colonel had discovered other electrical engineers among the French Quarter residents. They were probing the innards of a transformer. The mechanical-engineer major had found additional engineers. They were inspecting the water main, which had been crushed by a tank. "I think I know where there's a big piece of pipe I can scrounge," the mechanical engineer said.
Major Bob and I looked at the one public building I saw in Iraq that hadn't been looted—a school. There were only a few bullet holes in the walls. The school was decorated with murals of Smurfs and Mickey Mouse drawn, it looked like, by the painter of the Chagalls at the Museum of Modern Art.
The fire chief and some of his friends gave us a tour of the village. The houses were prefab semidetached, and looked like modest European vacation cottages but with bomb shelters in their yards. Recreation facilities had been provided for the construction workers—a picnic area, a swimming pool, tennis and volleyball courts. The nets were gone. The poles were bent double. The swimming pool was half filled with chunks of concrete. The picnic area was layered in trash. The fire chief said something about "repairs forbidden" and that the French Quarter had fallen out of favor with Saddam Hussein. If appearances were any indication, so had the rest of Iraq.
"Having looked at the Mideast," Major Bob said, "I realize how the Arabs came up with the concept of zero."
Will a strong, stable Iraq emerge from the chaos? And is that what we want? When Iraq was strong and stable, it attacked Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars. It attacked Iran. It attacked Kuwait. It gassed the Kurds. It butchered the Shiites. It fostered terrorism in the Middle East.
Will the Iraqi people become part of the modern, free, and prosperous world? That's possible, though I have only one piece of anecdotal evidence to go by. I was riding through Baghdad in the last truck in an Army convoy, with a unit that will go unidentified because drinking is a punishable offense for U.S. troops in Iraq. We spotted a man selling beer on the street. "I'd better stop," said the sergeant who was driving, "and check my windshield-wiper-fluid level or something."
I jumped out of the truck. "Let me do this," I said. "I've been coming to the Middle East for twenty years. I know how to haggle."
"How much for the whole case?" I asked the vendor in pidgin and gesture.
"Twenty bucks," he said.
Twenty dollars was a fortune in Baghdad at that moment. Also, I didn't have twenty dollars. I had a ten and a bunch of Kuwaiti dinars. The vendor looked askance at the dinars. The soldiers weren't carrying much money either. They came up with another six dollars among them.
I dickered with the beer merchant. He bargained. I chiseled. We bandied. A crowd gathered to watch. Some teenage Iraqi boys, seeing an Asian-American soldier in the truck, hollered, "Thigh Cone Do!" and exhibited awkward kicks.
The seller of beer and I concluded a deal of considerable financial complexity involving U.S. dollars and Kuwaiti dinars, with change in Iraqi dinars at an exchange rate determined by consensus among the purchase's spectators.
Back in the truck, as we tried to catch up with our convoy, I did the math. I had bargained my way from $20 to a final price of $24.50. And the beer turned out to be nonalcoholic. Baghdad will be Houston with Enron.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.