Sometimes, when we get lost in the stress of networking or the minutiae of editing, we can forget what we’re doing this for. Even worse, after witnessing and reporting on so many awful things, we can get used to horrors no one should ever get used to. We start to expect the destruction of innocent people’s homes, to tolerate the idea of draconian checkpoints between children and hospitals, to simply roll our eyes when entire populations are being starved of basic needs in blatant acts of crimes against humanity. And to normalize the intellectual cowards and moral midgets in Washington who allow and abet these crimes.
Because to feel it all, all the time, is too much of a strain on anyone’s psyche.
But now and then I like to be taken back to the root of things, to the basic reasons we do what we do. Every time I read the passage below from a book called Looking for Trouble by an American journalist named Leslie Cockburn and remember the raw, clean outrage I felt when I was a tender and naive 24-year-old, it gives me a little more energy to move forward.
Summer of 1990, during Operation Desert Shield
Saudi Arabian sand had the consistency of a Southern California beach. When I arrived at the desert camp of the 4th Battalion of the 82nd Airborne, the first troops to land in Saudi Arabia, they had been shoveling it into sandbags for three weeks. The troops were hot, listless, and unnerved about a possible chemical attack. Because they were veterans of Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Panama, they drew the front line. They trained their two-man thirty-one-pound Dragon antitank missiles, which they never fired, on the dunes. They prayed for clear windless days, for a sandstorm would deceive the Dragon’s laser beam, locking onto the grains of sand. Their global positioning system… was melting in the heat.
“If it saves a few cents at the gas pump,” said Specialist Bobby Haig from Mobile, Alabama, soaked with sweat, “it’s worth being here.”
“If we give our lives,” said Private First Class James Woodcock from Bennington, Vermont, “it’s just better that the American people are going to have that few cents difference at the gas pump.”
“Doesn’t that make you feel good,” said General Schwarzkopf, his huge frame sprawled across his makeshift office in the Saudi Ministry of Defense, much of which was emptied out for his use, “that you’ve got young people out there that feel that way about their country?” The general shuffled his brushed cream suede boots. “They understand there’s something worth fighting for. That sure makes me feel good.” General Schwarzkopf did not, however, personally share their spirit of sacrifice.
“If you had your choice of going to war or paying a buck and a half for a gallon of gasoline,” he said brusquely, “you’d pick a buck and a half a gallon of gasoline every time. I certainly would.”
The Muslim prayer interrupted his train of thought. It was piped in several times a day through the public address system.
“If they don’t stop that prayer,” chuckled the general, eyeing the speaker in the ceiling, “I’m going to shoot it out.”
His officers had taken over the Riyadh Hyatt across the street. We found them helping themselves to the smoked salmon buffet with mushrooms in vinaigrette. They could not believe their luck. This war meant promotions, rescue from the peacetime torpor that clung like a wet field blanket to the careers of the post-Vietnam officer corps. They were chafing for Desert Shield to become Desert Storm long before most Americans could find Kuwait on a map. While the mission was still, according to their commander, 100 percent defensive—to prevent an invasion of Saudi Arabia—they were ready for action.
Their men, far across the dunes in scorpion-infested desert tent camps, dined on freeze-dried rations, MREs. We slept on the desert floor with the marines. The temperature never dropped below 90. It was dead quiet except for the scrabbling of scorpions nesting in the marines’ boots. The only edible selection in the rations kit was the packet of cheese and crackers. I wondered whether I should tell them about the officers’ buffet.
THE RIVERS OF BABYLON
After the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm in 1991
The war season had ended with the June victory parade in Washington. I watched M-1 tanks and cruise missiles rumble down the Mall as squadron after squadron of bombers executed flyby maneuvers in handsome formation. The streaking airpower nearly grazed the Obelisk. A Stealth bomber screamed overhead as ANCHORS AWEIGH and GOD BLESS AMERICA floats rolled by. At veterans’ picnics, tables groaned with fried chicken and biscuits. There were sweating tubs of cold Sprite and T-shirts emblazoned with B52, FLY BOYS, NO PEACE TALKS WITH YOU, and 100 MILES FROM BAGHDAD. An Armed Forces Radio interviewer was working the crowd, asking, “How do you feel marching in this parade today? Does this make up for Vietnam?”
That night I stood on the roof of the Lincoln Memorial watching the war artfully re-created in fireworks, tracer fire, antiaircraft bursts, Patriots ramming Scuds, their cascading sparks extinguished in the dark mirror of the reflecting pool. Throughout the celebrations, no one asked or answered the obvious question. What did we do to Iraq? There was a conspicuous silence from the newly famous Pentagon briefers… who had been so fluent in front of the cameras on every numbing detail of strategy and tactics, payloads and kills. What were the consequences of dropping 88,000 tons of bombs? Eighty thousand tons’ worth of ordnance were “dumb bombs,” without precision guidance. Where did they fall? How did the movie end? Andrew and I kept asking the obvious questions. We convinced David Fanning at Frontline to give us the assignment of investigating what had happened on the ground.
As June wore into July, our visas still had not come through. In the meantime we set out for the office of the Pentagon theoreticians, the Strangeloves of the air war. Colonel John Warden was trim, with receding silver hair and eyes the luminous blue of an ice floe. His manner was cool and composed until he stood before his blown-up satellite map of Baghdad, stuck with fifty-odd colored pins. The colonel came to life, his broad hands sweeping over the bomber targets.
He squinted with concentration. “The air campaign was classic. It combined the tried-and-true art principles of war. What we have here is the campaign Alexander the Great would have carried out and probably, in fact, was thinking about at the battle of Arbela to grab Darius and assert his power over the Persian Empire.”
Military history buffs remember that after a dusty engagement in 331 B.C. (visibility was a few yards), Alexander and his shield bearers, brandishing sarissas and yelling the customary “alalalalai,” pursued the Persians across the Zab River and lost him in the Kurdish mountains. Alexander threw his spear and missed, just at the U.S. Air Force missed Saddam, twenty-three centuries and a few billion dollars later. The irony was lost on Colonel Warden.
We tackled the matter of the dumb bombs.
“Of the roughly eighty-eight thousand tons of munitions, no more than seven or eight thousand were precision munitions?” Andrew asked him on camera.
“That’s right. About 10 percent.”
“So why did you have to drop the other eighty thousand tons?”
“Because we didn’t have enough of the precision weapons.” He paused and replayed. “Not so much the precision weapons, but the precision platforms to depend entirely on the precision weapons. Now, the thing to keep in mind here” — the colonel was searching for the mot juste — “is that the nonprecision weapons are just that. Nonprecision. One almost needs to think of them like the pellets in a shotgun shell that you use when you’re shooting skeet. There may be five hundred tiny pellets in one of these shells. If, when you are shooting skeet, five of those pellets hit the clay pigeon, then you see this as being a great success.” He paused thoughtfully. “The other way to look at it is that 99 percent of those pellets missed their target. Which is not relevant.”
Not relevant, I thought, unless you happen to be standing underneath.
In the first ten days of the bombing, the “precision platforms” had been tied up in the top secret effort to assassinate Saddam from the air. When the strategists failed to blow their elusive target to bits, an F-15E being an inefficient hit man, the colonel’s simple strategy of the “inside out” war, crippling the enemy at home behind the lines, took top priority. The key was the systematic dismantling of Iraq’s power grid. The colonel would demolish the electrical system, and with it the modern state.
“The elevators wouldn’t work. The lights wouldn’t work,” the colonel said, picturing the chaos around us if his plan had been executed here on the Pentagon E-ring. “The computers, the electric typewriters, all of these things put such a burden on society that has become accustomed to electricity and, in fact, has based everything on it. Taking that away then creates an impairment which is very difficult to grasp.”
* * *
In August of 1991… we flew to Jordan. Amman, the Jordanian capital, was overflowing with Iraqi refugees. The churches and mosques were filled with distraught families whose visa applications for the United States and Europe had been rejected. Rejection was the norm. With so many thousands of refugees, water in Amman was desperately short.
We had to travel overland to Iraq with the camera gear because sanctions had shut down the Baghdad airport. We rented jeeps from the Bisharat family next to the Intercontinental and drove to the supermarket to load up on supplies. We set out for Baghdad at dawn… loaded with precious cargo, five weeks’ worth of bottled water and foot-high stacks of Iraqi dinars from the Amman black market. The value of the Iraqi money, officially three dollars to the dinar, had collapsed.
The Baghdad skyline was blacked out when we arrived at midnight. There was a power outage. The outlines of the vast city bore a strong resemblance to Los Angeles, low-built and baked. We could see there were still date palm plantations inside the city limits. The neofascist façade of the Rasheed Hotel loomed like a dark cliff against the brilliant starry night. In the shabby upstairs halls, there were half-peeled bureau logos from the departed press.
The hotel’s emergency generators were switched on… Walking into the Rasheed was like entering the theater of the absurd. That first night, Andrew and I crashed a lavish wedding party in one of the banquet rooms. Onstage, the bride and groom sat motionless on heavy gilt thrones, like figurines on a cake. We surveyed the long banquet tables, set with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label for every couple. Upstairs the disco beat throbbed mercilessly, the bouncers culling the crowd to make room for the children of the Baath Party elite. The only sign of privation at the Rasheed was the waiter’s apologetic admission that they had no more tonic water.
By 8 a.m. the next day we were out shooting… Baghdad was a Potemkin city, the neat facades of the telephone tower, the government’s Baath Party headquarters, and countless official buildings masking their blackened smashed innards. The main bridge that gracefully spanned the Tigris was trisected by bombs.
The broad avenues were dwarfed by freshly painted portraits of Saddam, each a different manifestation of the omnipotent leader. There was Saddam the soldier talking on the “red phone.” Saddam the doctor with a stethoscope, Saddam the farmer, the engineer, the sheikh, his hard grin stretched across the landscape…
We arrived at St. Fatima’s, a stone church in a quiet, well-tended neighborhood. The Catholic community, with roots going back several centuries, worshiped here. Twice a week since the war, the grounds were trampled by hundreds of families who came for food. Catholic Relief Services was feeding 100,000 Iraqis. Many of them had been solidly middle class before their boorish Tikriti leader grabbed Kuwait and brought down the wrath of George Bush and Jim Baker. Now they were broken.
Food prices had risen 1,000 percent. Without electricity, the chicken factories ceased production. Animal feed and vaccines were no longer available. Egg production went into free fall, from nearly 2 billion a year to 2 million. A rare chicken in the market, a sad-looking bird, sold for $37. The average Iraqi salary was $450 per month.
Doug Broderick presided over the orderly distribution of bags of staples in the colonnaded garden courtyard of the church. He was the longest-serving U.S. aid worker since the war, a skilled disaster-relief veteran transferred from the Thai-Cambodian border. Broderick inspired confidence. If a shipment of rice had to be off-loaded in Aqaba, and trucked across the desert to St. Fatima’s in record time, Broderick was the man to do it. He was square-jawed and broad-chested, and talked logistics like an army general.
“Right now throughout the country, we have a classic response to a food shortage, pre-famine. You have people selling jewelry here in Baghdad. Your used-watch market is flooded with watches. I saw a mother with a ten-year-old girl selling a battered black-and-white TV. Families are pawning their carpets, their furniture, their gold, their silverware. Anything that has any kind of value. Their cameras, their videos, their radios, in order to get cash for food.” Broderick thought the signs were bad. “A can of baby milk costs forty-five dollars.”
I suddenly noticed that the crowds outside the two locked entrances to the church garden were bulging with women, some in Western dress, others in flowing black chadors, twisting their arms like tendrils through the wrought-iron gates. There were now hundreds of shouting supplicants waving bits of paper that entitled them to food. It was approaching 130 degrees. The women in front were being crushed against the gate, their faces squashed flat. There was a roar and the tall corrugated iron gate beyond was battered until it buckled and crashed open, the crowd rushing through like a flash flood. One woman caught her chador in the gate and was desperately trying to rip it free.
The gatekeepers raced to secure the defenses. Once inside, the rioters’ raw panic that they would be turned away empty-handed subsided. The ladies straightened their skirts and examined their broken heels. The men brushed off their jackets. A line formed like a Safeway checkout. They were once again middle-class parents. Now their children would eat for another two weeks.
* * *
The United Nations had forbidden Saddam’s ministers to sell oil or import spare parts until the U.N.’s conditions for destroying chemical and biological weapons stocks were met. Bush administration officials had confided, however, that sanctions would stay firmly in place until Saddam was deposed. The logic argued on the greens of the Chevy Chase Club was that things would get so desperate in the Fertile Crescent that people would rise up. Sanctions would squeeze them until rebellion was the only course. Everyone seemed satisfied that sanctions were a gentleman’s weapon. Sanctions worked slowly like Chinese water torture.
But the analysts at CIA headquarters, privy to classified cable traffic, were skeptical. Sanctions showed no signs of dislodging the man who was now insisting he was a direct descendent on Nebuchadnezzar, who was rebuilding ancient Babylon with his own name inscribed on every other brick. According to the CIA’s top Iraq specialists, an uprising against Saddam would be the “least likely” outcome of sanctions. Why impose them then? The CIA men shrugged. “We don’t make policy.”
Iraqis told us that is was hard to rise up when you are hungry.
* * *
In the courtyard of St. Fatima’s, Doug Broderick’s conservative estimate was the 175,000 children would die as a result of the war. The harvest was off 30 percent. There were no pesticides, no insecticides, no certifiable seeds, no more Irish beef or California rice. With the bombed power plants operating at 25 percent of normal power, 60 percent of the people in the south were drinking contaminated water. In the town of Basra, the hotbed of opposition to Saddam, some of Colonel Warden’s strategic nodes included the water treatment plant and the sewage treatment plant. The power plant was bombed thirteen times.
“The condition of the children,” Broderick said dryly, “is severely declining. The diarrhea cases have increased by 400 percent. Severe malnutrition is 15 percent. There could be stunting or wasting among 40 percent of two-to-five-year-olds.” The electricity that powered the pumps that powered the machinery that chlorinated the water supply was knocked out. The dosing pumps, the intake and outtake valves, were out of action. Water-borne diseases, encouraged by the burning summer heat, were epidemic. Without electricity, the machinery and computers at the state-of-the-art Rustamiya sewage treatment plant outside Baghdad had seized up. The plant that served 3 million people was now dumping 15 million gallons an hour of raw sewage into the Tigris River. Downstream, we watched children fill their plastic water jugs.
“I see children with an old tin can going out to puddles and fetching water,” Broderick said. “That’s standing water or sewage water. I’ve seen a case of a seven-year-old who was thirsty and took kerosene to drink. When I saw him in Amara General Hospital they were examining him to see if he had permanent lung damage.”
“How much does a bottle of water cost?” I asked.
“Nine dollars.” He studied me in silence. “We are looking at a disaster in slow motion.”
The ancient port of Basra, where the Euphrates flows into the powder-blue Persian Gulf, was a six-hour drive from Baghdad… We reached the general hospital in Basra… The staff was exhausted. The doctors rarely slept. Dr. Eman Kammas, resident pediatrician, looked like a weary Sophia Loren. She let us follow her into wards filled with ravaged children too weak to do anything but stare. The air was hot and fetid. Some withered children under six who looked like small birds were lying two to a bed. Some would die that day. Mothers in black hejab fanned away flies. Dr. Kammas explained she was seeing forty to fifty cases of severe malnutrition each week. She had epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis and was faced with the reappearance of rabies and polio, last seen in 1957. The power was out and the hospital generator was broken. The vaccines that required refrigeration had spoiled. The incubators were shut down.
Basra was the most heavily bombed city in the war. It was close to the Kuwait border and had done a roaring prewar trade as the Las Vegas of Iraq. White-robed Kuwaiti patrons could cruise the glitzy nightclubs to drink in sequin-and-gauze-draped hips and free-flowing Scotch. Here were the fleshpots of Babylon. The old town that the explorer Gertrude Bell had loved so much when she was posted here as adviser to the British colonial administration was still partially intact, the graceful latticework balconies suspended over the souq. Just down the street, the Al Hakimiah neighborhood, which had the flavor of fifties Palm Springs, was heaped with rubble. Forty-eight houses had been showered with dumb bombs. Following the path of the craters, the strategic target had been the local Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. I thought of Colonel Warden’s patient explanation of shooting skeet.
Down the street, we stumbled on a funeral tent pitched by a family holding a traditional vigil for a relative. Among the mourners, we found a marine engineer, Ali Rida, who had survived the thunderous 1 a.m. bombing. He assured us that everyone in Al Hakimiah understood it was all an unfortunate mistake. Eighteen of his neighbors were killed. In the wake of the tragedy, Rida and his family were still puzzled by the air force decision to target Pepsi…
Iraq’s power plants were all state-of-the-art models imported from Japan, Germany, and Italy. In the days when Iraqi oil bought anything and anyone, the engineers flew in regularly from Europe to tweak the dials and ensure everything was in order. Now the Al Hartha plant that served southern Iraq was a wreck. Its towering funnel had a giant hole like a bull’s-eye from an oversized cannon. The heart of the plant looked like it had been attacked by angry dinosaurs. Gargantuan heaps of twisted metal were the product of thirteen bombing runs. The first raid had put the plant out of action. The dozen subsequent raids ensured the plant would never function again…
In Amara, a good-sized city south of Baghdad, we checked the general hospital’s children’s ward. There was a typhoid epidemic. Dr. Amman Beiruti, a European-trained obstetrician, was at his wits’ end. Two thousand cases a day were turning up at the health clinics in the surrounding province. “It’s a catastrophe. Once the electricity stopped, the water pump stopped, homes were deprived of pure water, the processing of sewage stopped. You can imagine, the whole environment was polluted. That’s why we are getting infectious diseases like typhoid. I mean, electricity is not only light—not only light.”
I thought of Colonel Warden’s assessment that the effects of his campaign to disable the electricity grid would be “difficult to grasp.” Watching children die of typhoid allows you to grasp it instantly.
Outside the window of the typhoid ward, there was a bridge that had been bombed twelve times in February and finally cut in two. The bridge was two hundred feet from the hospital. The glass in the entire six-floor hospital building, including the room where we now stood, was blown out.
“February was a very cold month,” Dr. Beiruti remembered. “We had a big problem keeping babies warm, no electricity, no glass, it was horrible. I’ll tell you something. Because of the bombing, a lot of ladies got premature contractions, fifteen premature babies in February. Six of them died because we couldn’t warm them.”
By August, eleven thousand children were dead from war-related causes, mostly from infectious diseases.
“Not one Iraqi baby,” said Dr. Beiruti dolefully, “invaded Kuwait.”
* * *
This narrative took place in 1991.
Twelve years of continued sanctions and bombings followed,
and then another war and occupation beginning in 2003.
Shortly after I read this, I wrote the following in my journal:
Saturday, 1 May 2004. I’m going back [to Palestine] because this feeling I have right now is absolutely inexpressible here. Atrocity atrocity atrocity. Human rights violation human rights violation human rights violation. A hundred dead, a thousand dead, half a million dead. Say it 15 times fast. See if it has any meaning left at the end.
Then watch a neighborhood destroyed by dumb bombs that missed a Pepsi bottling factory. Watch one kid, who might just as well be your brother or your best friend or your future husband, die slowly and painfully and pointlessly and preventably in front of his listlessly hopeless mother because of the policies of men made offhandedly at a golf course in Maryland, and then see how you feel…
[It’s] a frenzy of smoked salmon and champagne and trenches and poison gas. The generals want war, the journalists want war, the politicians want war, the industry men need it, the academics profit off explaining it, the victorious public is entertained by it, it’s orgiastic. For everyone else it’s devastation, cynicism, broken souls, broken beauty, broken potential.
Even if we do install a government in Iraq, it will be as crooked and vicious as any other. It will have to be to survive the mine pit we’ve created out of their nation. We bombed their power stations and call ourselves generous for selling them new ones. The irony defies words.
Then I see another smiling photograph of another handsome [American] boy younger than I am killed in Iraq in ways the army refuses to disclose sometimes, another dimpled athlete just wanting to serve his country, travel, pay for college, and be a good daddy, cut down gruesomely by desperate or crazy or fundamentalist guerilla warriors hardened by their circumstances who don’t particularly mind dying, and I hate that the American boy died, I hate it so much, and he would never have understood just how much he had no business being there, how out of his league and out of his element and out of any sane realms of rational, fact-based justification he was there. The poor dead American boy has been forced into being an appendage of the strategy-makers, the men at the golf course and in the banquet hall and in the war room who are, at the very best, criminally stupid and cruelly indifferent to their fellow humans…
What is wrong with us? Is this just how animals behave, or are we especially bad because we can see our effects if we choose, more vicious because we are so afraid of getting caught, of paying for our crimes, we’re driven to kill all the witnesses, too?…
I want to go to Palestine so I don’t have to keep these feelings and these questions, utterly inappropriate in ‘‘‘civilized’’’ Western dialogue, bottled up. I want to ask them. I want to demand an answer. I want to be one of those witnesses… It seems like the only halfway-dignified thing to do.