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Monday, September 14, 2015

The Spoils of War

Recently I was a guest in a college journalism class where students were reading my book, "A Beginner's Life."  Among their questions was this:  "Did you ever get shot at?"  Well, sort of, I replied, but it's not in the book.  I was chagrined.  So I told them, very briefly, my story of the first Persian Gulf War, which I covered for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.  Years ago I had written a chapter about it, but it wound up in the wastebasket.  It seemed just a bunch of typical "war stories," an excuse to brag that I was there.  Now I was kicking myself for trashing it.  So I went back and re-imagined it, and rewrote it, as follows: 

There is nothing in life so exhilarating, said Sir Winston Churchill, “than to be shot at, without result.”  

I couldn’t see that in my twenties, when I was of draft age and the Vietnam War was escalating.  I avoided the draft by accident – by the time it was reinstated in 1965, I was married and had a baby.  But I wanted no part of Vietnam.  When someone at CBS suggested I volunteer for the Saigon bureau, I wasn’t tempted.  I didn’t want to risk my 23-year-old life, or leave my fledgling family behind.

Twenty-six years later in 1991, the US was rushing troops into Saudi Arabia, following Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.  Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was massing troops near the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and could easily resume his march of conquest, sweeping down through the nearly unpopulated, lightly defended desert kingdom.  The US was preparing to drive him back – out of Kuwait, away from Saudi Arabia and its huge American oil operations.  

By then I had a new family, and six children altogether, two of them under six.  But this time, I felt the urge.  I had survived nearly half a century, and was willing to risk the balance of my life on a good bet that I would come home safe, and war would be an incomparable adventure.   I’d be cautious, and not take any stupid risks. I just wanted to see.

As a journalist, I wanted to witness the kind of destructive power that shapes the world we live in.  There is nothing like a war to alter the course of history.  Developments that would happen over decades in peacetime, or never happen at all, happen within days or hours in a war.  War is history speeded up, news that breaks faster than you can write it.
        
As an egoist, I wanted the badge of honor that goes with being a war correspondent, the badge my father never earned.  In my mind at least, it’s what separates the real journalists from those who would prefer to write about the world from the safety of their desks.  I also had a morbid curiosity about the death, destruction, and danger of wartime.  I’d seen the aftermath in London as a child, and I’d been on the edge of violence in Tiananmen Square, but had never been in an actual war zone.  I wanted to feel the frisson of mortal fear.            
    
As a father, my feelings were mixed.  I didn’t want my family to worry about me, though I knew they would.  At the same time, I wanted my children to have a father they could look up to, not one they felt sorry for.  I felt sorry for my father because he felt sorry for himself.  He never did the things he really wanted to do, never became the journalist he wanted to be, largely because of his own timidity. I had inherited some of that timidity, but I wasn’t going to let it rule my life.  I didn't consult my wife beforehand, or ask permission.  One day I just screwed up my courage, walked into Tom Bettag’s office, and said: “I’d like to volunteer for duty in the war zone.”

A family man himself, Bettag would go anywhere for a story, but he never would have sent me into a war zone on his own.  He warned me on the spot that we might wind up in Baghdad with bombs falling around us.  I gulped when he said that, but the die was cast.  I stuck with my offer, and he accepted.

    
A few weeks later, the CBS Evening News was headed to Saudi Arabia, where an air war was already in progress, a prelude to the invasion of Kuwait.  When correspondent Bob Schieffer heard I was on the team, he was tickled as only a Texan could be at the thought of a middle-aged hippie going off to war.  “I want you to go in with the FIRST WAVE!” he said.  I’ll go in with the last wave, I said.

Our base was a luxury hotel in Dhahran, next to a U-S air base about fifty miles from the Kuwait border.  U-S and British planes were taking off every few minutes on bombing runs, “softening up” the Iraqi force in the Kuwait desert.  Saddam was shooting back with missiles aimed at the air base next to us, as well as civilian targets in Israel.  Iraq’s Scud missiles were crude and inaccurate, but if one had happened to hit the picture window of our newsroom, it would have turned the place into a bloody mess of shrapnel and glass.  Still, the odds of that were low, and we were protected by US Patriot missiles, which were shooting down most of the Scuds.  On display in the hotel lobby was the ripped casing of a Patriot that had done its job – with “Thank you USA!” scrawled on it.  A siren went off whenever an incoming missile was spotted, and the hotel – headquarters of the military press office – had a bomb shelter in the basement, complete with gas masks in case Saddam made good on his threat to use chemical weapons.  I ran down there every time the siren sounded, and dutifully put on my mask.  I wasn’t taking any unnecessary risks. 

Others were not so cautious.  Our war bureau chief Susan Zirinsky would order everyone else down to the shelter when the siren went off, but she insisted on staying at her desk.  And an NBC correspondent, Arthur Kent, ran outside to broadcast every time a missile came in, earning himself about 15 days of fame as “The Scud Stud.” 

I was happier in the bomb shelter, presided over by an officious German whose real job was in the hotel restaurant.  Once when some newsmen tried to walk out before the all-clear had sounded, he blocked the doorway, saying, “Your efforts to leave vill be in vain!”

And who are you? asked one of the journos.  Drawing himself up to his full five feet four, he announced: “I am ze pastry chef.” 

When the ground war was launched a few days later, it did happen faster than we could write it.  US military officials gave us a confidential start time, and said there would be a 24-hour news blackout after the invasion began.  Just a few hours into the blackout they came out with a live briefing.  US troops were rolling over the Iraqi army in the desert, bombing and shelling them to smithereens, burying whole units alive with earth-moving equipment, capturing many more who surrendered and ran into the arms of their enemy.  The pictures that came back were pathetic.  One showed a starved, terrified Iraqi soldier hanging limply from the shoulders of two Americans.  It looked like a Renaissance painting of Jesus being taken down from the cross. 

US Navy hospital ships were standing by in the gulf, waiting for casualties, but there were so few American losses that they were treating Iraqis instead. 

Operation Desert Storm was over in four days, but on the last day, Saddam managed to get in a fluke hit with a Scud missile.  About a mile from our hotel, it came down on the roof of a U-S military barracks, exploding it into flames and killing 28 Americans, the worst U-S loss of the war.  We could see the fires burning from our newsroom window.  

Shortly after that the US called a ceasefire.  During the 100 hours of the ground war, access to the battlefield had been tightly controlled, with just a few pool reporters allowed to go along under U-S military supervision.  But when it was over, and Iraqi troops had fled Kuwait, they opened the border to everyone.  CBS didn’t plan to send me – they didn’t have room in the van, and wanted me to write Dan’s copy from second-hand descriptions.  I wouldn’t stand for it – I’d come this far and at least wanted to use my eyes and ears.  I stayed up all night arguing and cajoling, until finally Zirinsky found me a ride with an AP crew, and the US Army issued me a helmet, a uniform and a gas mask, just in case.  I was ready to roll at dawn.  In the newsroom, a young female intern checked out my army get-up and said:  "You look like a Doonesbury character.”         

A few hours later the press convoy rolled across the border.  As soon as we crossed into Kuwait, into a smoldering landscape of wrecked and burnt Iraqi tanks, I had this spontaneous thought: “At last, the promised land.” 

The tanks and their crews had been literally cut to pieces, mostly by Army A-10 Warthogs that flew low over the battlefield, firing rockets and armor-piercing bullets -- 4000 rounds per minute from each Gatling gun.  I didn’t see any bodies, but I knew they had to be inside the dead tanks, rotting in the desert heat. 

Iraqi foot-soldiers had fled back to Iraq – pursued by helicopter gunships that cut many of them down on the road.  But before they left, they took revenge against Kuwait and the US, burning everything they could set afire, including Kuwait’s source of wealth, its oil.  On both sides of the road we saw flaming oil wells, with huge plumes of black smoke.  Iraqis had set off dynamite charges at the base of each well, blowing the shaft open and turning them into gushers of smoke and fire.  The sky was a sooty grey all around, fading to black in the early afternoon. 
    
A couple of hours later when the convoy reached the outskirts of Kuwait City, the sky was pitch-black and the lights were out – electricity had been sabotaged by the retreating occupiers.   Nonetheless hundreds of Kuwaitis were lining the roadside, and they stopped us for a celebration.  The men fired machine guns in the air as the women danced and ululated. 

We drove through the capital, where fires were still burning.  The Holiday Inn reeked of smoke, but it had survived a parting arson attempt.  Iraqi soldiers poured gasoline on the carpet of the grand staircase in the lobby, and lit it as they left, but the hotel’s steel and glass construction didn’t catch fire.

Somehow I made my way downtown to where CBS was based.  I found my mates as they were setting up to broadcast, next to an abandoned seafood restaurant on the shorefront.  I hadn’t eaten since the night before.  Correspondent Richard Threlkeld took one look at me and opened a can of corned beef hash, which he warmed over an improvised campfire.  I never tasted a more welcome meal, and I will be grateful to Threlkeld for the rest of my life for it.  Then I found my way to a nearby Iraqi trench, set up to for troops to repel a U-S amphibious assault that never came.  Now the trench was our latrine.

CBS people were staying at the Hilton, where the lights were out and the rooms were all occupied by the time I got there.  I grabbed cushions from a sofa in the lobby, and slept on the floor.

In the morning, a producer woke me up to say they’d got a tip from the military – something was going to happen at the US Embassy, which had been occupied by the Iraqis and was now empty.  Somehow I wound up driving a jeep, with Dan Rather in the passenger seat, and a cameraman in the back, with instructions to hurry.  When we got near the embassy a US officer waved us through.  Sam Donaldson of ABC was already there, microphone in hand, ready to describe the scene.  We set up to shoot. 

A US Marine helicopter appeared, then hovered over the embassy building, with a violent downwash of wind that flattened the grass where we stood.   Then a rope appeared out of the chopper and a line of Marines slid down it onto the embassy roof.  This was choreography, probably worked out by the PR chiefs of the Pentagon.  It was the mirror opposite of what had happened in Vietnam, when the last Americans evacuated from the roof of the Saigon embassy.  

I scrawled a script for Dan and he recorded it on the spot.  Marines have re-taken the US Embassy in Kuwait City!  Etc, etc.  Not that anyone was in their way, but we wouldn’t stress that. 

I looked at my watch and made a fast calculation.  We had about ten minutes to get back to the seafood restaurant and deliver the tape in time for the CBS Morning News to lead with it.  Donaldson had already left the scene.  I jumped in the driver’s seat and peeled out.  We tore across town until we came in sight of the seafood restaurant.  There was a huge crowd of Kuwaitis blocking the street, celebrating.  I drove up on the sidewalk!  Then I jumped out, videotape in hand, looking for someone to grab it and rush it onto the air.  No one did.  They didn’t seem panicked, or even hurried.  

It was then I realized we had arrived with an hour to spare.  
           
I handed off the tape, only a little sheepishly, and went to see the celebration.  US troops were making themselves scarce, not wanting to be seen as occupiers like the Iraqis.  But the crowds wanted to celebrate their country’s liberation and thank the Americans, so the press had to serve as heroes.  A huge Muslim woman wearing what looked like a full-length tent spotted me in my gear – screamed, ran up and enveloped me in a motherly embrace. 
    
The celebration went on all day, as the sky turned black from the oil fires.  The waterfront road was clogged with big gas-guzzling cars, honking their horns, full of Kuwaitis shouting patriotic slogans and thanks to the US.  A carload of Kuwaitis pulled up and a woman handed me a piece of leather, on which she had sewn a single word: BEACE.  That’s peace in Arabic, which has no P sound.
     
The next day Dan and I got a ride back to Dhahran, through a gantlet of burning oil wells.  I wrote a radio commentary for him describing the scene, a piece that later won an award from the Writers Guild of America.  That plaque, and the BEACE embroidery, were my spoils of war.

Once again I flew home on a Pan Am jet, with fancy food and wine.  This time I felt fine, quite calm about the whole thing.  Desert Storm was a war fought for an arguably good cause – preventing a tyrannical thug from taking over 40 percent of the world’s oil supply.  It was probably the last time the US was able to act effectively as the "world’s policeman," gathering up an international posse to preserve law and order -- i.e. the system of fixed sovereign states that was the post-WW2 world order.  It was an artificial system -- held in place by the Cold War -- and it wouldn't last much longer.

When I got home, a yellow ribbon was on our apartment door.  Debra gave me one of her radiant smiles when she opened it, and threw her arms around me.  Our three little girls ran up and joined in, hanging from my waist and knees.  Daddy was home from the war. 

As for getting shot at, I couldn’t say it was “without result.”  Other people got killed, just not me.  But I was glad to have finally seen something of a war.  During the time I was there, I felt little fear – just a sense that things were out of my hands, that whatever would be, would be.  War is indeed history speeded up, and I was comfortable, even happy to be there.  Later it reminded me of the calm I felt in the whirling class at Rajneesh’s ashram – things were moving so fast that you didn’t have time to think, or form opinions.  Just whirl, and see.  And write, spontaneously. 

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips 


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