The Short War

By Lee Smith

Like many of us who grew up during World War Two, my playground heroics depended heavily on battlefield fantasies. By the time I was drafted into the real Army many years later, however, it never occurred to me to seek placement in a combat unit. As a Newsweek writer, I thought briefly about asking for an assignment to the war in Vietnam, but the thought evaporated quickly. Then, in a chance moment, I became a war correspondent.

Fortune managing editor Marshall Loeb, who always wanted the magazine to be in the middle of the action—whatever and wherever the action was—decided to send to the Gulf War whichever Fortune writer managed to grab the first visa Saudi Arabia offered. SA was a closed nation, protector of the holy sites of Islam and not available to infidels. But during the war it cracked open the gates a little to let in journalists and a few others. I knew little about Saudi Arabia or the rest of the Middle East, but as Washington bureau chief, I was one big geographic step ahead of my Fortune colleagues: the Saudi embassy was only a short cab ride away, across the street from the Kennedy Center. A few days later I had the visa.

The Gulf War, as you’ll recall, turned out to be a stunning military and political triumph for the U.S. In August, 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia vast oil fields as well. The U.S retaliated with a massive  air attack on Iraqi military installations and prepared to lead a multi-national coalition of ground forces to toss the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Many news organizations mustered their war correspondents and raced them off to SA, where they then spent many frustrating weeks sitting around in air-conditioned briefing rooms and waiting for the coalition ground troops to begin their attack.

By chance I flew out of  JFK on the evening of  February 23rd, ’91 , and while I was in the air, that ground war began and the coalition forces surged north towards Kuwait.  It was good news and bad — lucky that I wouldn’t have to wait long to be a real war correspondent, but travel within Saudi Arabia became more difficult. My plane landed in Jeddah on SA’s west or Red Sea Coast. My goal was Dammam, all the way across the country on the east, or Persian Gulf coast, where the coalition attack was launched. I caught a plane to Riyadh, the capital, in the middle of the country, but east of Riyadh all non-military planes were grounded.  Mid flight to Riyadh I told a flight attendant of my problem, and she introduced me to a pair of fellow passengers who had a car and were going to drive from Riyadh to Dammam. They offered me a ride.

My benefactors were a Brit and a Saudi, partners in a food service business headed towards Dammam to cater to American forces. The desert we drove across was not the sensuous,  golden, rolling sand gathered in waves that you see in movies like Lawrence of Arabia, but the gray and hard-packed sand that you see around construction sites. Still, it was definitely an authentic Middle Eastern experience. Herds of camels grazed on thin grass;  a fence that separated the desert from the highway was a reminder that the leading cause of traffic deaths had until recently been ‘collision with camel.’

When we pulled into a gas station to fill the tank I had my first demonstration of how disengaged most Saudis are from the everyday functions of the workplace. Because the government routinely subsidizes Saudi citizens, few take menial jobs like pumping gas. That’s work for Filipinos and other low-paid foreigners, most of whom don’t speak Arabic. Many speak English, however, so my Brit host ordered the gas while my Saudi host sat silent and helpless in his own country. My hosts dropped me off at my temporary quarters, the Royal Nazar hotel. In the lobby sat a dozen or so robed members of the Kuwaiti City police force in exile. While coalition troops were liberating their city 250 miles to the north, the Kuwaiti policemen sipped Turkish coffee and listened to Tammy Wynette tunes on the hotel sound system.

As the coalition forces stormed northwards in tanks and armored personnel carriers so did the war correspondents, high on adrenaline, in an assortment of rented Toyotas, Fords and such. I improvised a plan to join them. Before I left New York Marshall Loeb told me to bring my camera along.  Right, boss. The truth, which I dared not share with him, was that I had only a simple Super 8 movie camera, and because it was useless on this assignment I left it home.  I puttered around a Dammam shopping mall and bought a Canon Sure Shot, the most amateurish equipment imaginable.

Next I ran into a couple of photographers headed north, one with Time magazine, the other with The New York Times, both decked out with quality professional cameras and belts packed with film cartridges and a spectrum of  lenses.  They teased me less than I deserved about the Canon. “Shoot in plenty of light and don’t try anything fancy and you’ll be okay,” Time advised me.  The New York Times offered to share the driving of his rental car, and I quickly accepted.

Off we sped northwards towards Kuwait City on the most terrifying drive of my life. It was nighttime, and all the rain that falls on SA in a year seemed to be falling that particular night. We drove on a well-paved divided highway under construction, which meant that sometimes we were driving more or less safely on two lanes with traffic going in the same direction and at other times driving on a two lane highway with traffic going in both directions. There were no signs telling us which section we were on, and the rain cut visibility to a few yards. We’d get stuck behind a very slow moving truck. Were we safe to pass or were we in danger of  plowing head-on into a military 18-wheeler racing south for more supplies? No way to know. But we had to get to the front lines in a hurry, or so we told ourselves. Again and again, we held our breath and whichever one of us was driving slammed the gas pedal and sped around the plodding truck.

Saddam’s troops had fled Kuwait City rather than stand and fight, but it was still a dangerous place. On their way out of town the Iraqis had destroyed the power stations, leaving the city totally dark.  Fumbling our way, we finally found the hotel where most of our fellow journalists had holed up, and although it was technically a luxury hotel, we would have been more comfortable in a fleabag. Without power the elevators were dead, and it was too risky to feel our way up pitch-black stairways and be frustrated by locked doors on each landing.  So, exhausted, we slept as best we could on lobby furniture and rugs.

The next morning we learned that some of our colleagues were so eager to get to the action that they had accidentally driven their Fords and Toyotas past the front lines and had been captured by Iraqis. (The Iraqis later freed them). I teamed up with an AP reporter and we roamed the just-liberated city looking for stories and photo opportunities. I followed Time magazine’s instructions and got some fine shots of burnt-out Iraqi tanks, charred hotels and cars with their hoods and trunks popped. The defeated Iraqis had vandalized every car in the city, stealing the tires and batteries to take home.  Patrols of Kuwaiti militiamen, or more accurately militiaboys, stopped us frequently. They were friendly, but automatic weapons in the hands of 13-year-olds create anxiety, no matter what the holders’ intentions.

On the following day AP and I took a drive that, although it didn’t seem so dangerous at the time, was even more perilous than the race from Dammam to Kuwait City.  The fleeing Iraqis had set ablaze Kuwait’s oil wells, a crippling blow to a nation that had no other industry. Kuwaiti officials called a press conference to explain how they would put out the fires.  To reach the conference AP and I climbed aboard a Land Rover in which a Kuwaiti petroleum engineer drove us through a vast stretch of burning wells. The paved road twisted past the wells, which burned and smoked at their tops, and breezes blew oily smoke over the road making it slick. Around the bases of  the wells and only a couple of yards from the snaking road shallow pools of oil burned with flames like those on the tops of gas stoves  What would happen if we skidded off the oily road and into a burning pool?, I wondered.  But I shrugged off the fear, figuring that our engineer driver was an expert and wouldn’t let us get hurt. I was naive. Two months later two British journalists and three other people burned to death in just the way I briefly worried about.

Within a few days the war was over. Wisely, President George H.W. Bush was satisfied when the coalition forces had pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait. He didn’t try to occupy Iraq and turn it into a democracy as his son, George W, foolishly did a dozen years later. I stayed on in Saudi Arabia for a couple of weeks to report and write stories on brave American entrepreneurs, including one who was knocking on doors to find the 100,000 pounds of ice he optimistically promised to deliver daily to the U.S. Army and another who was trying to get a lock on ruined Iraqi tanks he could sell for scrap metal.

And I absorbed what I could of the curious, austere Saudi culture. From the outside Saudi villas were handsome brightly painted concrete and stone. I was never invited inside, of course, but I was told that within the walls Saudis partied. Outside all was dour.  On the streets and in the squares and restaurants there was no music or movies or wine. Women were covered in black burkas and entering restaurants were hurried into ‘family rooms’ to keep them separated from men to whom they were not related.

I met Norman Smith from Colorado, a good-natured misfit who taught English at the King Faisal University Female Campus.  He lectured in an empty room before a television camera, and the signal was transmitted to a lecture hall of two dozen women a few hundred yards away. Smith wore headphones for feedback. “They say silly things like ‘you’re so cute’ but I know that a fat, middle-aged man is not cute so I don’t take it seriously,” mused Smith. “I rarely meet them in person. An occasional pair of eyes or fingertips is as much as I ever see.”

That kind of near encounter was amusing. But the near encounter of a Saudi man and three American women in a hotel coffee shop unsettled me. The three women were black soldiers with M-16 rifles slung over the backs of their chairs. Sitting nearby was a solitary Saudi man, a civilian, sipping coffee and staring into space. What was he thinking? I wondered. Maybe: “How humiliating. We have to rely on the Americans to save us. Not only Americans, but women Americans, black women Americans.”  (In my brief experience the Saudis were not racially enlightened. A few days earlier I had seen a bus full of migrant African laborers guarded like prisoners.)  I later described the scene to a Saudi professor, who guessed that the Saudi coffee drinker wasn’t thinking anything at all, that he didn’t even accept the women’s existence. I believe the professor was wrong and that the coffee drinker was probably feeling the emasculated rage upon which Osama bin Laden later built a jihad

Leaving Dammam, I hopped a train to Riyadh and found myself in the cafe car next to an Egyptian handball instructor who wanted to practice his English. I seemed to be the only Westerner aboard, surrounded by Arab men in plain white robes, their heads wrapped in white scarves speckled with red. All of us stared anxiously out the windows as the train slowed and crept through a furious sandstorm. Outside the camels lay down and huddled against one another for protection. Exotic. And maybe the self-described ‘handball instructor’ was really a spy.

My tour as a war correspondent had lasted about a week, the time during which I was in combat-related peril.  I’ve read that war correspondents get hooked on the excitement, dependent on the rush that comes with being in a danger zone. At the Kuwait City hotel we finally got rooms when the electric power resumed. Walking a corridor, I passed by the room of a woman correspondent and through the open door saw an AK 47 leaning against her wall. Journalists are non-combatants and aren’t supposed to have weapons. One evening half a dozen of us sat around the hotel’s empty, wrecked swimming pool while Kuwaitis half a block away celebrated their liberation from Iraq by firing their captured AK 47s into the air. Bullets go up and bullets come down. Fortunately, none of us was under one. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the stories we war correspondents could tell one another at the end of the day. But I didn’t get addicted to the thrills. My attitude towards combat returned to what it had been for most of my adult life. Avoid it.

3 comments on The Short War

  • sandy

    Lee, I love it!

    Even more than Chappy, because it takes me back to my almost foreign correspondent possibility (which I summarized in my comment to your Chappy), and my taking a train once from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, from where I caught a boat up the Nile, and on . . .

    I laughed out loud at the idea of the foreign correspondents outpacing the fighting and driving beyond the front lines and getting captured.

    Thanks, Sandy

  • Victor dial

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I was impressed by your constantly improvised travel arrangements getting near harm’s way. I presume getting back home was easier
    Best, Vic

  • Gerald Clarke

    A fascinating account, Lee, from avoiding collisions with camels to fields of smoking oil wells. I could picture it all, the result of your good writing.
    Gary Clarke

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