Everyone Jumps When It Thunders
In her sixth dispatch back to SQUALL from inside Iraq, Jo Wilding describes a capital city bracing itself for the big bangs, and talks to a Vietnam veteran who wants history to stop repeating itself.
26th February 2003
I wonder what it looks like when the first missile hits a city of 5 or 6 million people. The second bite of an apple is much like the first: it tastes like the first, it has the same texture, smell, sound as you chew it. But until you'd taken that first bite, you couldn't possibly have imagined those sensory experiences. Of course, with a missile strike, there's always the risk that the next one is going to land on you. But I wonder what the first one looks like; what it sounds like, how the air smells and tastes on your tongue, what it feels like: does the earth shake? Does the air?
And if the skyline is collapsing, can you still find your way, or is it like the end of a festival, when all the familiar landmarks have been dismantled and you can't tell which direction you're walking in? A few days ago there was a sandstorm and the air went orange and the sun was blotted out. Will there be any passers-by to stop for directions?
Would the area near the embassies be the safest? Even in the insanity of recent bombardments, where hospitals, schools, wedding parties, de-mining projects civilian air raid shelters and flocks of sheep have been destroyed, blowing up someone else's embassy is still seen as a bit of an international faux pas.
People are reluctant to go into the shelters - the mere mention of Al Ameriya evokes a shudder. To stay in a house, upstairs or downstairs, is to risk being crushed, which leaves outdoors, as far as possible from a bridge, oil refinery, telecomms tower or anything along those lines, but somehow that feels a little too exposed. Many talk about going to farms in the countryside.
Some people contemplate fighting in the streets; worst of all, the suggestion is, someone might put guns in the hands of the beggar children. Waiting for a war to start gives people far too much time for conjecture and conjuring of worst case scenarios. But there are premonitions in the air: the night before last we were shaken awake by a boom and a roaring sound and the earth seemed to wobble. We stumbled to the window but the street was normal. This time it was only thunder. And an oil fire burned for two days. Apparently it's deliberate burning of some kind of top layer of the oil, but it fills the sky with black smoke.
Over dinner in the Al Fanar, Patrick talked about Vietnam. He volunteered, gung-ho on John Wayne and killing Commies to save the world. He got off the plane and saw poor people. I thought, "Is this my enemy?" It was just, he says, poor people killing poor people for the agendas of rich people. It turned him from being a proletarian cog in the machine to raging against the machine for a lifetime, using art, books, films, everything he can.
This time too, the poor of Iraq will fight the poor, the working class of the US and UK, because they, in the main, are the people who join the forces: people who can't find decent jobs in their own neighbourhoods and want to do more than sign on and rot away in call centres. They'll fight for the agendas of the rich. Rupert Murdoch's 137 news titles all take a pro-war stance. The boss says a drop in oil prices will be better than a tax cut.
Hollywood is complicit. Soldiers are heroes in Hollywood and there is always an enemy who looks like the US government's scapegoat of the moment: a few years ago the hero's nemesis was Eastern European; now he is an Arab. Hollywood, Patrick says, helps build the armies, expostulates the idea of saving your country and the world from the other, who is dangerous.
Patrick doesn't have to wonder what the first missile strike will look like. He's bitten into that apple many years ago and hasn't forgotten it. He loves the kids on the street out here. They're bright and funny and resourceful and brave and they're not his enemy.