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12:30 A.M. SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 1991
Somewhere over the Persian Gulf

Somewhere over the Persian Gulf, flying east into the darkness, we leave the story behind us. The past two days have been a mad rush, backwards, like a videotape in fast rewind. I felt like I was watching my month here in the Middle East flash by in reverse, and maybe I'm right back where I started.

Desert Storm postcard
A postcard from the PX.
There was the causeway from Dhahran to Bahrain--we literally flew across it! Instead of hours of delay at the customs station, it was a brief ten-minute flight from the recently opened Dhahran International Airport. Before that, a nostalgic stroll from the International Hotel across the street to the airport, through the parking lot where Rob Ade almost poked his eye out playing nerf football with me and Mike Haan.

I had said my goodbyes to Mike and Styke (or Styke-and-Mike, as they have come to be known) over a final buffet, my last hummus and tabbouleh for a while. We had spent the afternoon swimming and lounging around the pool. (The media pool is gone now, but the swimming pool has taken its place.) Because this is in Saudi Arabia, the men's hours begin at 1 p.m.; the women have it to themselves before that. Or almost to themselves; the CNN office on the third floor has a commanding view. Styke made up a sign for the window reading "HI, BABES," Mike set up the TV camera with the telephoto lens, I wired the picture into the large TV in the lounge area, and we sat back and watched one last CNN live shot from Saudi Arabia. I know it sounds juvenile, but we sure enjoyed it.

It was almost as enjoyable as the first hot bath I had taken in over three weeks. This came in the wee hours of Friday morning, after a hectic Thursday night. We had been out shopping till well past midnight, trying to beat the Sabbath deadline. The shopping district was mobbed with many other souvenir hunters, American G.I.s looking especially conspicuous in their civilian clothes. I snatched up whatever items I could find: a clock with Arabic numerals, cassette tapes of traditional music, another headdress, some brass toy tea sets, a baby dress for Becky.1 I passed up the Iraqi Saddam dollars--they were selling for $30 there in Dhahran.

Kuwait Freedom bumper sticker
A bumper sticker with the flag of Kuwait:
25 February 1991
Kuwait Freedom
There was a good reason for this mad spree. When I had arrived in Dhahran Thursday evening, I had learned that I was leaving in only 24 hours, a full day ahead of what I thought had been scheduled. But I didn't really mind since I was already in overdrive from the trip down out of Kuwait. I drove the stretch from the border, a four-hour drive that I did in three. Kilometers are much like foreign currency; you tend to spend them with no concept of their relative value. On a dark, empty freeway you just settle into a comfortable speed, and mine happened to be 160 kph. In an air-conditioned sedan there is a certain Zen to cruising like that; even the soft chime of the speedometer alarm adds to the meditative state, urging you on while reminding you you're exceeding the 120 kph speed limit. I did a little mental arithmetic as I drove, and the results were surprising; the legal limit was 70 mph, and I was doing well over ninety. The fastest I had ever driven, but just the same it didn't feel dangerous at all--except when we came up on military flatbed trucks with no tail lights hauling Abrams tanks. Like Saddam's army, we wouldn't stand much of a chance against one of those.

But we made up a little of the six hours we had lost on the other side of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. There we had barely scraped our way through a traffic jam that could never be duplicated outside a Muslim country. Things were going well on our drive, up until the last mile before the customs checkpoint. The flyaway satellite engineer Bill Howard was driving, and Tokyo sound tech Bill Albers was keeping him company with nonstop chatter. I was dozing with my Walkman on2 in the back seat. When I woke up the two lanes of traffic on the freshly repaired freeway were slowing to a crawl. Like any normal zahahfi Amerikahn, we eased out of the traffic and began passing cars to the left, making for our rightful place at the head of the line. Of course others had the same high opinion of themselves, so soon we were three stalled lanes instead of two. So we started a fourth lane, and even a fifth. Then we began encroaching into the single lane of northbound traffic. But it was to no avail, because eventually we all would have to pass two abreast into the Saudi border crossing gate. A thousand yards short of this funnel, we ground to a halt, and there we sat. For six hours.

Yes, we did creep forward, one painful inch at a time. And it got ugly as the hours drew on. Hemmed in on all sides, no way to back out, on one was willing to surrender one precious inch of hard-fought progress. Least of all our own driver, Flyaway Bill. He cursed and gesticulated with the best of them, in his own language. He nudged bumpers and scraped fenders, forcing his way through the wild melee. It's easy to say you spent six hours driving half a mile, but it's hard to explain how you survive it. I got out a lot and walked around; that is, when there wasn't another vehicle wedged up against my car door. I couldn't see how far back the pile-up went, but there were thousands of cars. I learned that a rumor had swept Kuwait the day before, warning that the border would be closed for three days to allow for massive troop movements. I can't say whether this came true, but the Kuwaitis believed it. They piled into their cars and headed south to beat the rush. And we're not talking about any "Grapes of Wrath" poor trash migration, either. Half were in big four-wheel-drive wagons, the other half in Mercedes Benzes. You might expect the border guards to size up the potentially explosive situation and do something to expedite the customs procedures, but don't forget we were dealing with Saudis. They just went about their business, shuffling us through two by two. Our turn at the gate came just about at sundown. We got a perfunctory rubber stamp and were waved through, just as it should be. And I will say one thing I got out of the experience: being completely unprepared for this day-long delay, I was finally forced to do my fasting for Ramadan...

...And some soul searching; my own soul, and what I had divined of many others. Personally, I had gotten out of the experience pretty much what I had hoped for: a change of scenery, a little adventure, lots of exposure to new people, places, and ideas. Professionally, I had made the contacts I had expected. On an emotional level, I don't feel too touched by the sights--I was already cynical about the cause going in, and there wasn't much I encountered to change that. Moreover, I consider myself unscathed, through luck and circumstance. I never saw a shot fired in anger, never laid eyes on the dead body of another human being. So I still know nothing of war. I try to be grateful.

CNN compiled a book containing dozens of editorial cartoons,
all about the network's impact on coverage of the war.
Book of editorial cartoons
But the media war was hot and heavy, and I thrilled to that battle. This was TV news at its height--of accomplishment, expertise, glory and absurdity. All in all it was a stunning victory for our side, and the impact will be felt on broadcast news far into the future and around the world.

A close parallel to the stunning victory achieved by the allied (read "American") forces on the battlefield. One major in the army artillery whom I was chatting with at the airport tonight referred to it grandly as "The One Hundred Hours." That really does sum it up--just 4 days of a juggernaut advance which swept everything in its path. Preceeded, of course, by six weeks of the heaviest aerial bombardment ever unleashed upon this earth. Against an enemy with no defense against it other than to curl up and pray. The Major did surprise me with one candid comment; he said, "All it takes is money." America spared nothing in this effort to exert its will, and the result was impressive. Our country has certainly found something it is good at, and it has the best bombs money can buy. But it can be said of these warriors who use them that they, too, never fired a shot in anger when they pushed the buttons on their electronic fire control apparatus. And they likely never saw the dead bodies of the human beings they destroyed. So they too still know nothing of real war, and for that I don't know if I should be grateful.

But those who do know all about war are the people of the Middle East. They have known it intimately since Cain and Abel played as young boys, and now they know all its latest technical advances. The Major worried that ten years from now the cluster bomblets he fired from his rocket launcher will be killing Arab children not yet born. I worry that ten years from now that will be the only lasting effect of his splendid One Hundred Hours. Already the killing begins anew, inside Iraq so none of our concern. Kuwait has moved backward in time at least half a century to a time when it was a mere speck of impoverished desert. And Saudi Arabia buries its head in the sand, pretending it can still live in the days of the Prophet. For all its progress, civilization continues to fall behind.

But right now I am rushing forward, around the world, over new and unexplored territory. A new dawn glows on the horizon. Next stop: Bangkok, and that should be a whole different story.

1Editor's note, 2011: Becky was 2 years old--my eldest, oldest, and only granddaughter at the time. I was an old grampa at 37.

2Editor's note, 2011: Does anyone not know what a Walkman was? It was the i-Pod of two decades ago, and it played cassette tapes.

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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times