Day 2 — Kuwait City
Dana, 15, reminds me a lot of my little sister. Dana is a high school freshman with long black hair and a penchant for hip clothes. She loves all the latest bands and likes hanging out with her friends. Megan, Biz and Tone (our camera and audio crew) and I met Dana at the Sultan Center Mall just before closing time where she was making a Burger King run with her friend Noor. It’s not like Dana had to rush home and do homework, even though it was a Monday night. Her high school, the American School of Kuwait, has been closed for weeks because it is a target for terrorists.
“I think the teachers were worried because they’ve got blonde hair,” she laughs. Dana was 4 years old during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that sparked the first Gulf War. Her most vivid memory is of her mother prostrating herself at the feet of Iraqi soldiers, kissing their boots and begging them not to shoot her father in the living room. “I also remember a lot of red lights going off in the sky,” she says nonchalantly. It’s hard for me to comprehend living through an invasion. New York City only gets invaded by armies in sci-fi flicks. It’s not a real fear I have, but invasion was a fact of life for any Kuwaiti 12 years old or older. (Click for pictures of Gideon’s Kuwait photo diaries .)
I watched the Gulf War play out on television when I was 13. It was riveting: tanks, planes, smart bombs, civilian casualties, a thousand points of light over Baghdad as the U.S. pounded Iraqi forces into submission and surrender. But ultimately, for all its intensity, the Gulf War never registered as something real in my mind. It’s hard to make those kinds of distinctions — between fact and fiction — when you’re that young. I don’t think I consciously understood the difference between the violence in the Gulf War and “Terminator 2,” which was released that summer, because when I turned off the TV, my life returned to normal. There were no bullet holes or POWs. No one I knew was carted away in the night by an invading army.
No such disconnect for the Kuwaitis we have met. They lived the invasion and know the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein firsthand. “Don’t forget our POWs,” reads one sign hung in a storefront near our hotel. “God Bless America And Its Allies” says another large billboard near the Fifth Ring Highway exit. This weekend, protests filled the streets of major cities around the world — a public moment of moral pause in this accelerating conflict. The young Kuwaitis we have spoken with casually dismiss the marches. They viscerally want to see Saddam Hussein undone somehow, some way, because they know him. In some ways, they remind me of Cubans I have met from Miami who are full of burning antipathy toward Fidel Castro.
The tallest building in Kuwait City is the Liberation Tower — a spindly landmark to the city’s resilience to invasion. There are still Gulf War monuments: shelled-out buildings left as grim reminders in the city’s otherwise blooming modern architecture. Photos of devastated real estate fill the lobby of the Kuwait City Sheraton, hive to most of the international press corps. “Is this the same hotel?” asked Megan when we first saw pictures of the Sheraton from 1991. Faris, our 23-year-old fixer, says that last month the hotel showed an exhibit of photos from Ground Zero of the World Trade Center — a destruction site from my hometown. I try to explain to him just how large the towers were, how they would far dwarf even the Liberation Tower many times over but I don’t think he really gets it. To understand war or destruction, I think you have to speak with someone who knows it firsthand. For that, the young Kuwaitis are becoming my guide to understanding the first Gulf War. I am now making it my business to find out why they feel the way they do.
America is sitting on the cusp of another confrontation with Iraq, a war whose necessity is now the linchpin of a brewing international debate and whose timetable seems already determined. The Kuwaitis want a regime change badly — they take Saddam Hussein personally. How many Americans feel the same way and why? What about the troops who will fight this war? Tomorrow we drive toward the Iraqi border to meet the Marines who will be some of the first Americans to begin the march toward Baghdad … should it come to war.