What Those Plumes Of Fire Actually Did To Baghdad
What still always blows my mind about watching destruction on TV news, as opposed to in the movies, is the perspective. Clever camerawork on the silver screen makes things feel huge. Minor special effects can be tricked out to seem like cataclysmic explosions. But watching the "shock and awe" bombing campaign this spring — the Pentagon's foray into Simpson-Bruckheimer territory — gave me absolutely no idea what those plumes of fire actually did to this city.
Suffice to say, Baghdad is not Dresden. Very little of this city was wrecked by the "shock and awe" bombs. It would not be fair to characterize Baghdad as some post-apocalyptic moonscape of shelled-out buildings. But what got hit, got hit hard. Think of Washington, D.C. Now imagine if the majority of government buildings — congressional buildings, headquarters, White House — looked like the Pentagon on 9-11. Or more appropriately, looked like the World Trade Center on 9-11. Get the picture? Shocked? Awed?
Today, my new friend Waleed and I began day 2 of our tour of Baghdad, starting with a couple of buildings that got razed by the U.S. Air Force. I wanted to see them up close and personal to get a better perspective and because my first conversation with Waleed took place just as the aerial campaign began. We started with the Olympic headquarters of Baghdad. This was the former office and torture chamber of Uday Saddam Hussein, Saddam's crippled playboy son whose reputation for random acts of viciousness made him a hated figure here. Suffice to say, the entire Olympic compound was destroyed, but unlike a disaster site in the U.S., there were no cops to keep us from climbing in it and surveying the damage — remember, no law here. Swamp water has poured over the basement, and the entire building — maybe 20 stories — was blown out and brought down on its side. Waleed and I picked some old Super 8 footage of the Iraqi basketball team out of the rubble. We could see the elaborate basement under the water where Uday would routinely torture Iraqi athletes. Waleed said that if anyone deserved a smart bomb on their head it was Uday. We wanted to tour the rest of the Olympic grounds but we could see and hear machine gun fire about 200 yards away, so we split.
Afterwards, we went to Waleed’s house and met his dad, a former Baathist colonel. The two have never seen eye to eye politically, although Waleed was also Baathist. It seems like everyone in this country — except the Shiites we met squatting in some rubble — are Baathists, because if you wanted to get ahead in this country, you had to join the party. This doesn't mean that everyone supported or even approved of Saddam. In fact, if anyone gave me an idea of what it was like to live under totalitarianism, it was Waleed's pop. Waleed's father was a supply guy, but like many former Baathists, he has been out of work for the last six months and will probably stay that way for a while, considering his high rank in the military. But he seemed like exactly the sort of person this country needs to help in the rebuilding efforts — bright, pro-democracy and capable of running the sort of bureaucratic necessities that will get this country back on its feet. He says the U.S. doesn't want to associate itself with men like him, and instead chooses to bring in outsiders — either American companies or Iraqi expats — to begin anew.
That night, we had dinner with a bunch of Waleed's friends and talked politics. Their views are across the map — staunchly pro-American to "Americans are terrorists." In a way, it was the most amazing thing to watch a bunch of people my age have a fevered political debate, something totally not acceptable here in Iraq before the war. It is something I believe they will now get to do for the rest of their lives.
Tomorrow, we go seeking squatters in the rubble.
Read Day 1: Dangerous Driving And Deadly Donkeys
Read Day 2: Baghdadis Still Have Hope
Read Day 4: Cotton Candy And 'The Matrix' Amid The Rubble
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