My task is Herculean: Take a 22-day road tour of Kuwait and Iraq in August that included comedy shows to 10,000 U.S. and coalition troops, tours of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces, and visits to all the hotspots -- Mosul, Tikrit, Balad, Baghdad, Babylon and Al Qaim -- all via Blackhawk helicopter, and condense it into 1,000 words to fit this space. Whew!
This was no doubt the greatest experience of my life. The abject poverty of the Iraqi people, contrasted with the incredible decadence of the marble presidential palaces, will forever stand out in my mind. By the time the trip was over, my loathing for Saddam knew no bounds. The man was fixated on himself, fancying himself as the modern-day successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, erecting statues and busts in his likeness everywhere. Meanwhile, we routinely flew over small hamlets consisting of mud huts, unpaved roads and filthy water supplies.
These were actually some of the most emotional scenes: Every day, children ran out of these hovels waving at us in our "helos" as we passed overhead.
We saw the occasional Mercedes or BMW mingled in Baghdad city traffic with scores of '70s and early-'80s Datsuns, Nissans and Toyotas, sandblasted and held together with bondo and hope. Most of our travel in traffic was in heavily armed Humvee convoys, but we did make a trip downtown to the main palace in civilian Ford SUVs -- because it was safe to do so.
Which leads to another issue. Sorry, folks, but it is not as bad over there as the mainstream media would have you believe. Don't get me wrong -- people are being killed, explosions are happening and we wore flak jackets and Kevlar helmets whenever we traveled -- but to see the news, one would think that Iraq is a constant battle zone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The media is reactive and sensationalistic: When a bomb goes off or shooting occurs, they're on the scene. But when the military is helping to feed civilians, rebuilding schools or fixing antiquated power and water supplies, reporters are nowhere to be found. Apparently, back in the U.S.A., humanitarian activities don't help sell the advertising.
At FOB Packhorse, the forward operating base that had just received Porta-Potties the week before, an American doctor told about the convention he and others had held for Iraqi doctors from around the area, a sharing of ideas and supplies. I met a female soldier who told me about the thousands of Beanie Babies taken to Iraqi children; another told of a shoe drive in Tikrit.
You hear about electricity being off. It's not because we bombed it -- it's because of decades-old equipment that simply sucks. When we did find functioning municipal power, it was unreliable: Breakers went off constantly, and the entire system was old and falling apart. Same with the waterworks, and same with most of the infrastructure. Consider this fact about Iraqi plumbing: The pipes can't handle toilet paper because the Iraqis don't use it. The only modern, up-to-date facilities we saw were on presidential palace grounds.
I spoke through an interpreter to a mother and son injured during a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a U.S. convoy. They were Iranian nationals who had crossed the border looking for relatives, had latched onto the convoy, then took shrapnel in the attack. The mother had lost part of her leg; the 10-year-old boy's chest wounds forced him to use breathing tubes. Both spoke of the quality of care they were receiving. Later, the interpreter took me aside and told me through his tears that he had expected far more civilian casualties and destruction. Even if that had occurred, he said, it was worth the freedom he now had. "I can go to Jordan!" he exclaimed. "I can go to Kuwait!"
In the next tent of this medical ward, three enemy Iraqi soldiers were being treated, having been wounded after an attack on a U.S. convoy. The nurse in charge spoke passionately of her emotional conflict, treating soldiers who had tried to kill her friends. She was not allowed to carry scissors in her gown in case one of them tried to assault her. These murderers were laughing and joking, mugging for the camera. My own emotions were running high as well.
The big threats are IEDs (individual explosive devices): C-4 packed into Coke cans or bags laid on the side of the road, radio-controlled for detonation. Mortars occur as well, but triangulation technology, along with GPS, can pinpoint the source so accurately that these attacks are akin to suicide if the gunners don't leave the area immediately after firing their weapons.
We flew over huge puddles of oil just soaking into the ground near antiquated refineries. We saw nomads herding goats in the middle of endless stretches of desert. Once, I heard an AK-47 go off just before I hit the stage. I awoke one morning to the sound of machine gun fire. I learned that Army food is surprisingly good, and that when the thermometer reads 130 degrees and you must use the Porta-Potty, you don't need any reading material.
The comedy shows were unreal: Huge crowds, with everyone armed and in uniform. None of the troops could believe we were there, willing to set foot in harm's way to bring them a slice of home, a couple hours of humor to take the edge off. I bet I signed more than 2,500 autographs. The hugs and the sheer heartfelt emotion were beyond anything I have ever experienced. To be that appreciated for what little we did by those who are still risking their lives was an honor I will never forget.
Iraq is healing. It has been raped and plundered by an egomaniacal madman, but that is all over now. I met a hell of a lot of Iraqis on this trip, and they're all glad to be free, glad that Saddam is gone. So am I.
A longer and more detailed report on Chris Warren's trip can be found at www.brickwallcomedy.com.
Publication date: 11/06/03