KUWAIT — To all intents and purposes, Kuwait City Airport doesn’t look much different from Newark, Nashville or Phoenix. There is the Starbucks, Burger King, Hertz, Longines, and all the other familiar names.
The only difference is the number of people walking around in burnooses and desert headdress. The women affect the same attire but with a more panache. I only see two women in full burqas — BMOs (“black moving objects”), as cynical Arab young men call them. Instead, most combine the traditional headscarves with makeup and bold hairstyles so they come off looking very fashionable.
If East and West are ever going to meet, Kuwait might be a good place to start. Of course it helps that the 2 million Kuwaitis share the Burgan Oil Field, after Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar the world’s second largest. Each Kuwaiti citizen receives about $80,000 in royalties — but don’t think of applying, your ancestors had to have been there around the birth of the Prophet.
I know all this because Staff Sergeant Kevin Buckley, my media escort, has taken the time to learn about his host country. Kuwait is the main entry to Iraq and Buckley has spent much time ushering reporters through its gates. From the airport it’s an hour’s drive to Ali Al Salem, a former Kuwaiti military facility now occupied so inconspicuously by U.S. military that it hasn’t even bothered to change the name. At Ali Al it can then be a five-day wait before you catch a C-130 transport to Baghdad International Airport or points north.
Are the Kuwaitis happy with our presence? Yes and no. “See the way all these palm trees are lit up like Christmas?” says Buckley as we negotiate freeways worthy of Los Angeles. “They’re celebrating Independence Day this week. It’s the day Saddam was kicked out of Kuwait.” As I recall, we had something to do with that, didn’t we?
WHILE WE WAIT FOR another reporter to arrive, Buckley explains the hagiography of the headdresses. “They all represent different clans or families,” he explains. Some wear black robes, some gray, others have headdresses with rolled brims that are vaguely reminiscent of cowboys. “The red-checkered headscarf means you’ve done your haj to Mecca,” he says. “You’re supposed to do it once in your life. You should see this airport around Ramadan, when most people make the trip. You can’t move.”
All this is a reminder of one of the central problems of the Middle East — politics are still essentially tribal. The coded attire reminds me of a Boy Scout jamboree where everyone wears the same uniform but with subtle differences distinguishable only to an insider. Strangely, it also reminds me of Hassidic Jews in my Brooklyn neighborhood who sport specific hats or side curls that identify them with a particular sect. Jews and Arabs are, after all, both Semites and — strange as it may seem — the Israelis were originally just another Middle Eastern tribe.
In Western culture all this was overcome by an ancient reformer named Cleisthenes — hardly a household name but one of the most important men in history. Around 500 B.C., in one of their endless efforts to restore civic peace, the Athenians granted Cleisthenes the job of rewriting the constitution. To that point political power had been vested in four main tribes. Faced with these on-going blood rivalries, Cleisthenes came up with a remarkable new idea. People should vote according to where they live. He drew up geographic districts, calling them “demes” — from which the term “democracy” emerged. In our best moments, we have pursued it ever since — even though the old impulse to vote by blood occasionally resurfaces in efforts to create special “minority” election districts.
THE ARRIVING REPORTER turns out to be a Vietnam veteran from Iowa who, after raising a family as a shop foreman at John Deere in Moline, went back to school to study journalism. He is going to embed with his old unit and write a story for the Vietnam Veterans Association magazine. He is exactly my age and, in the manner of all good soldiers and reporters, we quickly become buddies.
Robert Konrardy was 22 in 1964 when, along with 33 other recent Iowa college grads, he enlisted in officer’s candidate school. “We went in as a group,” he says. “Most of us became platoon leaders or company commanders. Only six of us came back. The mortality among unit leaders in Vietnam was very high.”
In November 1965, Konrardy was among 400 cavalry soldiers dropped into the Ia Drang Valley in an experiment with the new kind of helicopter warfare. They were immediately surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese regulars in the first great confrontation of the new war. I had always read of Ia Drang as a heroic American effort but Konrardy says it was a slaughter. “The North Vietnamese were smart, experienced soldiers,” he says. “They saw right away we were using smoke grenades to summon our medevac helicopters. So they stripped grenades off our dead soldiers and set them off to ambush the rescue efforts. My unit couldn’t be flown out. We had to fight our way out of there. The North Vietnamese said later they learned most of what they did about fighting Americans at Ia Drang.”
Konrardy was wounded in the chest and evacuated to Manila. He eventually recovered but didn’t have to go back into combat. “I lost interest in the war,” he says. “I didn’t even read about it. But I kept up with my buddies.”
And so as the conversation progresses, one huge question looms in the air. What was my wartime experience? It becomes so conspicuous that I bring it up myself. “You probably want to ask what I was doing during that era,” I say.
“I sure do,” he responds.
And so I tell him that I was one of those privileged college students who found it all too easy to slip out of the draft and avoid the entire conflict. “I was in the antiwar movement,” I say.
“That’s all right, I don’t blame you,” he says. “You did your part.” Yet I can tell he is practicing anger management and didn’t always feel this way. He suffered post-traumatic shock syndrome and says he is having small flashbacks even as we walk around the base. “I figure going back to my old unit is going to be a real healing.”
ONE THING WE FIND we agree on is that the current war already has overtones of the same kind of quagmire. “I just don’t see how we’re going to win,” he says. “What do you call a victory? No matter how long we stay, as soon as we leave they’ll just start fighting again.”
I tell him my “Bush Should Emulate Nixon” theory, opening up talks with Iran and Syria the way President Nixon did with China. “I’ve always said that, strategically, we won the Vietnam War,” I tell him. “We may have lost on the ground but we halted Asian Communism, which was our strategic objective.”
“I don’t know whether many veterans would agree with you, but you may be right,” he says.
Another thing we both agree upon is that the real tragedy of Vietnam was the scapegoating of the soldiers who fought it. “I never wore my uniform off the base after I got back,” he says. “It was nasty out there.” Bruce Crandall, a helicopter pilot who made 18 rescue landings at Ia Drang, saving 70 wounded soldiers, only received the Congressional Medal of Honor last month.
Yet one of the ironies of Konrardy’s current mission is that many local chapters of the Vietnam Veterans’ Association are now refusing to admit Iraqi War veterans — just as VFW chapters scorned Vietnam vets in the 1970s. “They say, ‘We’re unique. Nobody had it as bad as we did,” says Robert. “But I don’t think that’s right.”
And so within a day or so, Robert Konrardy and I will be donning our armor and flying into Baghdad, he to try to put his Vietnam nightmares to rest and me perhaps to pay some penance for not having any. We’ll be reporting shortly.