Postcard from the Apocalypse
Kuwait is burning. Wish you were here.
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Originally published in Outside‘s December 1991 issue
During the occupation of Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers often defecated in the finest rooms of the finest houses they could find. It was a gesture of hatred and ignorance and contempt. Then, in retreat, the Iraqis literally set Kuwait on fire. There was no strategic significance to this, no military advantage for the retreating Iraqi troops. Blowing the oil wells—nearly all the oil wells in the country—was the environmental equivalent of crapping on the carpet.
Because fierce desert winds would carry smoke and soot at least 500 miles in any direction, Iraqi children would breathe carcinogens along with the children of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Iraqi farmers would likely suffer acid rain. These Iraqi troops, under Saddam Hussein, had done something that no other animal on earth does: They had fouled their own nest.
The conflagration in Kuwait is madness made visible, madness with possible global consequences.
I had spent the Fourth of July and the two following weeks dashing around the burning oil fields of Kuwait in company with photographer Peter Menzel, attempting to assess the extent of the madness. But this day, toward the end of our stay, was set aside for a long, leisurely drive. The madness, we felt, had soiled us just as surely as the soot and the purple petroleum rain that fell from the drifting black clouds. This rain created lakes of oil that covered acres of desert, and when these lakes caught fire the smoke was thick and blinding, so that directions to various wells had to be quite specific as to roadside landmarks: “Turn left at the third dead camel.”
I myself particularly wanted to forget the three dead Iraqi soldiers I had had every reason not to bury. They were still out there in the desert, near the Saudi border. The wind covered them with sand. And then, after a time, it uncovered them.
So: Why not spend the day in pursuit of recreational diversion? Peter and I would climb Mount Kuwait. Go to the beach. See the emir’s gardens. Maybe even take in a drive-in movie. Think about things a bit.
Mount Kuwait sits in an area of newly formed oil lakes, south of the oil town of Al Ahmadi, past the distinctive Longhorn fire, and a few miles off the Burgan road. Because we envisioned a long day, and because the summer temperatures in the desert often exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a good idea to start early.
At 3:30 in the morning the air felt cool, about 85 degrees, and the streets of Kuwait City were empty. The traffic lights worked, but there was no traffic. It was a great place to run red lights, which I count as a fine activity.
A gentle breeze from the north had swept the sky clear of smoke. The city center might have been Miami, except that businesses and homes were abandoned, windows were broken, and the major hotels all showed evidence of recent fires. There were streaks of soot on most of the buildings. In March the city had been covered over in a thick shroud of smoke, and when the spring rains came they fell black and soiled all they touched.
By July, the fires in the oil fields south of the city had been beaten back dozens of miles. More than 200 fires had been”killed,” and the best estimates had another 500 still burning. Fire fighters were working from the north with the prevailing winds at their backs, and Kuwait City was seldom inundated by smoke. Some days were whiskey brown; others were bright and blue and hot.
The outskirts of the city looked like Phoenix, where futuristic divided and elevated highways ran over single-story poured-concrete houses. We exited the freeway and plowed down the two-lane blacktop toward the oil fields. There was a mound of sand and a sign in English that said ROAD CLOSED. As journalists, we assumed the sign did not apply to us.
Levees of sand kept the ponds and lakes of oil from consuming the road. The oil lakes seemed to glow, silver-red, with the light from the fires on the southern horizon. After a few miles, the shimmering in the distance separated itself into individual fires: great plumes of flame that dotted the flat desert landscape. The shapes of the plumes themselves had become familiar landmarks. Some looked a bit like Christmas trees; some geysered up every 30 seconds; some lay close to the ground and seemed to burn horizontally. Not far past Al Ahmadi, the most distinctive of the fires howled out of control. Two plumes shot out along the ground—one to the west, one to the east—and each turned up at the end. The fire fighters, most of them Americans from Texas, called this one the Longhorn fire.
It was close to the road, and the western plume was directed at passing vehicles like a pyromaniac’s wet dream. Here the moonless night was bright as day, only the light was red, flickering, hellish. A 20-mile-an-hour wind carried inky billows of smoke to the south, but along this road and others in the oil fields the winds sometimes sent impenetrable clouds of gritty soot rolling over passing vehicles.
Not far from here, on April 24, a small Japanese sedan had swerved off the oil-slicked road and into a burning oil lake, killing two British journalists. The driver had apparently been disoriented by the smoke and falling soot. Two other vehicles, a pumping truck and a tanker, had apparently followed the tracks of the sedan into the flames. At least one fire-fighting crew had passed by the three vehicles without raising an alarm: Burned-out cars in burning oil lakes are a common sight around Al Ahmadi. Those who finally recovered the bodies had seemed unaffected when they described the horror, but they mentioned it a lot, especially to journalists who assumed written warnings didn’t apply to them.
The sun finally rose, a sickly orange color that I could look directly into without squinting, and in the near distance a rocky butte about 300 feet high, the highest piece of ground in all the oil fields, appeared. It took, by my watch, a little over two minutes to stroll to the top of this bump that oil workers had long ago names Mount Kuwait. It was supposed to be a joke, the name, like calling a bald-headed guy Curly.
The whole world smelled like a diesel engine. There were fires burning in all directions, more than 30 at a count, and they thundered belligerently. The lake below was burning in streaks and ribbons, with the flames hanging low over a mirrorlike surface that was unaffected by the wind. The ground was black, the sky was black, the drifting clouds were black, and only the fires lived on the land.
What I was seeing, it seemed to me, was the internal-combustion engine made external.
The country of Kuwait sits atop a vast reservoir of oil, 94 billion barrels of known reserves. This reservoir is two miles deep in places, and the oil is under tremendous pressure. Drop a pipe deep enough into the ground and oil erupts to a height of 30, 50, 70, 100 feet. Wells are capped with valve assemblies, the oil is transferred to gathering centers, then piped to sea terminals for export. It is used in internal-combustion engines around the world.
Iraqi troops had wired nearby wells to a single detonator. These wires still lay across the black sands. The explosions—dynamite directed downward by sandbags—had blown the caps off the wells and ignited the gushing oil.
Kuwait, on this day in July, would lose about $100 million worth of oil. That was the generally agreed upon figure, though the effects of the fires on the people and on the environment had yet to be coherently assessed. Toxic metals, released by combustion, will surely contaminate the desert soil and the sheep and goats and camels that graze there. Many of these food-borne metals might then cause brain damage and cardiovascular disorders in humans.
Meanwhile, a month earlier, a National Science Foundation team, flying over the burning oil fields, had said that environmental damage was a”concern” and not a crisis. Environmental Protection Agency experts measured pollutants common to American cities—the results of internal combustion—and decided, mostly from planes flying 20,000 feet over the choking hell below, that the air quality was not deadly. Further, the flights proved that while plumes rose thousands of feet, the fires weren’t propelling the heavy smoke high enough into the atmosphere to cause worldwide climatic change.
Still, in April, about five million barrels of oil a day had gone up in flame. Black rain had fallen in Saudi Arabia and Iran; black snow had fallen on the ski slopes of Kashmir, more than 1,500 miles to the east. And no one had yet measured pollutants peculiar to this crisis; a class of carcinogens called polyaromatic hydrocarbons generated out of partially burned oil. Standing on the summit of Mount Kuwait, my own assessment was bleak. The desert, here in the oil fields, was both dead and deadly. It was a sure vision of the environmental apocalypse.
By the time we scrambled down Mount Kuwait, the sun was higher in the sky. A purple petroleum rain had fallen while we’d been climbing, and the evidence could be seen as pinpricks on the windshield. Peter fired up the Land Cruiser, but it was hard to hear the internal-combustion engine over the roar of the surrounding external combustion. I thought about those unburied Iraqi soldiers out near the Saudi border; one of them had been decapitated. In the gathering heat, the oil on the windshield now turned a streaky red, so that it looked like dried blood.
On the way to the emir’s gardens, deep in the southern oil fields, we saw a brown Land Rover, coated in black, gummy sand, parked by the side of the road. American fire fighters drove Ford and Chevy pickups, Kuwaiti oil executives drove Mercedes. The Land Rover, we knew, had to belong to our friends in Royal Ordinance, a subsidiary of British Aerospace. Composed mostly of former British military explosive experts, RO had won the contract to dispose of explosives in this area of the fields.
When Iraqi troops blew the wells, they sometimes salted the surrounding area with antipersonnel mines to sabotage the fire-fighting effort. But what RO was mostly finding were the universally feared Rockeyes that had been dropped by American pilots onto Iraqi positions. A Rockeye is a metal cylinder, maybe three feet long. When it is dropped it splits apart, releasing 247 six-inch-long rockets designed to explode on impact. The deadly submunitions look like fat lawn darts. All over, all across the black desert sands, there were Rockeye submunitions buried about three inches deep. Sometimes the pilot had dropped the Rockeyes too low to the ground; sometimes the submunitions had hit very soft sand. In any event, RO estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of the submunitions were still live. They were black with oil and could be identified only by their three fins. Usually there was a blackened Rockeye canister nearby.
Our RO friends had the dirtiest, meanest job in the fields. Whereas the fire fighters who followed them worked with the north wind at their backs, which meant that they often had blue sky overheard, the RO teams worked in heavy smoke in the midst of the fires, looking for explosives within a 150-foot radius of a burning well.
Three teams of ten apiece were now walking the hellish landscape. I could just make them out through the shifting clouds of soot that blotted out the desert sun. They were illuminated, in silhouette, by a nearby plume of fire some 80 feet high. They walked with their heads down, very slowly, looking like a precision drill team of very depressed men. The Rockeyes were marked with red-and-white tape fluttering at the end of a metal stake driven into the sand.
Later that day another man would come through the field, stopping at each of the markers. He would dig a hole next to each of the Rockeyes, place a wad of plastic explosive in the hole, string a long wire, and detonate the deadly submunitions from a safe distance.
Now, however, Lance Malin was standing by the Land Rover, coordinating the three teams currently walking the sand. The process of locating and destroying live ammunition was called explosive ordinance disposal, or EOD, and I knew it amused Malin that American fire fighters were using the acronym as a verb:”Has this area been EODed?”
He was talking to a man wearing heavy leather gloves. There was a large spiny-tailed lizard, about two and a half feet long, dangling from the man’s index finger. The RO men had found a lot of these lizards, known locally as dhoubs, stuck in the sand and too weak to free themselves. They took them back to their headquarters in Al Ahmadi and fed them bits of apple until they regained their strength and snapped at anything that moved. Finally, the lizards took a ride in one of the Land Rovers and were released in the relatively pristine northern desert.
The RO men had no choice. They had to rescue the lizards. They were British.
Malin stowed this particular dhoub in the Land Rover and asked if I had been to the big mine field that RO was working near the Saudi border.
A couple days ago, I said.
“The Iraqi corpses still there?”
We admitted that they were. Right where everyone had left them. Unburied. For five goddamn months.
There was no one at the guard station that flanked the entrance to the emir’s gardens, a weekend retreat for Kuwait’s ruling family. It would have been cruel to station a man there. Fire-fighting teams had not yet reached the large walled compound—they were working far to the north—and the fires burning on all sides kept the area shrouded in heavy smoke no matter which way the wind was blowing. It was, at ten o’clock on a desert morning, dark as dusk, and the temperature under the smoke stood at 80 degrees. It was 105 in the sun.
We drove through a shallow pond of oil at the entrance and onto a circular driveway fronting a modest group of buildings. There was a children’s play area nearby: teeter-totters and monkey bars coated in oil. On the ground were the oily remnants of a cow that had been slaughtered, presumably for food, by occupying Iraqi troops. There were other black cowlike shapes on the ground, interspersed with the corpses of several large birds, presumably from the compound’s aviary. The largest and highest plume of flame I saw in Kuwait—I estimated its height at 200 feet—boomed and thundered just beyond the north wall.
This fire was a smoker, and it had formed a lake that abutted the eight-foot-high wall. Where there were breaks in the blackened cinder blocks, tongues of oil seeped into a low-lying palm orchard. These small rivers were burning and running down irrigation ditches, where they lapped at the tree trunks.
My boots were caked with a black, sandy muck so that I walked in a clumping, stiff-legged manner, like Frankenstein’s monster. Visibility was limited to about 15 feet, though I could see, through the falling soot, the large fire and half a dozen others leaping above the north wall. I moved toward them, careful to avoid stepping on the nubbly tracks of coke, a rocky, coallike by-product of the burning oil. In some places the coke was several feet deep, but it was also possible that the coke could be mere scum over a burning stream below. Crack the coke, I thought, and the entire track could reignite.
Presently I saw a man-size break in the wall and moved toward it through the swirling, granular darkness. The inferno beyond lit the break with a shifting, red-orange light, and I could feel the heat on my face like a bad sunburn. Everything that wasn’t burning was black: the earth, the familiar shapes of the trees, the animal carcasses that littered the place. This was ground zero for the largest man-made environmental disaster in history. It was a perfect vision of hell.
I moved through the break in the wall and stopped. The next step would put me in the burning lake, which was throwing up the thickest, grainiest smoke I had yet encountered. It blinded me and made my eyes water. Despite the bandana I wore over my nose and mouth I found myself choking, and then I was coughing in fits that bent me over at the waist.
It was a sudden misery, and yet something that lives in my soul—some compelling, god-awful urge—found this horror grotesquely enthralling. It is the same urge, I think, that drives us to observe the destructive effects of a hurricane or tornado, an avalanche or flood. We shudder deliciously in the face of incomprehensible forces, in the wake of events that insurance companies call “acts of God.”
But this was an act of Man, which made it a palpable evil: madness made visible in flame.
I fled back into the black gardens, clumping over the burning trenches, coughing uncontrollably as tears streamed from my eyes.
On our way back north to the Al Ahmadi drive-in we decided to stop and see how Safety Boss was doing on its fire. Safety Boss Ltd. is a fire-fighting crew out of Calgary, Canada. The other three outfits fighting the fires—Boots & Coots, Red Adair, and Wild Well—were all from around Houston. All were experienced pros, good teams that worked well together.
Safety Boss—I loved the name—hadn’t been in the business nearly as long as the other companies, but the Calgary group thought its men worked safer, harder, and dirtier than anyone else. This was a matter of constant argument. Every fire fighter thought he worked harder, safer, and dirtier than anyone else.
Safety Boss had started on this new well yesterday and thought it would have it under control today. That was fast: I had watched some other fire fighters work two full weeks to extinguish a particularly nasty smoker.
The road here was a newly plowed lane—sandy white against the oily desert—built in part through an oil lake that was showing a bit of ripple under a freshening afternoon wind of about 40 miles an hour. The wind had swept the area clear of smoke, and the sky was clear. We drove past burned- and bombed-out Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, bunkers, and ammunition depots. Every half-mile or so we passed a Rockeye canister. Red-and-white RO marking tape waved on metal spikes, indicating that the field to the south hadn’t been fully EODed.
It was pleasant to breathe fresh air again after the burning oasis we had just visited. In March the town of Al Ahmadi had looked much like the emir’s gardens, and doctors there had been treating a large number of respiratory complaints. Now, with the fires beaten back around the town, the air was still smoggy, but at least you could see through it.
One foreign industrial-health specialist at the hospital in Al Ahmadi had shown me a chart indicating that sulfur dioxide levels had dropped to the point where they were hardly measurable. A Kuwaiti chemist had argued with the man: The industrial-health specialist was measuring known pollutants, the by-products of internal combustion; how could he—how could anyone—know what toxic substances were being released by all the external combustion surrounding the town?
The chemist was one of the few Kuwaitis I met who seemed concerned about the level of toxins in the air. People in Al Ahmadi, for instance, having undergone months of smoky dusk at noon, now lived under mostly blue skies. The air was breathable, it had no odor, and things could only get better. So they seemed to think. The chemist believed that it would be years before anyone knew for certain just how badly the Kuwaiti people had been poisoned.
Safety Boss was now just up the lane. We turned, as we had been instructed, at the third dead camel, which was a rounded, camellike lump of tar lying on its side and baking in the sun. Arranged to the north of a 70-foot-high plume of flame were a few three-quarter-ton American pickups, a backhoe with an 80-foot-long shovel, two water tankers, an 18-wheel pumping truck, a huge crane, and a bulldozer with a tin shed on top to protect the operator from the heat. There was also an 18-wheel mud truck, an indication that Safety Boss thought it would have the fire out momentarily. Mud trucks are called in just before a fire is killed.
The plume of flame billowed orange and black against the blue sky above and the smoke to the south. I had spent days staring at such plumes. They were transfixing. You couldn’t be near them and not stare. They were hell’s lava lamps.
Two man-sized backless tin sheds had been erected a hundred feet or so from the fire. Large hoses ran from tanks of water, though the pumping trucks, and up to the sheds, where they were mounted on tripods like heavy high-power rifles. There was a man in each shed, working the hose through a rectangular slit in the front of his enclosure.
A crew foreman gave me a hard hat and permission to walk up to the sheds. I had a scientific thermometer to measure the heat near the fire, but it was useless. At one o’clock in the afternoon it was already 122 degrees. The thermometer pegged at 125.
One of the men had his hose trained on the arm of a backhoe that was chopping away at what had been a seven-foot-high mound of coke at the base of the well. The coke accounted for the curious shapes of the fires, bending and twisting the flame as it accumulated. It was necessary to clear the wellhead of coke before it could be capped.
The concussive stress on the backhoe, combined with the heat, often resulted in broken shovels. This one was digging close to the wellhead, and one of the hoses was trained on its dinosaur head, keeping it cool.
The backhoe swung around and deposited another shovelful of steaming coke on the ground 80 feet from the well. Because this coke, even 80 feet away, could reignite the well once it was extinguished, the bulldozer quickly pushed a mound of sand over it.
The fellow manning the water monitor in the shed where I stood was spraying the fire. My completely useless thermometer said 125 degrees. It was hotter than that. There was no talking above the jet-engine howl of the fire, and though I wore earplugs I could feel the sound reverberating in my chest. The ground literally shook under my feet.
The billowing plume of fire looked as fierce as any burn I had seen, but it had already been beaten. When the backhoe finished its work, one man trained a stream of water at the wellhead. About 15 minutes later the fire went out. But only at the wellhead. The geyser of oil above it was still burning. And then both hoses started putting the fire out from the bottom of the geyser up.
When the plume had been killed to a height of perhaps 20 feet, it reignited from below. The hoses started again. It only took a few minutes for the fire to surrender at the wellhead. When the hoses had beaten it up to the 20-foot level, one held steady, right there, at the point where the fire wanted to reignite. The other worked its way up the wavering plume and when the fire was out to a height of 30 feet the whole thing died, puff, like that, revealing a gusher of rusty black oil shooting 70 feet into the air.
In the relative silence I heard the crump-crump-crump of a controlled RO explosion to the south. A few hundred yards away, in the smoke, another depressed drill team was wheeling slowly around a nearby burning well.
The Safety Boss crew moved back behind its trucks. Only two men would work with the damaged wellhead. It was the most dangerous job for a fire fighter. The first order of business was to remove the wellhead. There were bolts to be loosened—bolts that had been fused by explosives and fire—but sparks from power tools could turn the gusher above into a massive fireball. The men used wrenches and hammers made of a special alloy that didn’t spark, and they worked in a downpour of oil. The black pool they stood in was hot and burned their feet so that every few minutes they jumped away from the wellhead and let the men with hoses spray them down.
Half a dozen men hooked a series of hoses to the mud truck and ran the line toward the well. A new wellhead was lowered onto the gusher with a crane. Two men with ropes directed its fall, then bolted it into place. Oil erupted out of the new wellhead as before, but this assembly had a pipe projecting from its side.
The hose from the mud truck was screwed onto the side pipe. At a signal, the mud man began pumping a mixture of viscous bentonite and weighty barite into the well. This “mud” had been formulated to be much heavier than oil, and it was pumped into the well under extremely high pressure. The gusher dwindled to 30 feet, to 20, to ten, and then it died, smothered in mud.
No one shouted, and no one shook hands. These men had been working since five in the morning. It was now past two in the afternoon, and they were ready to move out, to get to the next well.
The only break the Safety Boss crew had had all day was a brief catered lunch. A few of the men had chosen to eat several hundred yards away, near a bombed out Iraqi tank. There were always interesting things to be found in the tanks: live ammunition, helmets, uniforms, diaries, war plans, unit roasters, oil-smeared pictures of Saddam Hussein.
Near this tank, the crew had found a black, man-shaped lump of tar lying on its back with black clawlike hand raised in death. Graves details had long ago buried all the dead they could find but hadn’t been able to work their way through the choking smoke of the oil fields, over land that had yet to be EODed. The Safety Boss crews, which were working farther south than the other companies, were always finding bodies: the bodies of men who had fought for oil and died for oil and finally, horribly, been mummified in oil. The Safety Boss crew had buried this soldier on its lunch break. They had buried him where he fell and driven a stake into the ground to mark his final resting place. They always buried the dead they found.
A huge bomb crater graced the entrance to the Cinema Ahmadi Drive-In, which was baking in the heat under relatively blue skies. Surrounded by a high, white cement fence and featuring an immense screen, it was perhaps the most luxurious and high-tech drive-in on earth. Every speaker post featured a thick hose ending in a device that looked like something that might be used to clean draperies but in fact provided air-conditioning for each car. Occupying Iraqi troops had ripped the gadgets off each and every post so that the place as a whole looked like an explosion in a vacuum cleaner factory.
The theater was otherwise empty except for a few late-model American cars that had been stripped of their tires. The doors were open and the windshields had been smashed. The wind, now gusting to 50 miles an hour, was the only sound inside the world’s most luxurious drive-in theater.
In the refreshment stand, behind a broken window sporting an advertisement for Dr Pepper, I found a number of Iraqi helmets, uniforms, grenades, rifles, and ammunition clips. The troops had defecated in the projection room, which they had also thoroughly trashed. Dozens of reels of film had been methodically cut up into four-inch pieces. That would teach those Kuwaitis, all right: Rip out their air conditioning, crap in their projection room, and cut up their film! Ha!
I held one of the film strips up to the light: a lovely Arab woman was comforting a sick old man. Other strips featured other lovely Arab women in family situations: cooking, eating, tending children.
These gentle family films hardly seemed appropriate for a postapocalyptic drive-in. This was Mad Max territory, this was Road Warrior turf. Australian director George Miller’s vision of postnuclear desolation—depraved individuals driving a disparate variety of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines and battling each other for…well, for oil—seemed, in this place, less a B-movie triumph than a sagacious prophecy.
Scenes from just such a movie were being played out in the Burgan field every day. Caravans of odd vehicles moved slowly though the darkness at noon, their headlights pathetic against the swirling smoke. Sometimes they were illuminated by the flickering light of a nearby fire: a few pickups, an 18-wheel mud truck festooned with valves, a bulldozer with a metal enclosure, a huge backhoe…all these vehicles, most of them like nothing seen anywhere else on earth and all of them moving against a backdrop of fire, deeper into the blackness, into the smoke and soot and falling purple rain.
The postapocalyptic town of Dubiyah, 45 minutes south of Kuwait City, was a fenced-off vacation community for mid-level Kuwaiti oil executives. Iraqi troops had thought to make a stand here, and the beaches were very obviously mined. I could see a number of Italian-made mines about the size and shape of flattened baseballs littering the sand. They were designed to maim, to tear a man’s leg off at the knee. It takes several men to care for a wounded soldier. The mines, which didn’t kill, were therefore militarily efficacious. A few weeks earlier, a Kuwaiti teenager, ignoring the posted signs, had strolled out onto the beach and lost a leg for no military reason whatsoever.
Now the town was deserted. The wind had swept the skies clear of smoke, but the sea itself, washing up onto the mined beaches in sluggish waves, was covered over with a faint rainbow sheen of petroleum. Dead fish rotted on the beach next to the mines.
Sometime in mid-January, Saddam Hussein’s troops had purposely spilled an estimated six million barrels of oil into the gulf. The spill was actually a series of releases, with main dumping on January 19 at Sea Island, a tanker-loading station not far from Dubiyah. Prevailing winds had carried the massive slick south, sparing Kuwait. Saudi Arabia took the brunt of the spill, and its beaches had become heavy mats of tar. The glaze of oil here, off Dubiyah, had come from the petroleum rains, from rivers of oil that had flowed from the fields to the sea.
Closer to where I stood, the beach that fronted the deadly sea was decorated with a double row of concertina wire, and behind the concertina wire was a trench reinforced with cement blocks that stretched for miles. There were houses three rows deep beyond the trench. They were blocky cement buildings with faded lawn chairs and tattered umbrellas on concrete patios. Most of them were undamaged, except for those that fronted antiaircraft guns, which had been deployed about every half mile along the beach. Each and every gun had been destroyed. Some were mere heaps of shredded metal. The houses behind the guns had taken some corollary damage. They were, in fact, piles of rubble. All the other homes were intact, undamaged but for a broken window or kicked-in door. And there was no one there, not a soul in this town that must have housed thousands of people. It felt as if the apocalypse had met the Twilight Zone at Kuwait’s last resort.
I stepped through the broken floor-to-ceiling windows and invaded any number of these houses. Dozens of them. Everywhere it was the same. At least one room was completely full of human excrement. Sometimes every room was packed with the stuff.
Peter and I, being journalists, felt compelled to quantify the mess. I don’t know why, really, but that’s what we did.
“I got 34 piles in here,” Peter yelled.
“Seventeen in the kitchen,” I shouted, “and 24 in the laundry room.”
We examined the condition of the piles.
“These guys,” I said, “weren’t healthy.”
And then it occurred to us that maybe the soldiers had been scared. Maybe they’d shit in these houses because they were afraid to go outside during the bombardment. Maybe the odor, at least here in Dubiyah, wasn’t so much contempt as fear.
Someone had drawn on a wall in red Magic Marker. There was an idyllic scene of an Arab boat, a dhow, floating in a calm lagoon. Near that, on the same white wall, was another drawing in another hand: a man and a woman staring at one another with a large heart between them.
Iraqi soldiers, I knew, had been allowed to listen to only one radio station: 20-20 news straight from the mouth of Saddam Hussein himself. Those who disobeyed could be disciplined or killed. Kuwaitis who had talked with Iraqi soldiers before the bombardment said that the occupying troops had no idea that forces were massing on the Saudi border, for they weren’t hearing that news on their single radio station. What they didn’t know would kill them. And poison their world. They defecated in bathtubs and drew pictures of men and women in love on the wall.
I thought about the day we had driven to an oil field near the Saudi border. There the Iraqis had installed a mine field that stretched from horizon to horizon. They had marked it off with a pair of concertina-wire fences. Presumably only portions of the field were heavily salted with mines, and the fence had been built to give the advancing troops pause. On the Kuwait side was a deep pit, which was, I suppose, meant to contain oil that could be set afire.
The allied troops had easily punched through the mine field, and there was a cleared road over the oil pit and through the fence. I could see rounded antitank mines, about the size and shape of home smoke alarms, scattered around beyond the fence. They were a beige color, hard to see in the sand until my eyes adjusted. Then I could see dozens of them.
There were three corpses in Iraqi uniforms alongside the road. Presumably they had lain there for at least five months. It was 118 degrees, the wind was blowing a low-level sandstorm, and the dead men were partially covered in sand.
Someone—the Saudis, I was told—had decapitated one corpse, and the head lay on the man’s lap in an obscene position. The lower portion of the face was all grinning bone, but the upper portion of the head, protected by hair, was intact. The skin was desiccated, a mottled yellow. I have seen mummies in museums and in the field. This scene, these corpses, were five months old and already looked like ancient history.
Peter and I were alone, and we thought to bury the corpses, as was the custom. We had equipped our Land Cruiser with a shovel to dig ourselves out of the sand. Still, I didn’t want to dig a grave in a mine field.
We discussed the possibility of putting the dead men in the back of our vehicle and driving to a place where we could dig. But the idea of having that desiccated, grinning head rolling around in the back was distressing.
“We could just leave them here,” Peter said. “To illustrate the horror of war.”
Which is what we told ourselves we were doing as we drove off into the desert, leaving three men unburied in contravention of Muslim and Christian custom. I felt mildly guilty about this and knew that I should feel very guilty about it, so I ended up feeling very guilty about feeling mildly guilty.
I was still thinking about those dead men as I stepped carefully through the chalets that fronted the oily beach.
“Oh, man,” I heard myself shout as I moved into one of the grander chalets. It had a fine view of the mined beach and the dead fish and the glittering petroleum sheen that was the sea. And in one big room, in front of the broken picture window, there were well over a hundred remnants of the men who had invaded this land. Souvenirs of ignorance, all in fear-splattered piles.
Outside, not far away, contaminants released by the howling fires were poisoning children; they were creating acid rains that would kill crops so that people could starve in the name of oil; they were spawning rivers of flame that ran to the sea and killed what lived there; they were throwing 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide into the air, intensifying the greenhouse effect that would bake the earth in drought before an alternative to the internal-combustion engine could be found. It was the beginning of the end, the environmental apocalypse, and here I was, in the oblivion of the last resort, thinking about the unburied dead and counting crap.