Here's an update on my current attempt to embed in Iraq. As some of you may already know, I've been stranded at the Kuwait international airport for the last few days and living at the local 24-hour Starbucks.
So. Why am I here? Hanging out at the Kuwait airport without any luggage, washing up in the rest room and looking more like some elderly bag lady than your typical large-and-in-charge high-speed journalist about to bring you news from Iraq? The reason is that the U.S. military's CentCom operation and their CPIC (Combined Press INFORMATION Center) in Baghdad are still steadfastly refusing to embed me -- or even to put me up in a tent on one of the military's many Kuwait airbases while I wait until March 5 for my return flight. And CPIC has been steadfastly polite-but-nasty regarding their refusals too. So, despite my many desperately humble pleas for the reinstatement of my embed, CentCom and CPIC have left me stranded here at the Kuwait international airport Starbucks for days now. Officers and gentlemen? Ha.
Guess what, CentCom? After fortifying myself with bunches of lattes, frapichinos and cheese danishes, this worm is going to turn! No more humiliating myself and begging and pleading for an embed, you guys. I was in a sorority when I was in college. I know how to do polite-but-nasty too!
"Dear Sirs," I just wrote the guys in the Green Zone. "I would like to request that CentCom please try harder when attempting to come up with excuses for canceling my embed request after they have already granted it. The excuses that you have offered to me so far (such as 'We couldn't find any units willing to embed you...' and 'You don't have the readership...' and 'This is a combat zone...) are not valid." Hey, I'm a reporter. My readers want to know what the freak is going on over in Iraq. CentCom has got to come up with better excuses than that!
But then I got to thinking about this further -- after going five days without sleep, one has a whole bunch of time to think -- and I decided to can the "polite-but-nasty" approach and go straight for "really nasty" instead. These people have humiliated my professional reputation, insulted little old ladies everywhere and bankrupted my piggy bank. This is war!
However, one can't fight a war with no sleep. So I decided to go look for slightly more comfortable accommodations than Starbucks and asked the Kuwaiti chap at the table next to me if he knew of any cheap hotels around here. "The Intercontinental in the downtown area is not too expensive. They charge $75 a night," he replied. $75? I could afford that for one night. I could sleep for 24 hours, take a bath and come back to the Starbucks refreshed. Okay.
"And are there any buses here that would get me downtown?"
"Nothing that you would want to take." Hmmm. I've been on some truly funky buses before. Let me be the judge of that.
But while I was walking out to the bus stop, a short stocky man brushed up against me and whispered "Cab?" in my ear and I whispered back, "Sure!" So we went off in his gypsy taxi and he drove me into downtown Kuwait -- which looks pretty much like downtown Los Angeles frankly -- and dropped me off at the hotel. But it was the wrong hotel.
"I'm sorry, Madam," said the clerk, "but our least expensive suite is $135." Suite? Yikes. I can't afford that! But then I remembered what my friend Parween had told me about the Muslim tradition of mosques taking in poor stranded travelers.
"Er, is there a mosque around here," I asked. So the clerk directed me to a pedestrian overpass across an expressway and I walked over to what looked like the women's entrance of the mosque to ask someone for aid -- only unbeknownst to me this wasn't a mosque. It was a high school for girls.
"Hi," I said brightly. "I'm here to see if you can find me accommodations for a few weeks." At first the principal of the high school looked sort of confused. But then her Islamic habit of helping strangers kicked in, she called a meeting of her staff, they huddled and conferred in Arabic and kept pointing at me and frowning for about ten minutes but then finally decided that, yes, they would adopt me and find me a home. "I can do babysitting in return," I added. Since my granddaughter was born two months ago, I have totally honed my childcare skills. "I can stop a colicky newborn from crying in less than five minutes!"
Then the principal gave me an unofficial tour of the school. I was very impressed. Both the students and the teachers seemed intelligent, motivated, dedicated and professional. Plus they offered me tea and some cute little pastry thingies. I wonder if I could borrow their internet for a few minutes too....
But that was not to be. After trying to figure out exactly what would be the best thing to do with me, they finally decided to turn me over to the International Islamic Charitable Organization and assigned a teacher to drive me across town to their offices, where I met with one of their top guys. "What exactly is it that you want us to do for you?" he asked. "What is your plan?" Well, I don't suppose he could help get me embedded in Iraq? No, probably not.
"Find me a place to stay until my plane ticket is valid? And give me a chance to meet some of the people of Kuwait?"
"We can do that. But first, tell me if you have checked in with the American embassy yet. We must always try the embassy first. It is the protocol." Good grief! Do I have to do that? They will probably just put me in jail or something for hatin' on Condoleeza Rice! But there was no stopping the IICO rep, he made some phone calls and the embassy staff immediately agreed to see me. As well they should. IICO is a billion-dollar operation, supporting schools, job training and healthcare programs throughout the Middle East and Africa. For them, helping out some destitute American lady was a piece of cake. "But we must follow protocol first." Oops.
I could feel my big opportunity to spend time in Kuwait meeting REAL Kuwaitis start slipping away.
Then the head guy summoned his driver and we went off to the embassy which, like most other American embassies in the world, was surrounded by blast walls, guards and security gates. So much for our friendly relations with our allies in Kuwait. But much to my surprise, the people that I talked with in the consulate section were some of the nicest, most helpful people I have dealt with, ever. I was totally impressed! They were, er, totally DIPLOMATIC.
"This is what we can do for you," they said. "We will work with United Airlines and change you to an earlier flight. We can have you going home by tonight!" Oh dear.
"PLEEZE don't send me back tonight," I begged. At this point, I was completely freaking sleep-deprived and another 24 hours in the air right now -- I can't sleep on planes! -- would just about do me in forever. And then I'd never get a chance to embed because no one wants to embed a dead body. Humph. So they changed the flight date to a few days from today and directed me off to a place to stay for the night that was supposed to be within my budget.
"Just take a taxi to the Crown Plaza Hotel. It's right near the airport." A bath! A bed! OMG!
"I'm sorry, Madam," said the clerk, "but our least expensive suite is $300." Sigh. Back to the Starbucks. But the barristas were glad to see me. And maybe I could still get an embed. Wearily I turned on my laptop to see if there was any good news from CentCom yet. But said laptop was a ten-year-old Dell and it needed some jankity portable antenna thingie in order to receive wi-fi and somehow its cheapo plastic self had broken in two. "No! No! No!" No bath, no bed, NO WI-FI!
If I had been thinking clearly at the time -- but it's hard to think clearly when one has gone without sleep for five days -- I would have gotten down to business, staged a media event and gone on a hunger strike at the Kuwait airport Starbucks until CentCom finally agreed to either keep their promise to embed me or at least give me my money back for the air fare, using the airport Starbucks as my base of operations to make the WORLD aware of my plight! Well, maybe not a hunger strike. But a bath strike for sure. And international media from all over the world would come to my table in the back room of Starbucks next to the window and interview me and help get me embedded. "Attica! Attica!"
But when my cheapo wi-fi antenna broke, all the fight just leaked out of me and I decided to pack it in and fly back to Berkeley instead. Too bad. The Kuwait airport Starbucks staff loves me, they make a great chicken Caesar salad, there's a beige couch near the counter that I could possibly sleep on and I could support freedom of speech, freedom of the press and a decent and humane end to this "war" in Iraq all at the same time.
"But Jane, you haven't told me where the Marines come into the story yet." I haven't? Well, here's what happened. Before the wi-fi disaster, I had managed to check my e-mail one last time and there was not only one but THREE offers from the Marines to embed me in Anbar province! Seriously. They had written to CentCom on my behalf. Semper fi!
"Jane," wrote one battalion commander, "who are you dealing with down there [at CentCom]? Was your plan to come to Iraq? Let me know and I'll see what we can do from this end. Too bad you are not here today as we are having a huge ceremony and parade as we turn over the primary responsibility for security in Hit to the police. I'll get some pictures to you."
Wow, that's great! But too late for me. United Airlines had not only found my luggage for me but they offered to get my ticket changed to an earlier flight. Thank you, United.
But then I got to thinking about what the battalion commander had actually said. "Too bad you are not here today as we are having a huge ceremony and parade as we turn over the primary responsibility for security in Hit to the police." That's really important. That is one colossally important statement. That statement is BIG. I need to go back to Iraq just to cover that story.
"But Jane," you might ask. "What's so big about that?" Well, I'll tell you. It means that the Marines are keeping true to their word about trying to fix things up in Iraq and then leave. Permanent occupation is NOT the Marines' goal. It may be the goal of the "gollems for the weapons industry" in Washington but it is not the goal of the Marines. And here is proof that the Marines are keeping their word.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story on the ceremony. "City of Hit Demilitarizes: Iraqi Security Forces assumed responsibility of the city of Hit from Task Force 1st Battalion, 7th Marines yesterday in the largest demilitarization of an Anbar city to date. 'This town is whole again,' said Gov. Mamoun Sami Rashheed, the governor of Anbar Province. 'I ask the [Iraqi Police] and the [Iraqi Army] to be honest. It's the people's right. They own their lives.'" Isn't this the sort of thing that Bush and Cheney claim they have been fighting for all this time -- not all that oil or the billions of dollars now sitting in their Swiss bank accounts?
This small, mostly-ignored ceremony in far-away Hit is totally big news for Americans. Why? Because it points us at last toward a viable middle ground between "one hundred years of war" on the one hand and "pulling out right now" on the other. It shows us that there are other options on the table these days and that loyal Americans seeking to do the "right thing" in Iraq don't have to go for other loyal Americans' throats and call each other traitors for supporting or not supporting this "war". We CAN pull out of Iraq. We DON'T have to stay there forever. But we can do it in an orderly fashion that won't leave chaos behind.
Iraq is not a "war" -- to be lost or won. Iraq is a country that is trying to find its way and the American military should be helping them to do just that. And the sooner CentCom can concentrate on getting this done --and not just spending all their time and energy on keeping sweet innocent lady reporters trapped in the Kuwait airport Starbucks! -- then the better for everyone involved. Let's help Iraqis with schools, healthcare, police training, sewage, etc. Let's invest in the infrastructure of Iraq instead of investing in the infrastructure of Bush, Cheney and other "war" profiteers. And then let's get the Hell out!
If this happens, no one loses. Everyone wins.
I also like this third alternative because it solves a very painful dilemma for me personally as well. I'm tired of endless amounts of American dollars being pounded down the rathole of Iraq -- it is bankrupting our country -- but at the same time I respect and admire our American service men and women and do not want to diss them either. This dichotomy has been tearing me apart -- and it is tearing America apart too. Enough of this. Let's turn Iraq back to the Iraqis and get out -- but with honor.
I talked to one Army colonel at the Kuwait airport and what he said made sense too. He was running off to catch a plane and didn't have much time to talk but this is what he said to me before he disappeared into the security checkpoint at Airport Zone 3. "If good things are ever to happen in Iraq, they must come from the ground up. We must start with developing trust and motivation with each individual Iraqi. Sure, there are terrorists who will never change and of course there is a government at the top level in Iraq to be dealt with. But a lasting peace must come from the people themselves. Iraqis are educated. They can do this. And communication is the key."
Communication. Communication between Iraqis and Americans. And communication between conservative Americans and progressive Americans is also desperately needed too -- we all (should) want the same thing: To make our country strong and proud and not just another banana republic writ large; not just some pseudo-democracy/failed dream run by men who have never EVER asked themselves, "What can I do for my country?"
Another small example of how communication between factions could help solve problems is one that also effects me personally -- the rift that is now taking place in my home town of Berkeley between local Marine recruiters and the ladies of Code Pink. I respect both organizations and it breaks my heart to see them in discord. Try communication, guys!
If both of these groups could but spread their wings a bit, they might be able to come up with an agreement to work together in common cause, as the Marines endeavor to strengthen America's military in order to be ready to protect us against foreign attacks and Code Pink stands up for democracy and works to make sure there will be no more useless slaughter-for-profit and preemptive war. The Marines and Code Pink's ends are the same -- to do what they can to maintain a stronger, freer, better America. They need to start working together on this.
Well, that's my story for today. I've got no more to say right now because I need to concentrate on analyzing United Airline's list of available inflight movies -- and scheming on how to get my plane ticket money back from CentCom.... Hmmm.
PS: While running off to catch his plane, the Army colonel also told me something else very interesting. "One of the reasons that the Marines are so strong is because they have a rotation policy of six months in Iraq followed by six months in the States," I told him. "Why doesn't the Army have that policy too? Their current 15-month deployment policy is too hard on military families."
"Basically," he replied as he rapidly proceeded toward his flight gate, easily hefting two large standard-issue duffel bags that looked like they weighed at least 60 pounds each, "we don't have any one else to replace the ones that we've got." That's truly scary. "Bush's War" has depleted our Army.