In person, he was pretty much what I imagined — he talked almost 90 minutes non-stop and I took notes and drank tea. He explained why Iraq didn’t withdraw from Kuwait under international pressure before the 1991 war but yet how it was also okay that Iraq was defeated by the whole of the world’s army — a matter of physics, he said.
(Bill Arkin will be discussing conspiracies and the Iraq War after a screening of “Three Kings” at Nitehawk Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Tuesday night at 7:30 PM with veteran British foreign correspondent and author Peter Pringle. Tickets are still available here.)
And yet one thing I didn’t imagine as I mused about my black backpack sitting at my feet the whole time was that I wasn’t searched and I didn’t have to wash my hands with disinfectant soap. I could have had a gun or a bomb or even a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I didn’t know exactly where I was, having been taken at three in the morning in the back of a Mercedes limo with black out curtains to a building on the other side of the Tigris river, to that place south of the bend of the river where no normal Iraqi ever wanted to go, or be forced to go, a decade before it was known as the green zone.
The Iraqis were convinced I was a secret emissary from the new Clinton administration, there to normalize relations, rumors of which were in the air in February 1993. Was I?
I was one the first experts to visit Iraq after the 1991 Desert Storm, “military adviser” to something called the Harvard Study Team, a group of doctors and lawyers who visited post-war Iraq to assess civilian damage from the bombing campaign. I came with a list of targets that had been bombed and a sheaf of military maps and many of the do-gooders were pretty much convinced that I was CIA.
After 20 years of being a Washington arms control and nuclear expert, and as an ex-Army intelligence analyst from Cold War Berlin, the abrupt shift after the fall of the wall — and then Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait — forced everyone to become an instant expert in something else. So while I was learning the difference between a CBU and a GBU and figuring out how to tell if something was hit by a missile or a bomb, and whether the bomb was guided or unguided, I also had a shitload of fun, those months I spent in Iraq. We picked dates right from the palms, we visited here and there, I went bowling in the basement of the Rasheed Hotel.
And I started my collection of Saddam memorabilia and stolen artifacts. I prowled the back alleys of Baghdad’s bazaar to buy black market Saddam watches, which the doctors and lawyers tsked tsked until they sheepishly asked for their own. I bribed my way into Baghdad’s main bunker (that hadn’t been bombed). I blew up an unexploded American cluster bomb in the desert near Amarah, ending up in Saddam General Hospital, the “man who hurled the stone” at a bomb.
And my crowning achievement: I stole a sensitive part of a Tomahawk cruise missile from the Museum of the Aggression and brought it back to America, showing it off at a talk I gave at the Naval War College. When the two NCIS agents later visited my office to retrieve it — it belongs to the United States, they said — I told them to get stuffed. They thought I must have been CIA. And so in that conspiracies are made.