I HAD BRUNCH with an old friend today. He now lives in New York State, north of the city, but he comes down to Texas every now and then for work, and to visit with family and friends.
I first met Michael shortly after I started writing a column for The Houston Post. He didn’t like something I had written and wrote to tell me about it. (That was before the advent of email) He told me later that he didn’t expect me to respond, but that if I did, I would probably respond negatively. I surprised him instead by thanking him for writing and inviting him out for a meal or coffee to talk about the issue that had provoked his reaction.
We did meet and we had a great conversation and we continued to stay in touch, even after I’d moved to Washington and he’d married and moved first to Georgia and then to New York. When I was in New York two summers ago, we went to an Astros-Yankees game together at Yankee Stadium, and I visited with him and his wife the last time they were in Houston.
Michael is still a conservative and I’m still a liberal but we’ve learned to get along quite nicely, not by avoiding the issues on which we don’t agree, but by talking about them in a calm, dispassionate manner. It’s a good and valuable friendship.
ON THIS TRIP, Michael had a present for me: a copy of The Houston Post from January 17, 1991 (a few months after I had started writing my column). The headline on the front page is “War! Massive air raids slam Iraq targets.”
I knew immediately that in this issue was printed what I consider to be one of the best columns I wrote for The Post. (I didn’t get many compliments about it after it was published so I know my assessment of its worthiness wasn’t widely shared, but I still believe it was one of my best, particularly considering the circumstances surrounding its publication.)
When news of the U.S. attack on Iraq broke out late in the afternoon of January 16, I had already written my column for the next day and turned it in to my editors. But when I learned about the assault, I just knew that I couldn’t go with that original column. I don’t remember what it was about, but it had nothing to do with the latest developments, and. I knew I had to write about the new war.
And so I went to my editor and asked to have the column back, promising that I would have a new column in a short while. He agreed, reluctantly, and I sat down to write. Within 35 minutes I had finished, and it took me another 10 minutes to edit it, and I was done. I turned it in and, with only minor changes, it made it in the next day’s paper, under the headline, “Where has all the sanity gone?”
This is what it said:
SO NOW WE are at war. As I write this, it is too early to tell how this semi-declared war is going.
Are the good guys winning?
We’ve been told we should never doubt that.
Are some of our soldiers dying?
Are some of them already lying in pain and anguish in the desert or on some military hospital ship off the coast of Saudi Arabia?
Are innocent Iraqi men, women and children dying by the hundred as our planes and missiles deliver their lethal payloads?
We’ve been told to expect as much.
Are Iraqi missiles and planes loaded with poison gas or biological bombs making their way through the darkness to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
We’ve been warned that too is a possibility.
How long will it be before the flag-draped coffins start arriving at American air bases, from there to be transported to cities and towns across the country for military burials?
Not long, I’m sure.
How many? Who knows.
How many grieving widows, mothers and fathers, children, siblings and other loved ones will gather around those caskets to bid them farewell.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, if some of the more dire predictions prove true.
How many times will we hear the expression, “he died for his country” uttered by pastors and other eulogists, and how many times will the grieving survivors be comforted by that?
YES, THIS IS war.
This is what we as a country, thorough our elected representatives, decided we wanted, even if we set aside our national charter, the Constitution, in doing so.
We, the people, gave one man, George Bush, the power and the authority to kill and maim people – as many as it takes – to bring another man, Saddam Hussein, to his knees.
And we gave George Bush the power and authority to subject our uniformed men and women to the same fates of death and destruction.
It doesn’t sound nice, but that is what war is: human beings resorting to killing and maiming each other because they failed – or refused – to use their reasoning faculties.
“War begins,” the headline on the first wire service story reads.
A more accurate headline would have been, “Sanity ends,” for war is surely not just an absence of peace, as we’ve been told – war is an absence of sanity.
There is little comfort to those who must suffer the consequences that one side was saner than the other, that one side was right and the other was wrong, that one leader was a madman while the other was a statesman.
There is no comfort in war.
“The liberation of Kuwait has begun,” were the first words from the White House.
No doubt there will be successful conclusion to this liberation, but what about the liberation of mankind from the horrors of war? When is that going to begin?
When is the United Nations going to set a deadline for our liberation from insanity?
IT IS A strange experience, being a witness to this tragic turn of historical events. I have never experienced this before, since Vietnam pretty much sneaked up on us.
I am scared, and I am angry.
As I look across the newsroom, the faces of my colleagues are somber, and even the feeble attempts at humor seem laced with dread.
This is all new to us, and some of us haven’t quite figured out how to react, as I’m certain most of you haven’t.
Yet it’s news and we must do our jobs by covering it. The adrenalin will flow and the pulses will quicken as we rush to meet this first deadline for bringing you the first installment of the news of this latest failure of mankind.
We’ll do the job, as you will do yours. But you and I will go home at night to our warm beds and our loved ones.
In the Middle East, even at this dawning hour of the war, there are some people – Americans, Iraqis and others – who will never go home.
Welcome to our war.