Twenty seven years later...
The Aga Khan Hospital, Nairobi
For me there were two crucial events back in August 1990, one personal, the other international. The personal one is I didn’t die, which had its merits, although it was no great treat as I lay there in the Intensive Care Unit of the Age Khan Hospital, Nairobi, desperate for the next shot of pethidine.
Later, I transferred to a private room and could hire a night helper for personal needs and also, crucially, to switch on the T.V. The only English language channel available right then was CNN, so I had a front-bed view of the crucial international event of the time. The First Gulf War – preparation phase.
By this stage I was beginning to assemble something like a brain and became curious as to which countries might be involved. Some part of me knew there was more than just America, but CNN didn’t seem to realise. I had no way of knowing if the BBC attained a comparable level of bias, but, as it was, I only knew that the uniformed combatants with their mighty, bulging kitbags came from New Jersey, Montana, Illinois, Rhode Island, Missouri and suchlike. And I saw them boarding transports away from their proud but anxious relatives, whilst simultaneously, I guessed, filing past phalanxes of TV crews and reporters. All of this in a different continent from where the action would take place.
About the Iraqis, nothing. About the Kuwaitis, nothing. About other Arab states, nothing.
Gradually, I managed to eat, although my first attempt at the longed-for bangers and mash lasted but a few mouthfuls before the effort of digestion sent me asleep. Some nutrients must have reached the brain, though, because two thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, I hoped those much-filmed soldiers wouldn’t suffer bullets or other damage because I suspected it might hurt rather a lot. (Oh gosh, that night of stomach cramps as I tried watching ‘A Bridge Too Far’ – waves of cramp rolling my eyes up, and the picture rolling up in sync, so sometimes the Bridge was on the ceiling, sometimes the floor.)
My second thought was this: giving consideration to the enemy is a good idea.
General ‘Storming Norman’ Schwartzkopf presumably gave sufficient consideration to Saddam’s Imperial Guard to opt for his ‘Hail Mary’ manoeuvre: move the play to the flank and pray it works. It did, and the war was won. But the peace wasn’t. President Bush, the first, called off the advance when it turned into a massacre (or Turkey Shoot, as the saying went) and decent liberals like me – out of hospital a few months by now – considered it a good and compassionate decision.
It wasn’t. It was a postponement. An invitation to resume the war at a later date. If my newly restored brain had worked well enough, I might have remembered Churchill’s insistence on Unconditional Surrender at the end of World War Two. He’d seen the indecisive end to World War One and how it made Round Two inevitable. He understood the wise choice was being nice to your enemy AFTER the surrender. Not before.
And it worked very nicely. Generous amounts of Marshall Aid ensured the Germans felt too comfortable to consider any more insanities. What a smart idea. Should be the blueprint for every post-war settlement – that and proper attention to politics, security, education, health and suchlike. Germany became arguably the most decent liberal country on Earth, but there was no such luck for Iraq. It was left with Saddam in 1991, and with chaos in 2004. In the meantime, a war in Afghanistan was won, and the peace was lost.
I remember in 2004 thinking Tony Blair mightn’t exactly walk on water – but hang on, there’d been the Good Friday Agreement, and Kosovo, and Sierra Leone – so maybe he did. There’s nothing like disappointed belief to whip up the anger, and yes, many of us did believe. Suckers like me. It just never occurred to me the intelligence they were working on was so bad. Naïve. Crass.
But the worst thing was the failure to make post-invasion plans.
Here comes a rule of history. Evolution is preferable to revolution because revolutions create power vacuums, into which step the butchers. Think the French Revolution. Think the Russian Revolution. Think the aftermath of Saddam’s fall. Think what was brewing in Camp Bucca. Think Isil.
And now I look back again to 1990 with me propped up in bed at the Aga Khan Hospital, so feeble I was down to seven and a half stone – which at a height of six foot two isn’t a lot. It means there’s no extra oomph for moving your muscles – ah, those gasping, tottering attempts to walk a few steps. And it means there’s no extra oomph for moving your brain – ah, how I stared at the walls, the bananas I had to eat (“for potash”), the TV showing CNN.
And yet, even then I realised – in a dumb and dazed sort of way – that you really do need to think about your enemy. How do you disarm not just his weapons but his desire to use them any more? How do you ensure there’s a Marshall Plan for every aftermath of war? How do you turn every opponent into decent liberal Germany? Maybe I didn’t put it to myself quite like that, not at the time. But it did seem scary, this oblivion to what the other person might be thinking. Or feeling. Or potentially planning.