Monday, January 16, 2006

One Fine Day in Kuwait, and Iowa
I would have forgotten it entirely if it hadn't been for the Today in History box in the right-hand column, but tonight is the 15th anniversary of the start of the Persian Gulf War. On that day, we'd known for weeks that there was going to be a war in the Gulf. We didn't know exactly when it would start, although Saddam Hussein had been given a January 15 deadline to pull out of Kuwait, and when he didn't do it, we knew the war couldn't be more than hours away.

We forget now how profoundly scary it was to anticipate that war, before we found out that Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard was going to fold up like a cheap card table. We'd heard that the military had ordered 40,000 body bags, for example, and Saddam had promised "the mother of all battles." We suspected that he might try to widen the war into a conflagration embroiling the entire Middle East, and he tried, by hitting Israel with his infamous Scud missiles. (In early January, I had listened to a talk show--a thorougly secular, non-wacky talk show--that discussed, in all seriousness, whether Armageddon was at hand.)

On January 16, 1991, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa. In those days, Clinton wasn't exactly Paris in the 1920s--it was a hanging-by-a-thread industrial town where the top employers were an animal carcass rendering plant and a grain processor, both of which blanketed the city with an indescribable stench, and a chemical plant that produced god-knew-what. It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what's-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense. (That's partly why The Mrs. and I never lived there--I commuted from 30 miles away for three-plus years.) Despite all that, however, the station was run by the best owner I ever worked for, and it became a place where you could plant little seeds of good radio and be given the time necessary for them to grow.

So on that day, I am on the air in the afternoon, my regular timeslot. Around the office, war talk has been secondary to the fact that Jane Pauley of NBC News is in town shooting a feature for one of her shows. At the end of the 3:30 local newscast, my reporter, Christy, mentions this to me on the air. We happen to know that the owner of the local limousine service usually plays our station in his limo, so I make a little speech: "Jane, if you're listening and you have a few minutes, stop by the radio station. Your driver knows how to find it. We promise it will be the easiest interview you ever had. Nothing but softball questions. You can plug your new show all you want." I repeat the invitation a few more times over the next couple of hours.

About 5:45, Christy suddenly bursts into the studio yelling, "This is it! This is it!"

She is talking about the first bulletins of bombers over Baghdad. For a few seconds, I think she is telling me Jane Pauley has showed up.

I wasn't in favor of that war. All the talk about liberating the poor Kuwaitis, and all the talk about Saddam being worse than Hitler, all of it sounded to me like PR nonsense. It was a war to control the flow of oil, nothing more. The fact that an international coalition was working together on the effort made it only a little easier to swallow. Yet when the war actually began--in the first 10 minutes after Christy barreled into the studio--I remember feeling a rush of excitement, and a euphoria so powerful my knees almost buckled when I stood up. Visions of B-52s flying wing-to-wing, tanks and trucks roaring over the border, endless lines of soldiers marching into the distance, flags snapping in the breeze, my country, of thee I sing. This is it. This is it.

There's not much to tell after that. We put on ABC Radio's wall-to-wall coverage, fired up the TV set in the newsroom, and settled in for the evening. And over the next few hours, the course of American history began to change, in ways we're still working out now, 15 years later.

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