December 1986. I went out to look at some ruins, in Iraq. But this time, they weren't the ruins of ancient empires, they were the ruins of buildings in Baghdad, which were there, four days before.
Iran had sent a scud missile, the second one to hit Baghdad in less than a week. The first landed in the Tigris River. Our waterways are victims, too. The second scud hit a working class area, 48 people killed, 52 wounded. Their homes were not reinforced by steel or concrete.
The missile site--the ruin-- looked like a collage of magazine pictures torn up and pasted back on top of each other, but in actuality, in three dimensions. A portion of a mud brick wall, something pale blue thrown on it, corners of rooms in the air, beams bent, heavy strings of plaster hanging, torn-up walls at right angles to each other, rooms with no floors, shells, no ceiling, war sky. Patterned cloth, appliance doors, corrugated tin and layers of peoples' lives and people themselves torn up and thrown in the air and come down into the collage, workers of the city made into instant archeaological layers of a ruination.
It makes you crazy, this constant feeling, in a war, that every photograph you take is gone tomorrow, in four days, next week, before you turn the next corner.
A teenage boy came up to me and pointed to a house, a house now in cross-section. As if a knife had come down and cut it clean through. The boy spoke English. (I was always surprised in Baghdad how many people spoke perfect British English. After all, it was the British who sat down at a table with a map and divided up the ancient lands, and created modern Iraq with a pencil or a pen.)
The boy said to me, "My house. That was my house. Everyone in my family was killed." He walked off through the rubble, and past a ten-storey concrete parking garage which had survived the missile. And he was gone. Talking to me, talking to anyone, as he wandered in a living coma through the rubble which used to be his neighbourhood, saying, "That was my house. Everyone killed. That was my house. Everyone killed."
Later the same day I was riding through the streets of Baghdad interviewing a man with that iffy title, "a top Western military advisor." His car windows did not roll down. They were bulletproof solid. He was talking military strategy,--Iran this, Iraq that. He was contrasting and comparing the strengths and wins and losses of each side. "Well, Iran was more winning than losing until spring of this year...but then of course Iraq started to get tougher, to be more aggressive with its airforce...., on and on, as these guys do.
Outside the solid windows, life in city of Baghdad milled on, the boys going to the soul to work with their fathers and grandfathers, the teenage girls, some in burkas, others in knee-length skirts and denim vests, the vegetable stands, fish restaurants, the totalitarian architecture of Saddam Hussein, massive creepy monoliths built over the razed working peoples' homes, as if the one-great-dictator could emulate, by demolishing neighbourhoods to erect spanking new testaments to himself, what scud missiles could do, at the same time. The old river and its mists, and bridges, and never forgetting the youth of the soldiers.
So we rode on through Baghdad, me and the military advisor in this vehicular tomb. Then he gave me a metaphor for war I have never forgotten.
"Really," he said. "It's like a heavyweight prize fight. Both sides are punched out, but they still keep on slugging. You see, Iran wants to end the war by winning. They want a victory. As for Iraq right now, winning means not losing. As long as Iraq stays in the fight, Iran won't win. All the Iraqis have to do is answer the bell and make it through to the next bell."
I have never forgotten that image. It's apt and it makes me sick in my gut. The serious conflicts of our day (of any day) being fought by two over-exhausted fighters, two punchdrunk combatants, each lurching out of his corner swinging, neither one able to win decisively, nobody calling the fight.
Out in the countryside roads threaded up mountains, but neither the road nor the mountain knew which part of itself was Iraq, which part Iran. Mountains don't draw maps, we do.
Meanwhile, the war was turning seven.