On to Baghdad

When America went to war, many people had visions of what Iraq should be. Soon every fantasy was a kind of reality. There was an Iraq where U.S. marines taught Iraqi children the dance steps to the Village People song “YMCA,” and there was an Iraq where people swore the blood of Islamic fighters smelled like perfume. “There was an Iraq where Kurdish entrepreneurs opened a knockoff version of McDonald’s and an Iraq where jihadists slayed policemen beneath the Kurdish golden arches. There was an Iraq where young men cast off religious devotion to hunger for European blondes and an Iraq where soccer players called their matches short to shoot U.S. soldiers. Many were willing to kill or be killed in the name of their dream. My first Iraq was an American one.

Waiting in Kuwait: March 1–11, 2003

Before the invasion, Kuwait City was alive with talk and dreams of Baghdad. The ideal of a utopian city that the Americans would liberate existed purely in this oil-rich kingdom where U.S. forces amassed by the day.

When I stepped off the plane and strolled through the Kuwait airport’s shining plastic terminal on March 1, 2003, I entered an American theme park. Eminem boomed from every teenager’s jeep, and McDonalds graced every street corner. Store logos gleamed at night and blended in with the emirate’s belching orange refinery flames. You could buy gas masks in the shopping mall and hire a tailor to sew your custom-made war gear, anything from combat fatigues to a beret. Fast food, fast cars, freeways, and palm trees evoked a conservative Miami as if this was what America hoped to erect across the border in Iraq.

Kuwait buzzed with the threat of annihilation and oozed military might. You trembled at the thought of death in a biological or chemical attack, and you deluded yourself on the thrills of venturing into the unknown with an army.

My company, the newswire Agence France-Presse, had sent me to cover the U.S. marines; so my first days revolved around the Hilton Kuwait, where the military had set up its media shop and spun dazzling tales of Iraq’s future. The Hilton Kuwait was the original Green Zone, with its heady talk of liberation and democracy. It glittered like the Land of Oz, promising paradise or apocalypse for every reporter, soldier, and diplomat. Army brass, government contractors, and envoys conspired in seaside villas, drank Starbucks coffee, and nibbled roast beef, smoked salmon, and chocolate cake to steel themselves for their mission. Most had no clue what transpired outside their enclave, but the show inside was so good it didn’t really matter.

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