Taken back: January 1991

I’ve just finished The Man Who Ran Washington, a biography of James A. Baker III, who served four presidents (Ford, Reagan, the two Bushes) in a variety of capacities, most notably as Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State. Authored by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser, it’s a thorough and eminently readable book. I admired Baker as I read, though I can’t say I entirely liked him. But never mind that; what I especially enjoyed here was how a biography like this takes me back into events that are “history” already but happened in my lifetime and, thus, can be remembered, into consequential events that affected me too (and I recorded in my journal), if only because of the collective mood or tension they created. (Sort of like now, the day before the U.S. election. Sort of like now, months into a global pandemic.)

Take, for example, January 1991, which slid in on the back of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Our children were 15, 12, and eight, and the 12-year-old had written WAR in the square of the fifteenth day of the new calendar. The oldest child, when we discussed his new term schedule, said, “Well, if we’re here then,” and I could tell he wasn’t joking.

So they knew; the children knew. They had taken notice of the news building (pre-internet) in newspapers, television, radio: Iraq given until the middle of the month to get out of Kuwait or suffer military consequences.

When children know and fear, the matter is serious indeed, it’s like a continuous under-skin shivering. We lived in Winnipeg then, far from those countries, but with WAR on the calendar there was no distance left between East and West.

The south sun those days was bright and persistent into the living room and it hardly seemed right that I should bask in it, but I did; I was reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and it’s so wonderfully written I felt its inner moan, that present-tense voice, that steady honest relentlessly faithful voice, telling the truth about war, and I wanted to cry but was numbed by the convergence, the helplessness evident in ultimatums and bluffing, though the United States insisted it was definitely not bluffing.

CBC Radio’s Peter Gzowski and some expert guest discussed the finer points of Iraq’s move upon its smaller neighbour, a “second Korea” the expert said, and it was the oddest sensation, me listening as I cooked, witness to these strange events. I should be hiding instead of overhearing. What business did I or the children have with these secrets coming our way on waves in the atmosphere?

But they weren’t secrets, this was public, this talking and talking while we waited. It was fear bricked into walls of sound. James Baker conferred with his British counterpart and their message to Iraq still, and again, was withdraw or there will be an attack. No extension of the deadline.

Saddam Hussein, it appeared, intended not to buckle, and somehow, because of parallel threats against Israel, the conflict felt ominous. So dire seemed the flags of words flapping in the wind from Ottawa and Washington and London and Baghdad, from everywhere, a believers versus infidels narrative in the Babel of incomprehensible language, and the stupidity of it seemed so incredible and yet there we were, humanity poised on the brink of global conflagration.

We reached the 15th of the month. The deadline was midnight. Now, along with the fright, an unpleasant new truth opened in me: I longed for something to happen. Something dramatic and dreadful and destructive. Because the waiting had been terrible, an eleventh hour solution would disappoint. The fists of George H. Bush and Saddam Hussein had been poised at the ready so long that putting them down without a blow would be a letdown. Some other pundit spoke of a mass suicide wish. Yes, it was as if the world collectively had sunk into such despair we longed to die. Like the narrator in All Quiet on the Western Front who dies on the last page, and “His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”

But no! The children hadn’t lived their Long Enough. They had no wish to die.

On the 16th, I woke and my body was tired, as if it slipped away overnight and never slept. We turned on the radio.

“Did the war start?” the eight-year-old asked.

“No, not yet.”

In the evening my poetry group would gather at our house. I couldn’t concentrate that day to write a decent poem. “This damn war,” Peter Gzowski said on Morningside, “pervading everything.”

“Only God knows now,” said another radio voice.

I tidied for the meeting and my writer friends arrived. The oldest child disappeared into the basement to watch the television news. “Tell us if the war has started,” I said. Seconds later he called up, “It’s started!” 

And so it had, the Gulf Crisis now THE WAR IN THE GULF, though nothing was clear at the beginning except that Baghdad had been bombed. Meanwhile, dispirited, we shared and critiqued our poems. 

By the 17th, news reports were full of F18s and B52s and Scud missiles and Patriot missiles. Success oozed from military statements. Jargon and piety too. They were trying, they said, to keep collateral damage down.

“What’s collateral damage?”

“It means civilians. Ordinary people, not military folk. Men, women, kids.”

On the 18th, the supper hour news delivered a second shock. Missile attacks in Tel Aviv.

“Israel’s in!” I gasped.

I sat in front of the television, folding laundry, the children like orbits around me, close, then away, and by the end of the evening I was acquainted with it all. The attack was relatively small, Israel did not retaliate (pressured not to, I learn from the Baker book), anxiety subsided, and I tired of news anchors asking the same questions of every guest and guests offering opinions and guesses, the so-called dialogue holding the crisis to a pitch as a roast to the fire. I shouldn’t weary this quickly, I chided myself, I was warm and safe and alive, not in a sealed Jerusalem room where reporters donned gas masks and heard Peter Mansbridge’s fatherly advice to “keep wearing your mask even if you have trouble speaking.”

My children hardly spoke, it was going on too long for them, they had school and homework and games and lessons to think of, though they were fascinated by the stealth, beauty, power of the weaponry. We watched a missile mount the sky at a diagonal. We were told it could find a target as small as a soccer goal. The younger two played soccer, they were good at soccer, in every game they dipped and dodged, drove forward to score.

Iraq had been crippled, the laundry was folded. The war seemed to have been less than we feared. 

In subsequent days refugees streamed into Iran, Jordan, and Syria. Millions of gallons of crude oil were dumped into Persian waters. Several missiles landed on Tel Aviv but now when we turned on the radio we heard regular programming so we understood that while Tel Aviv remained vulnerable, we were not. A psychiatrist expounded on the emotional reaction to the first media war, what he called our mutual awe. Technological euphoria.

“How,” earnestly asked the host, “do we keep our perspective?” The doctor replied that we must use our “moral imagination,” must imagine ourselves at the receiving end of a missile’s precision. In the eye between the posts.

I tried, but I was busy, my to-do list confident again. The children were busy too. Armageddon hadn’t reached as far as Manitoba, not this time, and by the end of next month the Kuwaiti flag would be flying again, and the news about it settled and calmed, like a stream flowing into reeds and rushes grows quieter and quieter. We turned the calendar to February and no longer saw the word the child had written into the middle of the previous month in black capital letters.