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In the bleak midwinter


I decide on my drive to Fort Bragg that it's just not possible to sit in a car on I-95, roaring through the piney Carolina flatlands, and be happy about it. I've been trying to figure out why that is, because it's not just the dull and lurid spectacle of billboards and cheap hotels and auto plazas. It's not just the suicidal streak of traffic or the toxic exhalation of asphalt or the everlasting dumb imploring of Pedro to veesit South of the Border.

I think it's that there's no there there. Interstate 95 has become one of those places where all native jurisdiction has been suspended, like a free-trade zone or international waters. I mean, here's a road that cuts straight through the heart of our state, yet any intimation of what we call "North Carolina" or "the South" has been wiped clean. In its place is a soiled doily of raunch and kitsch--Cafe Risque and Stuckey's pee-can rolls. There is something eerily sordid about it, something end-of-the-worldish. One half-way expects Yeats' monstrous sphinx, with its blank and pitiless gaze, to rise from the roadside ruins.

When I stop for gas near Benson the cashier's eyes are dull and unseeing. She's local, you could hear it in her menthol-rasped Johnston County voice. But here she sits every day, perched on the edge of the abyss, selling gas and breath mints to people from Miami and Delaware and Newark. People who don't care that her grandbaby just cut a tooth or that her mama's in the hospital with a spot on her lungs. To her I am one of the world's billions.

Why I'm on I-95 is, I'm going to the annual Christmas celebration at Fort Bragg. There's supposed to be carols and pony rides and Santa for the soldiers' kids. I'm hoping to gauge, as we newspaper people say, the mood of the crowd, but maybe also to clarify my own feelings about the wasp's nest into which my country has stepped and out of which there seems no clear and easy path.

It's closing in on a year since the bombing of Baghdad. I remember my discomfort, watching the air strikes on television. Who was it--CNN?--that had that camera mounted above what looked like a parking garage, so that every night we could watch artillery streaks over the ancient city. Prime time here at home was the Baghdad dawn, the sky pinking over the Tigris delta. High-tech warfare notwithstanding, you could feel the awesome pageantry of the place, hear the midnight wail of its history. Every conflict in that part of the world emits a minor chord, an apocalyptic worry.

For me the discomfort, the worry, was compounded by the fact that I wasn't so sure it was the wrong thing, our sending troops to oust Saddam Hussein. Here in Durham, among friends and colleagues whose opposition to the war was absolute and unqualified, I felt like a spectator sitting on the wrong side of the arena. A few months earlier, I'd happened upon a New Yorker article describing a 1988 nerve gas attack on a Kurdish village in northern Iraq. It was one of many carried out when the U.S. was friendly with Saddam, and willing to look the other way. According to the writer, the villagers were at first puzzled by the sweet smell of the chemicals' then, as their eyes began to burn, they watched birds and sheep and goats drop to the ground, leaves fall from the trees. People rushed toward underground shelters, but the gas, heavier than the air, found them, so that cellars became torture chambers, then tombs.

Not everyone could get underground, of course; in particular I remember a photograph of a woman who had fallen in mid-stride in the street. Her arms still held a small child whose face, upturned and open-mouthed, was utterly white, as if bleached by the poisonous air.

Ten-year-old Brandon and his cousin Chris are at Fort Bragg to visit relatives and celebrate Christmas before their uncle gets sent overseas. No one in the family knows when that will be; it's an unknown they live with, a fact of military life.

For today, the boys are letting their uncertainty give way to the excitement of the season. Brandon is stocky and dark-headed and slow-moving in his padded winter coat. Chris, though clearly from the same familial batter as his cousin, is two sizes smaller in the bones and a half-foot taller. He wears only a windbreaker, a tribute to the furnace of his metabolism. Chris literally runs circles around his cousin in the rain, buzzing like a dive bomber, his feet light on the soggy ground. Every now and then he lets out a war whoop, an exuberant discharge of energy like a solar flare, to which Brandon raises, in solidarity, a pudgy fist.

It is Brandon, perhaps by virtue of his immobility, who is the talker. When I ask him about his uncle going to Iraq, the boy says his mom worries a lot and sits watching the news all night. Sometimes, he says, he gets to stay up and watch too, and one night on TV he saw how these American soldiers had gotten blown up and the camera showed a boot from one of the soldiers still sitting in the road.

Brandon is silent for a moment; then he looks me in the eye and says he thinks it's "stupid" to send soldiers so far away to fight in "some dumb war."

At that, Chris stops buzzing, turns on his cousin and with a practiced hand smacks Brandon on the side of his head. "It is not dumb, you re-tard," he says in a high voice. Then, trying and failing to find words to explain himself, he spreads his arms, takes off and resumes his hectic orbit.

After the New Yorker article I read more about Saddam Hussein's genocidal passions--20 years' worth of horrific cruelty. Here was a man, it seemed to me, who had be got rid of. A friend told me it was a good thing I wasn't in charge. There are atrocities everywhere, she said. Indonesia, Somali, China. It's bad enough we have a president who invades a sovereign nation out of greed and political aspiration. Let's not add knee-jerk sentimentality to the mix of motives.

I agreed. It couldn't be clearer that the war in Iraq was bad foreign policy; that the administration's motives were suspect and deceitful; that we were setting a dangerous precedent, angering our allies, inflaming our enemies. That a strike against Baghdad was an act of insanity, of hubris, of brute stupid force destined to backfire on us.

Still, I kept seeing that child's face, mouth frozen open in death. And I imagined more children like that in the future. Maybe the sanctions were working; maybe Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were gone for good. Maybe. But Saddam Hussein had killed and might well kill again when the world's attention had wandered, or when global politics shifted so that, once again, we were willing to overlook the mass graves. The man was not Hitler, but he showed Hitler's willingness to sweep human beings under the perverse tapestry of his ambition. Or, as one foreign journalist wrote--and the translation is appropriately awkward, the two dictators "suckled onto the teat of the same beast."

At Fort Bragg, Santa arrives in the downpour and takes his seat inside a tent strung with naked light bulbs and decorated with plywood angels. Outside, the Irwin Elementary School Mustang Melody Makers are singing into a cold curtain of rain, and someone at the microphone is talking about the "evil" oversees, but in the Santa tent children are cheerful. Even the rain is exciting, making of the stained, garishly lit tent a shelter against the storm.

It is raining in Baghdad too. Last month, November, was the deadliest for allied forces since the war began--104 killed. Soldiers are edgy, watchful, exhausted. The unspoken promise of a quick victory, of Iraqis pouring into the streets with roses, of a triumphant departure, has eroded in the eight months since the "end of hostilities." Instead, there is a steady stream of body bags and caskets as Iraqi insurgents become more inventive, hiding bombs in garbage cans, in animal carcasses. Guerilla warfare perfects itself as it goes, finds its cryptic groove.

Here at Fort Bragg, people are keeping their anxiety under wraps. I sit close to Santa, eavesdropping, thinking maybe kids will be asking for their daddy to come home for Christmas. Instead, they ask for Game Boys and dolls and skate boards. Later, I stand in line for a while with Sharon O'Neil and her three sons. Sharon's husband has just returned from Saudi Arabia and Iraq and other countries Sharon says she's never heard of. No, she says placidly, it hasn't been that bad. I press her, but she is determinedly polite and tranquil. Having her husband over in Iraq has been "just like any other year."

As we talk, Sgt. First Class Vernon O'Neil, in beret and thick glasses, arrives with steaming cups of hot chocolate. Like his wife, he is regulation noncommittal. It's OK being over there, he says. There's a lot of positive things going on in Iraq that don't get reported. As for being stationed in the war zone, Vernon says it's not as bad as training in the woods of Fort Bragg.

"Can I quote you on that?" I say, smiling, certain he is kidding.

But his face shows a level calm and his voice has the confident polish of a commercial airline pilot. "Yeah, sure. You can quote me on that."

Back in my car, heading home, I cross the Cape Fear River, its dark rope of water somehow menacing, a dark flag for a dark time. Halfway around the world another river, the Tigris, winds past the ancient city of Baghdad, a silent witness to 6,000 years of human struggle and achievement. It's hard to say exactly what we've learned in this latest convulsion--as a nation we squabble about that every day, in the papers, on radio shows and campaign trails. The only thing we know for certain is that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, like a freshly killed cottonmouth, is just as dangerous dead as alive. And that any hope--many would say delusion--of unfurling the flag of freedom and democracy in that country dims with each new body bag.

Here in North Carolina, I-95 feels like a stretch of no-man's land separating two worlds. Where I come from you can't scratch together a dozen people who approve of the war; at Fort Bragg the support seems unanimous and unflinching. On a raw December night, neither position feels sane, and I have to wonder--why are our choices so warped, so cartoonishly simple? Fear, compassion, righteous indignation. You're either with us or against us. Why can't we have leadership capable of sorting it out, leadership with even a half ration of vision, insight and integrity?

I think about 10-year-old Brandon, a dead soldier's boot etched forever in his mind. I think about the bleached face of a dead Kurdish child. And I wonder, in this season of Bethlehem, if the rough beast's hour has come round at last. EndBlock

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