My War Story

As the Anglican Archbishop of East Jerusalem - a Palestinian Christian - Samir Khafiti told me on this trip, “For people here, the Bible is like yesterday’s newspaper. They are fighting battles that go back centuries.”

My War Story

In our last foray into relevance here at the Outlaw Writers, James Moore talked about the various Gulf Wars and our media complicity in them. And I can’t argue with much there since there’s nothing more telegenic than machine guns, tanks and cool video of smart bombs. It's like jangling car keys in front of a toddler. A chance to play Ernie Pyle or Robert Capa is just too tempting. And to be honest, as an early boomer who got a high lottery number and thus was not drafted to fight in Viet Nam, it was some sort of manhood mea culpa to go somewhere dangerous.

Now, the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, wasn’t exactly as virtuous as the Battle of the Bulge. But for the US military, to quote Edmund O’Brien at the end of “The Wild Bunch,” “It ain’t like the old days, but it’ll do.”

There was an invasion, and Saddam Hussein had indeed committed atrocities like using poison gas on his Kurdish population. I recall the summer before, interviewing the Iraqi Ambassador to the US as he toured the country trying to counteract the bad publicity. During the interview I held up the cover of Newsweek with a photo of a dead Kurdish family after a gas attack. He waved his hand dismissively and called it propaganda. After some pushback from me, he decided to blame the Turks, who hated the Kurds as much as Iraq did.‌

Uh-huh. Yeah, that guy.

‌Well, after a spine-stiffening meeting with Margaret Thatcher at Camp David, President Bush decided that ‘this will not stand.” And thus the military buildup in Saudi Arabia, which would be the launch point for the ultimate invasion, began. And, the scramble at the networks and major print outlets began as well. Credentials and arrangements to be embedded with the troops were arranged.

At the time, I was doing news and talk at the station owned by, wait for it, Dan Patrick. To paraphrase Oscar Levant who once said he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin, I knew Dan Patrick before he was a jerk. Well, OK, a bigger one. This is after all a guy who had Oiler cheerleaders paint him Columbia blue on TV when the team made the playoffs and later had a vasectomy live on the air on radio. Thank the good lord it was radio.‌

The Dan Patrick we all know and love. Or not.

As the New Year came and went, and the first bombings of Baghdad began, knowing I had covered the fall of the Berlin Wall for KPRC, Dan asked, “Do you think you could get over there to do some shows and reports?” Well, a couple of calls to friends in the national press convinced me that the embed train had left the station and some other plan was needed. It was just too late for the front lines.‌

In Berlin when the Wall came down.

But there was another wrinkle to this war. Saddam knew that President Bush had assembled a coalition of not only NATO allies but Arab ones as well. 35 nations including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait, the UAE, Syria, Morrocco and Bangladesh were onboard. And the biggest danger to that unity? The wild card. Israel.

And Hussein knew that, so a concerted effort began to pound Israel until they could resist no more and struck back, fracturing the delicate collection of Arab states involved in the fight. He began a nightly bombardment of the Jewish state with cold war-era SCUD missiles given to Iraq by the Russians. They were not guided missiles but ballistic ones, meaning, you just shot them in an arc that landed in Israel, somewhere, like the V1’s and V2’s Germany used on the British in WWII. In fact, one older Israeli women I met and interviewed there had emigrated from England after the war.  She said that hunkering down in a safe room at night reminded her of the Blitz in London.

So, I told Dan it was too late to ride a tank into Kuwait City, but I could get to Israel and report on the bombardment there. We settled for that, and hotel arrangements were made in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the blessings of Houston being a truly international city became apparent as I prepared. Friends in both the Jewish and Muslim communities supplied me with multiple contacts when I got there. Our station engineer made me every possible kind of electronic hookup so I could send reports and actual programs down the telephone line. In the era before modular phone plugs, you had to unscrew the microphone portion of a phone receiver and connect alligator clips to the contacts inside. So with my contact list, camera, sound gear, maze of wires and clips and passport, I headed to New York and the El Al airlines flight to Israel.

I won’t go into detail, but the airport security for El Al is second to none, and my list of Palestinians and phone numbers, and a bag full of wires and alligator clips, uh, caught their eye. I literally had to go to a pay phone and demonstrate the connection for feeding audio. At the last minute, for security reasons, we all moved en masse to another departure gate to foil any terrorist plans. On my flight over was Mayor David Dinkins of New York and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is so tiny she would have to stand on a chair to be simply short.

When we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Jerusalem the first thing that greeted the journalists on the flight was a kiosk in the terminal that gave us all our gas masks. A sobering welcome. Since Saddam used poison gas on the Kurds, it was assumed he would put it on a SCUD headed to Israel, so the mask was de riguer.‌

In the cardboard box is the gas mask.

The Press Center for foreign journalists was in the Hilton, which was not the hotel Dan could afford, so I went there to get my credentials. Told I needed a small photo, I asked where the camera was. Turns out, it was in the photo booth at the bus station across the street. So, I stood in line with the guys from the Times and CNN, and a couple of kids in love, to get our photos taken.

Wearing my Edward R. Murrow signature foreign correspondent trench coat.

At the Center, were our military censors who vetted anything we were sending back to our outlets back home. To their credit, they ruled with a light hand and trusted professionals to follow instructions. I was near the Jordanian border and saw a truck convoy carrying tanks and artillery to that border. I asked my censor when I got back if I could report that. “Um, no.” So I didn’t.‌

More SCUD damage in Tel Aviv.

The missiles at night were indeed pretty unnerving, and mostly aimed at Tel Aviv, the capital, since Jerusalem is a holy city for the major monotheistic faiths. But, mistakes were made, and some landed there. They also landed on the West Bank as well, where Israel had confined the Palestinian population under 24/7 curfew since they wanted to minimize the possibility of any subversive activity.

The explosions were deafening, the damage surprisingly extensive. The protocol was to go to a safe room in the hotel and tape the door to seal it. But the job is to wander the streets and talk to people in the midst of it all. Winston Churchill Once said after covering the Crimean war as a journalist, "There is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at and missed." He was right. ‌

Surveying SCUD damage with Nitzan.

In Tel Aviv, I reconnected with an old friend, Nitzan Horowitz, a reporter for the newspaper Ha’aretz. We had met in Berlin when the wall came down as he was there covering it as well. Nitzan provided my wheels as we inspected damage from the missile strikes and talked to those who had been in the target zone. Incidentally, he later became a TV commentator and later still, ran for and won a seat in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, thus, as the former Texas Land Commissioner, the great Jim Hightower once said...

"When I entered politics, I took the only downward turn you could take from journalism"

Over lunch one day in Tel Aviv, I ran into Susan Warren, who was there covering the Israeli “front” for the Houston Chronicle. Over lunch with Nitzan, I told her a Palestinian friend said he would drive me the next day into the city of Ramallah on the West Bank, which was still under lockdown. We would have to evade Israeli checkpoints on the way, and she and I hatched a plan to pretend we were engaged and coming to visit an old friend there. Nitzan laughed and said, “I never heard any of that. Good luck.”

The trip actually went well and we didn’t need our cover story. We talked with a family living under lockdown and got a sense of what that meant. For example, their grandmother died during the curfew and Muslim tradition being the same as Jewish, the burial needed to happen in 24 hours. They basically had to keep granny on ice until the Friday break in the curfew when they could bury her, farmers could milk their cattle and goats, take care of their other chores before it kicked in again.

We talked to the headmaster of a Quaker Boys School in Ramallah who was outraged at the lockdown. He said it frankly inflamed the anti-Israel passions on the West Bank and was unnecessary. His contention was that if any Palestinians wanted to cause trouble on Saddam’s behalf, they would anyway.

When we got back, I spoke with Nitzan and he told me the most profound thing I heard in any of my 4 trips to Israel. “We didn’t escape the Nazis to establish Israel so we could be the jailers.” Somehow, that lesson has still not been learned.‌

Nitzan Horowitz in the Knesset.

When I saw Israeli armored units suiting up to patrol the Jordanian border I asked to join them. I did and it was eye opening. They knew what was going on with the war, and what was at stake for their country. Discretion was paramount. Parenthetically, when the commander saw me cramming my recording gear in my coat pockets, he tossed me an army musette bag and said, “Put your crap in that. It will be easier.” I still use it to this day.

There was a lot of misunderstanding of the situation back home. Geraldo Rivera caught a lot of flak for showing on the air where the Patriot missile batteries were. We all knew where they were, and if Saddam had shaved off his mustache and driven around Tel Aviv, he would see them plain as day. The US had given the missiles to the Israelis to handle the SCUDS. What we learned, even with video of midair hits on incoming missiles, was that the Patriot in that first generation homed in on the largest object that was incoming. What we didn’t know at the time was that the SCUD, being the Yugo of ballistic missiles, broke up on re-entry and the largest object was the fuel tank. So many warheads still landed.‌

Another SCUD site.

Saddam used mobile missiles that drove into the desert, set up and fired, and then retreated. US fighters-bombers were searching the desert for the launchers, and my Israeli Air Force censors, with that cockiness that every fighter jock possesses, told me if they were in the air, they could find them in short order. But they also realized how tenuous the coalition was, and one commented, “We could get involved, but it would be like dumping a pail of water in a swimming pool.”

Ultimately, the Allied invasion of Kuwait brought an end to the active conflict, and President Bush decided that expelling the Iraqis was victory enough. On literally my last day in Israel, I hired a cab and visited as many of the holy sites as possible, bought a few souvenirs for my wife and daughter and came home. Israel had held its fire, borne the damage of the SCUD barrages and done their bit by keeping their powder dry. It wasn’t easy, as I could see on the faces of the officers in the press center. They were itching to strike back, but aware how self-destructive that would be.

I had heard the missile explosions, walked out with my mask on to get interviews during the attacks, and patrolled with Israeli army units to keep the peace. I had talked with the Palestinians most affected by the harsh lockdowns, and realized yet again, how fragile the relationships are there. The new Israeli leadership is the most extreme in the history of the country, and will no doubt set things back a couple of generations. It is all the more depressing as this is the home of the 3 great religions. I have been back 3 more times for various peace deals, and yet the ultimate peace, with two thriving states side by side, seems more elusive than ever.

As the Anglican Archbishop of East Jerusalem, a Palestinian Christian, Samir Khafity, told me on this trip, “For people here, the Bible is like yesterday’s newspaper. They are fighting battles that go back centuries.”

The first Gulf War was only tangentially about Saddam Hussein. It really just rubbed raw the relationships in Israel and the delicate balance that has, until now, held sway. Where we go from here, only the Good Lord knows.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.