THE WAR is over now, isn't it? The parades have passed, the celebrations ceased, and surely the men and women of Desert Storm know how much the American people admire them for their part in the liberation of Kuwait. Then why do I keep thinking about the children?
One evening in November 1986 I boarded a train in Baghdad for the overnight journey to Mosel. I'd been invited to Iraq by Latif Nssayif Jassim, minister of culture, to participate in the seventh El-Merbid Poetry Festival. For several days I'd listened to poets from the Arab nations recite their lyrics condemning the fundamentalist Iranians who were firing Soviet-made Scud B missiles into the city, and praising the wisdom and bravery of Saddam Hussein. I was getting a bit tired of poetry.
I'd been taken, by bus, dressed in an oversized Iraqi military uniform, to the barren front to meet several generals and to admire the artillery. And I'd been taken to various memorials and mosques, some, like the bird-filled dome in Najaf, stunningly beautiful, and to the ziggurat at Samarra, and to Nineveh and Babylon, the latter being excavated as I roamed those ancient ruins and absorbed the heat and dust and light there in the cradle of civilization.
Then the unthinkable happened: the Iran-contra scandal broke. Americans were selling arms to Iran to finance the war against the Sandinistas in Central America. I took the elevator to the hotel lobby of the Al-Mansour expecting . . . what -- to be taken hostage? Tossed into the Tigres? Cursed and beaten? I didn't know what to expect.
But my hosts couldn't have been kinder. Their sadness was palpable, and their reticence to broach the subject, their keen sense of my own awkwardness, was touching. I took one of my hosts aside to ask what the response to the news had been. Oh, he replied, we learned during your Vietnam War that the American government doesn't always represent its people. The truth of that remark at that particular moment in our improbable history, in their improbable history, conveyed something of their sadness. to me.
But the children. I was going to tell you about the children.
Now I was traveling north to Mosel, partly to be kept from harm -- the rocketing was becoming alarmingly frequent -- and partly to be spared the humiliation of my country's public blunder. "See you later, alligator," my host had said when he'd seen me off. I slept. Sometime near dawn I was awakened by the singing of children. I stepped off the train to great applause and hubbub -- I'd done nothing to deserve it -- and was surrounded by schoolchildren who touched my sleeves, and sang, and handed me flowers, and offered me dinar bills to autograph.
They'd been told a famous American poet was visiting their city, and they loved poetry. I was led through the streets while the children laughed and sang and kept jockeying for position to touch me. I could see their teachers, at ease, smiling, keeping them in loose-knit groups, strolling along with us. It was a wonderful parade, a celebration, an event.
I found out only later that the song they sang was a pledge of allegiance to Saddam Hussein. These small, beautiful, dancing children were promising to give their blood to the cause of their leader, to die for him in battle, if necessary. As they sang they laughed, and touched me, and were happy.
That's what I wanted to tell you about the children. The recent hoopla in honor of our brave men and women took me back those few years to Iraq. It was only a few years ago that I was there, and well-treated, and came to know the Iraqis as kind, intelligent, cultured people, people not represented by their government, people any of us would be pleased to know. And their children were like children anywhere. They could have been playing in our backyards, happily, with our own children.
So I keep thinking about them, those children. I wonder where they are right now.
Michael Waters teaches creative writing at Salisbury State University.