The war correspondent: Strange days on the battlefront

The Saudi lieutenant shouted an order in Arabic. Two dozen of his men, frenzied and hollering, lowered their weapons and backed away from an encircled knot of prisoners. Kneeling at the center of this commotion in the Kuwaiti desert were 10 unarmed Iraqi soldiers with their hands on their heads. Some were in tears. Some were praying. Some were pleading for mercy.

"Who brought these prisoners?" the lieutenant asked.

One of his men turned and pointed at us — freelancer Michael Kelly and me — a scruffy pair of scribblers armed only with notebooks, granola bars and a beat-up Nissan Safari. The lieutenant did a double take and shook his head, as if to say, "What kind of wacky war is this, anyway?"

It was February 1991, and Kelly and I were in the midst of what can best be described as a two-day joy ride of war tourism, a bizarre odyssey across a battlefront on which the most prevalent sight — other than vast stretches of uninhabited desert — was of Iraqi soldiers holding their hands in the air.

Our journey into the surreal had begun that morning with an advance into Kuwait alongside a miles-long Egyptian armored division. At one point the presiding general was content to let our Nissan lead the way for his tank column, while his men shouted encouragement to us.

The next afternoon, as we reached a newly liberated Kuwait City, we paused at a U.S. Marine checkpoint for a chat with Capt. Mike Ettore, who described how his company's TOW missile units had knocked out scores of Iraqi tanks while taking only a single shot of return fire, which missed.

"We had guys who went seven for seven, eight for eight," he marveled, sounding like a basketball coach in the wake of a blowout win.

An hour later we interviewed joyous Kuwaitis as they waved flags and honked car horns beneath a sky blackened by smoke from oil-well fires.

Yes, it was indeed a wacky bit of wartime, the climax of a stunningly smooth 100-hour ground attack. In retrospect, its ease almost certainly contributed to the hubris that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a campaign that eventually bogged down in a bloody occupation that didn't end until last December.

Those two breezy days in the desert may have deceived Kelly and me as well. Soon enough, the jubilant Kuwaitis were relaying tales of torture at the hands of Iraqi captors. Days later, Kelly encountered the grisly scene at the so-called Highway of Death, where hundreds of retreating Iraqi soldiers had been bombed to cinders.

In two more years I would witness the cruel barbarities of neighbors murdering neighbors during the war in Bosnia, and then, in 2001, I would witness more brutal doings in the hinterlands of Afghanistan after9/11.

A close call in that conflict prompted me to call it quits on war reporting. I was saddened later to hear that Kelly had been killed while covering the invasion of Iraq.

Those terrible events reinforced the idea that I'd been getting away with something foolish for all those years, and never more so than during those two surreal days in the Kuwaiti desert.

Yet even though I was on the safer ground of home, one more memory remained to be collected that would, in a sense, tie all the others together. It happened late in 2003, when I was appearing at a bookstore in my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., to sign copies of my second novel.

A gentleman named Dumont Clark approached. He was a member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, but his mission that day was to present me with a gift from a friend of his who had heard me that morning on a local radio station. His friend was the sister of the late Mark Watson, a Sun correspondent during World War II.

Watson won a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his vivid dispatches from North Africa, Italy, France, England and Germany. The Pentagon press room is named for him. His copy, his endurance and his courage under fire easily outshine anything I'd ever done or written.

His sister's gift was the olive-green wool shirt from Watson'sU.S. Armycorrespondent's uniform. Distinctive bright green patches on the shoulder and breast declared in yellow stitching that the bearer was an official "War Correspondent."

"She heard you on the radio, talking about your experiences," Clark explained, "and she thought you should have this."

To say I was touched and honored is an understatement. The shirt had been cleaned and pressed and was on a hanger. The only blemish was a small stain — blood, I'm guessing — just beneath the left breast pocket.

I'd always been aware of The Sun's long and proud history of war reporting, and had always felt privileged to be a small part of it. But this simple gift drove home that connection in a way that nothing else had.

A few days later, when I was back in Baltimore and unpacking my bags, I couldn't resist the urge to try it on.

It was a perfect fit.

In a way, that felt almost as surreal as those two days in the desert.

Dan Fesperman is the author of international suspense novels including "The Arms Maker of Berlin" and "The Double Game," which will be published this summer. He was a reporter and foreign correspondent for The Sun and The Evening Sun from 1984 to 2005.

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