Highway to hell


THE LINE of wrecks stretched for two miles. Bottles, whole cases, of Chanel perfume lay along the road. Television sets and VCRs spilled out of the bullet-riddled trunk of a white Nissan sedan. There were shirts still in their neat plastic wrappers.

A stuffed toy tiger. Children's bikes in the sand. A vacuum cleaner in the back seat of a car next to a Kalashnikov rifle. Neat cellophane packets of men's and women's underwear in a Toyota pickup that had been outfitted with a 57-mm anti-aircraft gun. Boxes of glasses and crockery, too, as if the gun crew had made a hasty stop at housewares and lingerie before hitting the road.

Silk and lace tablecloths, and a small box of delicate silver spoons all dropped from a red pickup full of AK-47s.

A white Cadillac Fleetwood was suspended from the highway's concrete divider, not far from where a T-52 tank had hit a troop truck, sending it into a small car. A bus with its windows shot out had rammed another pickup. A Chevrolet Caprice held French perfume, soap, sacks of pearl earrings. A woman's watch encrusted with diamonds sparkled under the desert sun.

The inventory went on and on. As if a military army convoy had collided with a series of Wal-Mart 18-wheelers and a Tiffany's armored truck in a used car lot, hopelessly mixing everything.

Vehicles of all varieties were strewn over the road, the shoulder, the desert, rammed into one another, overturned, simply abandoned. Not just tanks and sedans but a red fire engine, an ambulance, a blue-and-white police car somebody had fancied, a red Mercedes with the plastic covers still on the seats . . .

A dump truck and a bright red fire truck had collided with one other in what must have been the last wild panic under attack, with vehicles going backward, forwards, sideways and in every direction except to safety.

The spectacle went on and on, punctuated by burned and dismembered corpses -- 165 at last count.

This was the last stand of Saddam Hussein's army on the six-lane road out of Kuwait City to Basra. Troops were pulling out of Kuwait with every car they could hot-wire, every souvenir they could grab. First the line of traffic was slowed by a checkpoint the Iraqis had erected at the Al Mutla Ridge, a high point on the road to Basra. Then the convoy was cut off in classic fashion from the air: first in front and back, and after that there was no exit.

Now a 10-foot, tile picture of Saddam Hussein peers down on his charred army from the Al Mutla checkpoint like Ozymandias, king of kings, looking on his works across the lone and level sands.

There was a monument of sorts. To quote Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times: "All that was recognizable of one charred body ** was an arm, stiff in death and raised in the air with a gold watch on his wrist." And the only incense offered was the sweetish smell of spilled perfume and rotting bodies."

"We think of a barbarian," P.J. O'Rourke wrote not long ago in Rolling Stone, "as somebody with a bone in his nose. But, in fact, a barbarian is more likely to have his nose full of a Hong Kong Shalimar knockoff."

Did they die for Saddam Hussein, or for all this stuff, and is there a difference?

"What do I think?" repeated an American tank commander when he was asked, and then he answered: ". . these guys were thugs." Another GI looked at the spectacle and concluded that these were not soldiers but looters.

With a look of disgust on his face, the allies' commanding general, Norman Schwarzkopf, talked of the atrocities committed Kuwait and concluded that these people didn't belong to the same human race.

Think again. As a reporter was cataloging the spoils spilled along the highway, he recorded another scene: "Several civilians looted the vehicles, stealing the stolen goods. One U.S. soldier jumped out of his Humvee to pick up a portable stereo. He shook the sand out, put it on his shoulder and danced a little jig before stuffing it in his vehicle and driving off."

What a creature man is, what heights and depths he is capable of, what strangenesses.

They'll clear the highway soon and clean up the roadside. They'll remove the evidence, and the remains. Here's hoping they leave at least one spot as it was last week, just one. Maybe a small pile of trinkets tumbling out of the carcass of a limousine. And an historical marker reading only: Ecce homo. Behold man.

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