Why it Costs so Much to Rebuild Iraq - 26 September 2003

"Factional chaos" - a remarkably violent expression to come from the mouth of a singularly quiet, modest, courteous man.

But it was uttered last Monday by such a man. A neat, handsome, earnest man named Paul Bremer, a man until very lately not known at all to Americans but a name you're going to hear a lot of.

Mr Bremer was appealing to the Senate committee that decides for any bill how much money is to be appropriated for what, for whom.

Mr Bremer, looking down at his script and speaking as if he were ordering from a menu, said that unless the president was granted the $20bn he's requesting for the rebuilding of Iraq:

"We will have sown the dragon's teeth and let Iraq lapse into factional chaos, some new tyranny and terrorism."

Watching Mr Bremer the other day nodding or sighing to senators who supported him and several who put him under pretty penetrating questioning I thought what a blessed government type he is in any country - not a politician, not partisan, not demagogue, not an ideologue, a public servant who has chosen as a career - in the Balkans, in Africa, wherever - the thankless job of getting into situations of appalling grief, poverty and danger and trying to make them less nasty.

The best men and women of this type are to be found in the non-governmental United Nations commissions, the refugee staffs, the World Health Organisation,and I must say on the human rights and the disarmament commissions, although they can sometimes have a rough time obeying their chairman because of the United Nations system of rotating the chairmanships.

Last spring for example, when the United States was about to go into Iraq, the chairman of the Human Rights Commission was that famous humanitarian Mr Gaddafi and the chairman of the disarmament commission was none other than, well, Saddam, if he'd cared to attend, but anyway Iraq.

Down the years I've known several of these saintly men and women and I once asked one of them to say in a phrase how he saw his job.

He said, with a half sigh, half smile: "Trying to mop up the ocean with a pocket handkerchief."

Mr Bremer was not asking the Senate for a pocket handkerchief but, he frankly admitted, for $20bn for the reconstruction of Iraq.

A grant that would "share the same grandeur of vision demonstrated by the American rebuilding of Europe in the Marshal Plan."

The Marshal Plan. It was the 30-odd billion dollars (in those days) the United States gave after three years, not after three months, of the shattering of Europe - railroad, factories, the power systems, the lack of bare necessities - in order to, as one of President Truman's assistants put it, "restore the fabric of European life".

After mentioning the Marshal Plan, Mr Bremer was challenged by several rather baffled senators, who probably had forgotten quite a lot about the plan, and they wanted to know rightly what all this money was for.

Well, three quarters of a billion for the sewage system, undecided millions to repair the Baghdad water system.

What nobody seems to have reported, in thinking back to what was normal in Saddam's time, was that the Euphrates has always been a sewer and drinking water can only be drawn off through a filtration system, which, of course, was destroyed.

In Saddam's Iraq more than 30% of the people who needed it never had electric power or clean water.

The United States will also have to activate miles of irrigation canals that didn't work, were broken or abandoned, because Saddam had other uses for the money needed to keep them functioning.

The oil production system alone will take a billion dollars.

"How so?" asked a senator from Kansas, "Iraq has the second largest reserves of oil in the world."

Mr Bremer sadly replied that there the breakdown was not our doing.

There had been such widespread and effective sabotage - he did not say by Shiites - that it will be two or three years before Iraq can yield enough revenue to pay for improvement.

"Why, why," another senator asked, "can't all these 20 billions be a loan and not a grant?"

Because, Mr Bremer patiently replied, Saddam's Iraq couldn't begin to pay off its $200bn "a mountain of debt such as paved Hitler's rise to power."

Mr Bremer raised the hackles of one old senator when he said that this would be his only appearance before the committee.

Said the senator: "You don't have time to come back here and yet you want $20bn."

Mr Bremer swallowed hard and said nothing. He didn't say he was going back into his Herculean labour of trying to pacify and organise the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds and Saddam's Baathites - each of whom wants to become the ruler of the country.

Mr Bremer early in his opening address told about much that has been done and what he's trying to do.

Unfortunately television doesn't have any dramatic way of showing girls going to school who formerly were never allowed to go to school.

The training of 60,000 Iraqi policemen is a grindingly tedious task. And they are probably difficult to recruit because under Saddam and all previous regimes a policeman was a fearsome figure, being the local arm of the secret police and the direct link to prisons, labour camps and torture.

Over the whole of Iraq the most reliable correspondents report that civilian life is returning to something better than what was normal.

But there's no way of dramatising it, whereas television, which naturally loves movement - earthquakes, fires, explosions - is bound to show us shootings, two dead soldiers,screaming crowds in a public square, leaving a mental picture of a huge country already in "factional chaos".

But now for, I hope, a welcome change of pace and news of a revolutionary invention which will change the lives, ease the strain of life, for millions of men who do not possess and have no intention of possessing a beard.

A new razor with four blades which, it's promised, will require nothing but itself to produce a smooth, well-barbered face.

This item came on the telly as the report of a scientific breakthrough on the nightly world news and was not just thrown at us but was shown as the final exhibit in what amounted to a short and admirable documentary on the modern history of shaving.

First we had a scene from the late 19th or early 20th century of a man sitting in a barber's chair with a sheet tied around him, like a large captive choir boy.

Behind him was a capacious figure, brandishing in a graceful way the flexible handle of a glittering, straight-edged, long razor.

If the barber had had an Edwardian handlebar moustache the scene could well have represented my father at his regular Friday evening ritual. Every day of the week my father shaved himself but on Friday he chose to be polished up and lotioned by the local barber, to look at his suave best for his Sunday morning sermon and any subsequent social contacts.

We then saw a performance that must have alarmed or amused two or three generations of male viewers.

It was perfectly familiar to me, for I used to love to sit on the bath tub and watch the daring grace with which my father wielded this small, shining sword.

First he set aside a small round wooden bowl containing what looked like frozen chicken soup - it was called shaving soap.

Next he took from a wooden rack, above the wash basin, a brush, a special hand brush that looked like a miniature tree, the brush itself being made of something as soft and delicate as... what? Angora? Mohair perhaps? - I've forgotten now but men were specially proud of the fineness and cost of their shaving brush.

Followed then the slapping of the brush against the chicken soup - I mean the soap in the bowl. Applied to the skin, it very quickly produced a soapy foam known as a lather.

Then my father - on Friday's the barber - began the delicate and you'd say dangerous business of slicing off layers of the soap containing, you hoped, the follicles.

All this took time and expertise and when it was over you cleaned the brush and the razor, restored them to the rack and the brush box and washed your face.

The barber added unguents, creams, lotions, finally a dusting of powder, which once applied he dusted off.

Alors! The whole show took about 15, 20 minutes, as against the 30 seconds it takes me to shave. But I anticipate.

Sometime in, I should guess, the late 1920s, the bowl of special soap was replaced by shaving cream, which you applied with your fingers. I used the cream from my 20s, right through the Second War.

Two discoveries in turn and in time revolutionised and vastly simplified for me the daily ritual of shaving.

The word came first from a friend of mine who knew a physicist at Princeton that neither soap nor cream was necessary, that a slap of water on the lip, the cheeks, the chin would bind the follicles for at least three, four minutes. That saved a lot of time.

But then nine, ten - how many years ago? there appeared the excellent Monsieur Bic (he died, did he not, two years ago?) who invented the throwaway, ludicrously cheap razor. Five in a pack, one dollar.

The great virtue of the throwaway with its fixed blade is that you don't need to throw it away for quite a time. My current razor, I should say, I've been using for two maybe three months.

So for a minute fraction of a penny a shave I have and rejoice in every afternoon the greatest bargain in the Western World.

With Monsieur Bic on hand I don't need four blades.

Oh, one other thing.

My friend and his friend - the physicist at Princeton who made the humble but blessed discovery that water alone was enough to bind the follicles and prepare them for execution - his name was Albert Einstein.