Main content

Kuwait on the map - 1 March 1991

Two, no, three years ago, a good friend of mine, in his country's diplomatic service, announced, a little crestfallen one evening over an otherwise soothing sip of the barley, that he was leaving New York. He'd been the consul general here and, already sprouting a few grey hairs, was in line for promotion to an embassy. It's the custom of more countries than his, before a man is upped from consul general to ambassador, to ask him to undertake for two intervening years a hardship post. So he was off to Riyadh.

Rio, friends shouted, oh, that can't be too hard. No, no, no – not Rio, this patient man would patiently repeat, Riyadh. And where, nine friends in 10 would go on, may that be? Oh, is that it? The capital of Saudi Arabia?

My friend had already had the official letter confirming his appointment and a booklet reminding him of the more trying features of his new assignment. The hideous summers, the prohibition of all public cinemas, a dim view of smoking in public. Two other warning, worse still. Wives, daughters must dress very soberly in public, in nothing that we, Westerners, could remotely consider saucy, to the Arabs it would be debauched. And worst of all, alcohol may not be brought into the country. Though I gathered later that, for diplomatic consumption, very large numbers of cases of soda water, prune juice and other harmless potables could be brought in in strange shaped bottles.

Well, what got me started on Riyadh, was the thought of how many times this century have we pursed our lips, twisted our tongues, to pronounce strange names in remote places and then a month, a year or so later saw the name in print every morning as a place that would be forever remembered, as a place where one of our own had fought and died.

To this day, the first place name that comes to my mind from the First World War is Givenchy, where a comical, much-loved uncle fought and died. When the war was over and the men came back and I had, for the first time in my life, male teachers. This one had a neck brace, from Passchendaele. That one had days off with malarial bouts, Mesopotamia. And the first hints of trouble from Hitler came with Danzig and the Saar. And that brought us to Prime Minister Chamberlain's very naive, very insular, very true remark that Czechoslovakia, which some people wanted us to fight to defend, was a far away place.

After we came to regard Poland, too late, as a far away place necessary to defend, our maps and papers and letters home were riddled with names of places, in eastern and southern Europe and certainly in the South Pacific, we'd never heard of. And, at the end of it, a new name we had better never forget. Hiroshima.

During the late '50s when mainland China had gone communist, American foreign policy was obsessed, well, preoccupied, with setting a boundary, a Pacific perimeter we were bound or would bind ourselves to defend. The secretary ofstate, a very knowledgeable and sophisticated statesman, laid it down that the United States had a sacred obligation to save, wait for it, Quemoy and Matsu from invasion by the communist hoards from the mainland. Quemoy and Matsu were two tiny islands offshore from the mainland of China. Can you believe it? If it was as if Great Britain, some time in the 19th century when the UK was top dog, had threatened to invade the United States if the United States dared to occupy Long Island. Much of the 1960 presidential campaign, in fact, one whole debate between Kennedy and Nixon, was about Quemoy and Matsu. In the past 30 years, they've been totally forgotten. I wonder how things are in Glocca Morra? I mean Quemoy and Matsu.

This chain of thought is really meant to suggest to, oh, I suppose the young and others new to serious wars, that it never does to scorn the diplomats' concern over some remote place you've never heard about. I do believe until 2 August last, very few of us ever thought we'd be concerned, let alone sending thousands and thousands of troops, to defend Riyadh and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But there we are.

With these thoughts in the constant dripping of new names into my consciousness, I spent, since the first onslaught of the land war, I spent the daytime hours listening to the briefings, which after a while become depressing. First from the dense and wordy way in which simple manoeuvres are explained and second, from the often abysmal naiveté or stupidity of some of the press questions. I must say, in the whole hassle about the military and the media, the restraints on wandering off where you choose, press freedom and so on, I, for one, am amazed at the patience and the good temper of the military before the hair-raising or inane questions of reporters who ought not to be sent to cover a fire.

There were, I believe, about 1,800 accredited war correspondents. In any big war, there emerge about half a dozen thoroughly competent reporters and one or two who remain memorable. The best in this war have been the best of the television reporters in the field. In Riyadh, in Tel Aviv, in Baghdad, finally in Kuwait City. And among them, two Englishmen working for American networks. Tom Aspell and the indestructible Martin Fletcher of NBC who, I believe, has covered every grim, desolate and thankless hotspot in the world, in the past eight or 10 years.

I was tiring very quickly even of the colonels and the navy captains doing the daily briefings from command headquarters at Riyadh. Of course they were doing their necessary jobs. It's simply that, as distinct from the official briefings in the Second War, or for that matter in Vietnam, the military have evolved a new and appalling language and are no longer trained in the English language. Unlike, by the way, the Saudi general. They have perfected pompous roundabout ways of saying quite simple things. No action takes a long time. It may take an extended period of time. There are no more troops, attacks, bombings, wins, wounds, men, deaths. No more whipped soldiers. Only combatant ineffective units. And there are, as I talk, still Iraqis who might break out of hiding and fight. But the American and British colonels are going to tell us that they could have an offensive capability provided their unit has not been effectively attrited.

Well, as I say, I was through with briefing and had decided to turn off the box by day and wait till the evening. When, in the middle of the afternoon, on Wednesday, we were told to stand by for a briefing from the big fella himself. The supreme commander. I stayed. I have to say that since August everything I've seen of General Schwarzkopf, and there've been many long interviews with him, had prejudiced me in his favour. Long before the trouble went to the United Nations, he talked about Saudi Arabia, about the Arabs, the Middle East, the variety of religions, the need to instruct the incoming troops how to respect the Arabs' taboos. In fact, their way of life. I mean no reflection on early famous warriors when I say that, for a soldier, he revealed a remarkably sensitive intellect.

Well, he came charging into headquarters on Wednesday and gave not so much a briefing as a history of the Hundred Hour war. I'm sure everybody's heard and seen clips, little stretches, and there were one or two sound bites that no television station could resist. On Saddam Hussein, for instance, as a military genius. But what the general had done was to have memorised the hour by hour performance of tactics by the units of the Americans, the French, the Saudis, the British, the Egyptians.

He wove it all together into a moving, strategical picture and achieved his finest hour in telling us, telling anybody on the outside I imagine for the first time, the big bluff, the brilliant feint, at once subtle and massive enough to be worthy of a classic play in American football. In fact, as he began to describe the naval fuss and movement in the Gulf designed to precede an amphibious landing on the Kuwaiti shore and then switched the main force in darkness, in one night, miles and miles to the west and began to turn them into an enclosing flank, I honestly had a passing thought of American football and its enduring fascination, which is that of chess disguised as armoured warfare. When, what do you know, the general, to make all clear, described the manoeuvre as a "hail Mary end play". I assume the play was invented by Notre Dame, Notre Dame, the famous Catholic University.

After General Schwarzkopf's brilliant lecture, there was no doubt, except in the mind, or the public attitude, of Saddam Hussein that the Iraqis were thoroughly thrashed. Once the guns fell silent and we saw the endless troop of prisoners snaking through the desert, there was one moment, one simple sentence, I shall not forget. We were suddenly at the tented entrance to an American MASH, a Mobile American Surgical Hospital. It looked so like the real thing, I mean the fictional thing, that I expected any minute to see Colonel Potter pointing a finger and hear the cry, "Incoming wounded." Two soldiers were carrying a man on a stretcher. A by-standing officer looked down, stopped them for a second – he was, I think, just checking – "What's this?" he said. "An enemy patient?" A guard standing by with a slung rifle, a 20-year-old innocent, said, not weighing his words, but meaning nothing but what the words said. He replied, "it's a human being, sir."

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.