Sunday, August 19, 2007

Iraq and the Elephant

For me, the current Iraq fiasco is tied to an incident in northern Togo on August 2, 1990, though through a connection of media and coincidence, nothing more. The two events become a single, sustained note, a “punctum”—as Roland Barthes might have called it—as opposed to the “studium" of our general, fleeting perception. What happened to me became one of my bookends for the first Iraq war and has colored my perceptions of the second. It is also one of those stories one tells and retells, constantly reevaluating it in light of unfolding events.

For a long time, I saw the connection as simply emotional, arising from a chance confluence. Saddam invaded Kuwait; an elephant charged me. History and the personal: we each use the latter to enhance our memories and understanding of the former. I did not see any broader connections—though I do now, as the continuation of the mad “adventure” in Iraq makes me angrier and angrier.

August 2 comes at the end of the rainy season in West Africa. The crops are high and harvest near. That morning’s downpour had stopped by the time I awoke, puddles now evaporating from the uneven cement of my courtyard outside my open door. As I wiped water off the bench under my thatched porch awning, I peered into the brightening dawn at the fields around my compound. The millet in the distance glistened; the nearby beans were lifting their leaves, looking strong. The kettle screamed over my little propane stove; I fiddled with my short-wave radio, tuning in the BBC for the hourly news and sat down to my morning cup of ersatz Nescafé and condensed milk.

The beeps for the hour, so familiar to me after nearly four years in Africa, drifted past. With my attention focused on maneuvering the metal cup to my lips without burning them, I didn't quite catch the headlines. I finally managed a first, tentative sip and looked out once more, staring at the scattered mango and baobab trees, and at the thatched tops of my neighbors’ traditional African compounds, each identical to my own.

Something else, something moving, caught my attention. I started to rise, but a phrase from the radio—as shocking as the sight—held me still. So, there I was, stuck between the demands of two senses, between a need to hear and a need to see; and I remained for a moment half risen. The radio was telling me, of course, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. And, out in the bean field, unexpectedly, an elephant was walking toward me.

Yet, elephant or no elephant, I couldn't resist the immediacy of the crisis. Far though it might have seemed then from my daily concerns, I knew it would be affecting me. So, after only that initial hesitation, I ducked back into my little bedroom hut for my camera bag, scooping up the radio as I ran back out, planning on listening to the developing story while I tried to photograph the elephant.

As I scuttled up the small hill behind my compound, I wished once again for a telephoto lens. I must have taken a thousand pictures of elephants. All showed only distant gray lumps; imagination only could show what they were. Even without the lens, however, I hoped this time might be different. Perhaps what I knew to be in the image could finally become apparent to others.

If it kept to its course, the elephant would pass some fifteen or twenty meters from me. I figured the elephant wouldn't bother to charge up the hill at a person keeping fairly still, so I chanced waiting until it got quite close before snapping and retreating. I hadn’t thought beyond that, however; I had no plan of retreat in case it did charge.

Further on from my house, on the other side of the bean field, a group of Togolese also watched the elephant lumbering slowly toward me. They were too far away for me to tell who they were. The elephant was heading away from them, away the center of our village, heading towards the big national game park whose boundary ran east/west some two-hundred meters north of my house. There wasn’t much the villagers could do about an elephant. Anyway, damage to crops (if any) was already done, and the elephant was heading home. So we all just watched.

As it passed by me, I looked down into my twin-lens reflex camera, loaded with color print film, and snapped. Then I lifted my little Leica, loaded with slide film, and snapped again. I could feel the adrenalin; never had I been so close to a wild elephant. It was exhilarating. The morning air cool, damp, and fresh—and I was finally getting something I’d been after for years. As I was lowering the Leica, however, the elephant, without any warning, without the usual ear-flapping or trunk-raising, turned toward me and charged—straight up my little hill.

It moved quickly, much more quickly than I ever would have expected. The earth even shook as it gathered speed, its steps roaring behind me as I turned and ran, my joy turning to absolute panic. I lost my sandals as I dashed down the other side of the hill and turned to sprint into the bean field, cameras and paraphernalia flapping, radio in hand blaring about Kuwait, elephant right behind me. I considered a scream, thought no, then decided in favor of it (it’s amazing how much time one has for decision-making in split seconds of disaster). It came out an odd, loud, moan as scary as the elephant, and I clipped it off.

Once in the field, I tried to make a quick turn. Elephants, big and ungainly, don’t corner too well. I figured I could circle around behind the elephant and back up the hill and over to the safety of my house. That, I thought, might get me out of this mess. But I slipped on the moist earth and fell.

Fell flat.

I felt hopeless, sliding there, about to hit the ground, so very much more helpless than ever I've felt. As I went down, I twisted to look at the elephant and wondered what its feet were going to feel like, coming down hard on my head. I wondered if I would survive and doubted I would. Oh well: just keep the pain down and short.

Oddly, looking back at the elephant now seemed preferable to the terror of running. I really did feel less panic as I fell; after all, I finally could see and know. Before, I’d had no idea how close it was, no idea if it were about to catch me, to crush me right then. Now I would, at least, see my end.

The elephant, I saw as I twisted, was slowing as I slipped. It knew I was trapped.

As I went down—and (again) it seemed to take so long—I decided to stay down. Scrambling about in a panic certainly would do no good. Stay still, I told myself from the space of my new serenity. Face it. This may be very painful, but there's nothing at all you can do about it. Let it happen. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe the mud, I reasoned idiotically, would cushion the blows.

The elephant, even walking now, could have been on top of me, had it so desired.

Instead, it halted about three meters from me.

We watched each other. First, it looked at me out of its right eye. Then it swung its head and looked at me from its left. I stared at its trunk, at the massive furrows between its eyes. It moved its head back and looked at me once more out of the right eye. The radio, still on but its speaker facing the mud, babbled unintelligibly.

The elephant's ears, I noticed as it slowly flapped them, had a series of healed gashes along their edges, and holes torn clear through in places. Perhaps this elephant was old. But it had no tusks, none at all. Just emptiness where they would protrude. It swung its head again, for the other eye, and then again. I looked at its skin, rough and dirty, wrinkled and gray, with occasional thick hairs upon it.

"It's your move, elephant," I stared back, concentrating on its eye, "for I'm at your mercy. Please make it soon, whatever you do, for this lying here waiting will kill me if you do not. I am imagining what it might feel like if you decide to do me in. And I do not like these thoughts."

The elephant did nothing. It merely swung its head, looking at me from one eye and then the other.

I hadn't moved, hadn't done anything but look back at the elephant for the minute or so since I'd fallen. Now, slowly, I slid the straps attached to my cameras, bag and meter from around my neck. If the elephant gave me the chance, I’d decided, I would run once more. This time unencumbered.

By watching me and not attacking, the elephant was giving me hope. I wasn't going to let that die. If it only wanted to crush me, it would have already done so.

The elephant continued its contemplation of me for a moment more, then turned slowly to its left, to face the hill instead of me, though turning its head back to watch me, still. It had its tail, now, towards that group of Africans who had been watching when I first came out of my compound—who had witnessed the chase and fall in absolute silence, completely unable to come to my aid.

"Are you offering me a chance, elephant?" I thought to it. "If so, I'm certainly going to take it."

Scrambling, then, I was up, dashing madly toward the Africans, who were yelling now, "run" and "hurry," though I hardly needed any encouragement. They didn't run away as I neared, and I couldn't hear the thundering that had pursued me earlier, so I was fairly certain the elephant wasn't chasing me. So, I stopped when I reached them and turned to watch the elephant, completely out of breath and in something of a state of shock, but curious as to why it had let me go and why it had chased me in the first place.

It had turned back to where I'd lain, I saw, had stepped over to the equipment I'd dropped. Then, remarkably, one piece at a time, it lifted the radio, my light meter, and each camera to its mouth with its trunk, tasting and dropping each in its turn. Then it took my camera bag by its strap, lifted it high over its head, and twirled the bag through the air. Film canisters, filters, and odds-and-ends of paper flew from it before the elephant let go, sending the bag on an arcing course out over the field.

The elephant turned away from us, then, walked a few meters on, and looked back. Slowly, it reached down with its trunk and snatched up a clump of grass from the edge of the field. Slowly, it ate the grass. Finally, it headed back to the park.

Completely dazed, I gathered up as many of my things as I could and carried them to my house. As far as I could tell, neither of my cameras was broken—the ground, after all, was soft—but I didn't have the heart to check carefully. The radio was still playing, but my interest in Kuwait had, for the moment, waned.

At home, I examined myself in a mirror, finding I was bleeding from a couple of scrapes on my face. I couldn't remember getting them. My right side was a solid streak of mud, down arm, trunk and leg.

Some of the Africans had accompanied me home, and were now presenting me with bits and pieces of my belongings, including my sandals. I thanked them, took a shower, put water on for more coffee, and stepped in to find fresh clothes.

The clock by my bed said it was now a couple of minutes before seven, just an hour since I’d sat down before. I walked back outside, mixed the coffee, sat down, wiped the dirt from the radio, adjusted the dial for the hourly news, and tried to prepare once more to watch the day begin. I wanted to listen to the more important news, to reports of the conquest of Kuwait, so much more significant than anything that could happen to me.

My hands didn't shake, not then. It began to seem as if the chase and fall had been merely a dream, or as though they could be of no importance, no impact. It was over, after all; I was safe.

My hands shook later, though, after I'd ridden my motorcycle into the nearest town, to shop and check my mail. They shook as the tension wore off and I related the tale to friends. I felt cold, then, and wrapped myself tightly in my denim jacket, turned on the radio, and listened to the war.

On January 16, just over five months later, I was having dinner at the house of a new acquaintance and her girlfriend in Washington, DC. She was a mucky-muck in the Republican Party (her lesbianism something of an open secret) with ambition to be even more so. From some source or another, she knew something was up, so kept the news on during dinner.

George Bush 41 came on. We watched:
As I report to you, air attacks are underway against military targets in Iraq. We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential. We will also destroy his chemical weapons facilities. Much of Saddam's artillery and tanks will be destroyed. Our operations are designed to best protect the lives of all the coalition forces by targeting Saddam's vast military arsenal. Initial reports from General Schwarzkopf are that our operations are proceeding according to plan.


She stared at the TV, entranced. All she said, though she said it over and over, was “He’s so sexy.”

I felt ill.

That, of course, was my other bookend for memories of the first Iraq war. Of course, the war wasn’t over. In fact, it is not over yet.

Quagmire? We’ve been in an Iraqi quagmire since April Glaspie (possibly accidentally) gave Iraq the green light for an invasion of Kuwait. Or perhaps it goes back further, to Donald Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam Hussein in 1983.

Whatever. We learned nothing about Iraq in the 1980s, seeing it only in terms of Iran where our Shah-bred chickens had come home to roost during the last year of Carter’s presidency. We’ve learned nothing of it since, though we’ve become more and more deeply ensnared.

As for me, I keep thinking of that elephant. It could have killed me, but didn’t. It couldn’t have known so, but killing me would have led to its own destruction. Instead, it satisfied itself that I posed no threat—and let me go.

Now, there’s irony here, too: that elephant has certainly been killed since. In fact, the entire herd was wiped out soon after I left. Why? Because humans had not learned to live together with elephants in a sustainable fashion. The park where the elephants had lived had been created by the forcible removal of twelve villages. When the power of the central government was so weakened that it could no longer enforce its rules, the local people simply killed the elephants and rebuilt their old homes.

I mourn. That human beings—no matter how justified the cause—can show less compassion than an elephant bothers me greatly.

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