Friday, January 16, 2009

Desert Storm

January 16, 1991. Eighteen years ago to the day, and I was just a few years beyond eighteen myself. I had spent the fall term of 1990 securing placement in a study-abroad program that combined a semester's coursework with professional work experience in Paris, France. I was excited to be studying in another country, and yet . . . although I was no "innocent abroad," when the new year arrived it became clear that world events were much bigger, more complex and sophisticated, than a college student's adventure in language and culture; what else could I seem in comparison, if not innocent? At this point, Operation Desert Shield was in full swing, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. With support from the U.N. (at least there was support), U.S. Armed Forces had been deployed to Saudi Arabia by George H. W. Bush (who would eventually be called "Bush père" by the French) in a "wholly defensive" tactic that was impossible to maintain. There were discussions with my parents about whether it was a good time to go abroad, and in fact some college programs had been cancelled. The Boston University Paris Internship Program was moving forward, however, and I moved with it . . . into the home of a host family who lived on the edge of the city, right near the Peripherique in the 17eme arrondissement, where the rue de Saussure ends at Boulevard Berthier. The family turned out to be less than hospitable overall, but at the outset, in mid-January, I was relieved to be living with them, and not with the rest of the American students at the "Fondation des Etats-Unis" at Cité U, a large complex of international dormitories. I did not want my nationality on display, and this would prove even more true as the weeks passed; I was happy enough, with my more Mediterranean looks, to pass as French (at least, until I opened my mouth). But back to this particular day in 1991. Rather, the evening before. You may recall: the U.N. Security Council had passed resolutions giving Iraq a deadline of January 15, 1991, to withdraw from Kuwait or face the use of force. Despite an international coalition (which included France, mind you), the popular view seemed to be that this was a "wholly American" deadline, and anyway it came and went. On the evening of January 15, I sat at a small, square table in a small, square kitchen/dining efficiency room that was as close to a living room as the family had. This was where meals were cooked and served, where homework was done in a formal national script, where the eldest daughter, D., sulked with her long thin face and insisted on eating only endives with vinaigrette at every meal . . . and where the boxy television with its rabbit ears became my nightly reproach. On January 15, we ate rubbery calf's liver, which I had to force down, trying to be as polite as possible and all the while knowing I would have to go out to the small grocery down the street in order to buy something sweet to cut the aftertaste. (We all know that the French reign supreme in matters culinary—or carry on as if they do, and earn much if not all of the bragging rights—but I had the hard luck of living with a family who ran far afoul of the norm.) This is what I remember: It was cold outside, and I walked quickly to the grocery. The scene inside brought me up short. In all my life I'd never seen, and never have again, a run on staples such as happened there. Sure, I could have my Lu biscuits, but I was out of luck if I'd wanted anything like bread, flour, sugar or filling starches. The shelves were bare, and it was beyond eerie. This, more than anything else, filled me with the knowledge that I was unprepared—for big-world worries, for the reality of anything resembling war, for the sense of isolation, and for a fear I had not felt before but that was quickly closing in on me. I really was an innocent; protected, privileged, naive. Thinking back on it, I know this was an isolated panic in the "quartier," perhaps simply on the part of the grocery owner; the rest of Paris responded to the deadline in the desert in a much more rational (sang froid? laissez faire?) way. But I had no way of knowing, at the time, that this was not a city-wide response. I bought my chocolate-covered cookies and returned to the "living" room's peeling wallpaper, and to CNN. In the early hours of January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Desert Storm, with  Army General Norman Schwarzkopf urging his troops to become the "thunder and lightning" of a just cause (U.S. Navy 9/17/97). But if his confidence was great, mine was not. Not when the high-tech air assaults began; not when televised war, transmitted live into living rooms, became a groundbreaking and then a common occurrence; not when terms like "Stealth" and "Scud" and "human shield" crept into daily language; and not when the city of Baghdad became rubble within 48 hours, underneath more than 2,000 combat missions and 5,000 tons of bombs. In the weeks that followed, there were many "manifestations" (protests) against the war, against our president (I remember "Stop the Busherie," a play on the French word for butchery), and I found it difficult to be an American in Paris at that time. I admit that, when I grew weary of defending, discussing, agreeing, lamenting, and dodging the situation, I just shrugged and called myself Canadian. I felt like less of a target for hostility that way. (And imagine: this was the FIRST President Bush's campaign; a widely supported one, much more popular even overseas than anything that would come later!) Now, of course, I'm older, know how to be both critical of my country and maintain outward patriotism simultaneously; I can even hold down a debate with the French in their own language. But on this anniversary of open warfare between the U.S. and Iraq—especially knowing the road we've since taken—what I remember most vividly is a girl, still in salad days, standing before the bare shelves of an earlier generation's experience, wanting more than anything a measure of comfort that, in pathetic consolation, took the form of a box of biscuits.


  1. Thanks, Allison, for this poignant memory.

  2. You are welcome. Thank you for reading.