ONE DAY BEFORE THE WAR started, I was in a cab, being driven from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion International Airport, outside Tel Aviv. My driver was named Tony and I had used him before. In the style of that region, he called me "Mr. Richard." "Mr. Richard," he said as we drove through Jerusalem's nearly empty streets, "you are lucky you are leaving. The situation here is terrible." And then Tony told me how terrible it was.
I had assumed Tony was Palestinian. I was wrong. He is Lebanese. He had moved to Jerusalem with his parents years before. Then the civil war in Lebanon broke out. There was no going back. He married. He had four children and this cab, an old Mercedes, which he could use but which he did not own. Business was miserable, since tourists had all but ceased coming to Israel. At night, Jerusalem was a ghost town. Even before war had seemed imminent, Arabs and Jews were killing one another, taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in an endless series of reprisals. "Look at this," said Tony, sweeping his arms as if to embrace the empty street. "Look at the situation!"
Tony is an Arab in a Jewish state. He is a Lebanese among Palestinians. The specific details of his life make him somewhat unusual, but in other ways he is depressingly ordinary. Tony is a piece of human flotsam, thrown this way and then that by political forces. In that, he is like most of the people of the Middle East and, for that matter, most of the people of the world: creatures of the political whims of others.
When I ponder the situations of people like Tony, I think of my grandfather. His name was Louis Rosenberg, and he was not, truth to tell, an admirable character. A bit shiftless, subject to depression and incompetent even in his attempt to desert his family, he was a man I hardly knew who died when I was still a kid. So, hearing that, if you asked me how he influenced me, you might be surprised to hear me say "profoundly": Louis Rosenberg came to America.
It is, I know, a prosaic feat. But I think of it often because by now I have spent a piece of my life overseas. Some of the time I feel a bit guilty. The difference between me and an Egyptian I saw eating the same food as his donkey is largely a matter of my grandfather's decision to come to the United States. I am not a Pole because my grandfather left Poland. I did not have to live through the Lebanese civil war, the intifada, any of Israel's wars, the coming of the death squads in El Salvador, the oppression of the Soviet Union, the drab hopelessness of Eastern Europe because -- simply -- I am an American.
Pardon me if this observation seems trite, but the accident of my nationality is, to me, nothing short of miraculous. In the back seat of Tony's cab, I simply could not account for it. Neither could I account for it when, the day before, I had lunch with an Israeli government official. A war was coming -- his fifth. Rooms were being sealed against the possibility of a gas attack. Gas masks had been distributed. Pilots were on alert. The man recounted what was happening. "It's so unjust," he said. He had slipped into a funk.
I had met people in Baghdad. What had they done to deserve their fate? Soon they would be at war with America, and they could not understand why. They were ruled by a madman. I looked at kids on the street, stared into the face of my driver and envisioned a kid, the same age as my son, put into uniform, called to the front and ordered to fight for Saddam Hussein.
I was born the year America entered World War II. I remember the tail end of the war vaguely. After that came Korea and Vietnam, Grenada and Panama -- and, at times, the keen sense of living on the nuclear edge. I served in the Army, paid high taxes so my country could be well armed and wondered, more often than I liked, whether my country had lost its mind. I cannot make the argument that Americans are unaffected by what happens in the world. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by itself would rebuke me on that score.
But, truly, we are luckier than most. That's why, maybe, it was hard at first to be back here. People were complaining. They were afraid of terrorist attacks. In New York, a taxi driver warned me not to take the shuttle to Washington. All over Washington, security was stiffened. Against what? I wondered. In Jerusalem, a friend had canceled dinner so he could seal his room against a gas attack. In Baghdad, the people I had met might well be dead now. In Amman, moderates feared the wrath of extremists, and King Hussein's brother, Crown Prince Hassan, had outlined, like a sleepwalking man, what Jordan must do if Israel invaded its airspace: It must fight even though, everyone thought, it must lose.
On the eve of war, I did not want to leave Israel. There was much reporting yet to be done, and, anyway, I felt a bit like a deserter. Even at the airport, I was not reconciled to my decision to head back to Washington. At the airport, I saw signs in Russian. Ah, the Russian Jews, flooding into Ben-Gurion airport, leaving the Soviet Union and the threat of anti-Semitic violence only to come to Israel and -- well, and this. My regret, purely professional, was so at odds with both the words and the mood of Tony. He could not imagine that anyone would want to stay. He knew the reality of America. "Mr. Richard, you are so lucky."
Mr. Richard could not disagree.