Today is Kuwait's Liberation Day, celebrating the anniversary of the day 12 years ago when U.S. and allied troops rescued this small, soft country from the pleasures of life as Iraq's 19th province. The promenade by the harbor was to be the scene of parading and flag-waving, and already in yesterday's waning midafternoon heat, a few boys and young men were out strutting with their Kuwaiti and American flags.
The last time I was here was on the occasion of the liberation, and on that day, and for several days thereafter, the whole city was a parade and a party. Everyone was in the streets, cheering and screaming, and driving around 10 to a car, madly honking and shooting guns in the air.
You could easily find grief and wretchedness, though. To be part of a country that has been raped by an invading force is nearly incomprehensible -- incomprehensible at least, to a modern-day American; it is a routine part of life's education in many places at many times. To begin with, Kuwait City itself had been savaged -- shot up, blown up, torched and, of course, thoroughly looted. The major buildings of state and commerce had been used for artillery practice. The beaches had been salted with land mines and strung with concertina wire. Garbage and human filth were everywhere, and the place stank.
About 400 Kuwaiti civilians had been killed during Iraq's seven-month occupation, and many more had been brutalized in one way or another -- ritualistically humiliated (forced to urinate on the Kuwaiti flag or on a photograph of the Kuwaiti emir, for instance), robbed, beaten, raped, tortured. Some of the subjugation, rape and torture had been professional: the work of Iraq's terrible special security units and aimed at specific individuals annoying to the regime. But more had been the work of enthusiastic amateurs -- poor-boy soldiers let loose in a rich land suddenly realizing that if they wanted to make some well-fed banker watch his wife and daughters get raped, why, they could just go ahead and do it. Shattered people were everywhere: I watched one torture victim, a big, strong man, being interviewed in the place of his torture by a BBC television crew -- weeping and weeping, but absolutely silently, as he told the story.
Twelve years later, Kuwait City is an utterly different place, and the great difference is the abundance of the mundane. You can still see bullet pockmarks here and there, but mostly everything has been patched and painted up. The country's pride, a 372-meter telecommunications tower that was half-built and badly damaged when the Iraqis invaded, was completed in 1996. It is popularly known as Liberation Tower. It has a revolving restaurant.
The Bank of Burgan is building a new office tower, a curvilinear slab of gray-green glass and gray-silver metal. On a drive around town, I counted 14 other major commercial buildings under construction. There is a new Museum of Modern Art, and a new kidney dialysis center, a new marina, a new fish market and a new shopping mall by the seaside that stretches along for blocks of knock-off neoclassical arches and pillars and broken pediments, just as cheerily affronting to those of delicate sensibility as anything you could find in Palo Alto, or even Houston. The promenade has been refurbished with red brick sidewalks, marble edgings and "old-fashioned" green metal streetlights. Everything, at least in the downtown and seaside areas, is spotless; foreign labor is cheap in Kuwait.
The fish market is full of fresh tuna, mullet, flounder, drum, bass, shark, sardines and prawns; the meat market rich with bloody halves and quarters of lamb and mutton and goat; the bins of the fruits and vegetable market bulging over; and likewise, no shortages of herbs, spices, dates, nuts, olives, pots, pans, clothes, toys, perfumes, watches, jewelry, McDonald's burgers and Mercedes-Benzes.
Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.
I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?