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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 18:47 GMT
The dreams of soldiers

By Fergal Keane
BBC correspondent in Amman

A US soldier plays a computer game while waiting in Kuwait.
The real waiting is on the part of those who will have to fight
The words of a long-dead Japanese poet might seem an unusual choice to begin a reflection on the coming war against Iraq.

But I feel the words of the great poet of the Samurai era - Basho - are more than usually apposite this morning.

Basho was travelling in the Japanese interior when he came across an old battlefield and paused to contemplate the rusting debris before him.

There were helmets, shields and swords. The bones of the dead had long ago gone into the earth.

Those who had seen war before understood how strange and terrible could be the road from this moment in Kuwait to a place of explosions and burning and death
Wild grasses now covered the remnants of the struggle.

Looking on this Basho wrote the following short poem or Haiku: "Summer grasses / all that is left of the dreams of soldiers."

As a fragment of verse it is melancholy and sobering - the Japanese poet understood the literary imperative that "less is more".

In his Haiku a few words tell us a great deal about the sorrow of war.

Tense wait

I thought of it in Kuwait this week and later in Jordan where I sit now listening to the voice of the Imam calling morning prayers across the rooftops of Amman.

Everybody here is weary from the tension of waiting.

As a Jordanian friend of a friend said over lunch the day I arrived: "Let it just happen. Let it be done with."

A family in Jordan light candles for peace
Some Jordanians pray for peace - others just want the war over
But what about the dreams of soldiers? Let us go back to Kuwait for a few moments.

In Kuwait City at the Hilton Hotel, the American military has set up the most efficient accreditation system for journalists I have ever seen.

There in the glistening hotel mall, where the Pilipino shop assistants man the tills of the boutiques and jewellery stores, where they serve excellent cappuccino and sushi...

There you will also find excited young men and women in combat fatigues mingling with excited journalists. They are all preparing to head for the front lines.

First to Baghdad?

I met old friends from other wars. Some were going off with the US Marines.

"We're told we'll be first to Baghdad," one said.

Another was linking up with the American 3rd Infantry Brigade.

"Don't worry sir," said the young soldier with the camera, "nobody will be worried about your appearance in the desert"
Those who had seen war before were more sombre.

They understood how strange and terrible could be the road from this moment in Kuwait to a place of explosions and burning and death.

I was greeted by Treacy Golden of the US Army, a cheerful young African American woman who promised to process my accreditation quickly.

She was as good as her word. I had my photograph taken and looked, as I always do in these photographs, like a fugitive from international justice - or an East German newsreader from the 1950s.

"Don't worry sir," said the young soldier with the camera, "nobody will be worried about your appearance in the desert".

Of course he is right. It is the last thing anybody will be thinking about.

Tormented by rumour

My press pass declares that I am a "unilateral" - in other words, I will not be travelling with the American or British forces.

British troops gathered in Kuwait
Some young soldiers seem excited
Like the rest of the estimated 4,000 journalists in the region I am waiting for the war.

We live tormented by rumour, alternatively transfixed and bored by the diplomatic wrangling in New York, everybody knowing, as we have known for a long time now, that a war is inevitable.

When I look back on this time I know there will be certain unforgettable images.

One is the reporter on an American cable channel telling the world that Wall Street is hoping a quick war will rally the markets.

The connection between war and markets is a fact, of course, but there was a shuddering lack of sensitivity about the way he, and so many others, make that connection.

Cold and rainy

I will remember too the plump owner of the house we have rented near the Jordanian border with Iraq.

In the café owned by his brother, we sipped sweet tea and listened aghast as he re-negotiated our rental agreement.

Burnt out tank and burning oil wells in 1991 Gulf War
Journalists who have seen war before are sombre
"We agreed one month," said my producer Nick.

"Three months. It is three months," said the landlord.

Nick is as tough a producer as they come. We settled on two months with the landlord supplying heaters.

In Jordan we have yet to encounter the fabled heat of the Western desert. It is cold and rainy here.

I said earlier that we in the media were "weary" from waiting.

But the real waiting is on the part of those who will kill and be killed in the deserts and cities of Iraq.

They will be Iraqi and British and American.

'Melancholy' sight

The accepted wisdom among the journalists is that there will be a swift victory.

But victory of course has a cost, a cost those who have not known war cannot truly understand.

So after opening with the words of a Japanese poet, I will end with the words of the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo.

Surveying the carnage of that battlefield, the wounded and dead, he said: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won."


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