That’s me in the photo above. I’m playing chess with a Beretta M9 strapped to my chest. It’s nothing fancy, but one round is chambered. I’m sitting in some checkpoint bunker near a Patriot Missile Battery at Khobar, Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom, home to 19 out of 20 9/11 terrorists. Home to the holiest sites in Islam.
You’ll remember the place as Khobar Towers, the target of an 1996 terrorist attack on the U.S., but on Saudi soil; and the one place that one SCUD missile got through the Patriot Missile net to kill Americans during the first Gulf War.
It shouldn’t be lost on any of you that playing chess with a loaded weapon at hand calls out a higher metaphor than just having the ability to shoot our way out of checkmate, or a blind-sighting attack by a rook or knight fork.
We were the ones (the pawns to keep the chess metaphor) who at night had to walk up to cargo trucks and Datsun pickup trucks (which ranged in presumed chessboard threats from bishop to queen, depending on the potential cartable payload of explosives) and explain to drivers with any number of cultural sensibilities that the safest thing for everyone would be for them to leave now.
George Herbert Walker Bush was passing the office of President to William Jefferson Clinton and Osama bin Laden was just beginning to be known commonly as a pain in the ass. Back then, so soon after Saddam’s rigid thumping by the 1st Armored Division, all that was needed by an American soldier in the Middle East to shoe away “threats” was the Beretta.
No body armor. No vest. Just K-pot and pistol and a single partner. That was it. We were nine-feet tall – or so it seemed walking around in a nation filled with short people.
The gear load and threat level of the day were refreshing compared to the equipment-intensive and high-tempo waging of large-scale mechanized battle during our previous visit to the region 24-months before. A long-time battle buddy, Richard Flack, was there on that second trip too; he would be in the bunker with the rifle ready, if needed. We switched shifts to go out with that pistol, during all hours, mostly to tell drivers to leave.
They always did.
In those days, the would-be bombers weren’t so willing to die. Which was their only option with us, so we thought. But, they were probing.
Richard’s and my second visit to the Middle East happened during a short period in time when American soldiers saw no bombs, no rigged 105s strung up here and there and no threat of snipers (though there were rumors in the spring of 1993 about an enlisted man that got nabbed and later found dead out in the desert). We traveled the cities and on highways around and including Dhahran in unarmored Isuzu Troopers and rode in the open beds of Chevy trucks, often unarmed.
It was the U.S. Army guarding the U.S. Air Force as they flew missions out of a Saudi airfield into the still new southern no-fly zone in Iraq. It was nice and simple, guard the Patriot Missile sites and guard the towers we lived in. We sort of understood the threat to be terrorists. But, as an army trained for the conventional Soviet attack that never came, we were still struggling with the concept of an enemy like that.
Haji was not yet a derogatory term and we shared meals with some Saudis, who like some Americans were interested to know something more than the surface of each other’s culture. We ate and we talked. I learned how to make tea their way and that I can’t handle coffee their way. We never got below the surface and in the end I think it showed.
Mostly, our lightly armed walks out to the trucks while pointing drivers away worked. And, it worked for years. However, it was clear what would happen to the little square compound we lived in. The threat was bombs so big that trucks would be needed to bring them. One day, on the balcony while watching some of my comrades conducting Atropine injection experiments on the ferrel cats of Khobar, I looked over in the direction of the outer buildings, pointed and called it like Babe Ruth, “They’ll blow that and it will look like Beiruit.”
I assumed that everyone knew that that was the threat because back then no one was allowed to use those buildings in Khobar most exposed to truck bombs, but three years later a truck driver was turned away at the Khobar gate then parked his big fuel truck outside the fence, a mere 73 feet from a fully occupied building and drove away in a waiting car.
Three minutes passed before several thousand pounds of shaped explosives detonated and took off the front of a 100-foot-tall building – killing 19 and wounding more than 300 others.
When we had the watch, those “outer” buildings were left empty. Quite effectively, they were seven-story blast walls. I’ve never understood why the airmen moved into them or why the policy changed to allow it. I don’t believe that one simple aspect, among many other mistakes which made that bombing possible, was ever discussed in the review of the incident.
Before that bomb changed everything, back in 1992 and 1993, we were free to wander the streets in town to shop and eat and mingle with whomever would greet us. And so we did. “Don’t talk to the women,” is about the only useful instruction given by our command. Had members of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah Al-Hejaz followed any of us into town from Khobar Towers, and its highly likely they did, they would have seen the best of the U.S. in civilian clothes in town eating at local shops, spending money for standard local gifts of scented oils and the delicate gold-laced glass “shish” bottles to send the oils home in. We bought bootleg cassettes and VHS tapes and whatever interesting things we found. A couple of times we caught a bus across the long bridge to Bahrain to hit up the U.S. 5th Fleet’s pub for a two-beer limit and a burger. We also aimlessly wandered it’s ancient shopping district. An act I believe would be impossible today. One of the best days of my life was mostly spent haggling with a shopkeeper in Bahrain’s Manama Souq over the price of a hand-worked tin chessboard.
Not everyone was, but we were friendly and open and genuinely interested in those lives around us.
Back at Khobar, those watching would have seen us running laps around the perimeter of the small compound – right through the eventual blast zone – or seen platoons playing sand volleyball, or walking to chow or the parking garage turned recreation room and gym. On warm days, from watch points in the nearby minarets at the King Fahd Mosque, they would have seen me and my platoon Sgt. dropping water balloons from the 7th floor of our “condo” tower onto anyone of any rank walking 100-feet below.
They would have seen me get chewed out plenty of times, but a sip of moonshine mixed with orange pop is as raucous as we got – no drugs, no black-market, no women, no fighting. We knew where we were and truly (some would say foolishly) sought to not offend the people that surrounded us.
The Khobar bombing was a move into check for whomever blew the condo tower off America’s chessboard. Within weeks, the Defense Department shortened deployments to the area to effectively force dependents and non-essential personnel out of the country while simultaneously pulling most remaining forces out into the desert around an airfield where they stayed. The same strategy used during the gulf war for force protection.
The same strategy that bad chess players use.
It’s an absolute shame that that time of daily, real and personal exchange between common American and common Saudi (and their many subjects) lost out to the imbalance. By the end of that tour, in the spring of 1993, things started to slide into the foreign affairs of the world we live in today. Before that slide got too far along, and before Osama or Ahmed Al-Mughassil, blew up the towers we lived in, we sat with Saudis and we ate their food and we tried to understand each other.
Almost 20 years later, the lesson from that time and place that remains with me is that the best defense is offense and we were prepared to begin at a moment’s notice. Though I no longer carry a gun or play chess, the skill of observation serving both the player and pawn remains.