Diary

James Meek

21 February 2003, Radisson Hotel, Kuwait. I get lost driving south on the motorways of Kuwait City and reach the Hilton half an hour late. As I park I see a figure in a shapeless, grey, many-zippered jacket with a camera swinging across his belly and I honk the horn. I haven’t met Paul, the photographer I’m going to be working with, before. I guess it’s him, and it is. A shy, proud, diligent Irishman who hoards his smiles, then doles them out, like a kid sharing sweets. Inside, a row of bobbing, grinning American soldiers welcomes us like greeters at a conference. We fill in forms for accreditation to the war. Halfway down the forms ask: Do you need anthrax? Do you need smallpox? We answer no. I had the first anthrax injection in London last week. Paul hasn’t been vaccinated for either. You’re supposed to have three anthrax injections to be protected.

We catch the end of the briefing, which turns out to have been mainly for those journalists who are to be embedded with American forces. ‘Embedding’ means journalists join a unit and become part of it, eating, sleeping, moving with them 24 hours a day, to the very gates of Baghdad, or until the campaign ends. The advantage is access to the military, and an intimacy with individual soldiers; the disadvantages are that the journalists become militarised, risk emotional capture by the troops they live with, and are prevented from seeing events through the eyes of others – civilians, for instance. They will not have their own interpreters and they will not have their own transport. It is a device for destroying journalistic detachment. That said, it is also what US news organisations asked for. The Guardian has not been offered an embed place with a US unit yet, though some British newspapers have. The Brits are running their own version of embedding, which is more like the pool system which operated in 1991. British journalists with British units will have to make their copy available for all British news organisations to use – it’ll be ‘pooled’. The Guardian is getting three British embed places.

The briefing hall is crammed with journalists, photographers and camera operators. There are no windows. It’s close and humid. The US colonel doing the briefing keeps referring to ‘embedding for life’, meaning that journalists are expected to stick with their assigned unit to the end. This is not a press conference. The questions are banal, anxious and technical. Visas. Diesel fuel for generators. In this hall, everybody has consciously left behind the question of whether there should be war. We have made pacts with the military, even non-embedded ‘unilaterals’ like me, to the extent that we are concerned with the how and the when, rather than the whether and the why.

There are several British officers in the hall. They are scruffier than the Americans, and their hair is longer, which makes the older ones look more bald. A British colonel, Chris Vernon, gets up to make a few remarks. Trying to explain the lack of certainty in the British organisational arrangements he makes various fawning comments to the American colonel. ‘We’re only a little power, there’s only one superpower,’ he says. He means it lightly, but it comes out fawning.

After the briefing, I try to ingratiate myself with officers. But when Vernon asks me straight out what the Guardian thinks about the war, and what I think, there’s nowhere to go. Even if I lie and say I think the war is a good idea he will know I am lying; if there’s one thing the military likes less than a liberal war sceptic in the middle of a war it’s a liberal war sceptic pretending to be pro-war. I need Vernon’s patronage for access and information, but not so much I have to pretend I am ready to support our boys come what may. So I tell him what I think, that it is the wrong war at the wrong time, but that if I was an Iraqi, I’d be longing for the Americans to come, and hoping they wouldn’t kill me, and hoping they would leave as soon as Saddam was gone.

Vernon is friendly once he’s stuck the pinko label on me. The Americans, he confides, have no idea what they are going to do when they get to Baghdad.

The Hilton, where CPIC, the Coalition Press Information Center, is going to be based, is a grand place, a resort of glass and marble forming a crescent around one of the better Gulf beaches. It has air-conditioned malls and brigades of smiling, groomed South Asian flunkeys wishing people a nice day. In an area from which the military are banned Kuwaitis shop and drink Turkish coffee and play with their beads under high ceilings. In a crèche where a TV is surrogate mother a lone child plays cat’s-cradle, flanked by two stupefied hotel servitors in full Mickey and Minnie Mouse costumes.

22 February. Buy war stocks: 40 AA batteries and 36 litres of water. We’re doomed to end up camping in the desert one way or another. A beautiful spring morning, the dust lifted. Kuwaiti Interior Ministry troops, a pick-up truckload, arrive outside the hotel at 11. Their camouflage uniforms are blue on blue. Their uniforms are pressed by servants’ hands and their guns and holsters look clean and unused. Some police move into the lobby with an old X-ray machine. They make themselves comfortable. I am told every five-star hotel in Kuwait is to have an X-ray machine and metal detector, as if this was another one of Mr Radisson’s extraordinary services for his guests. The four-starred can die.

In the afternoon we drive to the first police checkpoint on Highway 80, the north-south Kuwait-Basra road, aka the Highway of Death, for a trip organised by the British PR operation. The journalists, mainly TV, have big 4x4s. The army press officers have a beat-up silver saloon car. They take us about twenty miles north to a chain of British army camps which have been set up east of the highway. The picknicking Kuwaitis and the Bedouin with their camels have been cleared out to make room. The highway is thick with British military traffic. While we are waiting at the pick-up point a convoy of Brit trucks and Land Rovers come past, newly painted a dark custard colour, festooned with netting and heavy machine guns. The soldiers look sombre, but it may just be exhaustion. Most are wearing Arab scarves across their faces against the dust, and goggles. In the back of the trucks they sleep against each other like toppled skittles.

At our destination, a field kitchen set up by British army Pioneers, the TV people get some pictures; there is no intention of letting the writers spend much time talking to soldiers. Just when I begin talking to some of the younger Pioneers, in the mess tent, just when I am going to start asking them what they think about the war, I am told it is time to leave by a keen young woman officer who assured me earlier that she loves the Guardian’s coverage of Iraq. The Americans let their soldiers speak their mind. The British would rather theirs didn’t.

23 February. The hotel has a fast internet connection. It takes about a second to send a thousand-word article the three thousand or so miles to London. From here I can browse the Guardian’s incoming story catalogue to see what the other correspondents have been filing. On the bad days being a foreign correspondent is all about paranoia, and the constant sense that you are interviewing the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Guardian’s defence correspondent, Richard Norton-Taylor, sends me an email from London which he received from Simon Wren, an MoD press officer. Wren is ranting about my colleagues’ earlier reports on how soldiers haven’t got enough toilet paper, aren’t getting decent food and haven’t got the right colour of uniform. He’s put his mobile number at the bottom. I call him. I ask if he remembers me from Afghanistan. He doesn’t. I remember striding down the dark corridors of the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul, trying to keep up with him and Ben Brown and Mark Urban from the BBC, who have longer legs than me. I remember him being very interested in television and not very interested in newspapers. Richard speaks well of him, though.

Paul and I consolidate our cars. Now we have just one between us, a red Mitsubishi Pajero. In the evening I take Paul to the Bekaa on Arabian Gulf Street for kebabs and salad. There are fat young girls in headscarves there, without men, chatting and smoking hookahs, strawberry-flavour tobacco.

Paul’s plan for Phase One of our entry into Iraq is that we should get drunk, and loot the museums.

24 February. Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, speaks at the Sheraton in the morning. It is a poor speech, full of distortion and speculation and cheap rhetoric. ‘Only by possessing – and being prepared to use – the most devastating and indiscriminate weaponry available will he be able to retain his influence in this region,’ says Hoon. He is talking about Saddam. He could be talking about any British prime minister since 1945. Saddam is not our apt pupil but our dimwitted, clumsily imitative neighbour.

It is time to go to the desert. A convoy of twenty journalists’ cars assembles at Camp Commando, just north of Kuwait City, and heads to where the main body of Royal Marines is. It is grey and cold. One Whitehall guy has flown in from Qatar with the Hoon party in a pink shirt and shiny black loafers. He is freezing. The Marines are lined up for inspection with a selection of weaponry. Hoon is late so the minders let us mingle with them. Could the great secret which the PR people have been trying to keep about the British build-up in the desert be that the soldiers have nothing interesting to say? They’re fit, young, attractive, and ready to kill. Doubts? They can’t wait. As Hoon arrives in a Chinook I get talking to a captain from the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, a friendly individual with upper-class depleted consonants. ‘I was wondering if Hoon’d turn up in camos,’ he says. ‘Instead he’s wearing a horrible grey suit.’

A woman with blonde curly hair, in civilian clothes, is stalking Hoon. A disgruntled military minder takes us aside and says: ‘See that woman? Know who she is?’ I say I’ve been wondering if it was Mrs Hoon. The Marine says: ‘That’s the head of the MoD press office, Hoon’s mouthpiece. She’s not happy because she thinks this is all too warry.’ Apparently Alastair Campbell, who is trying to direct media operations in the desert from Downing Street using Wren as his instrument, would rather this army in the desert was portrayed as camping, no more.

27 February. Paul and I drive to the Shuwaikh district of Kuwait City, where the hardware shops are. We go into a store staffed by people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where they sell road signs and traffic cones and fifty makes of generator. We buy four twenty-litre jerrycans, a tow rope, a metal hook, five canisters of canned air and a wallpaper brush.

I go to an uninformative briefing with my new friends in the RAF. Group Captain John Fynes says: ‘I’ve been told I’m not to lie to you.’ I ask if this is a new policy.

28 February. I am due to have lunch with Entisar, an Iraqi woman living in Kuwait I met when I was here a few weeks ago. She thinks I look like Tony Blair, which I do not, but she thinks it anyway. I drive to her flat, navigating by map and mobile. She is wearing a white tracksuit. She has painted the walls of her flat an apricot colour. She leaves the door open. We can see the trees swaying in the wind. When I come in, Blair is speaking on Al Jazeera. I stand next to the screen, relieved that she will now see I don’t look like him. But she looks and still thinks I do. She serves chicken biryani, tabbouleh, tomato and okra sauce and a tomato and cucumber salad. After so many hotel buffets home cooked food tastes good. I explain I need her help to talk to Kuwaitis, for a story I am writing about what it means that half the country is closed to the US and British military.

We drive to the Friday Market, a field of dust and big cars slowly bumping over ruts, and find where they sell faqeh, what they call truffles, which are a little like Jerusalem artichokes. There is a corner set aside for them, past Yemenis selling bananas on their stalks and sacks of dried lemons. Through Entisar, I interview a truffle gatherer about the impact of the military takeover of northern Kuwait. We must have made an odd couple, the thin white guy dressed in black and the buxom Arab woman in a white tracksuit, but the Arab men don’t seem bothered.

It is a wonderful spring day, a sky fresh as water and clearer than it’s been since I arrived. Just before sunset the palm trees in front of the hotel are so saturated with birdsong you have to raise your voice to make yourself heard. This is a good day, the first day I find myself in Kuwait, and not some generic agglomeration of brands in an arbitrary delineation of sand.

The war is going to be a long time coming. War’s opponents in Britain are right, but wrong in one thing. They think their peace protests are about Iraq; they are not, they are about Britain. The marchers, on the whole, are not Iraqis. They don’t speak for Iraq. They can say they are showing solidarity with the people of Iraq, but this is not true. You can’t show solidarity with someone who is not there, whom you have not met, and whose views you do not know. The protesters are protesting for their own country, to save Britain from subservience to a great nation under the control of vain, self-deluding knaves and hypocrites and to save Britain from the moral corruption that comes from waging righteous wars of aggression against weak tyrants.

Paul suggests we get some metal to put under the car seats to provide extra protection against landmines. I ask Paul if the metal would help if we run over a mine.

‘It’ll save our balls and our feet,’ he says. I tell him that balls and feet are not enough.

2 March. Drive out into the desert in the morning, to the base of the 16th Air Assault Brigade. Iain Duncan Smith is visiting, as leader of the opposition. He meets the tanned stocky men with their stubby rifles, their berets of maroon and sky blue the only clear reference points against the glare of the sand and the dark, soiled white of their big old-fashioned tents. There’s a swarm of grit stinging in the air and a crunching between the teeth. A helicopter landing a mile away sends up a cloud of dust hundreds of feet into the air. I fetch a pair of goggles from the car and put them round my neck but don’t put them on my eyes for fear of appearing ridiculous, even though wearing a pair of goggles without using them is more ridiculous still. A lot of the photographers have wrapped Arab scarves around their mouths and noses to keep out the dust. IDS arrives in a blue sweater, looking like a pink golf ball on a blue tee. There is much argy bargy between Simon Wren and IDS’s people over whether he can have a press conference at the camp or not. Wren says he can’t. IDS does it anyway. Wren is trying to be the bouncer of the war. The Mail on Sunday, which is accompanying IDS on his trip (unless it’s the other way round), has run a story this morning saying the troops aren’t being properly supplied. But IDS betrays the Mail’s message, saying that the soldiers seem quite happy. As we leave, I ask the Mail man whether he isn’t concerned that the paper might undermine its political credibility by bringing the leader of the Conservative Party along on its official visit to the troops. He laughs, but without warmth.

In the evening I meet H., a wealthy teenager who wants to try his hand at interpreting for a British newspaper, in the hotel lobby. His extended family owns the hotel.

An opponent of the US presence in the Gulf, Abdul Razzak Al-Shayji, arrives and gives an eloquent explanation of why Kuwait should not be hosting the Americans. H. knows little of the world. I thought he might be fascinated by this man, and so it proves. After listening to Abdul, H. looks thoughtful and says he has been given much to think about. At one point H. and Abdul get into a great confusion about the word ‘lobi’. To begin with I think it is an Arabic word, then I think they are talking about the lobby of the hotel, where we are sitting on vile turquoise sofas, trying to make ourselves heard above the noise of the resident Polish lounge pianist; then two of Abdul’s friends appear, one of whom speaks better English, and it turns out Abdul is talking about the Zionist lobby. How we laugh. I am witnessing a wealthy young Arab man’s first introduction to the concept of the Zionist lobby. No traditional rite of passage ceremony could be a moment of greater awakening, or more unexpectedly intimate to witness.

‘I should’ve taken his photograph,’ Paul says later. ‘Maybe he’ll become a terrorist.’

3 March. ‘The omens of war are gathering’ – BBC.

Attend a briefing by the brigadier in charge of the Royal Marines, in the BBC’s suite on the fifth floor of the Sheraton. The BBC has its own full-time security adviser. On the door hangs a whiteboard declaring: ‘Chemical Threat Medium, Clothing State Green’. I ask Suzanne, a BBC producer, where their security guy gets his information. ‘He reads the papers,’ she says.

Britain and America are the two most liberal democracies in the world, the brigadier says, and if they think Saddam … No, here’s exactly what it says in my notebook, in its lexical incompleteness: ‘Nobody trusts politicians any more, but we are talking about the US and the UK, two of the most liberal democracies in the world … decide that this regime has to be got rid of there has to be a good reason.’

5 March. Paul and I go into the desert to work out how we could reach the troops advancing into Iraq if the Kuwaitis seal off the checkpoints leading out of the city. At the moment the Kuwait police wave us through, not so much because we are accredited but because we are white. This is likely to change before an invasion. The embedded will be taken into Iraq with the armies; we have to make our own way.

We head in the direction of Umm Qasr, on the Iraqi border, to see what’s going on. Two enormous US Marine helicopters are practising take-offs and landings in the rough country by the coast. There is a smattering of British military traffic. Some camels are still grazing, a fraction of the number before the army came. There are cryptic little black British military signs on stakes all the way up the road: a sabre and an arrow pointing north.

We take a turnoff to the north-west and follow what appears to be a new British military road, marked by yellow symbols on black signs every ten yards. It is little more than twin tracks in the sand, twisting and turning though the land seems level. After some ten or fifteen miles we can see the sea in the distance and we reach the Umm Qasr road. We pass new British encampments and a site by the road where engineers are laying down interlocking sheets of metal to form a runway or landing platform. It looks as if we’ve stumbled on the forward assembly area for one of the British brigades prior to invasion. On the way back we pass a line of coaches disgorging hundreds of British and US Marines. We stop and get out to talk to them. I don’t open my notebook but Paul takes pictures.

They are wary and reserved, the Marines, standing tough and sunburned in their baggy, frayed fatigues, corseted up with webbing and weapons, bulging with bandages and ammunition and radios. I talk to one lanky Marine who says he reads the Guardian. He is the chaplain.

‘Wherever I go on the battlefield, I have someone to protect me,’ he says.

‘God?’ I ask.

‘At this stage,’ he says, ‘I’d rather have an armed Marine.’

Talk to a lieutenant-colonel (Jim is all he gives his name as), deputy commander of 40 Commando. A tall, lean, fit man with a huge handlebar moustache. He says: ‘We don’t do tents.’ (They do bivouacs.) Paul wants to wait for the sunset for the light so I hang around, the only civilian with Paul among three hundred men in uniform, feeling like someone who came in fancy dress to a non-costume party. The commandos are waiting for trucks to take them out to training. Eight transport helicopters settle in the sand a couple of miles away.

At one point Lt-Col Jim says: ‘If you want to go to Iraq, why don’t you just go? The border’s only up the road.’

‘They wouldn’t let me in,’ I say.

‘You’ve got people in Baghdad, haven’t you?’

I don’t know whether he is taking the mickey, but he has put his finger on the insanity of the war project, because the border is, indeed, very close. Birds fly over it. Washington and London need two hundred thousand armed men, billions of pounds, ton upon ton of explosives and the sky dark with aircraft to do what I could have done that quiet afternoon in the desert, driven a few miles up the road under the big tranquil sky, through the shining desert by the sea, and reached Basra, if it weren’t for a conceptual line, a straight line drawn on a map with a ruler by the British when they were the superpower.

An NCO assigned to protect a ‘combat camera team’ – to get the footage that’s too dangerous for the embeds, he says – takes it on himself to report our presence by mobile to Ben Currie, the head of the Marines’ press operation. We head back to Kuwait City. When I am back in my room Currie calls, complaining about our going where we did and talking to troops without permission. I point out that I haven’t taken any notes and have no intention of filing a story – that a group of Marines standing in the Kuwaiti desert at this time is not news. The anxiety of Currie, who is a decent guy, is about control, and has nothing to do with the security of the troops or their being allowed to do their job. He’s just under Alastair Campbell’s thumb; control over image has to be total, even unto the far desert. What is curious is that, as it happens, none of the few stories I have written for the paper since arriving in Kuwait has given the MoD any cause for discomfort. It is the Times, the Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph which bitch and carp and slag and portray the army under Blair as a ragged, second-rate force with dud equipment. Yet the MoD keeps going back to them, hoping for love. I put it to the Mail on Sunday guy who came in with IDS, that the army was the Mail’s bitch. He smiled and agreed. ‘Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen,’ he said.

6 March. To the desert for an organised encounter with Royal Marines. The trip is led by a particularly mournful minder called Ray. It’s breezy, stinging sand weather, drops of warm rain somehow mixed in with the dust. As soon as we arrive and Ray explains his plan, it is clear the exercise is a waste of time. We’ll be given twenty minutes per group to talk to three groups of reservists, clustered with their equipment in the middle of a dirtblown space. We don’t know them; they don’t know us; there are about twenty of them; to overcome their reserve and their wariness, to deal with them as human beings and learn what they really do and what they really are, takes more than twenty minutes. A minder hovers over our shoulders, listening to every word. Ray says we’re not allowed to take pictures of any of the vehicles parked nearby, even though the same vehicles were widely photographed during Hoon’s visit last week. (It isn’t that the vehicles are interesting.) As we walk out towards the reservists, Paul heads to a toilet cabin about thirty yards to our right. He needs to go to the toilet. Ray watches him go, and taps a minder on the sleeve. ‘Just escort him over there,’ he says, and the minder trudges off to make sure Paul doesn’t get up to any mischief.

I speak to Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian’s diplomatic correspondent, in London. We talk about Luke Harding, the paper’s reporter in northern Iraq, and what a good position he’s in there, with relative freedom to move about and report, and the likelihood of him being first into a series of important towns: Kirkuk, Tikrit. Whereas Suzanne in Baghdad, and our photographer Sean Smith there, have to go everywhere with Iraqi minders.

Ewen pauses. ‘I suppose it’s a bit like that in Kuwait too,’ he says.

11 March. I bump into Jeff, a CBS producer I know. He’s supposed to be embedded with the 101st Airborne, yet he came back for food and a shower. This means that though he’s sharing the hardships of life in the desert under canvas, the 101st are letting him keep his car, which means he shares the hardships on a 9 to 5 basis.

Blair and Rumsfeld appear on TV today. While Blair has aged visibly – he’s going grey almost before your eyes – Rumsfeld seems to be getting younger.

14 March. In the course of the day, it becomes clear that the war might begin very soon. I speak to Julian Borger in Washington, who says he thinks they’ll go by the middle of the week. I had to call Julian, because it was he who put in the Guardian’s request in autumn for an embed place with US forces, and now, at the last minute, they have offered us one, with the US Marines. But I still do not know which particular Marine unit is involved. I am afraid of being trapped with the Marines in some rear echelon effort.

The desk calls to say it wants more material, because the Guardian is going from two pages a day of war coverage to five. The desk wants something good and real and special, and oh how I want to give it to them, but we don’t know what it is. I see and hear so many things here which the desk and the readers don’t know about, but most of these things will bore them; I’d like to think I was capable of choosing the interesting thing from among the not interesting, but I suspect that more often than not, if I do, it’s chance. Of course everyone understands that when other journalists call story ideas ‘interesting’, it is a euphemism for ‘boring’. There are only four positive epithets used to describe stories. ‘Nice’ means competently executed. ‘Great’ means good. ‘Brilliant’ means that they would like another one like that tomorrow. ‘Amazing’ means that if you don’t file another one like that tomorrow, they will assume you’re burned out. Foreign correspondents crave the remote corporate love of the desk as I imagine children sent off to private boarding schools crave the remote approval of their parents. This may be why a disproportionate number of British foreign correspondents attended private boarding schools.

In the evening, while Apocalypse Now is on (one of the cable channels is showing it every week, along with Dr Strangelove and Rambo), I charge the batteries for the satphone and the laptop and study maps of Iraq. There are an awful lot of bridges on the road to Baghdad. When I talk to my wife tonight, I tell her it’s supposed to be a quick war. She says Hitler thought the Soviet Union would be quick.

15 March. Last shopping today, we reckon. Paul fixes for us to get a second spare wheel from the car rental company, and two more twenty-litre jerrycans. We buy shovels, mesh and sandbags. We can’t get a roof rack to fit, though, which means we’ll have 120 litres of petrol inside the car.

In the evening I unwrap my gas mask, try it on, tighten the straps, take out the filter cartridge, check it’s not cracked. I unseal the NBC suit – short for ‘nuclear, biological, chemical’. It turns out to be a flimsy, shiny grey romper suit which covers the feet, body, arms and head, with a zip up the front and a remove-to-stick seal like a jiffy bag. Putting it on and moving around makes a noise like a room full of monkeys unwrapping parcels. With the mask on, the seal’s not bad, but the fact the manufacturers supply a roll of sticky tape along with it is worrying. There are two sets of gloves, an inner cotton and an outer black rubber pair, a pair of yellow overboots, a pad of detector paper – turns yellow or green for nerve gas, red for blistering agent – a double bottle with a spray attachment containing decontamination fluid, a bag of decontamination powder, and a water bottle for use with the mask. I have a flak jacket and a helmet. I lay it all out on the horrible turquoise bedspread in the Radisson hotel room. Seldom can so many have gone from such odious luxury so quickly into war against such a poor country with so little provocation. I unpack and repack the medical kits. There is some good stuff in there, and a remarkable number of ways to treat diarrhoea.

16 March. A call comes in from the Coalition Press Information Center. You’re embedding with the US Marines, they say. Leaving tomorrow at 8 a.m. Come to the Hilton for NBC training at 12.30. I start to fantasise about really going into Iraq with the Marines. It isn’t easy trying to find out from the Marines which unit I’ve been offered an embed with. I do an internet search and find out that 1 Marine Expeditionary Force has a dental battalion. Finally I get through to someone who says I’m going to be with an aviation unit. I call the desk and tell them I’m turning the embed down. The likelihood would be of watching planes and choppers come and go and not getting anywhere, certainly not Iraq, certainly not in the first 72 hours. The desk agrees. We review my plans. The desk sounds worried. I don’t know if this is because the desk is worried about one of us getting killed, or about not getting good stories. Both, I imagine.

18 March. From the window of my room, I watch journalists squeezing rucksacks and camera boxes into the backs of 4x4s, with spare wheels and jerrycans lashed to the roofs. How neat they are. How much care has been taken, how much money spent. All the jerrycans are new. When this is over there’ll be a great firesale of jerrycans and knackered 4x4s in the city. At about 5 p.m. we pack up ourselves, and leave Kuwait City for what could be a long time.

We drive out along Highway 6 and take the road to Umm Qasr. The sun sets orange behind the dust on the horizon as we curve round the city and, like the tipping of a scale, the full moon rises orange in the east. We pass the checkpoint without any trouble and enter the desert. The moon lights the scrublands out to the coast and you can see it glimmer on the water.

We stop at the lonely petrol station halfway to Iraq and fill the tank and all six canisters. We are now carrying 200 litres of fuel. We continue north. Long military convoys grind past us, hard to identify in the darkness, even in the moonlight, because they dazzle us with their lights, but there are big guns in there, howitzers. A forest of green chemical sticks glows in the ground next to the junction with a British military road. The army is on the move. A line of Chinooks is parked in the sand. There are few lights in the camps. 7 p.m. Perhaps the soldiers are already sleeping, or waiting in the darkness with their faces painted, watching us.

We find the turning for Abdaly Farms and reach a house among the trees that Paul identified on an earlier recce as a possible hiding place. It is a windowless concrete shell, and the ground around it is baked dust. Earlier in the day I’d called an old friend, a photographer, James, who was with a bunch of colleagues from the New York Times in a farmhouse nearby. He’d said they could probably make room. So I call him again and he gives us directions. We find them a few minutes later, sitting on benches round a marble-topped table in a brightly lit courtyard, tapping away at laptops, with cables stretching out to satphones on a nearly-lawn. The farmhouse is a low building of white corrugated metal. There are enough sofas for everyone to sleep on. James cooks chicken and prawns with rice and Paul and I go over to the local store, which is full of Kuwaiti soldiers buying Kit Kats and packets of crisps, to get a box of alcohol-free beer.

Dexter Filkins, the New York Times reporter with James, tells about a time a friend was with a group of US Marines about to invade Haiti. At the last minute, the man they were invading to get rid of stepped down, and the operation was cancelled. And these Marines with their faces painted black and green, muscles tensed under great loads of ammunition, went mad; deprived of war, they began to fight each other and smash furniture.

A lot of aircraft going over, jets and propeller-driven, but I don’t think they’ll bomb tonight. Chilly now. Everyone has gone to bed. The wind’s getting up. A toad with another toad clinging to its back just hopped very slowly in front of me. There’s a rooster here that crows all night. He’s fulfilling his potential.

19 March. Spend the day waiting for an event. None occurs. A slight dust storm moves us indoors, where we sit around a big table, pecking at our laptops, reading news agency reports and emails. No place on earth is now too remote for men to be reached by emails from the merchants of penis enlargement. Much time is wasted as a result of this technology. It is supposed to enable you to gather more information, and it does, but information of a certain kind, thin information which does not nourish or lead to wisdom. You end up knowing less: you have no time to find out the things you are looking for because you’re lowering your face into this blinding, rushing torrent of instant reports and e-chatter.

Peter Maass, another New York Times writer at the farm, goes out west to look for tanks and soldiers in the morning. He finds a few. He almost gets picked up by the Kuwait cops at the petrol station. They tell him to leave the area. He doesn’t. They try to close the store, too, but it is open again by the evening. I file a nebulous piece about – about nothing, about being in the desert at night, waiting for war. Paul, who is bored, gets the wallpaper brush out this morning and paints the car with mud. He ends up using his hands, which works better. He tapes up the rear windows and puts black chevrons on the sides. There’s a smell of petrol in the car. One of the canisters is probably leaking. The Guardian’s Audrey Gillan, embedded with the army, sends a text message from wherever she is: they’re not moving tonight. The New York Times is getting the same signals from its embeds.

20 March. In the late afternoon Paul and I drive out east towards Umm Qasr: all quiet there, in a grey haze of residual dust though the wind has long gone, the sun pale. Then back west towards Highway 80. We stop along the way at a small unit of British communications troops, who’ve made a nice place for themselves in a kind of berm-grove lined by trees. Paul drives in and doesn’t notice the soldier in the gas mask and helmet in a foxhole, pointing his rifle at us, so he doesn’t understand why I’m telling him to park further away. Moments of embarrassment and confusion follow. The sentry in the foxhole is very agitated, not seeming to know whether to beckon us over into cover, to tell us to fuck off, or to shoot us. It is hard to make out what he is saying because of the mask. We would put ours on too, but most of the other folk in the camp don’t seem to have theirs on. A pink-faced captain in a helmet, carrying a rifle, comes over to us, and asks: ‘You’re non-combatants?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ve caught us at a very bad time. Those explosions you just heard were Iraqi incoming. You should leave now, and put your NBC equipment on.’

So we leave. I give him a copy of the Observer.

‘That’s my favourite newspaper,’ he says, brightly. He tells us that the black chevron we’ve taped onto the car is on the wrong way round. It’s supposed to point towards the left. His way of saying thanks, I guess, and being human.

10.55 p.m. It seems that after a false start last night, when they tried and maybe succeeded in killing Saddam, they really have begun, with a mighty air assault on Baghdad and the ground troops pushing in across the border.

Set the alarm for 4 a.m. to be ready to leave at five and try to get into Iraq. Just for a moment, as I write these words, the guns have fallen silent. They began in earnest at around 7 p.m. and have been hammering away ever since, a fearsome, eardrum-shattering barrage. The windows rattle. In between, drones fly over. They do drone. They fly low enough to make the metal fabric of this building vibrate in sympathy with their motors.

Dex comes out of his room, asking what the terrible smell is. I suggest dung fires, lit by the Bangladeshi workers. ‘But perhaps it’s the stench of burning flesh,’ I say.

‘Yeah!’ he says, his eyes brightening. He asks James. James says maybe burning flies incinerated on the yard lights.

‘You don’t think maybe it could be the stench of burning flesh?’ says Dex.

It’s peaceful now. No bombardment, no drones. You can hear the crickets.