The Belt of Orion
When Richard Rogers wrote Beneath the Southern Cross for the sound track of the 1950s documentary Victory at Sea he must have known its music would evoke more than combat in the South Pacific. It would bring the palm-fringed islands themselves to life, changing as the day wore into a landscape of surf-pounded beaches under a starry sky. This magical piece became a hit single under the alias, "No Other Love", under false colors probably because nobody wanted to remember its true provenance: a momentary vision of beauty in the Pacific war.
TE Lawrence often achieved the same effect in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is the story of a campaign to evict the Ottomans from Arabia by guerilla warfare and mayhem. Yet Lawrence manages to invest the scenes with a degree of timeless beauty; a beauty not wholly due to his great literary skill. In one passage he attempted to convey the impact of the desert on the Arab mind.
The common base of all the Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present idea of world-worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty; and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the minds of the desert pitilessly. A first knowledge of their sense of the purity of rarefaction was given me in early years, when we had ridden far out over the rolling plains of North Syria to a ruin of the Roman period which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert-palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded for greater richness, not with water, but with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room, saying, ‘This is jessamine, this violet, this rose’.
But at last Dahoum drew me: ‘Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all’, and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed to fret and linger, murmuring in baby-speech. ‘This,’ they told me, ‘is the best: it has no taste.’ My Arabs were turning their backs on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had had no share or part.
We can be thankful to milblogs for helping preserve the impressions of an American helicopter pilot operating over Iraq. He understood that the war itself was a thin veneer over the currents of life; and that however much the headlines denied it, both enemy and friend lived beneath the same sky. Hurl describes a night mission over Iraq.
The last three nights here in central Iraq have been beautiful. The sky has been much less dusty than it usually is. The stars are brilliant. Orion pops up around 4am - Taurus a couple of hours before that. Mars is very clear after midnight. Normally the visibility is pretty poor - usually less than 3 miles. Sometimes less than 1 mile. Flying in these conditions can be quite challenging - especially at night.
By FAA standards, anything under 3 miles is technically considered IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) as opposed to VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and require Instrument flight plans to be filed. But this is Iraq, not Kansas. Flight plans would be useless anyway since there is no Air Traffic Control system. Depending on the mission, we routinely find ourselves flying in low visibility - i.e. IFR conditions.
2 nights ago I flew into Baghdad at about 3:30am. It was a very clear night and I could see for dozens of miles in all directions. It looked like it could be anywhere in America - lights were on EVERYWHERE. Whatever electricity problems there were in the past, they certainly seem to be fixed now.
There are also numerous gas flares from various refineries in operation. One huge refinery right in Baghdad would put any Gulf coast refinery to shame. I know Iraqi oil production is almost where it was prior to the war - currently 2.5 million barrels a day. It appears that their refinery capability is rapidly improving as well. In spite of countless terror attacks on the Iraqi infrastructure, the builders seem to be prevailing.
Situated on the Tigris River, Baghdad is a beautiful city at night. The slums don't look as slummy. Palm trees grow like weeds. There are no skyscrapers, but there are numerous high-rise buildings in the downtown area, many with very interesting architecture. There are several very nice multi-story hotels where the incestuous media hang out by the pools, sipping cocktails and plagiarizing one another. They wait like vultures for news of the next suicide attack so they can smear the blood and shove the latest body count in our face. I wouldn't be surprised if they have betting pools on when, where, and how many will die....
This past night at 3:30 am all was quiet. There wasn't a single car on any road. Nobody shooting or blowing anybody up. The city was completely lit up and so.... peaceful. I know it will be short-lived, but I can't help but hope that it will someday be as peaceful as this one night most of the time.