A Blast from the Past

(On the Eve of Another Invasion, 2003)

by Michael Rossman

           It happened during the previous Gulf War against Hussein, in 1991. I was driving to school in rush-hour traffic to teach science, the morning after photos showed us the strafed caravan of Iraqi retreat -- those twenty miles of tangled, burnt metal and flesh, all that was left of the obsolete tanks and troop carriers and pickup trucks that fled as invincible U.S. firepower blitzed them from above, helpless as fish in a barrel. And I got to thinking about all the Iraqi kids as old as my own and those I was rushing to teach, about the hundred thousand kids whose daddies wouldn’t be coming home that night or ever again, as if they weren’t just some distant statistic but as real as the kids I can touch. And I just lost it, stalled choking and teary in the slow lane till horns blared and I managed to make my way to the curb, to sit gasping for five minutes until I could make it be just thoughts again, and clear my eyes enough to drive on carefully to school.

          When I got there, my eighteen fifth-graders were already settling in around the cluster of tables that serves as our arena for experiment. I got out the big iron hot-plate, plugged it in, and set it in the middle of the broad surface to warm, as I quizzed them more sharply than usual about their TV-watching over the weekend. “So what was it like?” I asked, about the pictures that had flooded the news the past few days –- not of that mutilated retreat in the sand, but of phosphorescent traces in the night sky, as time and again the valiant Patriot missiles of our homeland smote the vile Scuds of Hussein-Who-Is-Like-Unto-Hitler, blew them to incandescent bits in vivid triumphs of technological might-makes-right. “It’s like a video game!” they all chorused, and went on to explain in detail, especially the boys, about video games crossed with fireworks in the sky.

          Savvy adult though I was supposed to be, I’d been taken in as completely as they were by the videodrama. Video games were more primitive then, and I had no idea that those triumphant arcs and collisions on the screen were pure illusion. It took years for the fact to emerge that not a single case of a Patriot actually blowing a Scud from the sky could be confirmed –- and more years to learn how our military used huge, specially-built earthmovers to mound over miles of tangled wreckage, to make it appear there had been hardly any casualties in that strafed retreat.

          But I was hot on the track of more basic deception. “Damn right it is!” I said to them, with a vehemence that startled me too. “It IS just like a video game, and that’s what you’re training yourself to do every time you put your thumb on the button. You’re in training to be a future soldier in a pushbutton war, bloodless on the screen, they don’t even have to pay you to practice. Here, I’ll show you one of the tricks that they play, that you may get to play.” Already the flyers who strafed the retreat tracked their targets on computer screens, as modernizing tanks did by then, as advanced individual soldiers will do in this coming slaughter. By then, too, the hot-plate was hot enough, and I took a bottle of rubbing alcohol and poured a big dollop on its broad, dark surface.

          The liquid sizzled and bubbled until nearly all was gone, expanding in a cloud of heavy vapors above a residual streak of moisture. Taking out my lighter, I said, “They call this a gasoline vapor bomb, check it out,” and flicked the flame above the hotplate. A graceful, symmetrical flower of fire blossomed three feet wide and as high, in a singe of heat that crisped my arm-hair and made their eyes flare as they scattered backwards, tipping their chairs. Though improvising wildly, I hadn’t quite lost control: I knew how much to use, and how to go on. “They drop bombs that make really big clouds of vapor. Think of this on the scale of the playground, of our school, of this whole block,” I said, and led them to deduce what would happen to the oxygen within the cloud as fire flared, and to the people. “Shall we do it again?” They cheered with real appetite – as a demonstration, it’s really impressive.

          “Get back, let’s do a bigger one.” They pulled their chairs back from the table as I poured on more alcohol, half-covering the hot-plate. It’s really neat, the way the vapor-cloud hangs together -- at least in a still room like ours, I wouldn’t try this where the winds were blowing, or children were milling like fish in a  . . . stop that! I flicked the flame and fire blossomed again, fully four feet wide this time, blasting a wave-front of heat that made their eyelashes curl, like fires of some Hell made real enough to believe, to burn more deeply in the imagination. “From above, it’s easy, the cloud can fill the streets, the buildings, you can drop it just by pressing a button on the screen.” And we did it one more time, even larger, crowding us to the walls for safety. And talked again about rapid oxidation and asphyxiation, and about what we learn from playing video games, all that thumb practice, before I gave up ranting and turned to other topics, leaving them to make whatever they could of my tears flowing through half of this, half of their science lesson that day.

          That was twelve years ago. They were ten-turning-eleven back then, those boys –- the girls hardly played the games –- when I told them, “this is what you are training yourself for,” and asked them to think about what happened at our table, and on the desert sands. And now they’re twenty-two or -three, just old enough to be piloting the jets this time. I’m sure many people said things that helped my own students dodge this fate. I know others were not so fortunate, entranced by the great video game in the sky. The timing just gives me the chills, deeper than I can say.


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