Politics & Policy

Combat in The Bazaar

Final preps for war.

Kuwait City

Here in Kuwait City, where the government is allowing hundreds of thousands of fighting men to stage for an invasion of Iraq, we are within easy missile range of Saddam’s forces. So where do local citizens, and reporters authorized to enter combat with U.S. forces, obtain their bulletproof helmets and flak jackets? From a civil-defense agency? From the defense ministry?

Try Ahmed Al-Saleh and Sons.

The thriving family firm, which owns several buildings and a variety of stores, is one of a handful of Kuwait businesses that hawks military gear. In striving and war-torn Kuwait, the storefronts are much glossier than a typical army-surplus store in America, but the contents are much the same.

Want a gas mask? There are East European models, and a few made in the West. Don’t forget your drinking hose and attachable canteen — vital when you could be spending hours in the desert heat inside the mask and a heavy, impermeable NBC (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical) protective suit. If you wear glasses, I hope you had a prescription insert made. And do buy extra filters. Saddam is not a man given to moderation.

The most common masks are Chinese. Do they work? Probably. Certainly the price is right — perhaps 30 Kuwaiti dinar (around $100), versus two to five times that for competing models. Supplies are a little tight, but not sold out. The Kuwaiti government is suggesting locals place soaked towels around their doors in the event of a gassing, and residents seem remarkably unperturbed. “The U.S. Army will protect us,” is the common view.

Battle helmets, on the other hand, are scarce to nonexistent, thanks partly to a run on them by international reporters assigned to “embed” with frontline forces. (Bring your own lifesaving gear.)

One Al-Saleh branch, and several other shops as well, tell me they are out of helmets. “Don’t worry, we ordered. Soon we have.” But “soon” in the Arab souk is five days. Too late. We will be in the desert with the troops by then.

With a little cajoling and pressure, however, the market cracks open a bit. Riyad, the man who insisted no helmets would be available this week, finally pulls a British-made model out of a box. “Just 130 dinar. Usually 165.” Only one problem: It already has a bullet hole in it — directly in the forehead, about the size of a round from an AK-47.

I am pleased to note that the shot did not fully penetrate the helmet. But hairline cracks radiate from the hole, and military headgear strikes me as a product category not well-suited to scratch-and-dent sales. I think of a joke a friend told me, just before I left the States, about French tanks: They have six gears in reverse, and one forward — just in case they get attacked from the rear. A helmet with a bullet hole in the forehead but a pristine surface at the back might be fine for a soldier or journalist from France, I suggest to Riyad. The comic potential seems to translate surprisingly well.

At another shop, the Kuwait City helmet shortage briefly evaporates. “No problem,” says the shopkeeper, who disappears to his storage room, returning with a well-made piece of shiny blue headgear bearing a gummed sticker that reads “BULLETPROOF HELMET.” I am dubious, and close inspection reveals a manufacturer’s label inside, blacked out with magic marker but still legible, where I can make out “Fireman’s Helmet.” Hmmm. I’d love to follow a firefighter around for a story some day, but I tell my new friend Sherif that this won’t do for where I’m going.

Like any good salesman, Sherif shifts gears one he realizes he has a discerning customer. “Come back tomorrow, and I give you choices.”

Meanwhile, I try on flak jackets. A model made in Northern Ireland has nice Velcro fittings. But it seems to have been tailored with a bantam border guard named Finbar in mind, not a 6’5” American. Call me sentimental, I mime to my attendant, but I cherish not only my chest but also my abdomen.

I also tell him this feels like police-level Kevlar, not full military gear. At which point he whips out two heavy ceramic plates which he says can be inserted to reinforce the front and rear of the vest. “All special made for you, my friend. Good price.”

And Sherif becomes the third shopkeeper to excitedly offer me custom fabric coverings for my gear in “any color camouflage you want.” Not seeing any tactical advantage in wearing forest-green camo in a land that makes Arizona look lush, and completely mystified by the distinctive royal-blue wavy pattern printed on lots of Kuwaiti gear, I state my firm-though-boring preference for straight beige-and-gray desert concealment.

Next we have to negotiate the price. I’ve already been promised sweet tea, and expect some hard bargaining. But I’ve got an ace-in-the-hole: the hint of good publicity for a favorable sale, and a digital camera that lets me transmit a photo with my story. (If there is no movement on price point I may drop dark references to a grumpy consumer review.)

What good retailer can resist a happy media testimonial? If things work out, I’ll let you know details on shop hours, more about those snazzy custom colors, and special prices on sandstorm goggles…

Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise, will be reporting from Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.

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