EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the February 23, 2004, issue of National Review.
“Please fasten your seatbelts and point your machine guns out of the plane,” requested the stewardess matter-of-factly. She was charged with the safety of our Kuwait-bound Boeing 757, which was taking off from snow-bound Wroclaw. This was the city, once known by its German name of Breslau, that famously stood up to the Red Army almost as long as Berlin did. You can still see a swath of destruction in the middle of town, where an airport was carved out so that the Nazi Gauleiter could flee in time. The night before, I had stayed in a hotel that Hitler once patronized; from a balcony under my window, he saluted adoring crowds.
Poland has produced more history than can be consumed locally–so now we were going outside our borders to make it. I had joined 147 soldiers in fresh uniforms, on their way to relieve the first echelon of a 2,600-man Polish brigade in an international division of 9,500 troops, operating under Polish command, in the Central South sector of Iraq. The unit is perhaps as pure a manifestation of a “coalition of the willing” as we are ever likely to see: a group of countries that backed their words with action, without waiting for another U.N. resolution.
The morning after we arrived, the distant chant of the muezzin woke me at the gates of ancient Babylon–or, to be precise, on top of ancient Babylon, at the gates of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, where Belshazzar’s Biblical feast took place. Mud splashing under my feet on the way to a makeshift toilet, I took a freezing morning shower not a hundred yards from the throne room where Alexander was supposed to have died on his way back from conquering Afghanistan and India. Our encampment has, in fact, saved the site from the comprehensive looting that has ravaged other places: Indeed, there may be a connection between antiquities thieves and terrorism. Archeologists on the divisional staff I was to meet speculated that it was no coincidence that the Italian carabinieri attacked in the horrific explosion at Nasiriyah in November had arrested a group of looters the week before.
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