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Making It

A unilateralist reporter hooks up with Christopher Hitchens and makes a run for the Iraqi border.

12:46 PM, Apr 4, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
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Safwan, Iraq

IT IS ESSENTIAL, during times of war, to be in good company. And to that end, fellowship prospects improved markedly last week around the Kuwait City Hilton--known to hotel warriors as central command. After 36 sleepless hours, I had just stolen three or four when my phone rang. "Hello Matt," said the voice on the other end. "It's Christopher Hitchens. I'm here. Did I wake you?" Yes you did, I told him, though I wasn't about to turn down a social call from one of our finest magazine scribblers and seekers of truth. "Good," he said. "I'll give you five minutes to put your teeth in, then I'll be right over."

You can tell how at ease a man is in the world from the scarcity of possessions he lugs around with him. When I came here, it was with large backpacks and overstuffed duffels, extraneous tote bags, pouches, and carry-ons. But Hitchens showed up at my door with nothing more than a firm handshake and a half-smoked pack of Rothman's. As he stood there, rumpled and slightly jetlagged in blue jeans and a black leather jacket, he looked sort of like the Fonz--if the Fonz had been a British former socialist who could pinch large swaths of Auden from memory.

We plopped down in the living room, and I asked him why he hadn't brought his gas mask, chem suit, and Kevlar. "I wore Kevlar in the Balkans once," he said, "but it made me feel like a counterfeit, so I ditched it." Despite this cavalier disregard for safety, I was so grateful for the company that I offered him a Welcome-To-Kuwait shot of "Listerine" (as it is known by Kuwaiti customs officials). "I don't usually start this early," said Hitchens with feigned reluctance, "but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism."

AS I BRIEFED HITCHENS on the difficulties and dangers of getting into Iraq as an unembedded reporter, his eyes betrayed a wild impatience. "I have to get to Iraq," he told me. "You and everybody else," I replied, adding that the line started around the block. No, he said, I didn't understand. Vanity Fair had paid his freight, and he only had a short time. If his boots did not touch Iraqi soil, the mission would be a failure. Luckily, my best Kuwaiti contact called. The Kuwait Red Crescent Society was going into southern Iraq on a humanitarian drop. "Can you be downtown at the Sheraton by 1:00 p.m.?" she asked. It was 12:55, and we were in my car before she hung up.

When we got there, the convoy was pulling out and we weren't in it. "This can't be happening," Hitchens said, as if not getting in-country three hours after his plane touched down was an utter professional failure. The next day, the Red Crescent made another run, so we got to the Sheraton at dawn's crack to make sure we were on board. At the hotel press center, staffed by Kuwaiti Ministry of Information officials, an overflow crowd of journalists scurried about, all trying to cut deals to gain passage.

With hundreds of journalists waiting anxiously, like theater majors hoping for a speaking part in the school play, the list was finally posted. Hitchens and I were on it. I looked around to celebrate, but he was out having a smoke. When I finally spotted him, I broke the good news. I asked him if we should capture this celebratory moment with my disposable camera. "No," he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Save it for the bloated corpses. Don't say anything," he said, "or something bad will happen."

Hitchens told me that outside the hotel, he'd just run into P.J. O'Rourke. P.J. was riding in a caravan with ABC radio, and he'd asked Hitchens to join him. "They only had one seat," said Hitchens, "so I declined." (Like the Marines, Hitchens never leaves a comrade behind.) I ran into the gift shop to fill up my bag with gifts for the Iraqis. I already had Matchbox cars and Tic-Tacs, so I grabbed several cartons of Marlboro reds. When I came back out, Hitchens was having a smoke, and O'Rourke had rejoined him.

As I sidled up to them, O'Rourke, here for the Atlantic Monthly, congratulated me, telling me I was probably the only person here serving a smaller readership than he was. I showed both of them the contents of my swag bag, from which I intended to pass out gifts like GI Johnny from some bad World War II movie. "What?" said O'Rourke, "No chewing gum?" O'Rourke is an old hand in these parts, having gotten a book out of the first Gulf War ("Give War a Chance"). And so he was holding forth with mock bravado, telling us we hadn't seen anything. During 1991, he said, Scuds were coming down like rain. "The worst part was, the Saudis didn't know how to respond. They'd be driving like this [turning the wheel wildly] while looking out the window up into the sky. You stood a lot less chance of getting killed by a Scud than you did by an unguided Chevy Caprice."