How very strange to think about now… There was no internet at all when I went on my first ever backpacking adventure in 1992-93. My only communication with the homeland for the seven month period I traveled in Central and South America was through the many post cards I sent and occasional phone calls to my parents. I tried to stay current on international news by translating local newspapers and talking to other backpackers in guesthouses. But in many respects, the guesthouse grapevine seemed an unreliable source of information. The setting alone encouraged people to play fast and loose with the facts. Stories tended to repeat and vary and change from guesthouse to guesthouse and courtyard to courtyard. There was no official source of information to check, no Google to search it or Wikipedia to compare it to. There was only the authenticity of the speaker and the believability of the narrative. Was my young and innocent mind corrupted by the 1992 version of “fake news”? Or was my brainwashed consciousness cracked open by exposure to narratives outside the corporate news propaganda bubble?
When I first heard about the “Highway of Death,” I thought it was a bullshit story. I was in a guesthouse in Managua, Nicaragua in October of 1992. I was a naive and innocent first time traveler then who still believed in the holiness of the US constitution and the inherent goodness of “America.” I was aware of some of “America’s” crimes in Central America and was generally against US military actions overseas but tended to think the bad actions were the fault of certain bad actors or bad administrations (republicans). I certainly did not believe that the US government or the US nation as a whole was “imperialist or aggressive or militaristic.” Instead, I thought that the US was the world’s good guy; spreading democracy, freedom, development and progress to the rest of the world. But I met these two European anarchist dudes and they were not very nice. One was from Austria and the other was from France. They argued with each other about a wide range of subjects in the courtyard of the guesthouse. The only subject they agreed on was their fierce opposition to US militarism. I was the only “American” in the courtyard so they directed their anger at me. I was not really interested in defending militarism but I still felt like I had to defend “America” because “America” was a part of my “persona”. I was an “American.” They started with a rant about the US sponsored contra war right there in Nicaragua and moved on to a diatribe about Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. No it was not the “Vietnam War,” it was “The American War” against South East Asia. Then, they segwayed into Indonesia where “the Americans gave the go ahead,” for the massive slaughter of communists and socialists by mobs of coup supporters. Supposedly the CIA handed out lists of “communist names” to angry mobs and promised money for their murders. Then, in the African Congo, the CIA murdered the newly elected socialist prime minister and thereby started a long bloody civil war. Everywhere you go in the world there is a problem. And that problem is caused by the CIA or the US military… Yeah right sure guys, and the moon landings were fake and JFK was shot by Marilyn Monroe…
Somewhere during their dissertation on the crimes of America, they reached the very recent and still ongoing conflict with Iraq. According to their story, Kuwait was an asset of the United States. Oil wells in Kuwait, controlled by the US, were drilling at a slant underground to steal oil from Iraq. Iraq only invaded Kuwait to stop the US from stealing their oil. The US then used Iraq’s little invasion of Kuwait as a pretext to invade and occupy the whole region. The US military was at the beginning of a long military buildup in order to gain control of all the energy resources in the whole Middle East. They already had puppet regimes on half the peninsula and with the recent collapse of the protector state, the Soviet Union, a whole group of nominally independent states were now ripe for the picking as well. Iraq was first on the list but Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Iran were also supposedly targeted for conquest. The US military’s gruesome performance on the Highway of Death was a purposeful display of viciousness in order to scare the region into submission. The slaughter was ordered from the highest levels of the US government because the US was sending a clear and unequivocal message to the people in the Middle East… Supposedly, more than 50,000 retreating Iraqi conscripts were gunned down over a three day period as they tried to escape the war zone in Kuwait by fleeing along the highway that connected Kuwait City to Basra in Iraq. US warplanes shot up vehicles in order to cause a massive traffic jam and then started shooting the trapped and desperate men like they were fish in a barrel….
“No way,” I interrupted. “The United States military would never shoot at retreating soldiers. That’s not the way America operates. You guys are full of shit.”
“They weren’t even regular Iraqi army,” said the Austrian, “they were conscripts. Farm boys, shopkeepers, day laborers and students that Saddam force drafted into his military to fight his crazy battle. They certainly didn’t want to be there. At the first sign of battle, they dropped their weapons and fled. Some of them even raised white flags of surrender as they staggered helplessly down the Basra highway. But the US attack helicopters and jets didn’t care about any of that. They just opened fire and slaughtered. Most were shot in the back as they were running away. By all accounts, it was a merciless massacre.”
“I don’t believe a word you are saying,” I said defiantly, “slant drilling… yeah right. Farm boys with white flags shot in the back? Not a chance. That would be a war crime. It would be in all the newspapers. I read the New York Times regularly. If something like that happened it would have been on the front page. It would probably be in every newspaper in America. How come I never heard of it before? It can’t be true. You are making it up.”
“It’s true,” they insisted. “The Highway of Death story has been covered in many international publications. There is even a UN report. They want to bring war crimes charges but the US won’t acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction.”
“No way,” I shouted, “you guys are liars. America does not commit war crimes.” I pushed myself away from the table and stomped my way back to my room. I didn’t believe a word they said. How insulting. No wonder there are so many people who are anti-American when some people go around spreading bullshit stories like that….
It was about three weeks after my conversation with the anarchists in Managua that the malaria symptoms began to manifest. The vivid dreams/nightmares that tormented me for several years afterwards first began with that illness. At some point, I began to associate the dreams with the anti-malarial drug Lariam. But I don’t believe it ever occurred to me that the apocalyptic highway in my dream could be in any way related to the “highway of death” story from Iraq. Many years later, I made the connection because I was particularly fascinated by the relationship between “the highway of death”, the American imagination and the power of propaganda. I never did scholarly research on the subject but my anecdotal reality informed me that almost no Americans had ever even heard the story. I, myself, had only heard of it while traveling in Central and South America. For a couple of years after I got back I used to talk about it and ask people about it a lot. Talking about it while drunk always made me sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist. There was almost no mention of it at all in the corporate media so I sometimes wondered if maybe I dreamed the whole thing up. Every once in a while I’d see an obscure reference to “the incident” in a foreign policy story of a “radical publication” and I would confirm that the story was not a complete delusion. And when the Internet became available it was possible to confirm that it was, indeed, a true event. Or, at least, it was a story based on a true event. The anarchists in Managua may have been the first people to tell me about it. But many more travelers told me a similar story later on; including my Canadian friends in Costa Rica… Continue reading