The last real vacation I had was four years ago, and Governor Rod Blagojevich's constant poll-driven preening was really getting on my nerves, so I decided it was past time for a break.
I own a convertible, and I've never taken it on a long road trip, so I came up with the idea of putting the top down and driving my car to British Columbia for a month and finding a nice, quiet beach to completely decompress and forget about Illinois.
But a little voice in the back of my head kept saying one word: "Iraq." While I was ordering Canadian maps from AAA and locating all my camping gear, the voice grew louder: "Iraq." And as I lined up contacts in the Great White North, the voice practically boomed: "Iraq!"
I went to Kosovo right after the war ended in 1999 (my last "vacation"), and I was apparently in need of another adventure.
So, out of curiosity, I began checking up on flights to the Middle East. I called the American occupation office in Baghdad and asked about restrictions on journalists. I phoned a few editors in Illinois and around the country and told them I was thinking about traveling to Iraq and asked if they'd be interested in some articles. I bought a bullet-proof vest and borrowed a helmet. I rented a satellite phone and upgraded my laptop. I talked to some friends who have relatives in Iraq and asked for advice.
Almost before I knew it, I was on a flight to Amman, Jordan. Three days later, I was in downtown Baghdad.
You read all the time about how dangerous Iraq is right now. Bombings, shootings, kidnappings, car-jackings, looting, etc., etc., etc.
When you're in the middle of it, though, it isn't so bad, even when some jerk is shooting in your direction while you're trying to have a quiet beer on your hotel's roof.
Iraq is a constant rush - an intense high that makes you constantly aware of yourself and your surroundings. Every day feels like five.
I spent more than a month in Iraq and saw some terrible things while I was there. And I left with a sense of foreboding.
My main worry is that too many Americans obviously look down on their new charges, and they have little or no regret for the way they mistreat the Iraqis.
And many Iraqis, mostly jubilant at first about Saddam Hussein's downfall, are more and more starting to outwardly resent the lack of public services, the absence of security, the skyrocketing unemployment, and, increasingly, the killing of innocent civilians by frustrated, overworked, ill-led soldiers. As a result, the "Resistance," whatever and whomever that is, appears to be growing. I'm not saying, whatsoever, that the attacks on our soldiers are America's fault. I'm just saying we ought to be removing reasons for opposing our presence instead of providing them.
On the other hand, I met some truly wonderful, humane Americans (including lots of soldiers) who really want to do what's right. And I spent tons of time with everyday Iraqi civilians who are eternally grateful for their liberation from Saddam's tyranny, who cling to the hope that America will, eventually, do right by them and who are willing to give us a reasonable amount of time to make their dream of freedom a reality.
Some things happened to me personally over there that I'd rather not go into right now. But, put it this way, and without sounding too maudlin, I think I left Iraq a much better person. I just hope it lasts.
Anyway, I'm back in Amman, Jordan, as I write this. I intended to be home a few days ago, but this town rocks, and I needed a break after my alleged vacation, so I extended my trip a bit. Plus, I promised a friend that I would help get his cousin out of Iraq, and we're this close to making his wish a reality, so I don't want to leave until the task is completed.
I'll be back soon and will resume slamming the governor on a regular basis. Iraq or no Iraq, some things will never change.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).