Desert Storm, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lentil

As I write this I am eating a bowl of lentil soup, which reminds me of a story. Let me set the stage….

It’s winter of 1991, and I’m in Kuwait City. As you recall, this is when coalition forces entered Kuwait City as part of a multinational effort to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from the city – aka “Desert Storm”. Although few US forces actually entered into the city itself, there were some unique US troops running around the city during/after the short ground war. I was in Civil Affairs – the part of the Army that is a liaison between local civilians and governments. Our much cooler colleagues from Special Forces served as liaisons between our military and the local military elements on the ground.

I was part of “Task Force Freedom“, a small task force set up to work through the complex – and impossible to anticipate – challenges that arose during the operation. As the ground war quickly came to an end, our mission turned to getting Kuwait City on the road to recovery.

Our immediate concerns related to basics like security, sanitation and food distribution. The previous months of Iraqi occupation of Kuwait City had been hard on some city residents, so in the early days, along with our other missions, we were in the city making sure large trucks filled with food were distributed to neighborhoods as requested by the Kuwaiti government.

One of the unique aspects of Kuwait at the time (and I assume this is still the case) is that there were huge populations of third-country nationals in Kuwait City – essentially people from other countries who lived there and did a lot of the work, since most Kuwaitis were wealthy (thanks oil!).

Since the trucks were seldom labeled with the food type they were carrying, I would often climb to the top and use my pocket knife to slice open the burlap and see what was inside.  The most common staples were rice and these weird red things I had never seen called “lentils”.

If I ever ate a lentil in my life up until that point I didn’t know about it. The whole concept of a lentil was foreign to me.

One of the laws at the time in Kuwait was that only Kuwaiti citizens could own property, so the third country nationals lived in large housing complexes and towers.  Another unique aspect of Kuwait – and this was very different from their Saudi neighbors – was that they had a Catholic church.

Unlike the more severe Saudi culture, the Kuwaitis knew that to get people from predominantly Catholic countries like the Philippines to come work in Kuwait they had to have a Catholic church, and so they did. Nothing drives pluralism in an oil-rich country like the wealthy citizens’ refusal to do garbage collection and housekeeping.

A challenge arose when we noticed that the neighborhoods the Kuwaiti government was primarily prioritizing for food shipments were the Kuwaiti neighborhoods – meaning the richest and likely least in need of emergency supplies.

(Here’s a true story to give you a sense what an average day was like: a local official insisted I send food to his neighborhood because “we haven’t tasted food in a week”. As I looked at my map, this didn’t make sense to me, but I took him at his word and went ahead and identified a truckload of rice heading somewhere else and arranged to divert it to his neighborhood for delivery later that very day. When I informed him of the scheduled delivery time/location he became clearly annoyed and told me “well, we already HAVE rice”. I guess he was hoping for shrimp gumbo or something).

And so – and I want to be clear here that I had absolutely no authority to do this – I started to occassionally divert food shipments destined for upscale Kuwaiti neighborhoods to the Catholic church, which obviously had a much better handle on the location of non-Kuwaitis (translation: poor) and how to get food to them. From there, volunteers would break the shipments down and deliver food to where it needed to be.

It wasn’t like the Italian Job or anything, but those of us involved became sort of a group of Lentil Robin Hoods. How many people can say they commandeered vast quantities of legumes from an oil-rich sheikdom?

Lessons:

  • I was reminded that breaking the rules is sometimes necessary if you want to make the world a better place. Believe me – this wasn’t the only time I broke some rule while I was there.
  • Waiting for someone to solve the problem, or give you permission, is usually the same as doing nothing.

For me, the humble lentil became a personal metaphor for breaking rules and altering expected outcomes. It’s probably why I chose the lentil soup today.

I hope you find your own lentils as you break the rules and change the world.

Good luck!

P.S. The title of this post references a famous Stanley Kubrick move. Do you know the name? Click here for the answer.