by Mercury Senior War Analyst, Sean Tejaratchi

WEEK ONE: The sounds of "silents"

Kuwait City; Kuwait Best Western, March 21, 6:43 am

There can be few things as sickening as being torn from sleep by the banshee howl of a foreign infant. There are no warnings, just a piercing, incomprehensible wail that forces you to wildly curse at the child's parents in the next room. This country is tense enough without crying children.

Tomorrow I join a massive convoy of U.S. Marines very close to the Iraqi border. I've been watching television to pass the time. I can't help but notice how many news reports compare Iraq to California. I wonder if some further relationship between the two areas is being implied. Both regions share tyrannical governments, crumbling infrastructures, appalling illiteracy, and absolutely filthy air and water. If the so-called Golden State indeed poses a threat to national security, the consequences could be far-reaching, due to its abundant access to shipping lanes.

There has just been another air raid warning here. The sirens, which come long after dark, seem all the more menacing, because after nightfall you can't actually see the sounds. The "all clear" signal comes only after anxious minutes of imagined explosions and elaborate visualizations. In these arid wastelands, your own mind can become a treacherous foreigner.

I must admit I find the Middle East more than slightly unnerving. Underneath the constant clanking and pounding and news broadcasts lies a deadly silence. I've talked to men out here who can remember the same sort of silence from the first Gulf War. Buzzing, grinding, jackhammering silence, broken only by the occasional noise. Below all the noise it just gets silenter and silenter until finally all you can do is listen to your own ears screaming. It's so soundless it's deafening. Shhhhhhhh, whispers the silentness, only you can't even hear it because you've already been deafened. I'm afraid I've got a touch of it. The troops call it "Desert Ear." All you can hear is a distant hum, like you're in a hotel and there's an ice machine down the hall.

50 miles outside Iraq, March 22, 8:06 am

It looks calm, but we've been cautioned that this seemingly empty countryside swarms with dangers both exotic and mundane. Only yesterday we were officially warned against "interfering" with any sort of farm animal! I am sure there are a number of ways to rig a goat if you've got harm in mind, and I needn't remind you that goats are very popular in this region. Iraq is not a petting zoo.

Just before dawn I was sure I heard Arabic spoken outside my tent. I'm not superstitious, but there was something eerie about the voice. I wonder if the Iraqi people have any extraordinary psychic or voodoo-type powers. The presence of so many loitering goats has made me uneasy. The occult is a shadowy foe, especially abroad. A few days ago a soldier managed to get insect repellent in his eyes. Who's to say it was an accident?

20 miles outside Iraq, March 22, 10 pm

Apparently the experts are still analyzing Saddam's post-deadline appearance on Iraqi state television. He's long been known to employ body doubles. I think on this as I gaze towards two Iraqi soldiers who have just surrendered outside camp. I watch them carefully, searching their faces for clues. Question: Could these be imposters as well, hand-picked lookalikes, substitutes for the actual soldiers who are still crawling around out there? How would we know? If I were Saddam, giving up harmless copies of every soldier might be a very clever way to lull my opponents into carelessness. Someone should come up with a test--perhaps questions only real Iraqi soldiers would know how to answer.

The Iraqi border, March 23, 11:19 pm

This morning brought disturbing news with terrifying implications. Rumors say an American GI is now in custody, accused of tossing three grenades into the tent of his commanding officer.

In the tent tonight, things begin to form a sinister shape. Question: Why would a soldier, brought up to uphold American ideals, suddenly attack his own men? Answer: Perhaps the soldier isn't really the soldier. If Saddam can so easily come up with doubles for himself and his followers, what would stop him from replacing our men as well? I lay on my cot, staring into the darkness, listening to the breathing of my "buddies" around me. Underneath it all, the silence shrieks on.