By Popo Ott
The Times 

The Mother of All Battles

Just Vignettes by Popo Ott


August 11, 2022

I call this series “Just Vignettes” because that’s what they are, just short snapshots of things that have happened to me or have been told to me. I can vouch the stories you read here are mostly true.

The Bahrain night of January 16, 1991, was cold and crisp. Our captain, who commanded the USS San Jose, had offered to buy dinner for most of the officers not on duty at a restaurant in the city of Manama. President George H. W. Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait was set to expire in about six hours. All indications were that Saddam had not and would not comply with the ultimatum. In fact, he had just given a speech threatening “the mother of all battles” would greet the allied forces the next day. We expected to put to sea again the next morning.

We hailed three cabs to the restaurant. I got in the same cab as the captain with two other officers. Shortly after we had given the driver our destination and the cab began moving, the driver asked us if we were American military. We confirmed what he had guessed. The driver calmly identified himself as a Palestinian refugee. While I was wondering what would come next, the driver continued in his inappropriately serene manner, telling us that in the morning, we would experience the mother of all battles. He continued by explaining that we would all be dead by this time the next day. Other than calling Saddam Hussein the great protector of the Palestinians, pretty much all he said was to repeat “the mother of all battles” and repeated his belief that this was our last day on earth, over and over again. The officer beside me whispered in my ear, “Now I’m inclined not to tip this guy.”

The driver delivered us safely to our destination.

During dinner, naturally, the conversation turned to the topic of our cab driver. Our captain commented that it wasn’t close to his strangest cab ride. While aboard an aircraft carrier, the carrier made a port call in Spain. Being senior enough to have some perks, he and another captain arraigned for the ship’s husbanding agent to drive them to a golf course and return them to the ship afterward.

Husbanding agents can do anything for a ship or a person in a foreign port, from arranging supplies, fuel, hotel rooms, entertainment, customs clearance, and so on. Our captain’s round of golf was uneventful until the husbanding agents received a call at the end of the golf game. The agent begged the two captains’ pardon and asked if he could pick up two more clients at the airport on the way back to town. Would they mind sharing the car with two strangers? The captains were agreeable. 

The car arrived at the airport arrivals, and the driver got out to let the new clients in the car. As they took their seats, it was evident the clients were not strangers; one was so notorious they recognized him immediately. It was Yassar Arafat, a man believed to be the world’s number one terrorist by most Americans at that time. As the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, he was thought to be the mastermind of dozens of brutal terrorist attacks around the world. 

My captain told us that after the car started moving again, there was silence in the car, at least for a while. He said he was happy with that. His friend, however, was not the type to miss this opportunity to light into the world’s number one terrorist, so he did. Our captain said he mostly sat in silence. Still, he was impressed with how Yassar Arafat calmly explained his positions and actions, justifying them with intelligent arguments. Arafat remained imperturbable during the entire ride.

Our captain finished the story by mentioning that Arafat gained some respect from both captains that day, which was probably about the last thing they would have expected to happen. The cab driver in Bahrain never got the chance to earn our respect.


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