Dallas, TX – This began as a story about a rumor and about how a rumor can be simultaneously tantalizing, elusive and dangerous. Is this one true? Damned if I know, having spent three weeks immersed in it only to learn that it doesn't really matter. In the end, this story is about something else, something more.
In early September, the NBC production of "Saving Jessica Lynch" was filming in a small community near Dallas. The U.S. Army provided tanks and other heavy military equipment, along with a group of soldiers to operate it. As these soldiers approached the motel into which they'd been booked, they were diverted to another town because, as the rumor has it, the owners were quote, "Iraqis," who refused to allow U.S. military people to stay there.
What a story! Natives of the country that we are fighting to liberate or de-terrorize or democratize or whatever it is this week turning away soldiers assigned to a propaganda film in a flag waving, Bible Belt town. Are they crazy? Courageous? Did they fear reprisals back home? Was it genuine anti-American hatred or general anti-war conviction? And was it true? A strong reason for skepticism is that hotel owners are an important part of small communities. They raise their kids there, join civic groups and depend on local events as a major source of revenue. And a movie set is to gossip what the Fed is to checks. 90 percent of the time, 90 percent of the people there have nothing to do but hang around the craft service table drinking coffee, eating snacks and chattering.
I traced the rumor through several dozen people from NBC, local production companies and the army, and while almost all had heard it, none had witnessed it firsthand. Of them all, the most impressive was Major Todd Breassele, the army's liaison to Hollywood and surely the guy with the coolest job in the military. He'd heard the story too and provided me with a name that eventually led to a stunt man who forcefully claimed that the people at the motel had thrown him out screaming, "We don't want you here, and we don't want the army here!"
I'd already spoken with the people at the motel - Indians by the way, and not Iraqis. They said that they had indeed refused rooms to many in the company but that the refusal was over room rates, not politics. All sides agree that there were disputes over standard motel/customer issues like room occupancy, smoking and checkout time.
Someone was lying. Who? I needed another firsthand source. Many more calls, and no one could verify the stuntman's story. Then I made an unannounced visit to the motel and encountered an American flag on the front desk and behind it two pleasant American citizens who had moved here from Bombay 35 years ago. Their word? His? I choose to believe them, but what's the truth?
To me the important truth is in the words of Major Breassele, "I could have made all kinds of trouble but didn't because we weren't certain of the facts. We had a lot of equipment there and didn't want violence." Major Breassele paused to consider the humorous irony of that statement. Then he concluded: "More important, one of the things we're fighting for is the right of Americans to live and speak as they choose." And those words, spoken by a soldier about the cautious and responsible use of power, rang far more sweet and true than any to have come from the Administration since before this war began.
Spencer Michlin is a writer from Dallas.