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May 25, 2010

“Well, We Did it in Kuwait”

<em><em>Sebastiao Salgado Kuwait</em> 1991</em>
Sebastiao Salgado Kuwait 1991
NYT caption: Pat Campbell in Kuwait, where he capped oil wells that were destroyed by  the Iraqi army in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
NYT caption: Pat Campbell in Kuwait, where he capped oil wells that were destroyed by the Iraqi army in the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
NYT caption: Pat Campbell, at right in Kuwait in 1991, is helping BP figure out a way   to seal its blown-out well 5,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of   Mexico.
NYT caption: Pat Campbell, at right in Kuwait in 1991, is helping BP figure out a way to seal its blown-out well 5,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday, the NYT published a feature on Pat Campbell who, working for Wild Well in 1991, helped cap the more than 900 Kuwaiti oil wells set on fire by Saddam Hussein.  Speaking about the Deep Horizon leak, Campbell — now a consultant to BP down in Houston — was quoted in the article confidently predicting:

“Oh, we’ll kill that well.”

But then, just how big is the gulf between the ‘91 Persian Gulf and the ‘10 Gulf of Mexico?  Looking at photographer Sebastian Salgado’s iconic photo of well workers during Desert Storm, as well as the photos published by the Times of Campbell working his magic in Kuwait, you get the feeling there is more than just a casual connection.

My take is that the ability of the U.S. to cap the Kuwaiti wells, and the dramatic images and memories of the effort (never mind that it took nine months to get it done), in part underlies the frustration starting to boil over regarding the BP incident. Simply put (and differences, like a thousand feet of ocean, aside), the question is, if we could do it then, why can’t we do it now?  Which is bringing up a related, if more uncomfortable question, which is, what happened to American “can do?”

What Pat, in his overalled glory, and the oil workers in the Salgado picture represent is not just American ingenuity but also a longstanding sense of American omnipotence, which — beware, Mr. Obama — could be one of the biggest casualties of this latest Gulf disaster.

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