Folio — From the October 2014 issue

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

A Marine returns to a divided Iraq

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What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling . . . From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, “It’s down below there,” and we can only believe them. . . . At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

It had been ten years since I had invaded Iraq, armed and dressed to look like dirt. I pulled out my new map of the country as a visitor this time. No targets, no units, no routes given code names as women or beer. I’d spend ten days working my way from Baghdad through Wasit Province to Jassan, a town near the Iranian border. I had served as its provisional military mayor in 2003 but hadn’t seen a single report on it since I left. My hope was to return without revealing that I’d been there before, to travel under my first name, concealed by a beard, to the place I was known only as Major Busch.

On December 9, I boarded a small plane and made the jump from Amman, Jordan, across the angry Sunni provinces, and into Baghdad. As we glided into the city’s variegated glow, I looked for red tracers, bullets fired into the sky. I looked for the war. But we didn’t dive like military transport planes avoiding rockets; we just shuddered onto the surface as a voice welcomed us to Iraq. It was a few months yet before fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) would threaten the capital.

A Marine patrol passes a wedding-supply store in the Kut souk, 2003. All photographs by the author

A Marine patrol passes a wedding-supply store in the Kut souk, 2003. All photographs by the author

At passport control, there were two signs, in Arabic and in English: iraqis and others. I stood under my label. We had spent nine years trying to determine which Iraqis we had come to free and which to fight, and we had never really learned the difference.

No traffic from the city is allowed within miles of the terminal, so shuttle vans take arrivals to a meeting area at the far edge of the security perimeter. I sat in the back next to two Syrians and behind four Jordanians, one of whom spoke in a hush while our Iraqi driver examined the currencies and worked the exchange values in his head. He held my ten-dollar bill up to a light before sliding it into a stack of Turkish lira, Iranian rial, and Syrian pounds. I didn’t say a word, my cover already blown by Alexander Hamilton.

The road was empty as we drove, fountains lit in the median with colored lights. Everything was in good order there in no-man’s-land, an immense empty space meant to keep the runways out of rocket range. My interpreter, whom I’ll call Khalil, was waiting in the sequestered lot at the airport’s entrance. He had a cough but, like most Iraqis, continued to smoke. He was dry about it. “If it doesn’t kill me, it would have been something.” He offered me a cigarette, but I declined. “See. Americans get everyone to smoke . . . and then you all quit.”

Khalil always wanted to travel, and it damned him. He worked for the Intelligence Service under Saddam, the only job he could get after school, and was posted to New York City as a United Nations diplomat with the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1991, he watched coverage of Desert Storm from his apartment on Manhattan’s East Side while, two hours up the Hudson, I watched as a senior at Vassar College. Because of his connection to the Baathists, he can’t get a visa to move his family to the United States now, despite many years as an interpreter for American forces during the occupation. He will be left in Baghdad as Iraq falls apart.

A devotional portrait of Ali, the first Shia Imam, in a shop, Kut, 2013

A devotional portrait of Ali, the first Shia Imam, in a shop, Kut, 2013

Traffic was sparse as we drove into the city’s center, where I spent two nights in the Karada district. The storefronts were luminous at the base of dark apartment buildings. There were no police rushing past, no shots fired, just the growl of generators and thump of trucks hitting holes in the road, the cool air thick with exhaust. A radio reported car bombs: eight killed, twenty-two wounded.

“The numbers are all lies in Iraq,” Khalil said. “How many votes, how many dead.”

“How was it here today?” I asked.

He smiled. “Shit.” He was numbed by survivor’s fatigue. The country had all the symptoms of collapse, but the lights were on, international flights were landing, and stores were open as bombs went off. “Even if it’s bad we say: ‘Today is better than tomorrow.’ ”

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is the author of Dust to Dust: A Memoir. His article “Bearing Arms” appeared in the February 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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