Folio — From the October 2014 issue

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

A Marine returns to a divided Iraq

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To get to Jassan, we had to go to Kut, the capital of Wasit Province. At a transportation hub on the eastern edge of Baghdad, drivers yelled the names of Iraqi cities as if they were reading from a Shia map: Basra, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Karbala, Kut. The U.S. State Department had been emphatic in trying to dissuade me from independent travel in Iraq, especially so far from Baghdad, but journalists have always come to that city and told the country’s story from its point of view. I needed to see what had become of the distant villages I had known. They had remained intact for centuries because of their political insignificance and isolation. It was my hope that those same qualities had preserved them, so far, from the violence and social collapse of the cities.

Khalil got a cab to Kut for 30,000 dinar ($25 at 1,200 dinar per dollar), and we set out on a route that ran east, above the erratic path of the Tigris. The traffic out of Baghdad moved in jerks, passengers expressionless as they stared into other cars, men in the front and women in the back. We passed a former American base, now Iraqi, and it looked run-down, dirt-filled Hesco barriers sagging into piles, soldiers slumping at their posts. We saw hundreds of flatbeds loaded with rebar for new construction, and there were herds of sheep, pens of chickens, and mesh bags of melons pressed up to the road. Baghdad was being fed from its immediate perimeter like a medieval city. It is a medieval city.

Hand-drawn map of Kut, by the author, 2003

Hand-drawn map of Kut, by the author, 2003

We were stopped and questioned at an elaborate new structure on the border between Diyala and Wasit. It had the design of a triumphal arch, the paved passages through it incomplete and the building still empty. It looked just like a border station between countries. These never existed between provinces before. There was no point. Khalil felt it was preparation for the future division of Iraq.

Boys swirled through the stalled traffic selling boxes of cookies and cigarettes. A heavy man in the passenger seat rubbed beads in one hand, smoked with the other, and spoke as if he had grit in his throat. “Half of us are soldiers, the other half are merchants now. All of Iraq is a shop with a war in it.” The backs of his hands were dark tan, his palms bleached pink. The driver looked like a bird: long, sharp, drooped nose, small eyes, gray leather jacket. He barely made a sound, eyes fixed on the road.

For a few miles, when the river curled close, there were fields of green grass and young palm trees. New brick houses have replaced huts once built from the silt of the Tigris. It was like another climate, a verdant country winding through an arid one, the two sharing nothing but proximity.

Police checkpoints profiled “foreign” Arabs, men from Saudi Arabia and Qatar especially. Muqtada al Sadr was on billboards promoting his religious rank among Shias, his dark glower no longer adolescent. (His Mahdi Army, raised to expel occupation forces, has been reconstituted as the Peace Brigades and is now fighting ISIL alongside the Iraqi army.) Gigante cigarettes posted their own highway signs, photographs of wealthy men smoking. They stood above hovels where laborers squatted by fires, the fumes from burning plastics stuck to the air. Mourning flags waved over homes, and donkeys grazed in trash. Traffic surged after each checkpoint, and we sped along the open road, sparse scrub on the desert side, tall reeds and fields irrigated from the Tigris on the other.

Roadside refreshment stands had been set up with rows of chairs for pilgrims to rest on as they made their way to Karbala. Separate tents were nearby for men and women to sleep in. I asked Khalil whether he had ever walked the route, and he said you only walk if you believe.

In 2003 we advanced from Kuwait to Kut with orders to push all the way to the Iranian border afterward. Most of our maps had nothing but a single road drawn through flat space, our pen marks on the route meaningless to the land. We would piece the maps together as we drove north, passing from one rectangle of desert to another. The terrain was open and scarred by tank trenches dug to guard the only highway from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad. The tanks — Soviet imports — were still there, scorched by air strikes, relics of two-dimensional thinking. In these dirt barrens nationhood was impossible to see: a herd of sheep and a single man, a Bedouin tent sometimes afloat on the near horizon. My unit had been brought from the cold, wet coast of North Carolina late, and we hurried into Iraq far behind the fighting. It was a kind of immediate war tourism, the burned wreckage of our own amphibious assault vehicles still on the muddy shore of the Euphrates in Nasiriyah. Torched and hollow, they sat below the bridge as we crossed, heading north in disbelief. The fires had died out, but the buildings along the river looked long-forsaken: pitted by bullets, windows chewed open, with bricks spilling from the walls. Marines from Task Force Tarawa were on rooftops and street corners, Iraqi women walking cautiously around rubble and wire with their children, in occupied territory.

The war moved entirely along two highways, both regime and coalition forces ignoring small periphery towns, the vast desert and its villages of no strategic importance to anyone. As we approached Kut, Iraqi army uniforms lined the road near abandoned outposts. No bodies or blood, just helmets, pants, and shirts. There had been a large army garrison waiting for the advancing Marines, but they quickly fled or dissolved into the city dressed as civilians.

Today, as our cab arrived at Kut, Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoint wore U.S. tricolor desert camouflage, the same my unit had been issued for the invasion. It was as if the hidden army of Saddam had reappeared wearing our uniforms. They walked carefully along our cab with a fake bomb detector, purchased from a crooked British contractor who resold $20 American novelty golf-ball locators for $27,000 each. Corrupt Iraqi officials bought $40 million worth of them. The soldier stared intently at the indicator light, three years after their sale had been banned, a keeper of the lie. “Everyone knows it does nothing,” the passenger in the front seat said. They scrutinized my passport and visa stamp. “Ameriki?” they kept asking as if it couldn’t be true and then brought out an officer to verify my papers. He walked from the office with annoyed importance and asked where our weapons were. Khalil explained that we were alone and unarmed. The official looked up from my passport, shook his head, and let us go. Ten years ago I might have done the same to him.

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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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