Military history


The Departed

NIGHTTIME in Anbar. No lights. A group of men and women gathered round a shed next to a landing strip. The sand muffled the sound of their steps. Most of the soldiers had just finished dinner; they’d left their guns and packs in their bunks. In a few minutes they would be in bed.

The doors swung open. Six soldiers stepped out. They carried a long black bag, zippered at the top. In the darkness, the bag was barely visible. A line of blue chemical lights marked the way to the landing strip.

The soldiers carrying the bag stepped into the sand; their feet made no sound. As they passed, the men and women saluted, even a wounded man on a stretcher. No one said a word.

A young man named Terry Lisk was in the bag. He was twenty-six, from a troubled home in Fox Lake, Illinois. That morning, Lisk had been standing in an intersection when a mortar shell landed about thirty paces away. A shard of metal had pierced the soft spot under his right arm, in the narrow strip between the armor plates.

“What’s his name?” Colonel Sean MacFarland, his commander, had said then. “What’s his name?”

Lisk was already on his way to the field hospital. A few minutes later he died. His friends said he’d had a sense of humor.

The pallbearers lifted the bag into the back of an ambulance, a green truck marked by a large red cross. Then they fell in with the others. The ambulance began creeping silently across the sand, and everyone gathered behind it and walked. The blue lights showed the way.

From a distance came the sound of a helicopter. Without lights, it shimmered gray in the moonlight. How quiet helicopters could be in the desert at night; a whisper in the wind. With its engines still whirring, it landed, then it lowered its back door.

The six soldiers walked out to the chopper and lifted the bag into it. The door went back up. The helicopter flew away.

The soldiers saluted a final time.

In the darkness, as the sound of the helicopter faded, Colonel MacFarland walked to the front of the group.

“I don’t know if this war is worth the life of Terry Lisk, or 10 soldiers, or 2, 500 soldiers like him,” the colonel said. “What I do know is that he did not die alone.

“A Greek philosopher said that only the dead have seen the end of war,” Colonel MacFarland said. “Only Terry Lisk has seen the end of this war.”

The soldiers turned and walked back to their barracks in the darkness. No one said a word.

THE SHAMOON FAMILY gathered in the parking lot of their apartment complex. An orange and white GMC sport utility vehicle was waiting with its back door open. It was half filled already with provisions. Basil, the father, wearing a purple Izod shirt, lifted a fifty-pound sack of rice and shoved it in. Iman, the mother, swung a clear plastic suitcase up and inside. Inside the apartment, two of the children, Brian and Bright, sat in states of half sleep on the couch, while the younger ones, Ban and Yusuf, lay asleep on the tile floor. It was dawn, before the heat. Basil’s mother, Miriam, was already outside, standing in her nightgown, muttering to herself in Syriac, the language of the Chaldean Christians. The driver, hired to take the family through the desert, leaned against his GMC and watched as the Shamoons prepared to leave.

“Make sure you don’t forget the blankets,” Miriam said.

The day before, I sat with the Shamoons while they told me their story. We’re leaving in the morning, they’d said. I was feeling a weird sense of urgency; people were leaving the capital in such numbers and so quickly that I felt it might be empty soon.

The Shamoons lived in Zayouna, Christians in a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. When I got there, the garbage was piled in heaps in the courtyard of the complex, called the Zayouna Flats, and dozens of wires crisscrossed their way to a gasoline-powered generator. The electricity had recently improved, the Shamoons said: nine families had left for Syria in the past month, which had freed up some of the generator’s capacity. Three children in the neighborhood had been kidnapped as well; two of them had been released, one of them killed.

“It’s not an easy thing for me to leave my country,” Basil said. He sat on a couch in his Izod shirt. Iman sat at the other end in her blue jeans and T-shirt. Her hair fell around her shoulders. Bright and Ban sat between them.

“But even Jesus said that if you are not safe in your country, then find another one to live in.”

The Shamoons recited a now familiar story. There was Majida, Basil’s sister, whose family ran a beauty salon in Dora until she started getting threats from the fundamentalists. She’d fled to Syria. There was Nabil, Iman’s brother, who ran a wine shop in Karada until it was bombed. There were the two nephews, Sami and Rami, ages six and three, who died in a mortar attack near the Sadeer Hotel. And so on and so forth, a death here and a kidnapping there, until a note was slipped under their own door a few weeks before. “You’re next,” it said, “either you or your boy.”

“We don’t know which insurgent group,” Basil said, and he and Iman looked at each other for a second.

I asked Basil why. Why would they do that?

He looked down at the tile floor. Iman looked into the distance. One of the children squirmed on the couch, and Basil looked up.

“I don’t care about myself,” he said. “Only my children.”

I had a feeling there was something they weren’t telling me, but there didn’t seem much point in pressing them. And so at dawn the next morning I was there to watch as they stuffed the GMC and prepared to go to Damascus. Basil’s brother, Tariq, had come over, and he’d brought his wife and children, and the men loaded the truck: with carpets, a gas stove, a family-size box of corn flakes. Basil’s mother and his father stood in their nightclothes, too old to offer their labor.

Iman went inside to get the children. In a few minutes she came out, and she and Basil placed them in the small pockets that remained in the overstuffed GMC. They had not yet found a place for Ban.

“We will lose our relationship outside of Iraq,” Iman said to Miriam, her mother-in-law. “It will crumble.”

“No, no, my love,” Miriam said, and they embraced and cried.

Miriam looked on as the Shamoon family climbed in and the driver started the engine. Her eyes seemed to be searching the GMC, as if she was counting the number of children.

“They tried several times to leave, and I told them not to go—this is our country,” Miriam said, her eyes still searching the truck. “How can you leave it?”

Then she began to mumble to herself again in Syriac, her eyes still wet.

As the driver revved his engine, the neighbors came out into the courtyard. Others gathered on their balconies on the second and third floors. They waved.

Carpets were jutting out the back of the GMC; the side windows were blocked by boxes. Basil climbed into the front passenger seat; he put Ban on his lap.

“Take care of Father,” Basil said to Tariq.

The GMC began to roll forward, and Miriam and Tariq’s wife stepped forward with pitchers of water, which they used to splash the back of the GMC. It was a Middle Eastern tradition: Come back safely, it meant. The GMC rolled forward slowly, and the two women followed it into the parking lot in their bare feet, emptying the last of their pitchers.

“We will pray for you,” Miriam said, before slipping into Syriac again.

AT THE END of a long week, I went searching for her tomb. I spoke first to the priest at the Armenian Orthodox Church, who pointed me to a cemetery down the road. I went there, and a toothless, old, blue-eyed lady pointed me to the next one. Then, in the quiet of a compound off clamorous Tehran Square, I found her.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell—or Miss Bell, as the Iraqis still called her—lay in the Anglican church’s cemetery in a raised tomb. She had been decisive in the creation of the modern Iraqi state, imagining it in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and she’d allowed herself to be buried here when she died. I kept a few books on Miss Bell, and she seemed, in those grayish photographs, a mythic figure, drawing borders, conjuring nations.

“I feel at times like the Creator about the middle of the week,” Miss Bell said. “He must have wondered what it was going to be like, as I do.”

Mansour Ali, the grave keeper, walked me across the rocky cemetery ground to the foot of Miss Bell’s tomb. It was summer, and her tomb was dried and crumbling in the Iraqi sun. The British delegations that had arrived to pay homage in the months after the invasion had stopped coming recently because of the danger. A ring of jasmine trees and date palms planted the year before by Ahmad Chalabi’s daughter, Tamara, “in recognition of Gertrude Bell’s historic contribution to Iraq,” were mostly dead.

“The soil is too salty,” Ali said. He jabbed a finger into the earth.

Then I drove north, into the Waziriya neighborhood of northern Baghdad. There, the British war cemetery sat in a fenced-in field across the road from the Turkish Embassy. In the hour before sunset, the gates were high and locked, so I rattled and banged. After a few minutes, a man named Jasim Koli appeared, and he let me in.

A thousand graves stretched out in rows. The tombstones stood three feet high, with the chiseled faces of some too worn to read. Some were toppled and crumbling. In some places the grass reached to my chest.

I walked among them, stopping here and there. The story of each man was reduced to fit on the face of a headstone, but it was still large enough to suggest its own epic:

George Percy Wilder

Middlesex Regiment

11th July 1918 Age 38

In ever loving memory

of my only child

From his sorrowing

Widowed mother

Most of those buried in the cemetery were younger than Wilder by twenty years. About a dozen were unidentified: “Here Lies a Soldier of the Great War,” the headstones read. “Known unto God.”

At 6 p.m., when the sun had cooled, a crew of Iraqis filed inside. They held scythes, and they began to hack the tall grass. Every couple of weeks, the Iraqis said, a man showed up to pay them. When an American died in this war, he was flown home in a black bag, zippered at the top; the British, killed long ago, were buried across the old realm from here to Trincomalee. There hadn’t been any refrigeration then, and the ships had been too slow. The British were buried where they fell.

I walked past a metal sign, dated November 20, 1997, announcing a renovation. It was pockmarked with bullet holes. I stopped at the northeast corner before an inscription, cut into a large stone, which explained the presence of about two hundred more graves.

These here have been recovered

And interred

The bodies of

British officers and men

Who after the fall of Kut

Being prisoners

In the hands of the Turks

Perished during the march

From Kut

Or in the prison camps

Of Anatolia

These are they who came

Out of great tribulation

I walked over to the northwest corner, toward a stone pagoda. It had been built for Stanley Maude, the commander of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. Maude had lost thirty thousand men, the inscription said. He died of cholera, a year before the war ended.

A gunshot rang out. Then another. Koli waved, and I started back to the car, pausing once more before I was gone.

Private J. Bleakley

Royal Army Ordnance Corps

6th July 1918 Age 21

He Died for Us

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