Military history



IN CAMBRIDGE, I go running at night, when the city is quiet. It’s quiet during the day; at night more so. After 10 p.m. I run down the residential streets, passing the homes, and listen to the padding of my own shoes. There are hardly any cars. The people of Cambridge have built quiet lives for themselves here; built homes that keep out the sound. Their yards are trimmed and carefully demarcated.

One night, running down a street near the Harvard campus, I encountered a skunk. It was standing in front of someone’s house. I had never seen a skunk outside of a picture book. Its hair was soft and black, like a cat’s, with the bold white stripe. I stopped to look at it for a while, braving its foul spray, and the skunk allowed me to do this for several minutes before slinking into some bushes.

Sometime after that, in the afternoon, a hawk began appearing on the Harvard campus, landing on the larger buildings and monuments like Memorial Hall. It was a large red-tailed hawk, with wide wings, and it announced its presence with a shriek. I often heard it while walking out of Widener Library at lunchtime. I was usually the only person who seemed to notice. The hawk’s cry was plaintive but edgy; I thought that perhaps he had lost his way and was expressing confusion at this world without trees. One day, when Widener was closed, the hawk followed me a half mile to the law school. The hawk soared past me a few times and landed on a rooftop and a steeple and gave out a cry. By the end of summer he was gone.

In the library, the chairs are soft and full, a café serves French pastries, and at the front door a machine dispenses plastic bags to cover your umbrella when you come in from the rain. Across the street sits Memorial Hall, a Gothic structure whose walls are adorned by plaques with the names of 136 Harvard students killed during the American Civil War. One of them was Robert Gould Shaw, who led one of the first regiments of freed slaves. I saw the names, engraved in marble, when I first arrived at Harvard and took the guided tour. I went back several times after that, but each time I found the building closed.

One day, Ashley, the Australian photographer and my friend from Falluja, called on the phone. He asked me what I did in Cambridge and when I told him there was a silence on the line. Ash took the train up from New York, and we went into Widener Library together and he took a photo of me at one of the long wooden tables, among my notebooks. We got drunk that night and Ash slept on my couch. He left the next day.

I tried to stay in touch with my Iraqi friends, even some of the Afghans and Pakistanis. Waleed, who drove me all over Iraq and saved me from the mob that day, sent his family to live in Syria. He stayed in Baghdad, moving from house to house, trying to stay safe. I always forgot Waleed was a Sunni; he made me forget he was a Sunni. Being a Sunni in Baghdad was not a good thing to be.

Many of my Iraqi friends are out. Warzer Jaff, my Clint Eastwood interpreter, survivor of Falluja and Najaf and the wars against Saddam, lives in an apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan. It was a long story; he married an American woman, one of the Times’ reporters. He kept going back to Iraq. One day, walking through Central Park, I ran into him quite unexpectedly. He was sitting on a bench, holding a new puppy—a King Charles Spaniel, he said.

Zaineb Obeid, one of the Times interpreters, ended up in Hamilton, Ontario; I am not sure how she got there. She wrote to say she was applying for a scholarship at McMaster University and that she’d fallen on the ice and broken her ankle. “Just got out from the hospital after they have put in plates and screws, imagine!!!!” she said.

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi, whose brother was hanged by Saddam, came to Harvard to study for a graduate degree. Razzaq walked more upright at Harvard than he ever did in Iraq, and on some days I did not recognize him. Sometimes, when we’d get into conversations in Cambridge, he would interrupt me, something he never did before. That gave me a little thrill. The war in Iraq was not popular at Harvard, and more than a few times when a well-meaning student proclaimed the American invasion a moral disaster, and Islam peaceful in its heart, Razzaq rose to instruct them. He wore a dark Calvin Klein jacket to protect him from the cold, one his American girlfriend had picked out for him in an outlet mall in the suburbs.

Yusra al-Hakeem, who drew the diagrams to explain her life with Saddam and without, sent word that she’d won a scholarship to study in the United States. I had written her a recommendation. “I believe you added much of your flavor but I am happy although it is more than what I was,” she said. After she won, Yusra sent me a photo of herself from a lunch with the American ambassador and the other Fulbright Scholars. She was wearing more makeup than I had ever seen her wear before. Her hair was uncovered and styled, and she was smiling broadly.

Khawar Mehdi, a Pakistani interpreter with whom I was arrested in 2002, and who was subsequently expelled from his country, took a job at a 7 -Eleven in Washington, D.C. He spent most of his time on the phone talking to his friends back in Pakistan. Khawar called me whenever he learned something interesting. He didn’t think he would ever be able to go back, no matter who became prime minister.

Majeed Babar, another Pakistani I’d hired after the Afghan war in 2002, somehow made his way to the United States, too. I’d heard the government in Pakistan had gone after him, and that there was some fear he would be killed. I’d fallen out of touch with him, and then one day while I was eating lunch in The New York Times cafeteria in Manhattan, he tapped me on the shoulder. “It’s me!” he said with the same smile as before, and for a moment I thought I was in Tora Bora. He had a job sorting mail.

For months after my return I searched for Farid Yusufzai, the young Afghan doctor who told me about the Arabs in Kabul back in the summer of 2000. We’d been arrested by the Taliban; I’d been expelled and he had been imprisoned and beaten horrendously in front of my eyes on a street in downtown Kabul. And then, a few months later—I was already back in the United States—Farid escaped. I’d helped him flee to America. The last time I had spoken to him was in September 2001, shortly after the attacks, and he told me he’d moved to a small town in West Virginia to marry a woman with blond hair that ran down her back. Then I lost touch.

Seven years later, after coming home from Iraq, I’d searched everywhere for Farid, scanning databases and property records and driver’s licenses. I’d plundered the memories of Afghan exile leaders from Washington to Los Angeles. No luck. And then one day Farid found me. We had a long talk on the phone. He had just completed medical school in Atlanta and was beginning his residency in a local hospital. The marriage to the West Virginia gal was going strong; he had a five-year-old daughter named Swelina. “Yes, I am amazed at how well it’s all worked out,” Farid said.

Then there was Khalid Hassan, a Palestinian Iraqi who worked for the Times in Baghdad. One summer day on his way to work he was shot and killed by a group of gunmen who pulled alongside his car. Khalid lived in Saidiya, a Sunni-Shiite neighborhood that was being contested by insurgents on both sides.

Khalid was loud, fat, twenty-three and fearless, and he had taken to America and its gadgets and its liberties like no other son of the Muslim world I had ever met. He was a night owl, and so was I, and on many nights I would wander into the Times’ Baghdad newsroom at one or two in the morning, and I’d find him sitting there, looking like an American teenager lost in his own world. He’d be surfing the web and talking on his cell phone and sending a text message and maybe eating a bowl of popcorn with melted butter. The two television sets in the newsroom, which were supposed to be tuned to news channels like Al Arabia or Al Jazeera, would inevitably have been switched to the Movie Channel and MTV. If I asked Khalid to do something for me he’d put his phone down and look at me like I was a burdensome parent. And I’d shake my head and say, “Khalid, if you moved to America, your life would not change.” And we’d laugh. It was our little joke. There was no other Iraqi I ever said that to.

Once, as I was preparing to leave Baghdad for New York, Khalid asked me to mail a package for him to a woman in the United States. She lived in Pensacola, Florida. What was inside, I asked him? “Iraqi gifts for my sweetheart,” he replied. It turned out he had met an American woman on an Internet dating site and spent a romantic weekend in Amman, Jordan: the dream of every Arab male. She was big, too, like Khalid, and married to an American soldier in Iraq at the time.

Then Khalid asked me about the TV series Sex and the City. I told him I’d never managed to see an episode. Khalid gave me a funny look. “I’ve seen every episode two or three times.” He said he was quite envious that I was going to New York, with all its beautiful people and easy ways. And I told Khalid, “America is not like that. That’s just a TV show.” And he looked at me and said with the authority of a pop-culture maven: “Oh yes it is!”

When I was in Iraq, I might as well have been circling the earth from a space capsule, circling in farthest orbit. Like Laika in Sputnik. A dog in space. Sending signals back to base, unmoored and weightless and no longer keeping time. Home was far away, a distant place that gobbled up whatever I sent back, ignorant and happy but touchingly hungry to know. And then I was back, back in the world with everyone else, looking back on the ship myself though not returning all the way, still floating like Laika, through the regular people in the regular world.

Back in the world, people were serious, about the fillings in their sandwiches, about the winner of last night’s ballgame. I couldn’t blame them, of course. For me, the war sort of flattened things out, flattened things out here and flattened them out there, too. Toward the end, when I was still there, so many bombs had gone off so many times that they no longer shocked or even roused; the people screamed in silence and in slow motion. And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been in Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead. Your dreams come alive, though, when you come home. Your days may die but your dreams explode. Not with any specific recollections; they were more the by-products of the raw material I carried back. Rarely anything I ever actually saw.

People asked me about the war, of course. They asked me whether it was as bad as people said. “Oh, definitely,” I told them, and then, usually, I stopped. In the beginning I’d go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences. We drew closer to each other, the hacks and the vets and the diplomats, anyone who’d been over there. My friend George, an American reporter I’d gotten to know in Iraq, told me he couldn’t have a conversation with anyone about Iraq who hadn’t been there. I told him I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.

After I got back I called the mother of a marine I’d gotten to know over there, a nineteen-year-old from a small town in Georgia, and when I told her who I was she told me she’d framed the story I had written about her son in Iraq and hung it on the wall.

After he’d come home, for about six weeks or so, she had him sleep in bed with her, on account of his nightmares. He’d turn in his sleep and sweat and moan, and sometimes scream, and she’d hold him and look at him and try to help him ride out the terrible storms. She seemed kind of embarrassed for telling me that, but I didn’t mind.

The soldiers and their wives and the moms and the dads: they wanted to talk. Maybe nobody else did but they did. Back in the world, there was a kind of underground conversation about Iraq and Afghanistan. Underground and underclass. The rest of the country didn’t much care. In Pearland and Osawatomie and LaGrange, Iraq and Afghanistan lived on, and people wanted to talk. I think they liked talking to me because I wasn’t one of them; I came from Cambridge, not Osawatomie. They were tired of talking to each other. I was tired of talking to myself.

They were always happy when I called. And they wrote letters. Some of the notes had a pleading quality, like the ones from John Knospler, father of Jake, who lost his jaw and part of his brain. “Would you, could you, can you, and will you publish my Son’s predicament so he can finally receive the treatment needed to get back the quality of life he deserves to have!” Yeah.

Most of the grunts I knew left the military as soon as they could, so they didn’t have to go back to Iraq. Most of them, the ones I talked to, seemed about the same as I was, floating Laika-like among the normals. Ralph Logan, the corporal who’d refused to throw some Iraqis into the Tigris, robbed that hotel lobby in Ohio at knifepoint. I couldn’t blame him for that. Scott Nolin, one of the marines, became a cop in New York City, which sounded like a good fit to me. A year or so later I called him and he told me he was driving down to his old base, Camp Lejeune, to see his buddies, and I could hear it in his voice. Are you going back in? I asked him. “Ah, hell, I’m thinking about it,” he said.

I visited Billy Miller one last time. I flew to Little Rock and rented a car and drove north to Greenbrier, in the foothills of the Ozarks. Susie and Lewis, his parents, met me there. The Millers were officially still living in Pearland, where Billy’s sister, Sabrina, lived, and where his name was emblazoned on a plaque in town. But since Billy was here, in the family cemetery, they’d taken to renting an apartment nearby. When I steered my Chevrolet Cobalt into the June Beene apartments, Susie walked out into the parking lot to greet me. She was wearing a bright red T-shirt with a Marine Corps insignia and Billy’s name sewn into it.

The Millers joked and smiled, they talked of Billy and his life, almost as if he were still there. Their cheerfulness was relentless. They did not flinch. I told them I thought about Billy every day, about how he had taken a bullet for me and Ash. Stepped in front of us so we could get a photograph. “He was just doing his job,” Susie said. “He died doing what he wanted to do.” She was ready for that one. I gathered the cheerfulness was a front, a Potemkin thing, and one whose construction had come at no small effort. Still, it made me sad, even a little frustrated.

We drove out to the cemetery and walked out to Billy’s grave. There was a tombstone made of rose granite, adorned by an American flag and a bouquet of plastic flowers. Onto the face of the granite the Millers had emblazoned a pair of photos of Billy—one solemn, the other smiling—which were protected by sliding metal covers the shape of teardrops. The cemetery dated back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and there were many former soldiers there; even, in the back, in unmarked tombs, a handful of family slaves. We ate catfish at a local restaurant. The Millers gave me a couple of magnetic stickers they’d made up after Billy’s death, an American flag and a ribbon and a photo of Billy. “For your refrigerator or car or whatever,” Lewis said. I hugged Susie and promised her I’d come back, Ashley and I both. Lewis led me through Conway in his truck and out to the interstate. I pulled over right before I got onto the freeway to shake hands, and I looked back and waved one more time as I merged with the passing cars.

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