He carries it with him everywhere, his thumb drive. Around his neck pendantlike, jangling next to his dog tags. Or floating free in his leg pocket, mixed in with his laundry chit and requisition slips, swimming in the everyday stuff but different, its small size belying its power, its hold over him. He likes to joke that the army runs on the damn things now. Over the months, it has become essential to his person, made of anonymous data and yet an intimate piece of personal history. A bullet-size data stick that could’ve just as easily held some snaps of his wife back at Benning or maybe some unclassified work he kept with him, but instead carried the video file of a suicide truck bombing in Ramadi.
It was one of the worst bombings anyone had heard of, something you could imagine the muj did just to try to break some record they kept with themselves, maybe a contest between rival bombmakers to see who could produce the biggest device. Never mind what it did or whether it accomplished anything or killed anybody. It was like jihadi folk art: Boom for boom’s sake. Just mounting the attack proved that you could do it, and that alone was something. Uncounted hundreds of pounds of high explosives loaded in the back of a large dump truck and driven into the gate of an American position in an old hotel on the east side of town.
On a sun-spangled morning in October 2007, I reentered Ramadi in a brand-new anti-IED truck, known as an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). Going in, strapped tight into the truck’s racing seat, air-con blasting in my ear, I was filled with awe at the new city rising before me. The place had the feeling of a Russian city recently liberated from the Wehrmacht, a Stalingrad in miniature. Everywhere were the trappings of Glorious Revolution. Acres of patriotic paint had been spilled, teams of cleanup crews were walking the streets picking up trash. And the flags. Iraqi flags everywhere. Strung across the highway, dancing on ropes, six per line, one after the other for miles. The red, the white, the black; the three green stars, mingled with Quranic verse. Flying from every light pole. Flags painted on concrete blast walls. Pairs of them furling dramatically on the sides of buildings. Looking down a stretch of highway: a line of flags right before you and then row upon row yawning into the middle distance, blurring out until the horizon itself, from a certain vantage, is fuzzily tricolored, a flag melting into the ambient light. The red, white, and black beginning to get inside of things.
- Sometimes you have remind yourself there’s a war going on. Iraqi goat herder near Haditha howls for joy.
The only detail missing was a sword-wielding statue in the middle of it all, for this was a place intended to impress, a trophy town, a place not to be seen so much as witnessed, a place that hadn’t been cleaned so much as beautified, a Potemkin village if there ever was one. The sunshine hit this place hard and it was difficult to look at, let alone think about. I was in Ramadi the summer before, the latter part of the killing years, and it had been a harrowing time. Back then, you couldn’t be seen on the street without snipers opening up on you from the labyrinth of half-rubbled buildings that made up the city, you couldn’t breathe without sucking down somebody else’s fear; the days were hot and dirty, the nights a looping soundtrack of AK fire and mortar rounds. Every sight you caught was through the pall of dust that hung in the air. Now it was clean and bright, you could stop by the souk for some chai, Route Michigan was open and full of civilian traffic, all of the rubble had been trucked away.
If somebody asks me about the old days, at first all I see are shadows, shadows without source. The moment before final darkness. If I think longer, there are certain images that come, fearful mental snapshots, frozen tableaux. People who no longer move, dead even in my memory. I remember the look of pure horror on the face of a young girl as automatic gunfire erupted on her street. I remember the thin summer dress she was wearing, a faded baby blue with tiny yellow flowers—an unexpected grace somehow surprising me more than the shots. I remember running under fire and watching with exquisite clarity an interpreter racing in front of me as the sunglasses slipped from his face and fell to the ground, and my satisfaction as I slowed my steps, reached down, and picked them up. I remember thinking that I no longer had to wonder how I would behave in combat. Now I knew.
Beyond all this, what I remember, but cannot see or quantify or really prove in any way, is the fear and mystery the streets gave off. The spooky feeling the place put into your bloodstream. And the shadows that held the men who would no doubt end my life, and the drifts of street-dust that no doubt held the things, the IEDs, they would end it with. Just weeks before my triumphal reentry, Route Michigan, the main avenue through Ramadi, had been sewn with roadside bombs, rubble, and trash. Streets enshadowed by the gutted frames of half-ruined buildings. If you had to drive this highway, you did it at night when the triggermen were dozing and you did it with your ass clenched, in pre-flinch for the IED that was coming. These are things you can think about only in retrospect.
I wasn’t the only one plagued by such memories. Ramadi has always occupied a special dark place in the imagination of the Marine Corps. Unlike Fallujah, whose black star rose and fell quickly, Ramadi simmered for years as the paragon of all badness—from April 2004, when an entire Marine squad was wiped out in one night, until early 2007, when the local tribes began to turn against the insurgents. All over Iraq, grunts told stories about Ramadi, the crazy-bad shit that was always happening there, how the city was seemingly composed of nothing but death and debris. The week prior, I’d actually heard a soldier in Baghdad talking about having seen a UFO on patrol—only to have his tale interrupted by some grunts with Ramadi stories. When I told guys where I was going next, the response was something along the lines of: “Ramadi? Out there with the Marines? I heard all about those jarhead motherfuckers. Chaaaaaarge! Have at it, man. Ramadi! Fuck that joint!”
And grunt wisdom, while sometimes merely self-serving or blinkered by unit rivalry or poisoned by rumor and sometimes by newfound nihilism, was usually a good barometer, a helpful guide for the combat traveler, because the nuggets of knowledge the grunts passed between them like contraband had a central guiding conceit that had nothing, nothing at all, to do with Iraqi Freedom or Hearts and Minds or Democracy in the Middle East. It was all about getting both cheeks of your ass back home, the taste of the first beer at the airport lounge, living out the Great Homecoming Fuck Fantasy. It was about surviving the tour, and that was something you could always get behind. (“If someone’s worth shooting once, they’re worth shooting twice.”) So, when I heard from friends in the press corps that things were different in Ramadi now, I blinked a few times in disbelief.
There were still sharp firefights taking place around the city, they said. One or two carefully staged car bombs going off at checkpoints most weeks. But matters in Ramadi were reported to be “evolving,” “undergoing a fundamental shift.” And it was this shift that had become the worry. After the slaughter of the past three years, it was easy to be afraid of this unexpected mercy, afraid of hope’s bloom, of letting your guard down, of finding yourself on the wrong side of the Big Joke. (Ha-ha, you’re dead! Too bad you can’t see how funny this is.) People who knew a little about the war (but not a lot) liked to talk about the Tet Offensive, and while I knew better than to believe that a coordinated insurgent attack was in the works, it was enough to make you doubt yourself and your choice of embeds. As a reporter, you always had choices, but the choice to go to Ramadi had that ring of bad fate to it: You’ve really done it now, dumbshit.
My ride into the city was a resupply convoy, and we spent the morning delivering hot chow to outposts scattered throughout the city. As we rolled, the marines hit me up with tales of old Ramadi, stories of past firefights, still roused by the power of their experiences, by the circumstances, by the consciousness the trading of fire had given them. (“Everything was fine. And then it wasn’t.”) It was like this everywhere in Iraq: neighborhoods thick with stories, the stories thick with metaphysical mystery. Reliving them was a way of touching and tracking the odds, a way of reminding yourself of the mathematical way you lived your life.
The whole time the marines were pointing and talking. I didn’t even have to ask; they just started in as if they were giving me the Welcome Aboard tour. “Shit. You shoulda been here last year, sir. We killed so many dudes it wasn’t even funny.” They pointed to where buildings had been leveled and talked about fights in places that didn’t exist anymore. The buildings were gone but the memories burned brighter than ever.
We stopped at a patrol base just north of Route Michigan and the marines started unloading chow trays into a sandbagged bunker. I looked to the east and saw an enormous new water tower that had been painted to look like a giant soccer ball. I let my eyes wander, then looked up and saw an Iraqi soldier peering down at me from a guard tower. He waved at me lazily, gave me a halfhearted salaam alaikum. The last time I’d been in this neighborhood I’d hardly been here at all.
Wanting to test my new legs for the city, I wandered off away from the patrol base a little ways. It felt deliciously dangerous being off on my own, unarmed and not in a crouch. Even a few hundred yards of walking gave me a buzz, flooding my limbs with energy. For the first time I could actually see the city. Looking down the long axis of Route Michigan, the infinity of flags snapping in the wind, I began to think about how unbelievably dangerous it had been, all the chances I’d taken then just by being here, all the friends I’d lost.
It was tempting, given the sunny state of Ramadi, to think that it hadn’t been that bad. That the fighting had been exaggerated. Looking around, it was difficult to see; you had to work at it to recognize what the place had been. I’m sure that when the grunts had first come here they talked shit about Ramadi, saying how much worse Doura or the Shah-i-Kot had been. It seemed almost obscene how carefree the place was now, as if the dead of Ramadi, Iraqi and American, didn’t matter at all to the people walking the streets. Or maybe that was just my skewed sense of things. Ramadi and Al Anbar had always held the distinction of being such deeply deadly places that it was hard to accept that the city had turned. But one look down Route Michigan was all anyone needed to see the difference.
You see the truck on the left edge of the frame, idling harmlessly. It’s just a dump truck in the middle of an avenue in a dusty provincial capital, an anonymous element in the daily routine. A man in a dishdasha is on the running board, his head poking into the cab, saying something to the driver. Then the man pulls back, saunters away from the truck, his gait full-bodied and confident as the truck lurches away, a belch of black diesel from the exhaust, toward the four-story hotel in the distance.
The truck rolls down the avenue, beneath a pedestrian bridge, disappears behind a bend in the road. Your eyes are locked on the shape of the hotel in the left-hand corner of the frame. You want it to come and you don’t want it to come. And of course it does come. There it is: a flash and a ghost gray plume, growing in slow motion like a wraith emerging from haunted ground. Then the boom, the shock wave jostling the camera: a fearsome invisible hand shaking dust off of windowsills, ushering pigeons into flight—a tight flock of them bursting in front of the lens, somehow still in formation. Just watching is a trauma to the eye, the cloud alive and still boiling upward as machine guns begin their stutters.
“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life,” the sergeant major says.
The obvious question: What happened? How did Ramadi turn so fast? How did a lost town in the most lost province become an American trophy? The expected answer, the answer that beef-eating Americans most want to hear is that the Marines, taking a page out of their distinguished history, geared up and cleared the town house-by-house. They want to hear that the fighting was brutal, bloody, but that the boys, the boys, God-bless-’em, they did it. The truth, however, is far more unexpected and obscure, and indicative of the American war in Iraq.
By the end of 2006, the Americans held out little hope for change in Al Anbar. Week after week, boys from Tulsa and Tampa and Truckee gave their lives to maintain a stalemate that no one who’d been on more than one patrol saw an end to. All the fundamentals seemed to be against the Americans. A classified Marine intelligence report leaked to the Washington Post in September described the situation as “lost politically.” The locals tolerated the presence of troops only when they had to. Attempts to question the locals about the insurgency ran into a stone wall of silence. “The evil men. Irhabi. The apostates. Takfiri. You leave and they come.” Every grunt in the province learned to deal with the silence of the Anbaris. This refusal to talk would spread and gather and grow, foglike, when a patrol entered a neighborhood. Deciding to detain one of the nontalkers (because, in classic detective fashion, the guy looked like he knew something) would earn you disgust and resentment far exceeding whatever intelligence you might have gathered.
The insurgents were barbaric and wielded brutal tools against the locals to ensure their complicity. They achieved cooperation through sheer intimidation. Every insurgency develops its own favored depredation, a bodily outrage that becomes forever synonymous with the conflict, so much so that brutality can be used to communicate a certain message. West African fighters are known to favor the cutting off of hands. See? You are powerless. The Shining Path announced their military debut in the 1980s by hanging dead dogs from lampposts all over Peru. Echoes of Mao. Death to the running dogs of imperialism. The insurgents in Anbar, owing perhaps to their Wahhabi background with its predilection for medieval Islamic iconography, developed a particular fondness for beheadings with a curved Arabian saif. In one town up the Euphrates from Ramadi, half the police force, which had begun working with the US, was lined up in a soccer stadium and beheaded in front of the entire populace. Good Muslims resist the Occupier.
And they used money. Insurgents would pay a month’s wages to anyone willing to bury an IED in a road frequented by Americans. And, deviously, they used marriage as al Qaeda had done in Afghanistan, marrying into a tribe, enfolding hapless locals into the insurgency by familial manipulation. A battalion commander who was on his third tour in the Ramadi area told me, “You could just feel it whenever you walked into a neighborhood, the yoke of the insurgents was on these guys. Maybe last week they wanted to work with us, but then the insurgents would get to them.” “Getting to” the locals was done by means of an “M&I campaign.” As in, Murder and Intimidation, a concept that usually translated into selecting a prominent local leader who was supporting the Americans and beheading him, in front of his family if possible. Good Muslims resist the Occupier.
From this seemingly intractable deadlock there emerged a most unlikely figure. Born into a legendary smuggling tribe just north of Ramadi, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha seemed tailor-made for his role in the revolt against the insurgent-outsiders. A born leader with a talent for political stagecraft, Sattar had lost his father to the insurgents, and he was an early skeptic of anyone claiming fundamentalist leanings. As he later explained, “We began to see what they were actually doing in Anbar province. They were not respecting us or honoring us in any way, their tactics were not acceptable.” In one particularly appalling incident, the insurgents drove a car bomb into a glass factory that was being used for a police recruiting drive and killed two dozen locals.
In late summer 2006, Sattar began enlisting sheikhs in neighboring tribes and encouraging his countrymen to join the local police force. One day in early 2007, the American colonel in charge of Ramadi asked Sattar to help out with a local police recruiting drive. The next day twelve hundred local men turned up, some arriving on a flatbed truck, waving their arms and cheering. In March 2007, Sattar held face-to-face meetings with Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister. In September 2007, he met with President Bush, a gesture that was seen by many Iraqis as the beginning of a campaign to secure Sattar a place on the national political stage.
A cunning shape-shifter, Sattar was often seen in sheikhly garb wearing modish sunglasses; he wore tailored Western suits just as comfortably and seemed every bit the shrewd, urbane tribal leader from an earlier, lost era in Arab history, the sort of character who didn’t need to read Machiavelli.
Sattar had what the Iraqis referred to as wasta, a word that strictly defined means “influence,” but within the context of the brutal insurgency in Anbar—a place seen by most as being otherwise devoid of hope—the term came to be used far more expansively, encompassing ideas of personal charisma, political acumen, and something approaching karma. To my ears, wasta seemed to be used in place of magic and at times conferred a mandate-of-heaven quality to its possessor. Whatever it was, Sattar had it, and whenever I heard his name arise in conversation between Iraqis, wasta was hovering nearby, nimbus-like.
- “It hurts my heart seeing all that cash.” Officers from the Tenth Mountain Division pay a local militia leader south of Baghdad $192,000, the going rate for providing 200 fighters for two months.
In Al Anbar the tribes are everything, and in Sattar the Americans had found a man they could work with. As the colonel in charge of Ramadi put it, “He always delivered.” In the romantic imaginations of many locals, he became a kind of messiah, anointed by circumstance, here to redeem their land. Other sheikhs and town leaders took after Sattar’s example and began fighting insurgent cells in their areas. The basic terms of the war in Anbar changed virtually overnight. What had previously been thought impossible suddenly seemed inevitable. Over the course of a few months in early 2007, IED attacks against Americans dropped by 98 percent. Enemy weapons-cache finds doubled. The once-defunct US-backed Ramadi district police force grew from a scattered, scared militia of less than 200 in the spring of 2006 to a uniformed force of 8,000 by the summer of 2007.
These seemed like fantasy numbers, something out of a defense institute war game. It all appeared way too good to be true. The grunts, almost constitutionally skeptical of good fortune, especially good fortune clothed in Arab garb, had a hard time with it at first. A quick study of the military maps of Ramadi told the story. The Marines had replaced the tongue-torturing Arabic street names with names that reflected the character of their time there. RPG Alley. Shithead Road. The IED Elbow. Ambush Alley. Deadwood. It was hard to believe that so much change could come so fast.
Earlier in the summer, I’d met a first sergeant from the Tenth Mountain who was watching the same rebuilding process take place in a sector where he’d lost dozens of men in a series of IED ambushes, the recounting of which made you want to swear off riding in Humvees forever. “We’re only paying these rat-fuckers because we aren’t man enough to kill them all.” This was part of a larger stream of sentiment, and you’d meet guys all the time who after a few weeks of the newfound rest and no-action of Ramadi 2007 wanted a taste of the old horror and doom again, the mingling of dread and danger that made them somebody different, part of something big, not just some schlub from the boroughs. They may not have believed in the war, but they believed in Ramadi. This was where they’d left their youth behind.
Further, this tribal cooperation angle wasn’t in any manual. There was something just not right about the whole business, and while it wasn’t, strictly speaking, immoral—it was saving American lives after all—it just didn’t feel right. “Renting your allies,” as one captain put it, simply wasn’t in the Straight Gospel of the Corps.
- Soldier from the Third Infantry Division on patrol in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad. The soldiers from this unit had been in Ramadi the year before and couldn’t stop talking about it.
Naturally the grunts viewed Sattar the man with more than the usual amount of suspicion. He was too good to be true. He cut too perfect a figure, too regal a profile; he was too just-in-time. Journalists, especially Western journalists, loved him too much. It was only a matter of time before the petty jealousies and daily rivalries that are the time and tide of tribal life would reemerge. Sheikh Ali Hathem of the historically dominant Dulaimi tribe, for example, repeatedly impugned Sattar’s character, at one point calling him “a conman who has received millions of dollars in construction contracts from America, who has tried to make himself into the symbol of success in Anbar.” How could the grunts be expected to trust him?
Even Brigadier General John Allen, one of the most accomplished Arabists in-country, a man who had been in and out of Jordan for months courting exiled sheikhs, was initially skeptical of Sattar, who by reputation was merely the undistinguished younger brother of the leader of the Abu Risha tribe, a man linked to the shady international smuggling underworld in Anbar, a man with little more to recommend him than his sartorial verve. He was no true friend of the Americans, no Faisal. But eventually, after Sattar repeatedly delivered on his promises of police and army recruits and enemy weapons caches, Allen and other senior officers in Anbar were persuaded.
Then, on September 13, 2007, the first day of Ramadan, Sattar was killed by an enormous bomb buried inside his compound. That Sattar had for a very long time lived in the crosshairs was obvious to the lowliest private. As one soldier on his second tour in Ramadi told me: “Of course, they got him. We’d heard the al Qaeda threats of an assassination campaign. We all thought, ‘Well, here we go . . .’”
It was the Ramadi curse. The grunts bit down, preparing for the old order to take over. The town had always been a study in superlatives. The greatest leader of the biggest anti-insurgent movement killed in his own house on the first day of Ramadan, in a manner that the insurgents had predicted. Of course, they got him.
It was one of those beyond-miraculous things. No groups of fighters moved on the hotel to try to take it—the attack instead some sort of demonstration, a rhetorical device, a reminder. We’re still here. We’re still fighting you. Or as one grunt told me about a filmed attack in Fallujah, the video was the point. To declare, to depict, to infinitely disseminate what was done. The attack only became real once it hit the internet and could be seen in Cairo and Beirut and Islamabad. The point was the size of the boom, the color of the dust cloud, the accompanying Arabic music timed to hit the crescendo right at the moment of impact.
In this symbol-obsessed war, however, the insurgents had made a crucial miscalculation. In the wake of his slaying, Sattar was memorialized by Anbaris of all stripes—even former opponents. Some began calling him “the first martyr of the new Iraq.” There was talk of erecting a statue of him in Baghdad.
On one of my first patrols in the Ramadi area, I asked a local sub-sheikh of a tribe that had traditionally opposed the Abu Risha tribe how he felt about Ramadi’s prospects after Sattar’s death. He repeated the newfound mantra of a group of Anbari tribes and former insurgents now opposed to the insurgency that calls itself the Anbar Awakening. “We are all Sattar now,” he said. His simple sincerity caught me off guard and I laughed out loud. In return he shot me a venomous look, then turned his angry face to the soldiers who had delivered me to his house, as if to say, “Who the fuck is this guy?” The point had been made: the people of Ramadi, rather than being intimidated by the assassination of Sattar, appeared, by all evidence and against all expectation and, indeed, in defiance of their history, to have been galvanized by it.
Proof of this conviction seemed to be everywhere. Tucked between the ubiquitous flags and occasionally on their own separate stand-alone bulletin boards were pictures of the fallen sheikh. These handbills had been printed and distributed by the Marines, but the captain who ordered them told me the whole thing began as an accident: “We put up some of them around our patrol base after he died, just as a gesture. Next thing we know they’re disappearing. This is how I know I’m onto something. We put it up and the next day it’s gone.” Soon he was ordering thousands of them. Another salvo in the war of images. To the Marines, it was just a picture of an Iraqi with a goatee (behind him galloped a white horse), but it stirred the minds of thousands. The captain passed them out to the locals in his sector and he saw them going up in neighborhoods on the other side of town.
And the flags? Same story. Somehow representative of the makeshift nature of the war as a whole—fought as it was by ever-shifting factions born of convenience and using whatever tools and weapons were handy—the flags were being put up because they were in ready supply and because they represented something, anything, that defied the insurgents who had dominated the town for so long. The insurgents seemed to be the perennial holders of the high ground of the internet, so if you planned on opposing them with any hope of winning this war of symbols, you had to work fiercely with what images and icons you had in front of you.
“We needed to give them something to take pride in,” the captain explained. He added by way of afterthought, “Flags are easy to get.”
Still, there was something troubling, something vertiginous about this whole sequence of events. Earlier, I’d spoken to a Marine officer who was an advisor to an Iraqi Army unit east of Ramadi—he had lived among Iraqis for so long that American food made him sick. He told me: “All we’re doing here is finalizing the conditions for the big civil war that’s coming. This is something all nations have to go through.” His view of events was based not on headquarters rumor or some rarified view from the field of battle, but on years of grassroots experience. He had a grip on things in a way I never would. But that didn’t mean that what he told me did anything to lessen my fascination with this mysterious city and its transformation.
Meanwhile, the American presence around Ramadi was shrinking by the day. A great many people wanted to know how it had gone from being “the worst city in the world” to the Crown Jewel of the Coalition in less than six months; they were told simply that the situation had changed, that we were working with the tribes now. If pressed, officers tended to repeat the same three words: Sattar, Sattar, Sattar. Some Iraqis in Baghdad suspected that some sort of secret deal had been cut with the insurgents. The Green Zone declared it a victory, and it wasn’t long before every embedded journalist was encouraged to go see “the good things we’re doing in Ramadi.” In early October, the Marines started dismantling Hurricane Point, their main base in the city, and transporting the salvaged equipment to Camp Ramadi. The rumor making its inexorable circuit through the ranks was that the camp was going to be converted into an Iraqi legal complex.
In the army, a lot of guys wear little shoulder patches to show they’ve been to Ranger school, or maybe they talk about the tours they’ve pulled—Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan back in the early days of 2001, when it was just bin Laden and all those chilly mountains looking down at you. But the sergeant major, who’d been in the army for just this side of forever, had none of that bunting. He was a tanker; he’d never been to fancy schools and all he wore on his uniform was his rank and a diamond-shaped First Marine Division patch that signified his service with the Marines in Ramadi back in 2005. So if some dickhead in the chow hall complained that it was against regulations to wear a Marine patch on an army uniform, the sergeant major had his thumb drive with the Ramadi truck bombing on it. That was his answer. Iraq was a fucked-up joint, what he called “a non-nutritious environment.” But Ramadi . . . Ramadi had been the most fucked-up of all. Beyond bad and back again. “It’s like, fuck you, motherfucker. Look at this. You weren’t there, so shut the fuck up.”
I agreed to go out on patrol with some marines stationed near the town souk. Down in the foyer of the dilapidated hotel–patrol base where we were living, I met up with the patrol leader, a young lance corporal who’d been put in charge after his squad leader had been relieved. The first thing out of his mouth: “Put out your cigarette. We don’t smoke on patrol.” Here he was, an overgrown nineteen, telling me what to do. Truth was I smoked only because it gave me something to hide behind. I hated the smell. I hated what I knew it was doing to my lungs. But sometimes when you’re overseas, around skeptical and sometimes hostile people, you needed little things to ward off the eyes. Smoking put a cadence in conversations, gave you time while inhaling to think, gave you a set of gestures that made a certain kind of impression.
I dropped my cigarette to the concrete, toed it out with my boot.
Satisfied, he leaned into his hand-radio and said, “We’re up.” This guy was the story of the war, if I dared to look deeply enough. Snuffling from a cold, his body muscled like a pro wrestler’s, he couldn’t order a beer at home and yet he was in command of a dozen armed-to-the-teeth marines in an ancient, habitually violent city.
We headed out into the neighborhoods of Ramadi. Down into the mulhullahs, the marines said, the Arabic rolling off like it was born on their tongues. This is a word they will use when they go drinking with their buddies back in Phoenix, when they want to talk about the war in a way that puts a gulf between the veteran and the nonveteran. This is how you do these things. You drop in words for people who have not Been There and do not know. Down in the mulhullah/the souk/the wadi the kids swarmed over you, yelled Mista! Mista! Give me socca ball! Give me socca ball! This is a habit of speech these vets learned from their fathers and their uncles, hearing them talk about the Gulf of Tonkin and the Delta and the DMZ. Foreign words that will infiltrate silently, seize lexicological real estate, becoming prized possessions of those privileged to speak them with authority.
Down in the mulhullah, things were scary-joyous. Beneath the ever-present red, white, and black banners, the kids did indeed swarm. You could feel the air closing in around you and suddenly you felt the pale color of your skin like chilblain. It was loud, kids chased soccer balls through the tight streets. This was the old quarter of the city, built by the Ottoman Turks, the shops brightly lit and dizzyingly full of merchandise. No mothers collected their children or waved them away. It wasn’t just a newfound peace in these streets. It was the opposite of war: a happy riot. And the good citizens of Ramadi took pains to remind us at every turn: It’s over! Al Qaeda is gone, praise Allah! See, we’re selling Dove soap now! And remote-controlled cars! Have I mentioned that you should buy one?
It was a spastic sort of peace that had overtaken the city; the sheer kinetic force of the kids rushing at you jolted you out of your war-stupor. When you got a breather from the platoons of vendors assaulting you, you began to feel like a tourist walking the streets, pointing at the stuff the locals had for sale, commenting on the architecture, thinking about the weather—trying not to think about the ambushes you’d seen. But I had been in the new Ramadi only a few days, and a kind of retrospective fear stalked me wherever I went. I looked at every stretch of pavement or street corner wondering whether a marine had paid for the sight of it with his life. It hurt to look around.
Halfway through the patrol I saw a quiet, dark-eyed, young man standing on a corner, his arms curled behind his back in a pose of judgment, an inward tension that kept him apart from the crowd. I felt almost relieved to see him at first. I’d seen a hundred guys like him in Baghdad the week before, and the scene seemed incomplete without him. He watched the approach of our patrol, counting our steps. He was the one who burned himself into my memory as the fatigue crept into my legs. I watched him more than I watched the boys who bumped me, demanding my glasses and my watch. I tried to think myself into his head; for a moment, he became all guerrillas, stuck, self-watching, in the Casbah, in the green hills of Ayacucho, in Hanoi, an anger rising inside his chest. He was the chosen one, listless, alone in his anger, waiting for the others who felt the burn of shame, the others who didn’t like Americans on their streets leering at their women, so that when the others came with promises of weapons and ideas about training, he didn’t turn them away. He invited them into his father’s house and made tea for them.
It is around this first cup of tea that history turns.
He was the one, the one I had come to see. The one who saw through the happy scrim of recent events; saw the secret hidden behind the Mista! Mista! and the bottles of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, golden in the phosphorescence of the late-night souk; saw through to something old and dark, to some ancient awe, tapping into some longing, some absolute wish for a time outside of time. This was just a kid with outsize yearnings, but he was part of a larger migration of men wanting to lose themselves in something too big to measure.
We walked down the main market street, past storefronts winged with lights, past private homes. Teenagers rolled up on garishly decorated bikes, stopping to observe our passage. Block after block of shops, and children announcing our approach with hurried footfalls and shrieks and appeals to our vanity. A bubble of noise seemed to follow us wherever we went, rising as we reached the corner, trailing off as we made our way forward, our prearranged, nonsmoking patrol route beckoning us ever onward, screechy kids flailing in our wake.
He didn’t think it was strange to carry such a grim item, the thumb drive. It was just something he wasn’t willing to let go of. It made a channel in his life for him—helped give his life, his past, a discernible shape. It helped remind him that he was alive. And if someone asked him about Iraq, he would just play the video. He spoke few words, just what it took to hand over the thumb drive and jam it in the nearest computer. It was almost as if he didn’t know how to talk about the war. as if he’d forgotten how. as if he wanted to talk about the towns and the places he’d been, old buddies’ nicknames, but he couldn’t, or at least he didn’t. Or maybe it was that no journalist had the right to ask him those sorts of questions. To demand that he recite the names of dead friends, all the passed-down stories of boneheaded privates, the pitched firefights that carried into dawn. The dates of the big attacks. The way the light was just before the blast. Stories he’d made a point of collecting over the course of his now two years in-country—swimming in the deep dark that separates war memories from memories of normal life. Instead, he plugged in the thumb drive and let the video buffer, his words surrendering to all that, to that data dozing in the drive.
On my way out of the city, I rode in a Humvee with a bunch of restless grunts. They seemed to miss the old Ramadi. RPG Alley and Shithead Road. It remained a black magnet to attract their bleakest fascinations about the war. A heart of darkness to aspire to. Not so long ago, the CIA and various other unspeakable agencies had their largest bases in the Ramadi area of operations, and the grunts missed wondering whom the agencies were tracking there, what guerrilla experiments were underway, and what the fuck-all petri dish of muj self-love would cook up next. (“There’s so much Ramadi could teach you, man, if you only had the time.”) Wherever you went, as bad as it got—however many IEDs there’d been that week, however much human flesh had been pureed in the mulhullah since you’d arrived—there was always a Ramadi story that could hover over your personal carnage and lay a cooling shadow right over it.
And these guys were doing their jobs, keeping up their end of the timeless dogface banter, calling each other things such as Brother and Boss, Rocket Man and Rico Suave. They talked about killing some muj for Jesus. Up in the turret was the tallest marine I’d ever seen, a machine gunner from “East Los” named Loomis (“Loomis, man, he fucking looms, man”). Every time he said something stupid, the marines closest would start punching his legs. To these repeated blows, Loomis chimed, “Don’t worry. I’ll get back. I’s has my ways. I’s has my ways . . .”
They made jokes about karma. They talked about guys they knew who were dead. Taking a dirt nap, this was called.
The guy in charge, a corporal from Missouri named Yeast, told me they couldn’t believe they’d let me go out with him and his boys. “I’m exactly the kind of guy they keep away from reporters. Ain’ that right, Doc?”
“Write this down, Doc. I didn’t say shit to the reporter.”
Loomis started talking to me about Vegas and Yeast started saying something to Doc about guys who had bought it the year before.
“I thought Alstine was killed by a mortar round.”
“That was Thornton, dude.”
“Walking along. Bam. Down.”
“That was Thornton. Over near Firecracker.”
The two were silent for a few minutes, watching the road, Yeast sitting there, tapping the radio handset against the dashboard. Loomis started telling me about the time he hit his old platoon commander.
“He tried to send three guys across an open street without any cover. I just couldn’t handle that kind of tactical stupidity.”
“Loomis. Shut the fuck up.” His legs tensed, ready to receive their beating. Doc soft-tapped him a quick one, to make him relax, let him think he’d gotten one past them. Then he hauled his gloved hand back and landed a bruising blow squarely on the meat of his calf.
“I’s has my ways,” Loomis said, unfazed.
Doc and Yeast started up again.
“So you’re telling me after all this time . . .”
“You had it fucked up. Right weapon. Wrong guy.”
This wasn’t supposed to be the way my story ended, listening to the dead being misremembered. I hadn’t been in Ramadi half as long as these guys. As these things go, I’d gotten off easy. But I had memories here, something approaching a history. And when you’re in these types of places, places that had, for a time, been pinned in the high beams of history, places stamped into your mind forever (as if the summer of 2006 could ever be anything but my Ramadi summer), you begin to feel as if your memories have consequences, that they deserve a proper coda, some sort of echo in the outer world. How could I know what to think about this place if even the grunts couldn’t remember it right? The war was over here, at least for a little while, but no peace, no resolution was taking its place. I didn’t even know the name of what it was that was happening now.
Each viewing reveals a new detail, the video always on him like some sort of terrible talisman, always being replayed, unfurling endlessly across his eyeballs, more or less. Away from it, but always with him. The deathward data resting on a thin chain around his neck until the hour of its recall. Then: Here it is. And again. Here it is. Here it is.