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Orpheus’s Error

PUBLISHED: March 18, 2010


The sunglasses of a soldier are visible in his rearview mirror.


An armored American soldier in the rearview mirror of an armored vehicle. (Dimiter Kenarov)

Taking cover from death, I live in a tomb. My CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) is tightly girded by twelve-foot-high concrete T-walls. Right in front of my door, a slab of wall has been pushed slightly forward, like an oversize tombstone, so I can sidle in and out through the convenient gaps. The T-walls would not withstand a direct mortar attack; they should, theoretically, make me feel safer.

US troops sleep in a cemetery of CHUs. At dusk they lie down in their fortified tombs, and come out at dawn, like vampires recoiling from the bright Baghdad sun. When they need to journey out into the Red Zone, they use giant steel caskets on wheels called MRAPs and wrap themselves like mummies in thick-plated body armor.

It’s all about survival.

The US Army believes Iraq is the Underworld, and to survive in the Underworld, one has to prepare accordingly. “Think like the dead” should be the unofficial motto of the Iraq War. To blend in, American soldiers are feigning death.

But Iraq is not the Underworld. It is a devastated country, poor, tragic, but it is not dead. There is little or no electricity, little or no garbage collection. Unemployment is rampant. Corruption is the norm. All the middle-class professionals, who emigrated during the war, the individuals who could have made the real difference here, are never coming back. The lack of educational opportunities for the new generation of kids is perhaps the most serious and underrated problem. And yet, in spite of everything, people still laugh and cry and go shopping and talk on their cell phones and drink tea and gossip and have families and have lovers and play soccer and just walk aimlessly down the streets. The ruler of this country is not heartless Pluto but a vicious plutocracy.

Iraq is still dangerous and explosive, no doubt. Sectarian killings, though down from a few years ago, have not ceased. Occasional bombs throw the cities into panic. Militias are roaming the dark alleys, doing their dirty job, but nowadays they prefer handguns with silencers rather than AKs. Quietly, quietly, the war goes on, and there seems to be no stopping that. But Iraq is not the Underworld. Iraq is not Hell.

Among all the terrible blunders that the US has committed in Iraq—the lies, the lack of coherent political strategy, the abuse of prisoners, the atrocious waste of money, the privatization of the military sector—none seems more ruinous to the war effort than the failure to recognize that simple fact. In the American imagination, the Tigris might as well be Lethe. IEDs, EFPs, IDFs: these are the infernal acronyms burning in the heads of citizens and soldiers alike. For most of them Iraq remains an alien, mythical netherworld which they can see only through five inches of filthy ballistic glass. Many prefer not to venture outside the safety of the base at all. All hope abandon, ye who enter here. The cultural and emotional disconnect—the reality gap—between American and Iraqi citizens is cavernous. The notion that only those who have been in Iraq could have authentic opinions about this place is totally false: civilians at home have as accurate (or as distorted) an idea of what Iraq is as most troops on the ground.


A soldier bows his head at a ceremony on an American base in Baghdad.


A soldier bows his head at a ceremony on an American base in Baghdad. (Dimiter Kenarov)

Seven years into the war, Americans are more foreign to Iraq than ever. Part of this is a result of last year’s Security Agreement, which stipulated the withdrawal of US forces from all urban areas. Even so, it is obvious that for all this time Americans and Iraqis have failed to forge the most basic emotional bonds, apart from a few purely professional relationships. Always hiding behind their walls and armor, feigning death, pursing a risk-free policy at any price, the US Army has managed to keep casualty levels to a minimum, while gradually alienating the Iraqi populace and compromising the entire peace process. Iraqis are very social people, for whom personal contact and face-to-face interaction hold high importance. Unfortunately, the US command has been acting for years with more arrogance than amiability, underestimating the significance of the cultural dynamic. The rather short nine-month troop rotations have not helped the mission either: just when soldiers are getting to know their Iraqi counterparts better, just when a human familiarity of sorts develops, just when alliances are beginning to take hold, new faces arrive on the scene, with very different agendas in mind. Every nine months a new war in Iraq is born.

It is too late for regrets now. So many lives have been lost, so many opportunities wasted. The US government has removed Saddam Hussein, but the greater goal—that of transforming Iraqi society for the better—remains elusive. The recent Iraqi elections took place in a relatively calm security situation, but any genuine social gains are a long way off, if the peaceful political dialogue does not collapse in the meantime and Iranian radicalism does not engulf the country in another sectarian war.

US forces are now trying to make their exit from Iraq as quietly as possible. Perhaps, when they finally leave, tensions in Iraq will begin to subside. I certainly hope so, although I have my doubts. The US Army, whatever its faults, is still a strong balancing factor in the region, at least symbolically. It would be a mistake, then, to get out of this place in haste without so much as a backward glance. When Orpheus went into the Underworld to reclaim his dead wife Eurydice, he was warned not to look back on the way out, lest he lose her again. In this world, things are a little different. We’ve had enough myths.

Dimiter Kenarov is in Baghdad with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Learn more about this project on the Pulitzer website.


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