WE SPENT THE NIGHT on the cool grass of the soccer field built by Saddam’s son Uday. Gunfire echoed around the stadium, and tracers passed low over the stands, but we rested easily in the company of so many other armed Americans. Reyes worked out by flipping through a deck of cards and doing pushups to correspond with the number on each. He sweated through the deck again and again. Jacks read comic books, punctuating his reading with dramatic recitals for the benefit of the platoon. They howled in appreciation and passed around cups of coffee. We felt normal again.
I sat in the grass next to Gunny Wynn while he brushed his teeth. Mullah Mohammed, the boy with the rifle, and the rampaging peshmerga already existed in another world. We had escorted the tanker back to its base and then picked our way through the city to the new coordinates we’d been given for the battalion. I believed that this was just another way station and that the platoon would be back on patrol the next morning. But Major Whitmer pulled me aside when we arrived.
“Hope you had a good day, Nate. That was your last patrol.”
I thought for a second that I was being relieved. Maybe I had pushed back too hard against my CO. “Why’s that, sir?”
“The division’s turning most of Iraq over to the Army. We’re going home.”
Home. Home for me had become a Humvee cab. In its most luxurious incarnations, home was a warehouse or an abandoned building that provided some shelter from the sun and wind. Home could be a hospital in Kuwait or a hospital ship out in the Gulf. Nothing existed beyond that. The concept was too abstract. The word didn’t even register.
It was April 19. The regime had fallen only ten days earlier. We’d been in San Diego ten weeks before that. Everyone expected a deployment lasting six months or a year. We knew the hard part was only beginning. Baghdad still seethed. Gunfire, explosions, crime, death, and disease defined the city. It was enough to keep every last American busy all day, every day, for the coming year. We couldn’t possibly be going home.
“Maybe we’re getting lucky. Straight to Kuwait. First flight home,” Gunny Wynn said, as he leaned toward a side mirror on the Humvee, running an electric razor across his chin.
I stared at him.
“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
We left the stadium before sunrise to get as far as we could before the day grew hot. By mid-April, noon temperatures already approached one hundred degrees, and they would only get hotter with each passing day and each southbound mile. I traded places with Christeson and stood on the rear bumper of the Humvee, holding on to the upright struts and feeling the wind in my face. I wanted to enjoy one last look at Baghdad.
The city was cool and quiet as pink streaks appeared in the sky and the streetlights blinked off one by one. Dawn is the same everywhere, even in Baghdad. The frenzy of the night was over, and the frenzy of the new day hadn’t yet begun. A garbage truck rumbled down a residential street, stopping as men in coveralls jumped off and emptied the cans. Some residents kept garden plots on the median in the roadway, and stooped men tended their vegetables, waving as we passed. I imagined they had been lifelong farmers who had moved to the city in old age to live with the children they couldn’t keep on the farm. Lights shone from a few upper-story windows, and I wondered at the thoughts of families waking up to their tenth day of freedom. Maybe they’d look out the window and watch us going by. If they saw us, I wondered, what would they see? I couldn’t know. Despite our best intentions, Iraq and its people remained alien to me.
Baghdad’s veneer of routine wasn’t without cracks. An Army patrol picked its way through an industrial park. Tanks manned checkpoints at regular intervals along the road. Most neighborhoods looked untouched by war, but the government buildings towering over them were shells turned black inside. Shock and awe. One highway underpass hid the burned remains of an Abrams tank, a tank retriever, and two supply trucks. Their sad story begged to be told.
At sunrise, we passed the blue clamshells of the Martyrs Monument, a tribute to the Iraqi dead in the war with Iran. Public memorials appeared to be one thing the Hussein regime had done right. This one soared above the surrounding homes, opening, closing, and changing shape with the shifting perspective of our movement. The monument’s beauty, after so many weeks of mud brick and wreckage, was staggering. Near a sign for Saddam International Airport, the battalion turned south on Highway 1 and left Baghdad behind.
The sun beat down between billowing clouds. Riding with my head pitched back, I watched them swirling and changing shapes. No smoke. No jets or helicopters. No gunfire, no mortars, no turtling inside my body armor. All we needed was music. I played with the shortwave, but the choices were the BBC, Arabic talk radio, and religious chants. Six hours south of Baghdad, we pulled off the highway into a field of reddish clay. I observed the ritual of emplacing the machine guns at hundred-meter intervals and sketching a fire plan, but it was a struggle. As quickly as we’d been thrown into the war, we were being withdrawn even faster.
We dallied in the field for three days. Surely, we mused, there had to be a power plant to guard, a school to rebuild, a convoy to escort, or even a plane leaving Kuwait City with a few empty seats to fill. Anything beat roasting in the dirt and debating our future. On the second night, three combat engineers attached to the battalion were marking an Iraqi minefield along the side of the road. One of them stepped on a small antipersonnel mine. The blast tore his leg off at the knee and liquefied the eye of a Marine standing next to him. When I told the platoon about the accident, Espera shook his head. “There are a thousand ways to die,” he said.
Our only consolation was the flood of Army soldiers streaming north toward Baghdad. Their columns of tanks and trucks passed without pause through the days and nights. The Fourth Infantry Division had missed the war because Turkey had vetoed an American attack through its territory. But it arrived just in time for the occupation. We empathized with the soldiers on their way to a hot and dangerous summer of peacekeeping.
On our last night in the field, I was walking the battalion’s lines along the highway when an Army tanker truck pulled to a stop at the edge of the pavement. Five more swung in behind it. A second lieutenant hopped down from the cab and waved to me.
“Howdy. Can you tell me where to find the intersection with Highway 8?” he asked. He held a crumpled, hand-drawn map.
“Christ, man, you’re still like fifty klicks south of it.”
He looked perplexed. “Well, how’s the road up there? Safe?”
“Depends. You got an escort? Heavy weapons?”
The lieutenant gave a quick nod, dismissing my question. “We’re armed.” It was the verbal equivalent of snapping his suspenders.
“You mean that thing?” I pointed at the pistol on his belt.
“A rifle in every truck.” Defiant.
“Stay the fuck away from me. You guys have no maps, no weapons, no fucking clue where you are. I don’t want to be around when you get hosed.” I hated feeling that way and tried to make a joke of it, but I couldn’t. Sometime in the past month, we had become veterans. And like the veterans in every war, we didn’t want to be near the new guys. New guys got themselves killed.
On April 22, we drove another hundred kilometers south to what the division euphemistically called Tactical Assembly Area Paige, a former Iraqi military base on the outskirts of Ad Diwaniyah. RCT-5 had shot its way through the town a month before, and the bullet holes and shrapnel scars remained. The Marines said that Paige was biblical, not because it was down the road from Abraham’s Ur, but because each day brought a new plague — heat, wind, sand, flies, mosquitoes, and sickness. Our first morning there, after waking up in a septic field surrounded by burning trash fires, Gunny Wynn stared at the Iraqis digging for water in the noxious dirt. “These motherfuckers are tough,” he said. “Third world tough.”
The platoon lived in a carport a hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. Concrete pillars supported a concrete roof above the concrete floor. There were no walls. The concrete absorbed so much heat during the day that it was too hot to sleep near at night. It radiated like an oven until dawn, when it began recharging for the next night. I wanted to sleep under the sky, but disease-ridden sand fleas infested every patch of ground, so I settled for wrapping up in a waterproof sleeping bag liner and sweating through the night. Sleep was intermittent anyway. Living in a field of human waste spread dysentery through the platoon. The closest I came to willing my own death in Iraq was while curled up in the dust outside a plywood latrine, too weak to swat the jellybean-size flies clustered on my head.
Rumors swirled of surveillance missions along the Saudi border or patrols into Ad Diwaniyah. Eighteen thousand Marines slowly assembled at Paige, enough for almost any mission imaginable. The Marines kept active — studying maps, prowling for intelligence around the division’s headquarters, and working out with an improvised weight set of discarded Iraqi tank parts. But after three weeks, we received the order to turn over all our ammunition to other units driving north. On the division’s status board, a little green card next to First Recon’s name was changed to red. We were done.
Combat missions had galvanized the battalion. Without them, the pettiness of peacetime military life returned. One morning, the captain assembled our company for PT: a run around Paige followed by calisthenics. We stood in rows in the dust, wearing green shorts and tan combat boots, resigned to working out without a shower. The Marines were sullen; they resented taking orders from a leader they no longer respected.
The captain chose pushups as our first exercise. While he counted the repetitions, the whole company was supposed to echo him loudly. Instead, fifty Marines grunted silently through a set of twenty-five, mumbling numbers at the dirt. Crunches were next. The captain asked for a volunteer to lead the counting, and Gunny Wynn trotted to the front of the formation. He dropped on his back and began counting out loud. The company roared in unison, “One . . . two . . . three . . . four!” The Marines around us stopped to watch as they realized that a small mutiny was taking place. I smiled, staring at the sky as I curled my crossed arms to my thighs and tried to out-shout them all.
The captain summoned me that afternoon to his makeshift office in an old barracks building. I found him sitting behind a desk, wearing his full uniform instead of the trousers and T-shirt we usually wore in the heat. When he didn’t invite me to sit on one of the MRE boxes strewn across the floor, I knew I was in trouble.
“Lieutenant Fick, I’m relieving Gunny Wynn for insubordination.”
I started to reply, but he cut me off. “In Ar Rifa, he challenged my orders in front of the Marines,” he said. I tried again to speak, but he looked down at his paperwork and said, “Dismissed.”
My gut impulse was to throw my metal lieutenant’s bars on the captain’s desk and tell him I quit. But of course I couldn’t do that. Wynn and I were a team. We felt we had a duty to protect the platoon from the caprice of the larger corps. The Marines’ loyalty to Wynn was fierce, something like love. Relieving him would be a blow to their morale and to their trust in the battalion. I decided we had to put our pride aside and figure out a way to keep our jobs.
When I got back to the carport, Wynn was supervising the cleaning of the platoon’s sniper rifles. He looked up when I walked over.
“Let’s take a walk, Gunny.”
We left the camp and started down the road that ran for a mile along Paige. I felt light without my body armor, carrying a pistol instead of my rifle. Around us, Marines scrubbed weapons, counted ammunition into piles, and repaired their vehicles for the long drive back to Kuwait.
“The CO plans to relieve you for disobeying his orders,” I said.
Wynn took the news quietly and kept walking. Finally, he replied, “Bullshit. I only disobeyed his orders when they would have gotten people killed for no reason. I’ll go to the colonel.”
“No.” The word sounded harsher than I’d intended. “You need to let me deal with this.”
“Sir,” he protested, “these guys are attacking me when they’re the ones who screwed up. I’m going to the colonel.”
“Mike, this isn’t about you,” I said, trying to appeal to his sense of duty. “It’s about the platoon. You’re the only thing between these guys and our Marines. Listen to me: I will deal with it. I know it’s crazy, but I have more firepower right now.”
When we returned to the carport, I sat down to figure out what to say to the captain. He was a bad combat leader but not a bad person. It didn’t seem right to hold poor decisions under fire against him. To a greater or lesser extent, we had all made such mistakes. But vindictive decisions after the fighting was over were another matter. I thought the captain had a grudge against Wynn.
When I went back to the captain’s office, he looked up wearily.
“Sir, I feel obligated to warn you that you’ll have most of your company in revolt if you relieve Gunny Wynn,” I said.
This time he asked me to take a seat. To his credit, he listened while I explained that relieving Wynn over my objections meant that he no longer had faith in my judgment. If that was the case, then he should relieve me, too. When I hesitated, he waved a hand for me to continue. “Sir, we’re almost on our way home,” I said. “The company did its job and nobody died. Can’t we just let it go and get back to our lives?”
Gunny Wynn kept his job, and I kept mine.
On a Friday afternoon in May, I gathered the platoon at the center of the carport. I had been working on a secret project for the previous week — wrangling permission from the division for a visit to the ancient city of Babylon. Colonel Ferrando pressed hard on our behalf, and almost unbelievably, it was granted. After major combat ended, the First Marine Expeditionary Force moved its headquarters to one of Saddam’s palaces near the town of Hillah, seventy miles north of Ad Diwaniyah. The palace overlooked Babylon’s ruins. Part of my desire came from studying the classics in college. I had tramped through crumbling cities in Greece, Italy, Spain, and North Africa. But nothing compared to joining the handful of Westerners who, in the past thirty years, had visited one of the ancient world’s greatest cities. Part of it, too, was the welcome change of pace for the Marines and a chance to go home with memories of something truly good. Seeing Babylon was a way to get out from behind the gun sight.
We left Paige at seven o’clock the next morning. Iraqi vendors lined both sides of the road, hawking beer, AK bayonets, Arab porn, and crude Iraqi flags of painted canvas. We disciplined ourselves to stop only for two coolers filled with sodas and a bunch of ripe bananas. Turning north on Highway 1, the platoon accelerated. Army supply convoys lumbered along in the slow lane as we flashed past on their left. Hikers in San Diego joke about not needing to outrun mountain lions; they only have to outrun other hikers. The same principle applied on Iraq’s highways. For a month or two, though, the roads were mostly safe. The war had ended, and the insurgency hadn’t yet begun. Still, when I briefed the Marines about the trip, I acknowledged that some of them might think it foolish to take the risk of going sightseeing. Anyone who preferred not to come was free to stay at Paige. They all chose Babylon.
The exit toward Hillah led us through miles and miles of palm groves. Holes in the frond canopy marked where American planes had blasted Iraqi tanks. Fresh growth would soon cover the blackened patches of earth, and maybe someday tourists would poke at the rusting hulks as they do in the South Pacific and Normandy. Closer to Babylon, we noticed changes in the modest homes along the road. A stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator dominated the front yard of a one-room mud hut. Slabs of pink marble and two ornate wardrobes stood near another. A decrepit Datsun pickup truck held a crystal chandelier. It looked as though a palace had been looted.
We rounded a bend in the dirt road and saw a building like a science-fiction fantasy atop the only hill for miles around. Part fortress and part castle, it tapered as it climbed, squat but ornate. It shone in the sunlight, punctuated by gaping black windows. That first view of a presidential palace conjured up all the dark mysteries of Saddam’s Iraq. Dinner parties with lines of black limousines, sparkling lights and music reaching out across the palm groves. I imagined hammered brass trays piled with steaming meat and vegetables, cavernous baths, and a harem. I thought also of forced labor, torture, and executions. The building exuded a bit of each of these things. An American flag hung in the highest window.
Ancient Babylon spread across the plains beneath the palace. The city had been excavated by Germans a century earlier and its treasures carted off to Berlin. Most of what remained was, like the palace, a fantasy. Saddam had reconstructed Babylon not according to any archaeological evidence, but to tickle his own fancy. Crenellated walls and soaring towers crowned the bricks of the original ruins. Once each year, the regime had held a ceremony in Babylon to celebrate Iraq’s glory. Saddam himself had played the role of King Nebuchadnezzar.
We parked next to the famed Ishtar Gate, a blue portal covered with reliefs of lions, stags, and mythical creatures. I remembered only the highlights of Babylon’s history — Hammurabi, the Hanging Gardens, the death of Alexander the Great — and was relieved when a distinguished older gentleman approached us. His first sentence made me laugh: “Call me Ishmael.” Wearing a fedora and dark sunglasses, Ishmael had been an archaeologist at Babylon before the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1968. He carried a thick binder filled with maps and photographs and offered to take us on a tour of the site.
Ishmael shepherded us through Babylon’s cobbled streets. He spoke lilting English, weaving a story of mighty kings and fallen empires. Behind him, like so many schoolkids on a field trip, trailed the platoon, covered with guns and knives, straining to hear every word. We walked down the fabled Street of Processions, past the basalt Lion of Babylon, and across the stage on which Alexander is rumored to have died. Colbert slid next to me and marveled that, in only two years, we had followed two of Alexander’s most fabled campaigns — across Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Somehow I doubt I’ll be remembered as ‘Brad the Great,’” he said.
Ishmael mixed his history lesson with modern parallels: new beginnings, imperial hubris, the death of an old regime. He kept up a running commentary on Saddam’s abuses. Six of his family members, including his only son, had been executed in the 1990s. Inside the mysteriously cool natural icehouses deep beneath the floors, he quietly expressed his hope that the Americans would kill Saddam and end his terror definitively. The fear still gripped him.
Back outside, Espera stood against a wall, with the sunlight casting sharp shadows across a stone courtyard. “Look around. This great empire rose and fell. Everything rises and falls, nations and individuals, too,” he said. Lacking a cigar to point with, he leaned back on his hands. “Sometimes I think these decisions are already made; the script is already written, and we’re the last to read it. Maybe the universe is like a big watch: If you can crack the formula to the universal principles, then you can figure it all out.”
Colbert cut in. “Is this your goddamn lottery theory again?”
Espera ignored the exasperation and bent toward me. “Think about the lottery for a second,” he continued. “You buy some tickets at 7-Eleven, and you turn on the TV that night to watch some dude read numbers off Ping-Pong balls. Well, there’s nothing random about which numbers pop up.” Espera said this as if it were all self-evident. Then he narrowed his eyes and got to the point. “If you could calculate the weight of the balls, the temperature and humidity of the room, the force of the little air jets, and a thousand other variables, then you could correctly predict what numbers win.” He looked around with satisfaction. “Same thing here. Babylon fell. Iraq fell. The United States will someday fall. It’s already written. That bullet that hit Pappy had his name on it since it was iron ore in the ground. We just couldn’t see and calculate all the variables in time to save him. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.”
A small crowd had gathered. Ishmael looked uncertainly at his competition. Reyes clapped Espera on the back and said, “Don’t know if I agree with you, brother, but well said. Amen.”
Colbert wandered off, saying, “Tony, you need to go home and get laid.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, white boy.” Espera fell back into his own brooding, and we followed Ishmael toward the Ishtar Gate.
He carefully gathered his maps, tucking them back into the binder. Ishmael shook each of our hands, saying he hoped that Western tourists would soon flock to Babylon and help his people recapture their lost prosperity. Removing his fedora, Ishmael insisted that we didn’t have to pay him but allowed that any money “would buy many things of need” for his family. Gunny Wynn was a step ahead. He had collected a few dollars from each of us and tipped Ishmael a year’s wages.
We looped around a circular drive leading up the hill and parked near the palace’s front door. The view was even more spectacular than I had expected. We gazed across the entire sweep of Babylon, over the palms, and past the Euphrates. The next day, another recon platoon stood in the same place and watched in horror as a Marine helicopter crashed into the river and sank, killing its four-man crew and one Marine who had jumped in to save them. But our afternoon was peaceful, and I could almost understand Saddam’s delusion, from that perch, of keeping the whole country under his thumb. We crossed the threshold through wooden doors two stories high.
The entry hall seemed modeled on a cathedral, but the power conveyed to visitors was not of God, but of Saddam. We tromped across an inlaid marble floor, marveling at a chandelier nearly the size of a Humvee. Carved panels of dark wood stood inside deep alcoves in the walls, like statues of saints. Doors led to long hallways promising riches. A grand staircase rose to balconies overlooking the ground-floor rooms. Everything was marble, crystal, or mahogany. One ceiling displayed a mural showing the sweep of Iraqi history, from the Ishtar Gate to Saddam Hussein. The whole place was garish, superficially impressive like a Las Vegas hotel rather than awe-inspiring like a medieval cathedral. It represented no grand idea or human triumph. Men from the First Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters camped in the upstairs rooms, and filthy cammies floated in a marble tub where, perhaps only weeks before, Saddam had enjoyed one of his final soaks.
A week later, we packed up for the five-hundred-kilometer drive to Kuwait. Leaving at six P.M. to avoid the midday heat, we passed through As Samawah, where convoys had been mobbed and shot at on previous evenings. The town slept through our passage, and we saw only dogs barking under streetlights. We paralleled the Euphrates River toward Nasiriyah, and despite the warm air, I shivered when I saw its lights on the horizon. Memories of our first visit, exactly two months earlier, came surging back. As we refueled on the highway, scorpions scuttled across the pavement, casting shadows in the headlights which made them look a foot tall. I drove a long leg through the dead hours of early morning, passing near the Ar Ratawi railroad bridge and the oil fields of Rumaila. After Gunny Wynn took over, I fell asleep in the passenger seat and woke up in the sunlight of the empty Kuwaiti desert.