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Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom

Ten years after he left, a once-proud soldier returns to a city on the brink of civil war to confront the madness America created and the sadness, violence and chaos we left behind


Men brandish weapons while marching in a vast parade of Shiite militias through the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The smell hit me as I stepped off the plane: Oil, diesel smog and the whiff of sulfur. Late at night and early in the morning, when the air is cleanest, this is what Baghdad smells like. As the day goes on, the odor thickens and turns metallic, until darkness falls and the fires start, filling the air with a pungent mélange of kebab and melted plastic. When I was here 10 years ago, the smell was mixed with the stench of corpses.

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A week before, I’d been in a seminar room at Princeton, talking with my students about the Cold War, Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The campus outside softly exhaled magnolia.

What the fuck was I doing back here?

Baghdad was being hit by several car bombs a week. I didn’t know anyone here. I didn’t speak Arabic. I had no insurance, no security, no idea who could help me if I got kidnapped or injured; it was late April. The country was gearing up for a divisive election and falling into a civil war. I had no idea how much worse things would get by summer, but they seemed pretty bad right now. Nearly 3,000 people had died in Iraq since January 1st, on top of at least 8,000 in 2013, victims of political murders and suicide bombings.

Most of those attacks had been launched by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a Sunni-fundamentalist Al Qaeda offshoot that had found new life in the Syrian civil war, and now controlled a swath of territory running from Abu Ghraib to Aleppo. Where ISIS ruled, its black-masked enforcers maintained obedience through whippings and public executions. You can watch the videos on YouTube. I had. The images haunted me all the way from JFK to Baghdad: teenagers shot in the back of the head, a woman choked to death, a man crucified.

In January, ISIS had launched a surprise attack on Fallujah, driving the Iraqi army out of the city and putting them on the defensive across Anbar, Salahaddin and Ninawa. Suddenly, after years of being ignored, Iraq was in the news again.

I’d always been ambivalent about being a veteran. On the one hand, I was proud of my service. I’d done something difficult that few Americans show the courage or wherewithal to do, and I’d come out stronger for it. My year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division was spent mainly on two kinds of missions: For the first six months of our tour, in 2003, we picked up artillery rounds all over Baghdad. We kept Iraqi kids from blowing themselves up and denied insurgents weapons. For the next six months, I drove a Humvee around a Sunni neighborhood in south Baghdad called Dora, and then down the highway to Karbala and Najaf, looking for roadside bombs and snipers.

On the other hand, the war was the most dehumanizing experience of my life. Inside the wire, we lived like prisoners, staring at the same walls and the same faces, lifting weights, watching DVDs, killing time until we got to go back home. Outside the wire, we moved in an alien, hostile world luminous with adrenaline and danger. Over time, as we were shot at, mortared and sometimes blown up, fear and rage built up in us like toxins, until we were praying for reasons to shoot – not people, mind you, just fucking hajjis. We harassed and intimidated hajjis on the street. We humiliated hajjis in their homes. We ran hajji cars off the road when they got in our way. We locked hajjis up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of us did worse. Some of us did a lot worse.

Meanwhile, the war itself never made any sense. Like many veterans, when it came to my role, I relied on a rhetoric of professionalism, camaraderie and a narrow focus on personal experience to help me ignore heavy questions about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Later, I let the relative peace following America’s 2011 withdrawal confirm the official narrative: We had made mistakes with the invasion, but the surge had worked, and we’d left Iraq a functioning democracy. I had my doubts, but it was a story I wanted to believe. Over time, I took up a mantra of comforting phrases that numbed those doubts and fuzzed out my connection to the big picture:

“The war was fucked, but I did my job.”

“I’m proud of my service, but it’s complicated.”

“I did the best I could in a bad situation.”

Watching ISIS take Fallujah in January had made me realize just how empty those phrases were. To see an Al Qaeda splinter group take over a third of Iraq, while the so-called democratic government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki revealed itself to be a dysfunctional hybrid of anarcho-capitalism and tyranny, meant having to give up the illusion that we might have done some good in Iraq. It meant having to confront the possibility that we didn’t just leave Iraq – we had lost Iraq.

We’d dropped down out of the night over a city scattered with patches of black, then ambled across the apron to the dilapidated terminal. I was the only paleface in the baggage claim, though no one else seemed to notice. The Iraqis were all too busy smoking and checking their phones.

Soon I was rolling past the cluster of dull buildings that once marked the American command center at Baghdad International. I remembered our first arrival here, after a grueling 25-hour drive from Kuwait, and the sense of relief at finding ourselves among fellow Americans. I remembered waiting in line at the PX in 110-degree heat for half an hour to buy a carton of cigarettes and a warm Sprite. I remembered eating a Whopper, months later, while standing guard over blindfolded prisoners in a parking lot.

On our way out, we passed the winged statue at the airport’s entrance that had marked the line between friendly and hostile territory. We locked and loaded every time we passed it going out; cleared our weapons every time we passed it coming in. I came to think of it as the angel God sent to bar the gates of Eden.

I didn’t lock and load this time. I lit a cigarette and stared hard into the dark. It wasn’t hostile territory anymore, or so I tried to tell myself, even though the smells, sights and feel of Baghdad activated alert mechanisms I’d thought had gone to rust. I found myself scanning overpasses for shooters and the roadside for bombs. My hands twitched for a weapon. I looked over at my smiling driver, Ahmed – who was this guy? I’d been told I could trust him with my life, but how could I trust anybody here? I’d been an American soldier; what reason would any Iraqi have to trust me?

Later, standing at the open window of my fourth-floor hotel room, I looked out over the city and knew I’d made a mistake coming here. Earlier that afternoon, ISIS had hit a campaign rally in east Baghdad with three bombs, killing at least 30 people and wounding more. My Twitter feed was studded with pictures of the explosion: immense balls of orange fire, dust and shrapnel. Then a light flashed up from the street below. One of the hotel’s guards was signaling for me to close my blinds. I was making myself a target.

The next day, Ahmed drove me around some of the neighborhoods I’d once driven myself, behind the wheel of a Humvee. The streets were viscerally familiar yet wholly strange. American military hardware obtruded everywhere, not just Humvees but also MRAPs and even Abrams tanks. Many Iraqi soldiers wore American desert fatigues, some with American unit patches, especially the Screaming Eagle worn by the 101st Airborne. If I squinted, it was almost like I’d never left.

But while the Baghdad I remembered had been divided into American and Iraqi zones, this new city was divided by religion and money. In poor neighborhoods like Sadr City and New Baghdad, rawboned children ran through streets slippery with rancid garbage, while in affluent Karrada, paunchy men sat in smoky nightclubs drinking whiskey, watching glammy young women dance in hip-tight dresses and showing off by throwing wads of money into the air. Strongholds controlled by Shiite political parties and foreign embassies rose up over abandoned houses, while entire Sunni neighborhoods were shut in by blast walls. Campaign posters plastered the sidewalks, while lurid paintings of Imam Ali, venerated by the Shiites as prophet Mohammed’s rightful successor, decorated billboards with lions, swords and blood – looking like nothing so much as black-velvet psychedelia.

I joined the Army in 2002 for a lot of reasons: I needed the college money, I came from a military family, I wanted travel and adventure, and I wanted to see what war was like. Most important, I wanted to understand a changed world: Before September 11th, 2001, I’d been a disillusioned radical, having left a promising career as an environmental activist to go write poetry in the Utah desert. After September 11th, I didn’t know what to think.

What was the real cost of our “way of life”? Was it worth killing for? What did the American empire look like out beyond the fortress walls? How did it work? I wanted to see for myself. So I enlisted as a field artilleryman in the U.S. Army, fully expecting to go to war within the year.

I had returned to Baghdad for the same reason: I wanted to see for myself. I’d spent a year here, but I’d never known Iraq. I’d never seen Iraq. I’d only ever known the occupation. Now, as we passed through checkpoint after checkpoint, waited in traffic jams in Jadriya, eased along the crowded sidewalks of Mansour and sped through filthy alleys in Baladiyat, I could feel this new Baghdad writing itself over the old one – as over the next week anonymous hajjis from 10 years ago resolved, one by one, into people.

My first interview was with a diplomat-in-training named Methaq Waleed. He wanted to meet at the Mansour Mall, Baghdad’s biggest and newest shopping center. Xboxes, Timberland shoes and Versace purses gleamed under relentless lighting. I went up the three flights of escalators to the food court passing clusters of young Iraqi men in leather-fringed jeans, with manicured stubble and faux-hawks, and bunches of women keeping nominal hijab in elaborate colored scarves and high-heeled shoes. The cinema was showing Transcendence and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Waleed arrived in a charcoal suit and striped tie. As a young man from a mixed family living in a Sunni neighborhood during the sectarian civil war of 2005 to 2008, Waleed had seen his education disrupted, his city torn apart and his family members threatened. Those years were so bad for him, in fact, he wouldn’t even talk about them. But Waleed was irrepressibly hopeful. “Iraq has suffered for 30 years, and that has closed people off from one another,” he told me. “As a new generation, we can make the reforms our country needs. We want to tell the world that Iraq is a new country. I remember Mr. Obama said, ‘We can do it.’ So we can do it.” He reckoned it would take Iraq at least another 10 years to recover from the American invasion and the civil war it had unleashed, but that with the country’s oil revenues approaching $100 billion annually, it was only a matter of time.

The first national elections since the 2011 American withdrawal were only a few days away, and as I looked around at the gathering crowds, in a food court that could have been in any mall anywhere, Waleed’s hopes seemed just possible. After all, this was a very different Iraq from the one I’d known 10 years ago.

When I left in 2004, things had calmed from the post-invasion bedlam, but I couldn’t have said they’d improved. Fallujah was a battleground, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi was in open revolt, and Baghdad’s electricity ran just a few hours a day. The streets we drove were choked with trash and flooded with sewage. The American military controlled its bases and routes but little else. Meanwhile, as Iraqis turned to neighborhood religious authorities for security, the sectarian conflict that would explode with the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006 was already beginning to smolder. Now, as Waleed and I sat in the food court, discussing his hopes for reform, that old conflict was again catching fire.

For Naseer Hassan, the only solution to ISIS was Maliki, Maliki and more Maliki. Hassan was a lively, egotistical soul and something of a Shiite chauvinist. He was also a poet; a translator of Arthur Schopenhauer, Emily Dickinson and Jorge Luis Borges; and a radio host at Radio Free Iraq. I spent the next afternoon talking with the 52-year-old writer about life under Saddam, his 1979 arrest, the executions of his Communist uncles, and the virtue of hopelessness.

Hassan sat rumpled in his chair, leaning and swooping over his tea to make a point or evoke a philosophical paradox. He saw the American occupation as a “necessary but a very bad, bloody surgery. The patient has been left bleeding for years.” He jabbed at the table: “But that doesn’t change the fact that America replaced a dictatorship with a democracy.”

He’d wanted to dance naked in the streets when Saddam’s statue fell in 2003, but since then, he’d watched his hopes wither. “Now, I see it’s just the same battle from birth to death. After 2003, Saddam was gone, but his orphans ruined everything after. Now there’s ISIS – it’s the same battle, with no triumph. The happiness of freedom and democracy was stolen from us. I wondered sometimes, can history be that cruel? But history has no conscience. If you’re still alive, that’s just because its foot hasn’t stepped on you yet.”

I asked him if he still had any hope at all for Iraq, and he leaned in, as if to explain a great secret: “Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going – not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster. This is how humanity survives. This is the strength that keeps us going.”

Samr Abdul-Satar, a young Sunni IT manager from Dora whom I spoke with the next morning, had little to say about poetry or the hope that comes from hopelessness, but he remembered the civil war of 2005 to 2008 vividly. He’d just started college when it began, and his daily commute to Baghdad’s University of Technology became a gauntlet of threats and checkpoints. One day, his bus was stopped at gunpoint by some black-clad men. Abdul-Satar was blindfolded, taken away in a car, then led to a room and made to kneel. Hours passed while Abdul-Satar waited to be killed. Eventually, he was released without explanation.

Another day he got a phone call from his brother. When he answered, a strange voice came through, claiming to be a policeman. The policeman said he’d arrested Abdul-Satar’s brother and would be talking with him for 15 minutes, after which he’d be released. Abdul-Satar’s face darkened: “I’m still waiting for those 15 minutes to end.”

He described the sectarian cleansing that had taken place in Dora under the eyes of the American occupation. After the Iraqi army was formed and the militias rose up in 2004 and 2005, many families were forced out. “Dora was divided into two lives: Either you stay at home with your family and do nothing, or you join the militias. We stayed in, except for school. Our life was a daily suffering. Every morning, we removed signs from our doors that militias had put up, saying ‘Don’t join the government, or we’ll kill you,’ or ‘Don’t go to college, or we’ll kill you.’ This lasted until 2008. We lost a part of our lives during those years. The pleasure of youth was gone.”

Abdul-Satar had no hope for Iraq. He was confident Maliki would steal the election and continue serving the same sectarian interests. “If that happens,” Abdul-Satar said, “the people will rise up against oppression. There will be a great disaster. In two months, ISIS will be in Baghdad.”

Election day. Unlike at some of the other polling centers we went to, the police in Saydiya didn’t give us any trouble about coming in. They weren’t so worried about journalists. Saydiya was widely considered one of Baghdad’s most volatile neighborhoods, one of the few still mixed between Shiite and Sunni. Many people expected that if violence hit the elections, it would happen there. And everybody expected violence. While the police checked our IDs, a convoy of machine-gun-mounted pickups roared by, each filled with Iraqi Special Operations Forces. The Iraqi army was a bit of a joke, but these guys were something else. The ISOF troops cut fearsome figures: Uniformed in black armor and fatigues, festooned with weaponry and tech, their helmets decorated with Punisher skulls, their faces hidden by Wiley X ballistic goggles and fang-embossed black masks, they moved with easy violence. These were Maliki’s elite killers, trained by U.S. special ops and infamous for their brutality.

Inside, the polling center reeked of fear. Only one voter would speak with me, a 61-year-old English professor named Ahmed Abdul-Rajid. When I asked him about his hopes for the election, he said, with a desperate grin, “For the good.” When I asked him what he meant by “good,” he told me, “Security, safety and stability.” Did he have any worries about the election? “No, none.” Did he think Maliki was going to win a third term? “Nobody knows. It depends on the results.” What did he think would happen if Maliki won a third term? His eyes bulged. “I hope for the good.” What did he mean by that? “Security, safety and stability.”

I tried to talk to more voters, but an election official shepherded us toward the exit. On the way out, though, he introduced me to the sergeant of the guard, Jasim Mohammed Alwan. When I asked Alwan about his hopes for the election, he told me he was hoping for change, along with an increase in security and stability. “What kind of change?” I asked, and he told me that he wanted to see a change in government. “People are looking for something better. Somebody needs to fix what has been destroyed, take care of the people who suffer now.”

The official stepped between us, ending the interview. He said something to my translator, Aziz, and then something else to the sergeant, who turned on his heel and walked off. Then he turned to us with a cold smile. “We should go now,” Aziz said, nudging me toward the door.

Our day had begun in Sadr City, the notorious Shiite ghetto on the north side of Baghdad, where we were intimidated and bullied by election staff while their supervisor, a scowling young woman in an ornate russet hijab, watched from behind massive silver aviator glasses. They’d refused to talk to us, then came after us when we started interviewing people, grabbing Aziz by the arm and trying to drag him off, forcing us to leave. The man we’d been talking to, a laborer named Rahim Ahmed, had been the only person brave enough to speak with us. “We’re looking for change,” Ahmed had said. “Two elections have gone by, and they haven’t done anything for the people.” He told me that things were even worse now than they had been under Saddam.

Few of the Iraqis I spoke with throughout the day were as forthright as Ahmed. Many were restrained and noncommittal, nervous about talking with me. But they were serious about voting. One Iraqi soldier I talked to had recently been wounded in an ISIS ambush and had limped to the polling center, still bandaged. “It’s our responsibility,” he told me. Overall, the impression I got was that Baghdadis were tired of politics-as-usual, anxious about ISIS and committed to change. For some, change meant getting rid of Maliki. For others, it meant clearing out the obstructionists constraining him. For most, the constant refrain was “tahrir” – liberation, relief, salvation. They’d had enough corruption and suffering. At the same time, most expected Maliki to remain prime minister, no matter how voting went.

It made sense for them to think so. Things had gone a little hinky the last time Iraqis went to the polls in a national election, in 2010, even though almost 100,000 American troops were still in the country. Even before the voting started, Maliki pressured the Iraqi judiciary to speed along a process disqualifying opposition candidates because of alleged Baathist ties. As results came in, showing that the secular, mixed-sect Iraqiya coalition had won more seats than Maliki’s State of Law coalition, Maliki demanded a recount, backing it up with a veiled threat of military force. Then he asked the Supreme Court, whose chief justice was in his pocket, to reinterpret the Iraqi Constitution’s rule on who got to pick the prime minister, so that instead of the party that won the most seats in the election forming the government, it could be the party who put together the biggest coalition afterward. Maliki then merged State of Law with other Shiite parties and took the right to form the next government. The Americans stood by watching. As Obama said at the time, “The United States does not support particular candidates or coalitions. We support the right of the Iraqi people to choose their own leaders.”

This wasn’t quite true. The U.S. was deeply involved in forming an Iraqi government through a series of back-room deals that took eight months. Against the opposition of Sunni politicians, Shiites in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and even CENTCOM commander Gen. Jim Mattis, Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador James Jeffrey pushed through a Maliki government. And as we worked to engineer Maliki’s victory, Iran brokered a deal between Maliki and al-Sadr to secure Sadrist support for State of Law, without which Maliki could never have stayed in power.

The real story of the 2010 election, that is, is about how Iran and the U.S. worked together to ensure the continued rule of Iraq by a sectarian Shiite autocrat. The story of the 2014 election would turn out to be his fight to stay in power while Iraq fell apart around him.

The 2014 election was also, in the words of Al-Jazeera reporter Jane Arraf, Iraq’s “most bizarre” election yet. Take, for example, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the political party whose campaign rally had been bombed by ISIS the day I arrived in Baghdad. Asaib Ahl al-Haq was the most militant faction of Baghdad’s Shiite political majority. Like other major Shiite factions, al-Haq had been a terrorist militia during the occupation. Indeed, Gen. Ray Odierno, senior U.S. commander in Iraq from 2008 to 2010, had considered Asaib Ahl al-Haq the most dangerous Shiite gang in Baghdad, and its leader, Qais al-Khazali, had been imprisoned by U.S. forces for nearly three years, until Maliki negotiated his release. But Asaib Ahl al-Haq had since gone legit, aligning itself with Maliki, though it was still seen as an Iranian proxy and still regularly sent fighters to Syria. Its ubiquitous campaign posters were readily identifiable by the armed martyrs looking down from them.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq was only one of the 107 “political entities” representing 9,964 candidates competing for 328 seats in the national election. Iraqi national politics is a bewildering scrimmage of politicians, coalitions, outsiders, proxies and allegiances. In addition to the thousands of candidates, you had to consider the various forces influencing the action: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey; the four top Shiite clerics; Russian and Chinese oil companies; Kurdistan, which had its own internal politics; the government itself; and the erupting civil war, not entirely distinct from the Syrian war. Finally, and not least, there was Uncle Sam – merely, of course, a disinterested observer.

Not that the U.S. (or anyone else) was observing all that closely. Reports of fraud and corruption were rampant, and I saw plenty of evidence of it myself. But the impression I’d gotten from a high-level State Department official who’d aired some of his thoughts in my vicinity was that the U.S. wasn’t worried: The elections were credible, ISIS wasn’t strong enough to do much damage, and no matter what happened, it was an Iraqi process. The attitude was that we’d taken the training wheels off the Iraqi bike, and it was time for them to ride on their own.

When I mentioned to the official how Maliki had manipulated the 2010 election, and suggested that another win for Maliki might look like the beginning of a new dictatorship, he remained unperturbed. His assurance brought to mind a quote from 2004 widely attributed to Karl Rove, which seems, looking back, prescient: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors. . . . All of you will be left to just study what we do.”

When I’d arrived in Baghdad in 2003, I assumed the war would be over soon and we’d be allowed to wander the liberated city like tourists – see the Ziggurat of Ur, visit a mosque or go shopping on Mutanabbi Street, the famous Baghdad book market. Those notions died quickly, but months later, I still fantasized about leaving my rifle and armor behind, throwing on my civvies and hopping the wall. We had settled into a frontier-outpost existence, on bases initially primitive but increasingly Americanized, and despite some efforts at integration, such as allowing Iraqis to run shawarma restaurants and souvenir shops on the FOB, the basic conditions of the occupation were segregation and mutual distrust. As my deployment wore on, Mutanabbi Street came to represent not just the rich Iraqi culture with which we weren’t engaging and of which we were almost entirely ignorant, but literary and intellectual culture itself. I’d dreamed of connecting with that culture, but had been separated from it by my role as an occupier, watching life pass by the ballistic windows of my Humvee.

The dream I’d had of Mutanabbi Street was a hope that – as Naseer Hassan had put it – the tissue of life was stronger than any disaster. I wanted to believe that even in the darkest hours, some spirit flickered. Sarem Dakhel Ahmed embodied such spirit. A playwright and sculptor who taught at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts, he had spent seven years in the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War and believed that over the long term art was stronger than politics: “The artist makes life, the politician just lives it,” he said. “In the end, we’ll prevail.”

Ahmed had been investigated by Saddam’s police for staging Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and had seen one of his own plays banned. After Saddam’s fall, he was threatened by fundamentalists. One day, he received an envelope with a bullet inside and a note: “Stop making sculpture.”

After the 2003 invasion (during which his house had been bombed), Ahmed began collecting spent American brass, which he melted down and shaped into stark, Giacometti-like sculptures. This was emblematic of the cathartic power he saw art possessing. “The curse of war has polluted my life,” he said. “I started making art as a way to purge the pollution.”

For every artist or writer struggling to keep the human spirit alive in Iraq, though, there were many more whose creative lives were being choked out by religious fundamentalism, neglect and violence. Soheil Najm, a 58-year-old poet and veteran who’d spent eight years in the army during the Iran-Iraq War, told me, “I think every day about death. You have the feeling that death is walking with you step by step, that you could be killed at any time. And you can imagine, maybe, you’re also dying on the inside. When you see people killed without any reason . . . it’s impossible to write in this situation.”

Haider Hashim, owner of the Akkad Gallery, told me how the art scene in Baghdad had been all but obliterated by the war. Before the U.S. invasion, there had been more than 50 art galleries in Baghdad. Today, Hashim’s is one of two.

While the art scene was dying, music was surviving on virtual life-support, existing almost wholly online, since people were afraid concerts would attract bombs, and religious conservatives opposed any youth culture that swerved from traditional lines – meaning anything not Islamic, Arab and sexually repressed. Ahmed Farouk Lafta, who under the name J-Fire was one of the most celebrated young musicians in Baghdad, used to perform rap and nu metal, inspired by bands such as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. When Islamic extremists threatened to kill him, he switched to more anodyne Middle Eastern pop. He wished he could write the kind of music he wanted, but he wasn’t going to risk his life for it.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad’s universities, departments were rife with sectarianism, and corruption was rotting out standards. Students bought their way into college, then through it. Professors bought research. Religious pressures constrained classes and content. Nadia Faydh, an English professor, was banned from teaching Marxist literary criticism and chastised by her department chair for teaching Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” a canonical text of English Romanticism. Students had been offended by the way Shelley equated love and poetry with religion.

I talked to poets, artists, musicians, teachers, students and philosophers. I walked among the people as they voted. I finally visited Mutanabbi Street, lined with mosaics of books and busy with chatty shoppers. I searched for every hopeful flame I could. But the spirit I found in Baghdad was crippled, corrupted or threatened where it wasn’t already dead – and we had caused the damage. We let loose a grisly pandemonium in Iraq, then walked away and tried to wash our hands of the whole affair.

Over the next few days, I talked to many Iraqis who’d suffered during the occupation. A policeman told me he’d lost 23 family members in the civil war. “Iraq has lost a son a day since the U.S. came,” he said. He assured me that things had been better under Saddam. Much better. “With Saddam, if you try to touch his chair, he’ll attack you. Otherwise, he’ll leave you alone.”

A spice vendor named Sedrad, in Baghdad’s busy Shorja market, told me how his father had been martyred during the civil war, and showed me a picture he’d hung in his stall of his nephew, Ahmed Sadr, killed six weeks ago. “It didn’t use to be like this,” he said. “We didn’t know what sect our neighbor belonged to. We didn’t care. I’m a Shia; my friend Othman is a Sunni. When I was sick, he carried me to the hospital. There was no difference. Now, you have to expect a knife in your back.”

And then there was Raad al-Azzur, a dour-faced, middle-aged man with a limp (he’d lost a leg in the war with Iran). When I met him, I knew nothing more about him than that he drove a van for the St. George’s Church. I received him in the lobby of the Coral Boutique Hotel, whose plate-glass windows overlooking Jadriya Street seemed to invite car bombs. Seated on a giant sofa, an American cop show blazing behind me on an enormous TV, I began to ask al-Azzur some introductory questions – where he was from, his age, what he did.

“Did you know they killed my children?” he interrupted.

Al-Azzur began to explain, then reached into his pocket for a small cloth bag. From the bag he withdrew two laminated photographs. One showed his boy, Aziz, four-and-a-half years old. The other showed his daughter, Ranin, at 15. Both children had been shot in the head. Blood pooled around their limp bodies.

It had happened just about 10 years ago. Armed men forced their way into al-Azzur’s house one night and shot the two children, leaving a piece of paper that read, “We are supporters of Islam.” Al-Azzur didn’t know why he’d been targeted. It might have been because he helped a friend sell liquor. It might have been because he was Christian.

Over the years, 11 of his family members had been murdered, his cousin in Mosul most recently – a stranger had knocked on his door, asked his name, then put a pistol in his mouth and shot him. Many others had been kidnapped or threatened with letters or text messages. There were very few Christians left in Baghdad, al-Azzur told me. The ones who hadn’t been killed had fled.

“Life was better under Saddam,” he said. “Nobody attacked Christians then. When somebody did, Saddam’s police would find the killer and punish them. Now, you can see, 10 years and I’m still looking. Nothing is going to change now. The faces you see in the election are the same faces that came in on the American tanks.”

I asked him if I could take pictures of the pictures of his dead children. It seemed necessary but inadequate, and I felt like a vulture. I had to keep retaking the pictures, again and again, from different angles, shifting the photos around the table. My reflection kept getting in the way.

Nearly everyone I talked to wanted to leave. The U.S. ambassador wanted to leave. The journalists wanted to leave. My translator Aziz wanted to leave. My driver Ahmed wanted to leave. The students whom I spoke with at Mustansiriyah University all wanted to leave, and who could blame them? Rania Taw­feeq, finally finishing her bachelor’s degree at 25, had spent much of her life in exile in Jordan, Sweden and Syria. She was home now, but felt trapped and dreamed of nothing but escaping with her daughter. Huda Kadhim hadn’t seen her father since he’d been kidnapped in 2006. One of her cousins had also been kidnapped, and another murdered. She wanted out. Osama Kadhim, 23, moved back to Iraq from Yemen in 2003, then saw most of his family killed over the next few years. “Politics here is just lies and more lies,” he said. “I’m afraid to leave my house, afraid to die or be kidnapped.”

A young student named Maysoun hoped to study abroad, but didn’t think her parents would let her. “I have dreams,” she said. “I just can’t achieve them because I’m a girl.” Her brother had been kidnapped in 2006, and she’d been forced to move out to Abu Ghraib, now a battle zone between ISIS and the Iraqi army. She was phlegmatic about the danger: “I believe if I’m going to die, I will die,” she said, shrugging.

“There are worse things than death,” one of her female classmates said.

Many want to leave, but few can. “The Iraqi passport means nothing now,” one student told me. “Nobody recognizes us. You can’t go anywhere.” Meanwhile, refugees from Fallujah were coming back to the neighborhoods in Baghdad they were forced out of in 2006 and were once again being threatened by the same militias. Refugees who’d moved to Syria have become refugees twice over. Soon, there may be nowhere left to go.

For me, leaving the first time was easy. I got on a C-130 at Baghdad airport, then I was gone. When people asked me if I’d ever go back, I’d laugh: “What for?”

My tour in Iraq had been extended past its original end date, after the Jaish al-Mahdi uprising in April 2004, and during our last months there, my anger, fear and frustration grew into an unbounded hate: I hated the constant threat of violence, the smell of oil, the despicable role I was forced to take on as an occupier and the resentment we drew in performing that role. I hated my commander, who was an idiot. I hated military logic, with its redundancy and regulations, and I hated military culture, with its puffed-up machismo and dumb aggression. I hated the explosions and the gunfire and the mortars. I hated the feel of the air. I hated the sand, the heat, the tents, the streets, the camouflage, the Iraqis, the Americans, the sky, the sun, the wind and the hands of the clock marking time.

It took about a year before other feelings started filtering in. As time went on, my memories grew richer and more ambivalent. I remembered standing on the roof of our barracks at Camp Dragoon, watching the sun go down a purple sky over Sadr City. I remembered watching Iraqis go into kebab shops on the street like there wasn’t a war on, and envying their vulnerable freedom. I remembered the herds of sheep we passed every day on the way from Baghdad Ammo Depot West to the airport. I remembered the Iraqi who ran the coffee shop at FOB Falcon, and his shy, friendly daughters. I remembered the local girls who did our laundry there, and how they were murdered by insurgents after we left. I remembered the thrill of danger and how it made me feel alive.

Leaving, it turned out, wasn’t as simple as all that. My year in Iraq made me who I was, as did my four years in the Army, no matter whether I wanted it to or not. In the same way, America’s eight-year occupation there has shaped what America is today. Shock and awe, WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Ahmed Chalabi, Fallujah, Tal Afar, Karbala, the Jaish al-Mahdi, the Green Zone, Sadr City, Blackwater, the Surge, Al Qaeda, Halliburton, Zarqawi, ISIS, Saddam, Maliki and the millions of lives we uprooted, left unprotected, destroyed and abandoned are all a part of us now. We made them part of us, part of our identity and our history. We can pretend to forget, try to rub out the image in the mirror, but we can’t change what we’ve done.

When I was in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, most of the students I talked to would have been teenagers. I was an American soldier then, distant and wary, separated from the world I lived in by armor, power, ignorance and fear. They were hajji kids, worried about school and clothes and their future. Worried about getting enough to eat, not getting blown up, not getting shot by nervous Americans.

I left, they stayed. Over the next 10 years, I finished my time in the Army, went back to college, then went on to Princeton. I got married and got divorced. I wrote and published and thought a lot about what it means to be a veteran. I went hiking in western Ireland, the south of France, and New Hampshire. Meanwhile, those kids in Baghdad struggled to finish high school in the midst of a civil war. They saw friends and family members murdered and blown up. Some just disappeared. The American surge came and went, stabilizing things for a couple of years, and then the Americans left, taking that stability with them. Meanwhile, Rania, Huda, Osama, Maysoun and their classmates hid from militias, bandaged wounds, took pleasure where they could and tried to imagine a life that might be livable.

They stayed, I left. But while I may have left Iraq, Iraq hadn’t left me. Baghdad might have been hell, and it might still be so today, but it wasn’t a hell I’d visited and escaped – it was a hell I helped create.

On my last night in Baghdad, I found myself in a vodka-fueled argument with a writer from the Financial Times named Borzou Daragahi about America’s role in fomenting Iraq’s sectarian violence. Daragahi had been in and out of Iraq since 2002, and had come back for the elections.

“You have to remember these are old problems,” he told me. “The U.S. didn’t create the Shia-Sunni split. All these countries had once been part of the Ottoman Empire, and when the Sykes-Picot lines come apart, people fight. Think about it: Of all the countries that came out of the Ottoman Empire, did any one of them not have some kind of awful violence?”

“Maybe, OK,” I said, “some of the sectarianism was already there. But we intentionally fed the violence.”

“That’s conspiracy talk,” Daragahi said. “Look, the U.S. just didn’t know what it was doing, especially at first. They didn’t have any real Middle East experts on the ground, the military didn’t know what it was doing, and they didn’t have a plan.”

“I know, but listen,” I said, “when we got here in 2003, we knew fuck all about Iraq, except that the Sunnis were the bad guys. The U.S. had decided going in that Iraq was Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, and that the Sunnis and Shia hated each other, and we were going to back the Shia. Then that’s what we did. We supported the Shia militias. We trained them. We put Maliki in power. And that was all by accident? I don’t buy it. I just can’t believe in the fairy tale of innocent, fumbling Americans anymore.”

I thought back to my interview, a few days before, with human rights activist Hanaa Edwar. I’d spoken to Edwar in her home office; her walls were decorated with international humanitarian awards. Despite her years of resistance to Saddam and her efforts to bring modern, Western values to Iraq, Edwar saw the American invasion as a total disaster. For Edwar, the United States’ interest in toppling Saddam was political, military and economic, and had nothing to do with avowed commitments to human rights or democracy. From the beginning, she said, American policy worked to divide Iraq on sectarian and ethnic lines. “This was the wrong basis,” Edwar said. “No democracy can be built on religious or sectarian difference. And the system in Iraq is very weak because of this. It has produced crisis after crisis without any solution, and increased conflicts between the Iraqi people. It’s not just elements from outside, like Al Qaeda, but has spread through the whole of Iraqi society.”

Edwar had been an activist since her student days in the 1960s. After earning a law degree at Baghdad University, she was nominated to represent the Iraqi Woman’s League at the Women’s International Democratic Federation and lived in East Berlin for 10 years, then Damascus for three, before returning to Iraq – not to Baghdad, however, or to her native Basra, but to Kurdistan, where she joined the resistance against Saddam. She lived there for three years, until Saddam’s chemical-weapons attacks against the Kurds in 1988 forced her to flee back to Damascus, where she co­founded the group Iraqi Al-Amal – the name means “hope.” In 1996, she returned to Kurdistan, and finally came home to Baghdad after the American invasion.

Edwar shook her head. “It was a big mistake for Americans to support religious parties like Maliki’s Dawa,” she said. “There was an opportunity to break this kind of rule in 2003, but I believe there was always an intention to keep Iraq weak, so there’s no chance for solid change, no chance for development, no chance for real democracy. And now, after 10 years, we are not living in a state. We are living in a non-state. There is no rule of law, no real institutions, but impunity for the militias, the rule of tribes and religions over the rule of law, and pervasive corruption.”

What I’d seen bore out her judgment. Some things seemed better now than they had in 2004, but the change was heartbreakingly small. The power still went out several times a day, but the outages lasted only minutes. There were malls. There was more money around. There were police everywhere and an army, hundreds of thousands of men strong. Things were better – except for the daily threat of car bombs. Except for the resurgent civil war. Except for the widespread poverty outside the capital, the failing schools, the increasing illiteracy and the increasing influence of religious extremists, both Sunni and Shiite. Except for the increasingly authoritarian rule of Nouri al-Maliki, who jailed political rivals, attacked dissidents and gave a long leash to militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

Yes, there’d been an election. But as Edwar pointed out, “Democracy is not only elections, not just voting. Democracy is about building civil institutions, transparency, accountability, the separation of powers, the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t have any of that. My hometown, Basra, is in ruins. They don’t have clean drinking water. I was shocked. Shocked. And now we see ISIS moving toward Baghdad. So what kind of state is this, that was built and is still supported by America? What were the intentions? What’s behind it? To divide this country into three states, like Biden said in 2007? You lost 5,000 soldiers to bloodshed in Iraq and spent so much money, and to what purpose? To create a theocratic state?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“After the revolution of 1958,” she went on, “when we overthrew the monarchy and created the Iraqi Republic, we made tremendous changes in just four years: improvements in literacy, women’s issues, housing, education and health.” That hopeful time had come to an end with the CIA-supported Baathist coup of 1963. But in 2003, “America had an opportunity to change people’s lives for the better, to win the love of the Iraqi people. Instead, they turned themselves into the opposite.”

As I sat over my vodka on my last night in Iraq, looking back at my service there and considering what I’d seen and what I’d heard, especially from Iraqis themselves, I realized it didn’t matter what we’d intended. What mattered was what we’d done. We’d invaded a sovereign nation on a pretense, fucked up the lives of 30 million people, started a bitter, bloody civil war by pitting one religious sect against another, then left and pretended it had nothing to do with us. We’d helped strengthen fundamentalist religious extremists in the Middle East and put intellectuals, journalists and activists at risk. A few people made a whole bunch of money, and a whole nation was left in shambles. Whether or not breaking Iraq into pieces had been the plan from the beginning, as some evidence suggests, the war had been nothing but a murderous hustle. The politicians who ran the war had shown no higher ideals than robbery and plunder, and I’d been nothing but their thug.

As an historical agent in the vast, crooked enterprise that was the Iraq War, I had helped cause immense suffering and I had profited by it. I had let it happen, and I had made it happen. And when I thought of the pride I’d taken in my service, the combat pay I’d spent vacationing in Paris, London and Berlin, and the blood money that had bought my college education, holding them up against the lives I’d seen shattered by violence, the hopes I’d seen trampled and the dreams for a better future I’d seen starved by neglect and choked by frustration, I could feel nothing but disgust and shame for having been an American soldier.

The next morning, Ahmed picked me up in the hotel lobby. Traffic was light and the city quiet. As we drove to the airport, we passed the winged statue marking its entrance.

I pointed out the statue to Ahmed: “I always remembered that angel.”

“Abbas Ibn Firnas,” he said.


“That’s not an angel. That’s Abbas Ibn Firnas.”

Abbas Ibn Firnas, it turned out, was a Berber-Andalusian inventor, poet and musician who lived in the Caliphate of Córdoba – what is now southern Spain – in the 9th century. He had made the first recorded attempt at glider flight in Europe, using wings fashioned from vulture feathers. Firnas had built his wings, Ahmed told me, to escape prison.

As my plane rose into the sky, I watched Iraq fall away below. Five thousand years ago, this precise stretch of land, the fertile crescent running west along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, had been the birthplace of civilization. Twelve-hundred years ago, it had been the heart of an empire spanning from Kabul to Tunis. Two hundred years from tomorrow, after the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world have been pumped dry and burned, it may finally see peace.

This story is from the July 31st, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.



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