Trophy Town

Article excerpt

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 PINKY-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 brandnew 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 and stretching for blocks. 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.

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. …