Rising to stretch my legs, I surveyed my fellow travelers, who had just endured a 3 a.m. flight to Baghdad. Among the Iraqis, there was a preponderance of plastic and/or leopard-print overnight bags. The men had big mustaches and weary eyes. The women were generally in their 30s, wearing colored headscarves, some of them no doubt coming back to Iraq for the first time in years. The plane smelled of sweat and perfume.
I felt weak in the knees. An Iraqi girl sized me up with a hardened glare. What did you expect? her eyes seemed to inquire, and I let my head fall.
In the beginning, Iraq had seemed like the center of the universe. On a bitterly cold New York day in 2003, I had marched with several hundred thousand others, as much out of a conviction that the war was wrong as that it was inevitable and deserved respect. Things got heavy fast. In the first weeks of battle, an old boss of mine lost his life when a Humvee flipped. Reeling from all the mixed signals, I found myself editing what felt like Very Important Pieces about the 1,000th death of a U.S. soldier, then the 2,000th. What the hell was going on over there? Over the years, good friends went in and out as correspondents; a few even served as soldiers. But with time, the conversation veered to other wars.
By 2006 and 2007, I admit I had stopped reading: So many dead dumped in ditches, countless American fuckups, too many tragedies to fathom. In the ensuing years, the endless grinding of Iraqi parliamentary democracy—failed coalitions, muddy alliances—faded into the hum of a world gone wrong. Much of what had happened was our fault, but what could be done? The once- inescapable Iraq—subject of so many urgent conversations—had at last, again, become a ghost.
Then my wife accepted a job in Baghdad, and it became inevitable—like it or not— that Iraq would come roaring back to life.