'Footprints made long ago'

In today's paper I wrote about Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense who publishes his memoir "Duty" tomorrow. It's rare to receive a positive e-mail from a reader, and even rarer to get one that recognizes exactly what I was trying to do with a specific piece (the Gates piece hinges on the sentence about a glacier). So pardon this indulgence, but I want to submit for the record a lovely e-mail from a reader named John:

I read your article about Robert Gates online. Didn't intend to read the whole thing but I found there something that we all have been missing for a long time. There was an expression of civility, of honesty, of an understanding that we see footprints made long ago, now part of the rock, or cement, that forms our nation's capitol [sic].  Memories float on the cold wind reminding us of dreams other people left to us to fulfill. There is a vacuum there now.  We need to talk. We need as a nation to quit screaming and shouting at each other and sit down and talk about our problems. Your article is a start in that direction. Thank you. I will remember it.

And just as meaningful, but in a different way, from a reader named Joseph:

I read your article on Robert Gates in today's Washington Post and am very glad you wrote it. Robert Gates was an enigma to me during his years as Secretary of Defense, and now I see him as a thoughtful, feeling person who led our Defense Department well. I am a retired military officer and defense engineer a few years older than Mr. Gates, and I share his anguish over the human cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also believe we have not been served well by our elected leaders since the 9/11 attack. I don't expect everyone to agree with Mr. Gates, but I think I understand his thinking since I'm doing something similar in examining my own life. Its a very personal process.


Things fall apart

Grim news from the United States's former battlefront. Al Qaeda in Iraq, now rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken Fallujah, my colleague Liz Sly reported yesterday, and if this doesn't make you hang your head in despair over the decade-plus American "commitment" to the country, then nothing will. Except for maybe this explainer by Ned Parker, the former Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times who shared a house with The Washington Post across the river from the Green Zone.

I spent much of the autumn of 2011 in Iraq on a reporting rotation as the world's attention turned to the Arab Spring and our foreign correspondents redeployed to hotter spots in Egypt and Libya. While in Iraq, I wanted to do a proper embed with the U.S. military, even though the bulk of soldiers' time was being spent closing up shop; combat operations had ceased over a year before and the military was in the midst of handing in-country responsibility to the U.S. State Department. Since the military offered me a road march with a battalion of the 82nd Airborne from Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province to Camp Taji just outside Baghdad, I decided to write about Anbar, whose city of Fallujah was the site of the goriest moments of the war (the burning and lynching of foreign contractors, for example, and just about a third of U.S. combat deaths), as well as some of the most encouraging (the Sunni Awakening began there and helped pull the conflict out of an all-out death spiral). I thought a road march would allow me to see the province from the military's perspective -- from the confines of an MRAP vehicle -- and then I would double back and report from the sites they had passed on the journey. I shot this video, which depicts a battalion's efficient exit from Anbar, and wrote this story, which implied that the province was likely in the eye of a storm. The Americans were on their way out, and thus regarding the situation with a sense of neatness and finality, but the emotions and facts on the ground didn't align with their weary optimism.

The news out of Anbar, now over two years later, made me go back to my handwritten personal journal. Here's what I wrote, a bit after the fact:

Got to Al-Asad by Blackhawk. Helmet, flack jacket emblazoned with PRESS, Ray Bans, gun bay just to the side. On base, I had a minder but I forget his name. He gave me a tour of the base -- a large arid kingdom unto itself. I bought a camo hat and shatter-proof sunglasses at the canteen. I interviewed Lt. Col. David Doyle in his office, which was basically all packed up. I don't know how I was able to conduct a coherent interview, given my feeling of crushing naïveté, but I guess it was adrenaline. On the 27th I watched a haboob (هَبوب, or sand/dust storm) come over a hill and swallow the base as soldiers loaded their convoy. Sand everywhere. In my camera gear, in my teeth. It made the place seem even more alien.

One of those nights I wandered around the maze of CHUs, sectioned off by huge concrete blast walls. Found a group of privates burning material in preparation for closing the base. I will remember the weirdness of that. These kids, out in the desert, surrounded by concrete, watching the bright orange trash-can fire eat whatever they'd accumulated during their engagement at Al-Asad.

Army privates burn personal material in preparation for leaving Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province. Sept. 27, 2011.  Photo by Dan Zak

Army privates burn personal material in preparation for leaving Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province. Sept. 27, 2011. Photo by Dan Zak

Then early morning (3:30-4am) wakeup call for the road march to Camp Taji -- a grueling, all-day affair that began in an MRAP lit only by soldiers' night vision lights, motored at a slow pace thru Anbar, and ended at Camp Taji after a piss break -- where we all lined up along a barbed wire fence, whipped out our dicks, and pissed on someone else's ground. I wrote a blog post about sitting across from a married medic, and how I kept looking back and forth from his wedding ring to the roadside, which theoretically could explode at any point, at any time. The view out the window? I recall a huge sun, the silhouettes of sheep and their herders, a young boy seeming to give us the finger. I ended the embed dirty, sweaty, wrung out, and yet all I had done was sit in a slow-moving vehicle.

Bravo Company's Cpl. Scott Bryant pops the hatch of an MRAP vehicle to get some air on the road march from Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province to Camp Taji near Baghdad. Sept. 28, 2011.  Photo by Dan Zak

Bravo Company's Cpl. Scott Bryant pops the hatch of an MRAP vehicle to get some air on the road march from Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province to Camp Taji near Baghdad. Sept. 28, 2011. Photo by Dan Zak

Then, the following week:

All-day reporting in Anbar, the necessary in-the-field reporting counterpart to my in-the-MRAP experience. Went to the Ramadi compound of Sunni Awakening leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, where we were treated to a heap of sheep assfat. It was revolting, but the Iraqis dove in practically to their elbows. I couldn't not have some. The interview was stiff and not revelatory. Stopped by a police training center too. The takeaway was "No electricity? No trained police." 

And there you have it. What's happening now in Anbar seems preordained, even by a short couple of visits by a rookie foreign correspondent two years ago. There are, of course, scads of reasons why things are falling apart, but the fact that at some point local Sunni police weren't properly trained because the Shia-led government couldn't (or wouldn't) provide them basic utilities -- well, the phrase "doomed from the start" comes to mind.

"Why did my friends die in Iraq?" Business Insider editor Paul Szoldra, a former Marine, asked Friday in a bitter essay. The answer, if there is one, is probably unthinkable.

Improvised engagement device

BAGHDAD — Sometimes a word enters my thoughts and I fixate on it. Obsess over it. Make brainlove to it. Five minutes ago the word “transmit” popped into my head. What a great word. Its definition and its phonetics. Two syllables: One broad, the other sharp, sounding like the funneling of something vast into a fine point. Trans. Mit. From the Middle English “transmitten” from the Latin “transmittere” — “mittere” meaning “to send,” “trans” meaning “across, over, beyond” from the verb “trare,” meaning “to cross.” To send across. To send over, and beyond. Transmit. For some reason — its use in military jargon? — the word made me think of a photo I took last month while riding in an MRAP vehicle in Anbar province. I was sardine’d between a plated window and the blond, spectacled, 23-year-old company medic. It was his first deployment. I looked at his ring and asked if he was married. Yes, he said. His wife’s 20. I asked about kids. Not yet, he said. They’ve got a decade or more to think about it, he said. All the time in the world, he said. I looked back and forth and back and forth between his silver ring and the rutted roadside and didn’t exhale until the world started to spin.

Photo by Dan Zak

Photo by Dan Zak