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Last Exit to Baghdad

The first soldier memoirs and a sweeping history describe a war unlike any we’ve ever known.


"The music plays throughout the day, Hendrix, the Stones, the Who, music from a different war.”
—Anthony Swofford, Jarhead, describing the day Iraq accepted terms ending the first Gulf War.

All war books are the same and tell the same story. Leaders promise glory and gold; young men heed their call; and then they are gassed, or have their arms blown off and their faces burned, and they watch their friends die, their skulls torn apart—and then they themselves have to kill in turn.

But wars are different even if the books remain the same, and as the books about this new war begin to come out—the soldier memoirs appearing in one batch this fall, exactly a year after the first books by embedded journalists and military historians—we can begin to see, in their very slight differences from the war books of the past, the particular outlines of this lonely, episodic, very dirty war.

In The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, John Crawford, who spent a year in Iraq with his National Guard unit, has produced what is essentially a Vietnam memoir. His elegiac, earnest prose, some of it quite good, is in an emotional key borrowed from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There is an understated sadness, a soldierly stoicism, and some bitterness at the Army chiefs. Here is how a few of the stories end:

• Crawford’s unit befriends an Iraqi shopkeeper, who tells them stories and sells them trinkets; later, he gets into a misunderstanding with a different unit and is shot dead.
• Crawford’s wife complains on the phone that she’s just spent all day cleaning up after his dog. Crawford, exasperated, replies that he’s spent all day cleaning up human brains—his unit shot up a car that had taken a shot at them.
• Crawford relieves the boredom by befriending an attractive young Iraqi woman; they flirt on the street corner. One day he goes to her house and finds that it’s been burned down.
• Two of Crawford’s platoon mates get shot at point-blank range while on patrol in Baghdad. At the end of the story, the company receives a speech: “They told us to persevere and stay strong. Every soldier is important to the chain of command, and they were suffering right beside us. It was a good speech, but when the time came, neither the chaplain nor the battalion commander could remember the names of either of our soldiers who were hit.”

It really could be Tim O’Brien except for one key difference. Note how Crawford says “hit” rather than “killed”—because despite the proximity of the shooter, one soldier’s vest stopped the bullet cold, while the other, shot in the throat and suffering massive blood loss, was evacuated and saved. “The Things They Carried” is a story about soldiers marching through Vietnam, carrying their memories and sometimes, often, getting killed; in Crawford’s Iraq, even during the insurgency phase of the war, it is the Iraqis who are doing most of the dying.

And it comes out of nowhere, this death, whether Iraqi or American. As the American tanks with their thermal sight and scope technology made their way to Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and civilians found themselves getting cut into ribbons by tanks they couldn’t even see. Under the occupation, things are more intimate but equally invisible. Crawford describes an incident in which three Iraqis start arguing within sight of the night patrol at an American base in Baghdad. Two of the Iraqis pull guns on the third and then, a moment later, one is dead, the other badly wounded, American bullets pouring from the sky like righteous lightning bolts.

On the other side, insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades and then melt into the crowd; they place “improvised explosive devices” by the side of the road and then detonate them from a mile away with a wire or by dialing the number of a cell phone whose vibration causes the artillery shell to explode. The artist Steve Mumford’s beautiful watercolor paintings of the war, one of which was on the cover of this month’s war-themed Harper’s and which are collected in his Baghdad Journal, show in floating brown, orange, and the occasional bright red and blue the scenes that he witnessed in Iraq: They are almost all waiting scenes, or police scenes, scenes of boredom. There is hardly any combat, no battlefield; there are only Americans on patrol, trying to bait the insurgents into firing on them, and occasionally, in the oppressive heat and boredom, booking a hooded insurgent back at the base. The paradigmatic image of Vietnam was Eddie Adams’s terrible photograph of a Vietcong soldier being shot directly in the temple, the grimace on the man’s face in plain, direct sight of the camera; the paradigmatic images of this war have all been of men wearing hoods.

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