The nights are still cool here and the winds blow across the Euphrates from the deserts beyond bringing summer. There is an abandoned grove of fig trees on the ruined palace grounds.Green leaves have appeared through the dry scales of foliage still clinging to the branches from last season.I am thinking of spring in Central New York and the blooming of daffodils and crocus.The dark moist earth and the smell of pastures. Shadows returning beneath the trees. - Letter from Ramadi, 2005
On my daughter’s first birthday, I returned from Iraq after a bloody tour in the city of Ramadi. It was 2005, my second tour. I had been wounded there, a friend killed in front of me, our casualties coming in almost daily as we fought the city to save it. I met death in war, and it followed me home. Within four months, my father, the author Frederick Busch, died of a sudden heart attack on a sidewalk in New York City—followed closely by my mother, who was taken by an incurable brain tumor. Home could never be what it was before I left. I was not alone in that feeling.
We didn’t speak much of our families while we were in Iraq. Their safety seemed dependent upon distance from us, and ours upon a certain detachment from them. I left my wedding ring at home. I did not want the war to know that it could hurt anyone but me. I stopped believing that I would survive my tour in Ramadi, but it was a friend who died in my place. His death was sudden, brutal, and his shattered vehicle burned for much of the night. We guarded the wreckage in the dark, surrounded by Iraq, waiting to recover the body of another Marine trapped beneath it. In the morning I went to his room. On a shelf there was a single family photograph. There he was, alive, with his wife and young children. But I had seen him die. His wife did not yet know that she was a widow. I was there to witness the end of their family, and I was there to see it happen to Iraqi families, too.
Our troops are leaving Iraq. I see no signs that America is exultant. Our electorate became exhausted by news of the conflict long ago, desensitized by its constancy, our brief impatience for results or departure dissipating, pacified by the conflict’s inability to endanger our domestic comforts. The war became what it often is, good business and far away. As casualties mounted, people displayed yellow symbols of support for the troops on their car bumpers, but few activists demanded an end to our bloodletting. It was a very supportive complacency, and it went on for years while our military patrolled the desert. Despite the evidence that our invasion had been a complete mistake, we came to accept our deepening commitment to an unjust war. But the story of our presence in Iraq is, for many of us, the story of our absence from home.
The veteran’s view of home becomes the dream of memory, and the definition of home changes. Home for me was seven months in a pup tent on the packed dust of the Iranian border, Al Kut, and Babylon. Then I came home to America. Then I left home, and home was a concrete dog kennel in Ramadi that we bleached and put cots in, a shelter from mortars, rockets, and snipers. Then I came home again. Some veterans can’t comprehend home anymore. They have been trained that survival is their own responsibility, that they must keep their distance, ask for nothing, expect nothing. Kept in war too long, they are lost in their own homeland.
It didn’t used to be called the military. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, it was simply called “the service.” It was assumed that you would spend some of your youth in the service of your country. Times have changed and now few serve. What has not changed are our veterans who, for their own reasons, still serve—and who, afterward, are forever bound to their flag and their people. Any nation is too immense and austere to articulate the emotional debt it owes to the service members it sends away and the families who must watch them go. The fallen veteran will be carried to the grave under our flag, and that flag will be presented to the family, as if it were equivalent to the life of one citizen. Over the past decade, 4,421 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen were killed in Iraq. They are home now as well.
There are no more Americans patrolling, armed and foreign, through Iraqi streets. Iraq is truly free and will bear the consequences of freedom. We withdraw leaving our apologies and expecting little gratitude. It will take a generation to see what becomes of the people we have come to know as friends and enemies. We have made an impression on Iraq, and Iraq has traveled back with us in dust and remembrance. I know what the Tigris looks like at dawn and the Euphrates at dusk. I know the scent of flatbread cooked in a clay oven. I know how to say “my friend,” and “Halt or I’ll shoot” in Arabic. I know these things because I was there. These long uncertain years of occupation turned a small country we couldn’t find on a map into a household name we won’t soon forget: the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, a land thought to be the location of Eden, Iraq.
This week the quiet professionals who stood at our gates and went forth in America’s name are coming back to live with us again. I understand what our veterans have done—and I am grateful. Welcome home.