By Jonathan Baxter
I knew I would come back to her, eventually.
The Etihad flight delivered me into Baghdad International Airport, and I was back home. When I left Iraq on my last military deployment there in 2009, I had the feeling it was only temporary, and I’d eventually wind my way back to the Land of Two Rivers.
It was weird this time, entering the country three years later as a civilian. I managed to get through customs and collect my bags without too much incident. A private security team was waiting to drive me from the airport to the US Embassy, where I’d start my new job as a member of the Embassy’s static security element.
We pulled out of the airport, and I blinked as we drove past what had been the U.S. Victory and Slayer base complexes during the American occupation. Three years earlier, the land outside the airport had been a sprawling metropolis of CHU (containerized housing unit) trailers. Street after street of the white boxes had run amid a labyrinth of concrete T-wall barriers and earth-filled Hesco fences. The American bases had run up to and around the former pleasure palaces of the Baath party members whose opulent mansions had overlooked beautiful man-made lakes.
“They drained the lakes too,” I observed, as we made our way out of the airport’s perimeter. The concrete barriers remained, but all else was a wasteland. Acres of weeds stretched up to the base of “Commo Hill,” the tiny promontory, now empty, which had once been covered by all the antennae from the surrounding bases. Funny how much a place could change in three years.
There had also been many changes in my life since my last trip to Iraq. I’d done two trips to Afghanistan with the military and then separated in 2011 to seek my fortune in the “real world.” That hadn’t really panned out as I expected. I quickly found out that being a former NCO with the 75th Ranger Regiment didn’t make me a shoe-in for premium jobs as I imagined it would. It did open doors in the private security contracting community, however, and here I was heading back to the world I’d left behind, however briefly.
I didn’t know much about security contracting going in. I’d seen the news footage of the tattooed, steroided guys with M4s and cargo pants, and I fancied I was embarking on some grand adventure with some elite, paramilitary outfit. I was rapidly shown the error of my thinking.
The equipment I was issued was old and mismatched. My coworkers were a mixed bag of experience and skill sets. Some were seasoned combat vets; others were ex-cops with no military backgrounds. Our supervisors, the Department of State Regional Security Officers, were like second lieutenants in the military…but not as squared away and without the military experience.
The job was about as high-speed as everything else. We were on standby to launch in case the Embassy got attacked. So, we did essentially nothing‑and eight to twelve-hour shifts of it, at that. Occasionally, our RSO superiors would decide they needed some positive bullet points for their end-of-tour evaluations, so they would concoct circus-style drills for us to perform.
The days dripped by like water drops from cave stalactites. We surfed the internet for hours in our ready room. We lifted weights. Car bombs detonated in the city outside our walls. I read Heart of Darkness and found some resonance in the story of an expat making an interior journey in a savage, absurd world. We conducted silly drills for the benefit of the RSOs. The civil war raged in neighboring Syria. We got “spun-up” to break up a fight in the Embassy bar between two women. I re-read Heart of Darkness.
I have never done time in prison, but I imagine it to be a similar experience in some aspects. Spending months at a time behind heavily fortified walls with no view of the outside world and no purposeful task to focus the mind. I’d spent months at forward operating bases overseas while in the military, but we got to interrupt the monotony by rolling out on missions almost every night. Here, there were no such diversions from the daily routine of chow, duty shift, chow, gym, chow, sleep.
The other difference between this job and my time in the military was that I was no longer special. I certainly didn’t feel elite anymore, as I walked around in the contractor “duty uniform” of beige flightsuit with dropleg holster. I looked like a tactical Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters. More importantly, I wasn’t part of something bigger than myself, as I’d been in the military. The brotherhood that was the cornerstone of my military service was not there. I was very much alone this time, exiled from the rest of my family and friends in the States, trying to sustain a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend, and working a mindless job which gave me too much time to think.
Somewhere in there, I started writing again. I’d dabbled in writing since my third deployment in the military. Poetry and poem writing were certainly not pastimes I’d advertised among my fellow Rangers…for obvious reasons. Yet, I have always felt poetry to be the most immediate of the literary forms. It was a vehicle in which I articulated some of the more nuanced emotions I experienced overseas. I memorialized a friend’s death in “Death of a Ranger.” I wrote about the timelessness of Iraq in “Back to Babylon.” I wrote a surreal conversation with Death in “The Jester Skull.”
Now, on this new job, with nothing but time and memories on my hands, the words started flowing. I wrote the first of several meditations on Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. Unlike the Greek and Roman gods, who represented only one of those attributes, she embodied both of those opposing characteristics. Love and war. Sex and violence. She was the apotheosis as well as the eroticization of combat. In my mind, she became everything I missed about being in the military. The night raids. The helicopters. The electric rings that formed around the rotor blades. The way fields and villages looked under night vision. The smells of cooking oil and roasted lamb. The sound of metal gates being eased open slowly. The rhythmic barking of stray dogs while the assault squad quietly emplaced the breaching charge. The calm before the storm.
I wrote to make some meaning of the time I was losing. I’d never get back the hours of my life I wasted on that stupid contract. The hours I spent sitting in a ready room or driving aimlessly around the Embassy compound. The long distance arguments with my girlfriend over Skype. The year and half of my life I spent on that gig until I got picked up for a better contract. I wrote so it wasn’t a complete waste.
I wrote about the car bombs going off in the city outside. I wrote about the few glimpses of the city I could glimpse beyond our concrete walls. I wrote about the ferris wheel outside our compound and how it looked at night. I wrote about the sculpted archway of scimitars I saw from the roof of one of the Embassy apartments. I wrote about the way the city lights reflected off the Tigris River and the way the plumes of flame ascended from a distant oil refinery at night. I wrote about my insomnia and the difficulty of sleeping during the day after spending a night duty shift. I wrote about boredom. I wrote about loneliness. I wrote to give my life a meaning that it did not have at the time.
I eventually left that contract and Iraq. I watched in the news as ISIS launched their blitzkrieg attack and overran whole parts of the country. I thought about the years America spent in that country and the blood, sweat and tears that had been poured into those deserts. I thought about the years I spent in that country. I thought about the wasteland of weeds by Baghdad International Airport. In my mind, I saw the faded graffiti on the T-wall barriers, the fading emblems of the 101st, the 82nd, the 10th Mountain Division, the Americans who had come, done their time, and gone home—many in flag-draped boxes.
Violence still rages in the Land of Two Rivers, as it has for millennia. The occupiers come and go—Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, British, Americans. The land endures. The Tigris and Euphrates still flow to the sea. Ishtar still bides over land where they once worshipped her. There are those of us who keep the faith still.
Our foreign policy makers struggle to find a solution to validate the time we spent there. For me, I wrote to try to find a meaning from my time there. If I couldn’t find a meaning, I’d make one. I hope this generation of veterans will continue coming forward with artwork from their experiences. I think that’s the closest we’ll come to find meaning or sense or beauty from that land.
“Jonathan Baxter” spent six years in the U.S. Army with the entirety of his service with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He continues to deploy overseas as a private security contractor. His poetry anthology, The Ghosts of Babylon, was recently published by Blackside Publishing and is available on Amazon.