Ten years ago, on the night Baghdad was bombed, I was in Kenya, swimming in a river that is known for its crocodiles. The moon was nearly full, or just beginning to empty and the gray light made my skin luminescent as soapstone. The rains had not yet come to the Samburu district, to the unplaced spot on a map where I sat in the still warm shallows. The dry season kept the crocodiles from the river—the water not deep enough to hide in.
The rough and rocky landscape, painted silver and dark with the moonlight, looked like what I wish the moon were like. The warmth of the night, the soft rustle of the leaves—trees I do not know by name—all was lovely and strange. I remember thinking, with a place like this in the world, how can a war have begun?
I used to have a strange knack for being disconnected from my country, from my home, when the grounding events of my generation shake the earth. I am lucky, I am privileged beyond words to be so personally untouched, to have swum in moonlight while a war began, to have lived a life divorced from war in the decade since that night. You expect the wars, attacks, storms, all of it to ripple across the air like a shaken sheet of tin, cracking and reverberating like masquerading thunder, and shattering everything in the world. In part, of course, there are shocks and changes, but not as constantly obvious as you expect. As the wars go on and we are not required to sacrifice a thing—instead encouraged to consume to keep America strong—that we are at war becomes as distant a thought as men golfing on the moon.
We carried a crank radio on the trip through Samburu, part of a college study abroad program. I’d heard the BBC announce the bombing of Baghdad before I went to the river. We’d all listened closely for days, chewing our lips and silently wondering if war was coming, hearing the hours and days tick by until our President declared war, declared bombs to be dropped on innocent and bloody-handed alike. There were twenty-seven of us American students, all listening to the news of our country while we might as well have been on the moon. It was strange. The boy whose brother was in the Marines, the girl with four brothers and dreaded the ghost of the draft, they may have felt it more than others, this tension. But, during the day and away from the clipped voices and static of the news, we were largely, contentedly unaware. There were elephants to be seen, villages and farms to visit, camp to make and strike, card games to play while the trucks rolled through the acacias and rocks. Safari is Swahili for wander, and we did this blissfully.
But then, every night after dinner, the voices came spackling through the airwaves and announcing that this was real, bombs were dropped and the war in Iraq was on. It has never made moral sense to me why this happened, how this was allowed to happen.
They say that there is no part of history more distant than the recent past. My history lessons ended with Nagasaki, barely touching the wars in Korea or Vietnam or Iran or Kuwait, the bombings and skirmishes and occupations elsewhere. I suppose my teachers thought, because this happened in their lifetimes, their adulthoods, this was not history.
Thus we are disconnected from the grounding events of our present.
I used to think that war was more like chess, that soldiers lined up and faced off, and whoever had the most dead lost the war. That the bodies would be counted, and the battle could be quick and organized. I was five or six, thinking this. But the idea of tallying the dead, of killing people at all to solve a fight, didn’t make sense.
Before coming on safari, we’d toured the slums of Nairobi. I’d never seen poverty before, seen the costs and underpinnings of modern Western life. Houses are made from cardboard, from cinderblocks salvaged from other rubble, from sticks and paint cans, hammered flat to be shingles.
And then there are the children of downtown Nairobi. They huff bottles of carpet glue, high beyond hunger.
I see war as a vehicle for multiplying such sights across every place it touches. A bomb lands, goes askew and kills civilians. Men, women, children, babies and grandparents, their loved one lost to violence. Grief, in a place where the air thunders with anticipation of death, can lead nowhere good. Children with lost parents will have to go somewhere, homes and businesses destroyed and neighborhoods unsafe, all this foments poverty, desperation, and most unjust of all, the strain of living with constant terror. I will take expensive oil and the loss of America’s global dominance, gladly, as the price of stopping all of this sadness.
Several years ago now, when the wars were no longer a new shock to be washed away in moonlight, I walked across a college campus where thousands of tiny white flags stood witness for the civilians who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than an acre of the campus was a sea of these white flags. I could not count them, still cannot absorb the number of lives they represented. Each one of those flags had a mother and a father, was a child once and should have grown old.
For a while, I drove a back road from my home in New Hampshire to the grocery store because it brought me past a little white clapboard house. The house had black trim around the windows, a mansard roof like a storybook, and a growing tally of Iraqi dead posted on the front door, visible from the road. The number swelled every week. I love the line of the arm I never saw, drawing the new number on the door, refusing to forget the price we do not pay.
Sitting in the Kenyan river, I watched the moon rise up. The friends I was with laughed and we made crocodiles noises. It seems impossible that this same moonlight glanced down on the new rubble and wounds of Baghdad, fought through the dust and smoke. The radio news rang in my ears and I felt divorced from my passport, from the flag I pledged allegiance to for so many years. I wished I belonged to the peace of this landscape, but knew that I did not. By birth, I will always bear some of the responsibility for what was done, what is done, daily, without my blessing or say-so, but in my name.
Every year in March, they broadcast the years that this war has gone on. Today, it is ten, and although the military operations in Iraq have officially ceased, I would not say this war is over, or that anyone has won. The number, a full decade while I have done nothing, makes me cringe, how a war has gone on, revolutions have reverberated out like ripples in a river, and I’ve barely noticed. I think of the white flags across the green grass, the squeal and smell the ink of a thick marker adding up the civilian dead on a back road door. I think of the moon that night ten years ago, rising in the violet grey sky, in the tear between happiness and regret, and I can begin to believe that other ways of being are possible.