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thedrifter
01-22-08, 07:14 AM
What It Feels Like In Kabul, Ramadi

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008; C01


When David J. Morris returned to Ramadi in October, he was mobbed by Iraqis. But this time they weren't trying to kill him, they were trying to sell him bars of Dove soap.

Street vendors in Ramadi? It blew his mind. For years, Ramadi vied with Fallujah as the toughest, deadliest hellhole in Iraq and now, Morris writes in a brilliant piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review, you can walk the streets like a tourist, fearing only "the platoons of vendors assaulting you."

Morris, a Marine veteran now working as a journalist and college teacher, first visited Ramadi in the summer of 2006. "Back then," he writes, "you couldn't be seen on the street without snipers opening up on you from the labyrinth of half-rubbled buildings that made up the city, you couldn't breathe without sucking down somebody else's fear; the days were hot and dirty, the nights a looping soundtrack of AK fire and mortar rounds."

What happened in the past year is that Ramadi's sheiks, disgusted by the brutality of the al-Qaeda insurgents, decided to ally themselves with the Americans and take Ramadi back. The Bush administration and its supporters tout the turnaround of Ramadi as proof that the "surge" is working. Antiwar critics wonder how long the sheiks will remain friendly. Morris isn't interested in arguing either position. What he's trying to do -- and he succeeds beautifully -- is capture what it feels like to be there, especially for his guys, the Marines.

"My ride into the city was a resupply convoy, and we spent the morning delivering hot chow to outposts scattered throughout the city," he writes. "As we rolled, the Marines hit me up with tales of old Ramadi, stories of past firefights. . . . I didn't even have to ask; they just started in as if they were giving me the Welcome Aboard tour. 'You shoulda been here last year, sir. We killed so many dudes it wasn't even funny.'"

Morris finds the Marines a little freaked out about the new, peaceful town. Sure, they're happy that fewer people are trying to kill them, but some of them grumble about "renting your allies," as one captain puts it. And some of them miss the excitement of the old Ramadi:

"You'd meet guys all the time who after a few weeks of the newfound rest and no-action of Ramadi 2007 wanted a taste of the old horror and doom again, the mingling of dread and danger that made them somebody different, part of something big, not just some schlub from the boroughs. They may not have believed in the war, but they believed in Ramadi. This was where they left their youth behind."

Morris has a great ear for the way American fighting men talk -- the obscene, comic, macho poetry that he calls "grunt wisdom" and "timeless dogface banter." I wish I could quote more of it, but it's not quite the same with the expletives deleted. Morris's prose reminds me of "Dispatches," Michael Herr's book on Vietnam, and that's about the highest praise anybody can give to a piece of war reporting.

Morris's essay is part of a package of four articles about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other three are nearly as good. In a piece called "All the Country Will Be Shaking," freelance journalist J. Malcolm Garcia returns to Afghanistan, which he'd covered in 2004. He finds that "the optimism that first greeted the U.S.-led military coalition six years ago" has evaporated, replaced by cynicism and anger.

Kabul is crawling with all varieties of foreign aid workers, Garcia writes, but they don't seem to aid many Afghans. "Daily, Afghans thread their way through a traffic jam of abbreviations emblazoned across Land Rovers: UN, UNESCO, UNDP, ACF, MACA. No reliable figures exist on the overhead of the 350 Kabul-based aid agencies, but indirect signs -- air-conditioned Land Rovers, Nissan Pathfinders, Toyota Land Cruisers, and luxurious residences -- suggest a high figure. . . . Despite these few showy trappings of prosperity, most of Afghanistan still lies in ruins."

Garcia travels to one of the gated communities where foreigners live in Kabul and dines in a restaurant with the decidedly non-Afghan name of Red Hot 'n' Sizzlin'. He describes the scene: "Expats crowd a long rectangular table and order beer and drinks. The green walls and red-brick archways resound with their laughter. . . . Behind them in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes beside the Land Cruisers, stand Afghan drivers wearing the traditional shalwar kameez. They will wait while their employers finish their dinner and drinks. Seen as potential terrorists, Afghans can't enter some restaurants, stores, whole sections of the city that are frequented by foreigners."

These articles by Morris and Garcia are the kind of long-form, first-person essays that convey the feel of a place in a way that newspaper stories seldom do. In this era of diminished attention spans, few magazines publish such pieces, but the Virginia Quarterly Review does so regularly.

The current issue of VQR also includes poems, literary essays, short stories and an eight-page comic by Chris Ware, author of the graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth." There's also a selection of the controversial Abu Ghraib paintings by the famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero, which you'll love if you're the kind of person who enjoys pictures of fat, naked men being tortured. I'm not, but, hey, you can't please everybody.

Over the last five years, Ted Genoways, VQR's editor, has taken a staid old literary magazine and transformed it, adding not only great journalism but also color photos, comics, cartoons, eye-popping graphics and anything else that strikes his fancy. In those years, VQR has been nominated for 10 National Magazine Awards and has won two. It deserves them. It's a great magazine. Check it out.

Ellie