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(Reprinted from The New York Times, November 16, 2003)


The War Within

By David C. Botti

Early one morning last July, my rifle company boarded a convoy of trucks leaving Nasiriyah, an Iraqi city 180 miles south of Baghdad, bound for Kuwait. After tossing my pack onto a truck, I looked back at members of the Carabinieri, Italy's military police force, who were staying. They were made groggy and disgruntled by the early hour, and about to assume watch over the building we had shared for the past month.

Botti
Eromdiks
David Botti ’01
Last Wednesday, I turned on the morning news and saw that that same building had become a charred skeleton. It was all chaos and smoke after a car or truck bomb exploded directly beneath the window where I had once slept. I listened to the grisly numbers: the dead, the missing, the wounded, Iraqis and Italians. But there were no faces, no names. I had no way of knowing who among them I may have known. I could only imagine that everyone I had known there had become a casualty. I was at a remove, trying to resume my life in New York.

The August night I returned to the city from Iraq, I found myself drunk in the bathroom of an East Village bar. As I steadied the wall, I wondered how this skin of mine, tanned brown from the Iraqi sun, could now soak up the atmosphere of a good, seedy city bar. Wondered how the people in line behind me could enjoy the night while their peers still slept with rifles, halfway around the world, where I had been just the week before.

I wandered back to my friends, and drifted out of the conversation as soon as I sat down. It was easy to leave the city once more, relive the past four months in the time it took for the next round to arrive. No one spoke to me. Perhaps my silence betrayed my thoughts; I was glad to be left alone. But at that moment I was not having flashbacks, or letting alcohol numb grief and pain. There was no nervous tick or trembling hands. My thoughts, my reverie, lay with the people I had known in Iraq, the soldiers and citizens still dealing with the violent reality.

As the fighting unexpectedly intensifies in Iraq, as the American body count rises, each headline strikes deeper, and I can still see it, still feel it: walking through a foreign city, looking to the rooftops, the windows, in alleys, behind me, in front, to the sides. One person thanks you for freedom, and the next stares through you as if you are already a ghost.

It is a forceful process, ingesting the news and carrying it with me through the day. There are moments when I want the rifle back in my hand, so I can return to Iraq and remain there, until the war ends in a solid conclusion. There is still a reluctance to forget my initial, unwavering idealism that leaving Iraq meant that things were improving, and that others would soon be following me home.

But sometimes, it's New York that feels like a foreign city. One night, in another bar, I read a note posted by the staff above the urinal that ridiculed the city's smoking ban and urged patrons to send Mayor Bloomberg hate mail in an attempt to change the law.

 
  I am not ashamed of my service, but am conscious that my past might overshadow what I want to accomplish.
 

This was the city I had returned to: outspoken and opinionated, the center of freethinking. I want the inspiration and nurturing that New York can give young writers. I am not ashamed of my service, but am conscious that my past might overshadow what I want to accomplish. As my friends and I headed home from that Village bar last August, I allowed myself respite from the guilt of being safe and happy. I watched the blocks pass with the hopeful feeling that soon the city would cease to feel new again.

I First truly experienced New York in spring 2002, as one of those servicemen you might have seen flooding Times Square during Fleet Week: drunk and proud and hungry for urban excess. We arrived as a collection of reserve marines headquartered in Albany and Long Island, already mobilized four months in response to the World Trade Center attacks. Sept. 11 threw us into the stream of world events, and we deployed to Camp Lejeune, N.C., at the ready as our country faced uncertain times.

Three years before, I had been a college sophomore in upstate New York, discontented with the comfortable routine of academic life. An impromptu visit to the Marine recruiter during winter break seemed to provide a sadistic cure. I snuck out of the house and signed the papers that would fill my next two summers up with boot camp and infantry training, bringing me into the Corps.

After graduating from Skidmore, I moved home to Waltham, Mass., near Boston, and continued to train with my rifle company in Albany. We never gave a thought to the possibility of mobilizing. But those two weeks in New York in 2002 showed us how different life had become.

There were free subway rides and photographs with babies, women asking us questions about our ribbons. We were called heroes, even though this was New York and the fighting was then in Afghanistan. A police officer brought a group of us past the line of visitors at ground zero, onto the crowded viewing platform. I leaned against the wooden railing, feeling my uniform pulse at the moment. At the wall of names, I found a family friend and wanted to cry—but I remembered the uniform and held it in.


  At the wall of names, I found a family friend and wanted to cry—but I remembered the uniform and held it in.
 

Fleet Week ended before I was ready to leave. I watched the skyline grow smaller above New York Harbor, and knew I needed to return when the state of the world allowed.

Seven months later my reserve unit was sent home. There was an epic apartment hunt, and half my savings depleted by real estate fees, before the rental truck finally sat packed full in my parents' driveway. My father and mother stood on the front steps in the cold night air, arms folded, looking on in brooding acceptance.

In the tradition of my grandfather moving into Mulberry Street by way of Ellis Island a century earlier, I had succumbed to the storied pull of the great city. I wanted to live in the center of progress, to write and join the masses of starving artists, hoping this rite of passage would one day lead to better things.

I answered the phone that night before I left home. A marine from my platoon reported that rumors were circulating among the ranks about possible reactivation and deployment to Southwest Asia. There was a choice to make, but my bedroom was empty, and I had rented a truck. I couldn't stay.

The new apartment, in Riverdale in the Bronx, was a rare find, spacious and nestled between the safety of two nursing homes and a highway. I had roommates, my friends were nearby, and the subway system began to make sense. I bought bookcases, pots and pans, towels and lamps, hoping that the more settled I became, the more I could ward off my fate unfolding in the headlines. I found a job to pay the rent, and enrolled in an N.Y.U. fiction-writing workshop.

With our apartment still in boxes and the refrigerator filled with takeout, my roommates and I prepared to celebrate our first weekend in the city. I could do nothing but acquiesce when I was suddenly given orders to spend that weekend getting the first in a series of anthrax shots.

After just one month of city living, the call to mobilize came. I was given the necessary information. And in an even tone, I replied that I understood, closing my eyes in my cubicle to contemplate the new phase of life I was entering. Word traveled quickly through the office that day. Friends and strangers approached me with words of encouragement and admiration. I left the office hours later, carrying a small flag signed by my co-workers that I would carry in the top flap of my pack throughout my deployment.

The city was beautiful my last night on its streets, the chill making me appreciate the inviting warmth in a corner cafe or the familiar rock of a heated subway car. I headed south on Park Avenue, February numbing my hand as I held the cellphone to my ear. There was a marathon of calls through chattering teeth. Friends and family were confused, wanted to know more than I knew myself. Then I found a park bench, and sat alone for the first time since the news came. I tried to remember everything I could, collecting memories for the times ahead.


  I wondered whether people could see a difference between soldier and politician.
 

As I stood and walked on, I saw the words "Stop Bush" spray-painted on a mailbox. Before I could reflect on this, I saw the same words again, scratched onto a beat-up basement door. For the first time, I felt the sting of the war's controversy.

I wondered whether people could see a difference between soldier and politician. I sought to find a stranger on the street and explain that I just wanted for my friends and I to come home alive, that I didn't care about politics. I was like everyone else, a kid who had come to New York seeking something better. I had everything in common with them. And nothing.

I watched the day end, the people returning home or preparing for a night out. When it got late, I headed home, wishing I could line up every person in the city, shake their hands, say, "Goodbye, I've had a good time, maybe I can come back again some day." I spent the bus ride home that night consoling my mother by cellphone. Telling her lies as I tried to persuade her they would never send a reserve infantry company into Iraq: we would only be asked to guard the supply lines throughout Kuwait. She didn't believe me, but pretended to.

After I hung up, a woman sitting in front of me turned and said she had heard the whole conversation. She promised to pray for me.

I spent my first night in country one month later, packed into the barracks of a defeated Iraqi Army division on the outskirts of Nasiriyah. I woke the next morning to the harsh sun.

In the next room I found myself facing a mural of the World Trade Center, rising over marines sleeping on their packs and in crude cots. The mural had been painted on a weathered wall by a marine passing through, soaring amid Iraqi propaganda images of tanks and barbed wire and fists thrust through cracked stars and stripes. Beneath the towers, a simple strip of blue brought to mind the cobblestones of South Street Seaport.

Often, we heard mention of New York, even in the Iraqi desert, from the occasional newspaper thrown by a passing convoy, its precious pages whipping in the desert wind, or from the coveys of reporters passing through in SUVs stuffed with trendy camping gear. They offered outrageous rumors of a smoking ban and subway fare hikes.

One reporter set out to interview another marine from New York, placing him where the camera would catch a dramatic view of the Euphrates River. The reporter asked what the difference was between New York and Iraq. The marine paused and looked at the reporter in disbelief, then smiled: "The sand."


  My service in Iraq felt like a lifetime, and an instant. There were moments I was scared; times when I thought myself lucky to live the experience or felt anger for having to stay in such a place.
 

Early on, I began interviewing the 30 members of my platoon, trying to fill my journal with thoughts other than my own. Among questions about protesters and the divided opinion on the war, I asked whether they had thought about Sept. 11 since arriving in Iraq. "Every day," one marine said, replying fast, as if he had wanted to answer the question before even hearing it. "I'm trying to relate it to here. I want people I know living in New York City to live, and not have to worry about things."

My service in Iraq felt like a lifetime, and an instant. There were moments I was scared; times when I thought myself lucky to live the experience or felt anger for having to stay in such a place. In the end, my battalion flew home safe, with no casualties and 15 months of active duty served since 9/11, including four months in Iraq.

Days after I returned to New York in August, I found a live bat in my toilet. The next afternoon came the blackout. The routine of daily living consumed me before I could fully comprehend where I was. When I looked at the city during those early days back, it was often through the eyes of the Iraqis I had known, who spoke of New York with mythic reverence. Our 21-year-old interpreter, who had taken to wearing a baseball cap backward, recited youthful dreams of visits to America, to New York, where he could leave behind the life in a country he despised.

First, it was simple things: How could a building rise so high? How could women wear those clothes? How could I survive there? One month's rent for my apartment would buy the dowry of his girlfriend, who had talked about leaving him if the price could not be met.

I was eager to become anonymous again, to settle into the great glory of a mundane life. At the same time I was curious to see how New York was reacting to the war. I sought some kind of acknowledgement of the suffering I had seen, some kind of change or traces of a collective mourning. The only real evidence of the war's impact seemed to be the scrolling marquees in Times Square, still counting the casualties and the violent incidents.

New York, even with its tradition of freethinking and global awareness, has a blurry sense of life beyond its gravitational pull. Set foot onto the eternal pavement, watch buildings close out the sky, and the pace of the city draws you in. It took time to realize that within the city's impersonal pulse, most people wanted to understand what Iraq was like, without the mediation of the press and government. Talking to me, one person said, was the closest he could get to having his own boots planted in the desert.


  Everything changed last Wednesday. The guilty sense of complacency that I had adopted, dissolved in a rush of vivid memories spurred by the destruction of the building where I had lived.
 

The first time someone asked, "How was it?" I froze. I mumbled what he might have wanted to hear, themes he could relate to from the news reports: insane heat, unrest, whatever would make him nod and end the inquiry. But it never seemed right to discuss these things at a party or around the office water cooler in between arguments over the pennant race.

Others went further: Did I ever think I was going to die? Was I emotionally scarred? And I could see in their eyes, the question that burned brightest. Had I killed anyone?

At first I was disgusted. But after numbing myself to the routine questions, I understood that Americans had lived more closely with this war than with any before.

Everything changed last Wednesday. The guilty sense of complacency that I had adopted, dissolved in a rush of vivid memories spurred by the destruction of the building where I had lived.

I kept thinking about how we cringed at the Italians wandering about the building in nothing but Speedos, or how we begged for leftovers from their boiling vats of fresh pasta. To the rest of the world, the building is yet another symbol of terrorism; it will disappear from the headlines as quick as it arrived.

For the platoon it had been a home and a refuge. When the Italians arrived, it became a learning experience; two groups of young men with nothing in common but the will of their governments.

I've spent the three months since I returned home hoping that a day like last Wednesday would never come. But it did. And now life in New York seems more foreign to me than it ever has before.


David C. Botti, a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve, served four months in Iraq earlier this year.




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