I’ve heard it said that grief is a journey. I don’t know if this is true, but I know what the destination of my own journey feels like. It feels like an endlessly spinning wheel, on which are seated all of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The wheel spins so quickly that their faces become indistinguishable from one another, until finally they merge into a blur of color and light—a single entity that has no beginning or end. This is not just death; it is also life: birth without the arrival. It is eternity.
I think of this wheel often, though it’s not a vision that I seek out, nor one that comforts me. It simply pops into my head at random times, without warning—whenever I walk down the street or meet someone new, whenever a song plays on the radio. The wheel exists in the realm of what we can imagine; it is not a physical space. Nor does it have anything to do with the afterlife, which some would describe as being an infinite expanse, where there are no boundaries between this world and the next. I’m not sure that heaven or hell exist—though if they do, they are probably just as we imagine them: an anatomical place, or a chemical state, to which we go and from which we return—but I do believe that those who die in war are transformed. They no longer fit into the world as it is; they become elementary particles, indivisible and eternal. Eventually they drift to wherever their loved ones reside, like scattered atoms. Perhaps that is what it means to live forever—to become one with the universe, to have the same thoughts over and over again by default, until time itself grows tired.
The soldiers whose deaths I’ve witnessed didn’t know war would kill them, just as no one who ends up at Auschwitz or Hiroshima knows that death awaits them. They believed they would come home, just as I believed I would return to the States after my first tour of duty. Maybe I was right maybe I should have never came back herebut if so, then all those who died before me were also mistaken.
The wheel spins so quickly that their faces become indistinguishable from one another, until finally they merge into a blur of color and light—a single entity that has no beginning or end.
When I asked my father if he believed in an afterlife, he said yes, but not like the ones we imagine. “I believe there is something out there,” he told me over the phone. “But I think it’s more of a feeling than a place, you know. More of a state of being—one that we feel when we lose someone close to us. The loss is so strong and unexpected that our brains can’t process it, so instead they convince us that the person who died is still alive. We can’t let ourselves believe that they’re gone, so we just pretend—we just act like they’re still here. I don’t know how else to explain it. Do you know what I mean?”
I told him that I knew exactly what he meant, then hung up the phone and went to have a beer.
After covering the war for several years, I quit my job in late 2012. I made this decision because I wanted to live, not because I was injured—not because anything had happened to me that forced me to leave. My last embed took place in July 2009, just before President Obama announced the surge—and as such, I was one of the last journalists to file stories under the old rules: three weeks in hell, and then home. Such a schedule is no longer possible today; security costs and the number of suicide bombings have made it impossible for reporters to go anywhere without an army at their side. Therefore, this article will be my last. I am no longer able to accomplish what my editors require of me, and even if it were possible for me to continue my career in journalism, they would not let me come back here.
My decision is strategic: Because I left once before, most people assume that the reason I’m no longer covering the war is because I don’t have the stomach for it. But they’re wrong; the truth is that I now possess more courage than ever before—not because my heart is hardened or because I am indifferent to suffering, but simply because I’m tired of witnessing what every Iraqi must endure on a daily basis. This nation is broken beyond repair, and what little hope it had for the future disappeared along with all of its ghosts.