One night earlier this fall, a string of detonations shook the walls of a company-sized U.S. Army outpost south of Baghdad. It was the middle of the night, but outside, behind a nearby palm grove, reports echoed and the horizon glowed. The sound and light show—courtesy, it turned out, of another American unit in the area firing illumination mortar rounds and other ordnance—didn't stir a single one of the dozens of soldiers sleeping in the back room. They slept as deeply as if they were in their beds at home.
Home, in fact, was where they were. This latest deployment, which has gone on for more than a year now, is the third in Iraq for Bravo Company, 2/14 Infantry. The company, which belongs to the Army's most deployed brigade (the 10th Mountain Division's Second Brigade Combat Team), patrolled Iraq last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that. I first encountered the brigade's officers here in 2004. Then in 2005. Then again in 2006. And now in 2007.
Gen. David Petraeus elicited a few chuckles when, testifying before Congress in September, he inadvertently referred to Iraq as "home." But in the constellation of American bases that loop around the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys and in the spectacle of young Americans knowing Iraqi neighborhoods as well as they know their own, there is evidence that Petraeus meant what he said.
In the months since I had last been to Bravo Company's patrol base, it had expanded and its comforts multiplied. In June, a suicide bomber tried, unsuccessfully, to drive a truck packed with 14,000 pounds of explosives through the front door. Shortly after, engineers ringed the house with concrete blast walls, cleared a landing zone inside the perimeter, and even moved the road that passed by the front gate.
The house had changed; its inhabitants never seem to. Sgt. Donald Thompson, a lanky 28-year-old from Florida, has served in Iraq every year since 2003. Nor, in this all-volunteer and largely self-contained force, does this make him all that unusual. During a foot patrol of a nearby orchard, Thompson stepped on a pressure-plate mine, and his left leg was nearly sheared off. After five months of recuperation in a burn ward, he volunteered to return to Iraq. There was, he suggested, a sort of gravitational pull at work. "I've been here when people were cheering us, when they're blowing us up," Thompson said. "I live this place."
Indeed, Bravo Company had by now more or less melted into the landscape, becoming in effect the most powerful of the area's tribes. This much was evident at a gathering of 20 local elders, where a young captain named Palmer Phillips cajoled and corralled sheiks three times his age. "Hey," Phillips admonished the feuding tribal leaders, "There can't be anymore of this Dulaimi versus Assawi action going on." Over the years, I've watched the same scene unfold at mosques and homes in western and southern Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, and Tal Afar. Absent a functioning government, the U.S Army administers nearly every visible facet of the state, above all the role of honest broker.
Not unlike the Americans in Vietnam and in the Philippines a century ago, the U.S. Army in Iraq has even acquired the flavor of its surroundings. This is not the army that resides in the city-states otherwise known as forward operating bases, with their Pizza Huts, traffic cops, and morgues. Officers in the Grand Army of the Tigris, as one of its senior officers calls the American force, dine with local elders at "goat grabs," greet them with "man-kisses," and routinely punctuate their own conversations with the casual " insha'allah." The vernacular has even followed the Army home: In the halls of the Pentagon, where nearly every Army officer has served at least two tours in Iraq, officers ask whether this or that official has "wasta"—Iraqi shorthand for "influence" or "pull," though with a slightly more corrupt tinge.