"Today is Better than Tomorrow": A British Cemetery Revisited Ten Years After Serving in the Iraq War
Actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer Benjamin Busch follows up on last week's post about discovering a WWI Cemetery in Iraq. Here, Busch speaks about his return to Iraq in 2013 as a journalist. He discovers the British WWI cemetery he visited and cared for ten years earlier has been destroyed. Busch was a Marine who led a Light Armored Reconnaissance unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and operated around the city of Kut.This excerpt, from his essay "Today is Better Than Tomorrow," that appeared in Harper's Magazine October 2014, It is reprinted here by permission. All photographs by the author.
My photographs have been kept in an order absent of chronology: a blindfolded skull, a pile of boots, an English gravestone, a child waving. I never labeled them, just expected I would remember like everyone does. Seven months of circumstantial evidence. Military mobile exchanges only sold 400-speed film, meant to shoot subjects in lower light, so the reduced resolution is noticeable when the pictures are enlarged, their definition becoming increasingly granular, as if composed of pressed dust. The imperfection of vision is at work, the flickering of lines, the involuntary squint to identify, exactly, what you're seeing, the desert going from vast and static to pulsing and immediate, like memory does.
Kut was familiar but disorienting, the streets swollen with shoppers and thousands of pilgrims. The city made the sounds of collision: sharp honks, truck engines, salesmen calling out, and the constant chirp of police whistles. Goats ate the stiff dead grass in the median. The center of town looked battered.
We stopped in at the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate office. All the government furniture was foreign-made, wood glossy with thick lacquer chipping at the edges. Everyone smoked. They couldn't believe I came by cab from Baghdad with nothing but an unarmed interpreter. A man shook my hand and smiled. He said they have a proverb: "You enter the house from the door, not by the window." The last American journalist anyone can remember came here three years ago in an armored convoy and only stayed for an hour. The manager said, "There is not enough violence for Kut to be news. You look for stories and the city doesn't exist." Another added, "I would rather not exist than make the news here."
A man named Nassir took us to see a cemetery built by the British for the men lost in the battle for Kut during the First World War, its headstones, like its soldiers, brought from overseas. It was the only place in the region that commemorated the people most responsible for Iraq's creation.
Nassir drove in rushes and jolts, stabbing in between cars, everyone around him doing the same, warning beeps constant, lanes filled like blood vessels, everything somehow pumping through. Traffic intensified as we pushed into the marketplace, the streets channeling a reckless braid of pedestrians, motorcycles, trucks, carts, and cabs.
"It's amazing the roads aren't filled with car accidents," I said. "I can't believe no one gets hit here."
Khalil interpreted and Nassir laughed. He had a joyful face.
"Happens," he said, smiling.
He'd been assigned as our official escort for the next eight days in the province and had been cheerful since we arrived. Tomorrow we would hear that he hit a young boy on his way to pick us up, and a cousin was sent with another car to drive us in his place. The child died in the hospital, and we wouldn't see Nassir again as his life became suspended between tribal atonement and court. But today he was happy to be on a journey with the only American in Wasit.
We went to the souk, which was easily three times the size it had been in 2003. Even then the market had been a kind of neutral space, uninterrupted by invasion or regime, the stalls passed from generation to generation. Trade was conducted in dinar notes stamped with Saddam's victorious image or in dollars stamped with our own Founding Fathers. Under Saddam, an Iraqi soldier made the equivalent of $120 a year. By 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority desperately rehired them at a salary of $400 a month. There was immediate, irreversible inflation. Corruption in the military bloomed as soon as wages did. An Iraqi soldier makes $1,000 a month now.
When I first walked through the market in 2003, the concrete pillars in the central square were covered with xeroxed posters of the people "disappeared" by the regime. A week later, near the Iranian border, we would watch as some of them were exhumed from the site of their execution.
Today we passed through groups of women in black, children emerging and retreating beneath their parade of robes, salesmen with handfuls of cash manning caverns of cloth, sandals, and spice. We arrived in the street where the Kut War Cemetery lay. There was a new fence in front, but the rear wall had been pushed down, exposing the site to the city. The concrete cross still stood, but it looked changed, some graffiti spray-painted on it, the U.S. Marine rededication plaque torn off. Children played on a worn dirt clearing where headstones had been, kicking a ball over the soldiers below, one of them digging on the surface with a little toy shovel. Phragmites reeds had overgrown the rest of the lot. The owner of a nearby shop said it had been used as dump but the Americans cleaned it, and for a while it had flowers and a guard. The guard went unpaid, he added, and "kids" took the headstones and sold them in the market. The cemetery was a dump again.
"Many groups have come to study the cemetery since 2003. The Americans built a new fence to replace the British one. Then the British built one to replace the American one. They all look for the missing stones, but they find nothing. They ask questions, take pictures, and leave. Just like you." Just like me.
Outside Iraq, Kut is a city remembered only as a military disaster. The British had marched a colonial Indian division up the Tigris toward Baghdad but were stopped by the Turks and their Arab allies at Ctesiphon and sent into a retreat that ended here. For five months they were trapped by siege, unable to resupply or escape, pounded by Turkish artillery, finally surrendering at a loss of 12,000 men. Only 420 have graves here; the rest are still buried somewhere underneath the city. I waded into the dense stand of reeds and found a few toppled headstones still largely intact.
SOMERSET LIGHT INFANTRY
24TH NOVEMBER 1915, AGE 20
LORD REMEMBER ME
WHEN THOU COMETH
INTO THY KINGDOM
The reeds stood ten feet tall and were plumed with clouds of seeds. I watched them sway above me while crouched by a grave in their shade, a cat passing by using the line of fallen stones as a path. It was my birthday, and I thought of all these soldiers, their entire lives marked by nothing but the day they died and now marked by nothing at all. I emerged coated with dust, my hair downy with silky seeds. Khalil had been pacing the perimeter, calling to me every few minutes as if I were lost in the wilderness.
Outside the gate, I noticed some bright fragments tamped into the gutter and recognized the elegant carving of a wreath in marble, the crest of a gravestone sunk into gray drain water. Men watched as I took a photograph. They followed as I went up an alley and found an entire headstone facedown in concrete used as a step into a gated courtyard. It showed no sign of damage or wear, dug up unbroken precisely for this purpose and moved a mere fifty feet from its grave. Another photograph and Khalil suggested we hurry. A small crowd was gathering. As we left I found more stacked as a stoop in front of a shop. Then, embedded in the street itself were five stones, carts rattling over them, a carved cross facing up. I kicked aside trash and drew attention from nearby vendors who wondered why I was so interested in the pavement.
In contrast to the forlorn British cemetery, the Ottoman memorial is proudly guarded by an Iraqi Arab paid by the Turkish Embassy. He is the fourth in an unbroken line since his great-grandfather dug the graves. He greeted me with his young son beside him, the next guard. Polished plaques on the gate say TURKISH MARTYRS, 1914–1917 in Turkish on one side and Arabic on the other. The white concrete markers inside bear no names, just the raised Turkish star and crescent, dabbed red with too much paint. These fifty Turkish soldiers and seven commanders are all that can be found, representatives of 10,000 lost here. I asked where the rest are buried and the guard swept his arm around the horizon. Iraqis are not interred in Kut. They are carried to the city-size cemeteries in Najaf and Karbala. Only invaders are buried here. The caretaker showed me the visitor's log, and it is a list of foreigners, mostly Turks. I added my name. On our way back to the car Nassir bought diapers for his new baby. Today is better than tomorrow.
Benjamin Busch is an actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer. After graduation from Vassar College, where he majored in Studio Arts, he served 16 years as an infantry and light armored reconnaissance officer in the United States Marine Corps, deploying to Iraq in 2003 and again in 2005 where he was wounded in the battle for Ramadi. He is writer/director of the award winning films Sympathetic Details and BRIGHT and was an actor and military consultant on the HBO mini-series, Generation Kill.He also portrayed Officer Colicchio for three seasons in the HBO series The Wire.He has three traveling exhibitions of photography and a forthcoming book of selected images.He is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Dust to Dust (Ecco), winner of the Debut-litzer Prize, GLCA Award for Creative Nonfiction and Michigan Notable Book Award.His essays have arrived in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The Daily Beast and NPR's All Things Considered. His work has been featured in Best American Travel Writing, notable in Best American Essays and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award.He is the winner of the James Dickey and Laurence Goldstein Prizes for poetry and his poems have appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Five Points, The Florida Review, Epiphany, Oberon, Nimrod and Michigan Quarterly Review among others.He teaches independent writing workshops across the country as well as college, university and high school visiting writer events and participates in veteran programs such as Words After War, Theater of War and Talking Service.He teaches nonfiction in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Sierra Nevada College, Tahoe and lives on a farm in Michigan where he is a stonemason by day and an illustrator at night.