Al Hillah, Iraq, 2003

The sun was setting, but that didn’t mean the heat was going anywhere. And Captain Byrnes hated the heat. He despised it more than just about anything he had encountered since leaving ship four months ago. And now that there were twenty others piled into the small room, it was even worse. But there, in that small cramped space, the officers of the 1st battalion, 4th Marines regiment were assembled: dusty green notebooks in hand, pencils ready for note-taking. 

They had done this a hundred times already in the past few months, sometimes in the steel belly of an AAV, or huddled around the battalion commander’s Humvee. Hopefully this stop was permanent, unlike Baghdad, the last one. There they had been only ten days before being ordered 60 kilometers south to Al Hillah, their current location, with the order to rebuild and govern. Fighting, taking a hill, taking a building, pounding the hell out of some underequipped Iraqi military unit—they knew how to do these things flawlessly. But this? Govern? Now what? They all felt the heavy burden of the task set before them slowly morphing into hopelessness.

“This is the Wild West. That’s how I see this place. Some of you have been out in town already. There’s food, people are walking around, shops are open. Life seems pretty normal, but that’s only because we can’t speak the language. That’s only because we’re not a part of the community. Believe me, there’s a lot going on under the surface. The minute things get out of hand, we’ll see that, and then there’ll be more trouble than we’re prepared to handle.”

The battalion commander, or “BC,” as everyone referred to him, was a tall, thin, lanky man with a deep bass. He was one of the most committed Marines the Corps had probably ever seen. He was so committed, in fact, he was narcoleptic. Seriously, he would fall asleep standing up, in the middle of a briefing, in the middle of a sentence. None of the Marines would say anything when he suddenly dozed off. They would just look awkwardly at each other. Then 45 seconds later he would wake up and start talking, right where he left off. He didn’t miss a beat; always in “the zone,” as they say.

“Byrnes,” he said, eyes wobbling. Everyone in the room thought he was going to fall asleep again.

“Yes, sir,” the young captain blurted back, purposefully loud enough to make sure the BC stayed awake.

“The governor has appointed a police chief. You need to go meet him. He’s expecting you at 9 a.m. See what’s going on down there with the police. It’s critical, and I have no idea what kind of force, if any, exists. The sooner the police are functional, the sooner we can go home.”

“Aye, sir.”

“You can follow me in your Humvee tomorrow, to the town hall. The governor will have someone escort you over to the police station from there. I don’t know where it is.”

Byrnes wrote a few things in his notebook: Pol. Chf / 9am / ??? while the BC continued handing out assignments. The police wasn’t the only public sector in the city that needed attention. There were the hospitals, the power stations, the sewage, the trash collection, the schools…the list went on. The meeting eventually broke up for the night. No one was a bit encouraged by anything he had heard. The BC went to his desk to write a few notes, but the Marines soon heard him snoring, at his desk, sitting up, pen in hand.

When the battalion had moved into the area two days ago, it had been lucky to find a walled compound set about a mile outside the city. “The pistol factory”—that’s what everyone called it, because that was what it had originally been—was large enough for most of the 100 vehicles and 1,500 Marines. It also had plenty of small buildings within its perimeter, where different units could set up shop for what was expected to be an extended period.

Byrnes claimed a small room on the second floor of the command post, or “CP,” the largest structure in the compound and the home of the battalion’s makeshift operations and intelligence centers. He shut his battered wooden door and sat on the furnitureless floor. His gear was scattered throughout the room, and his sleeping bag was spread out on the concrete. Cracker crumbs from his last meal-ready-to-eat—“MRE”—dotted the green and black nylon material. He took his boots off and sat against the wall.

I’ll need Sergeant Billings. And of course McCorvey. I’ll also need a translator, he said to himself.

He unfolded a torn map. It was still marked up from heavy use during the march north from Kuwait toward Baghdad.

“The center of the city, Hillah,” he said as he pointed to a series of intersecting streets on the laminated sheet. Moving his finger south along one of the main roads that led away from it, he landed on his current position. He unfolded the map a bit more. Iskandariah to the north, Karbala to the west, desert until Nasiriyah to the south. It was hard to believe his battalion had been assigned responsibility for all of this. None of them quite knew how they were going to secure and stabilize this entire province with what they had. Byrnes sighed. He was exhausted and, like the others, becoming slowly depressed. He searched for something to take his mind off of the next day. As he looked closer at Hillah, his eyes fixated on a cluster of buildings and structures just to the north of the city that had been specially marked.

“The ruins. I need to see these.” Like most Marines, Byrnes had a flip side to his Hobbesian view of conflict and life; a side that loved to explore, a side that still, despite everything, retained a romantic sense of adventure and wonderment toward the world. He had already traveled throughout Europe, and just before the invasion had traveled the trans-Siberian railroad. Byrnes was already creating several travel itineraries in the back of his mind for when he returned home.

Just as he was getting caught up in his plans, forgetting, for a moment, all that he had seen and experienced in the past couple of months, a mosquito whizzed past his face.

“Dammit!” They had found a way in. Staying in the room was pointless now. Being able to sleep soundly and free of the marauding Euphrates bloodsuckers was the only redeeming quality of being indoors. Otherwise, he was just suffering in an oven for no reason; might as well be outside, where it was a few degrees cooler. Byrnes decided it was too late, however, to find an open space on one of the compound’s sidewalks. He took off his uniform and lay on top of his sleeping bag, sweating. He took one more swig of water from his canteen. The water, too, was hot and disgusting. There was just no escaping this heat.

Over in the corner sat a lone Iraqi local. He was young, probably early twenties. He wore a collared, long-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into a pair of tight-fitting khakis. His hair was cut short, almost like he was trying to impersonate the Marines, but unlike the Marines, he had a light mustache. Facial hair was important in this part of the world. As Byrnes and Billings entered, the Iraqi looked anxiously at them both. Byrnes thought his appearance was a bit comical.

“Sir!”

Byrnes heard a knock at his door.

“It’s 7:30. We need to get moving.”

It was McCorvey, the young corporal who had been the driver of the Humvee that Byrnes had occupied since Kuwait. In and out of juvenile detention as a young kid, McCorvey had managed to keep his record clean enough to be accepted into the Marines. He was officially a radio operator but, like the rest of the battalion, did so much more. Byrnes came to admire the young Marine as he skillfully guided their vehicle through unlit and dangerous terrain over the course of countless nights, and countless firefights.

“Yep. Give me ten minutes, Corporal,” Byrnes wearily announced from his room. “Get the vehicle ready. Go get Sergeant Billings also. Tell him we’re going out into town today.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ten minutes later the captain, dressed in his “less dirty” uniform, which just five days ago had been the “dirtier” uniform, was walking out the front of the CP. McCorvey had the Humvee pulled up behind the battalion commander’s, and Sergeant Billings walked slowly from his tent, his rifle slung behind his back.

“McCorvey,” Byrnes said as he walked up to the vehicle. “Throw a box of MREs in the back for lunch this afternoon along with some water. I’m not sure how long we’re going to be away.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Where are we headed this morning, sir?” Sergeant Billings asked with a slight yawn as he approached.

“We’re following the BC to the town hall. Have you been there yet?”

“No, I’ve only been out in town once since we arrived. It’s a bit of shithole. Fucking chickens and goats everywhere. Open sewers too.”

“I know what you mean. I was at the town hall a few days ago with the Army when we first arrived, before they handed the AO off to us. You’ll find it interesting. The provincial governor is a chain smoker; seems to be a nice guy. Apparently he’s appointed a police chief that the BC wants us to work with. The sooner the cops can get this place under some sort of control, the sooner we can go home.”

Sergeant Billings simply nodded and took a sip of water. It was still early, but the sun was already up. It was going to be another hot one.

“Oh, damn. I forgot. We need an interpreter. Where are they at?”

“The chaplain only has a few vetted. He has them reporting to the gatehouse every morning at around 8 a.m.”

Byrnes looked at his watch. It was 7:45.

“Well, we’ll have to see if any have showed up. Want to come?”

“Sure, sir.” The two Marines walked toward the front of the compound where a sliding gate was located. When the battalion first arrived the gate was off its rails, but thankfully fine other than that. It was a quick fix, and now the Marines had a genuine functioning roadblock to protect themselves. Off to the side of the gate was a small building, which in the days when the pistol factory had actually been a pistol factory, served as a guardhouse and reception area.

Just as Byrnes had been put in charge of the police, the medical officer in charge of the hospitals, the logistics officer in charge of the sewage and trash, and the BC in charge of the political governing bodies, the chaplain had been tasked to recruit and vet Iraqi English speakers. In theory, as the Marines extended their influence and control over the local province, these native Iraqis were to act as interpreters and, hopefully, as the Americans’ local eyes and ears in the community.

Byrnes and Billings walked through the door into the dusty building. A few tired couches leaned heavily against the walls; a large coffee table was situated in the middle. Over in the corner sat a lone Iraqi local. He was young, probably early twenties. He wore a collared, long-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into a pair of tight-fitting khakis. His hair was cut short, almost like he was trying to impersonate the Marines, but unlike the Marines, he had a light mustache. Facial hair was important in this part of the world. As Byrnes and Billings entered, the Iraqi looked anxiously at them both. Byrnes thought his appearance was a bit comical.

Off to the left of the larger space was an anteroom where the chaplain had set up office; he was meeting with the corporal who was assigned to help him vet the interpreters. They were reviewing a few applications received the day before.

“Good morning, sir,” Byrnes said to the chaplain.

“Good morning, Nate. Good morning, Sergeant Billings.”

“Sergeant Billings and I have to go with the BC this morning down to the town hall. We’ll be working with the Iraqi police. I’m not sure for how long. Do you have any interpreters? I see one out there.”

“Yeah, he showed up pretty much the first day we arrived; introduced himself before we even sent out word that we were looking for interpreters. He came with this…”

The chaplain pulled out a letter from a file.

“It’s a recommendation letter from the Special Forces Unit that arrived here first, while we were still up in Baghdad.”

Byrnes looked at the letter. It was pretty straightforward: a few lines recommending the Iraqi’s spoken English and enthusiasm. Byrnes read to the bottom and saw the signature. He smiled. He recognized the name. It was the same as a classmate of his from college, an old military school down in South Carolina. It’s probably him. There can’t be too many Captain Jeff Graftons in the Army.

“Okay, can he leave with us now?” Byrnes said after reading the letter.

“I think he would love to,” the chaplain said, chuckling.

“Thank you, sir.” Byrnes and Billings turned around and walked out of the room. The chaplain sat back down at his desk with the corporal and continued to sift through papers.

Byrnes, with Sergeant Billings following faithfully behind, walked over to the Iraqi sitting on the couch. He saw them approaching and immediately stood up.

“Good morning!” Byrnes said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Mohammed, Captain.”

“No shit? I’ve never heard that one before.” Sergeant Billings laughed at the captain’s sarcasm. Mohammed didn’t seem to get it. Byrnes continued, “Do you have all day to work with us?”

“Yes, Captain. I have all day.”

“Great, did you bring food or anything with you?”

Mohammed looked puzzled. “No, I’ll just get something out in town.”

Byrnes kept forgetting that Iraqis weren’t in a war zone. They were home. They could get water and food from local stores in town.

“Yeah, okay. Well, let’s get going then. We’re headed to the town hall first.”

The three stepped out of the reception building and walked back across the pistol factory toward their vehicles. By this time Corporal McCorvey had stocked the Humvee with MREs and water for the day; he had it idling behind the BC’s vehicle.

“Are we ready, Corporal?”

“Just waiting on the BC, sir.”

“Okay. This is Mohammed,” Byrnes said, turning to the young Iraqi. “He’ll be our translator today.” Corporal McCorvey nodded in his direction.

Just then the BC came strolling out of the command post, another sergeant by his side with a rifle. Byrnes saluted him for the first and last time that day (one acknowledgment of seniority per day was all that was required in this environment), and both got in their respective Humvees. Byrnes sat in the front next to McCorvey, who was driving. Billings and Mohammed were in the back. The two vehicles, plus another armored vehicle with a medium machine gun mounted on its top, all slowly pulled around the circular driveway toward the gate. The Marines standing guard lifted the barricade and slid it back. The short convoy was soon on the narrow, one-way road racing toward the center of the city.

“How did you get hooked up with Jeff Grafton, Mohammed?”

“Oh, you mean Captain Grafton, sir? He was with the first Americans in Hillah. I went and found them. Captain Grafton was in charge.”

“And that was it? He took you on just like that?” Byrnes asked, surprised.

“Yes, sir. That was it,” Mohammed answered matter-of-factly. He was busy scanning what was going on outside the vehicle. The traffic was getting heavier as they approached the city. Hillah wasn’t large, but it wasn’t small either. It was the capital of the province immediately south of Baghdad. It was also heavily Shiite Muslim, which meant the locals were no friends of anyone allied with the former regime. But it also meant that they were friendly toward the Iranians. All in all, it was a mixed bag for the Americans who had just arrived. Right now the Marines retained the goodwill of the people, and would continue to do so if things went well. But it was clear the Iranians already had agents working in the city, laying the groundwork for their own push to power the moment the coalition stumbled. And there were plenty of local clerics and imams anxious to help them.

People and vehicles crowded the busy streets. As they were driving, the Marines suddenly heard a pop, followed by a clank of something bouncing off the side of the Humvee’s stovepipe.

“Dammit. Those sons of bitches,” Byrnes muttered with disgust. “That was a close one.”

“Don’t worry, Captain,” Mohammed interjected quickly, as if he was trying to prevent the Americans from thinking badly of his city because their vehicle had just been hit with a bullet. “The people are glad you’re here.” Byrnes couldn’t tell if Mohammed was nervous or not. The Iraqi’s voice was a bit shaky, but Byrnes didn’t know him well enough to be able to make any definitive judgment. Byrnes thought back to what the BC had said in the meeting the night before. This place was indeed the Wild West. The majority of the locals were friendly, but the few who weren’t were determined to make themselves known. They wouldn’t be pacified easily.

The vehicles maneuvered their way through the center of the city and arrived at the town hall. The enlisted Marines remained with the vehicles outside while the American officers, with Mohammed following, walked through the dilapidated foyer. Byrnes looked around. Glass panels were broken or missing; formerly carpeted hallways were now showing the dusty concrete beneath. The crumbling architecture aside, the building was buzzing. Men were walking back and forth from the governor’s office, while women, heads covered and speaking only amongst themselves, were clustered in back rooms performing various administrative tasks. The entourage walked into the governor’s office. The old man—tired and worn—was involved in a heavy conversation with several aides, but when he saw the Marines enter he quickly put down his cigarette and stood with a large smile on his face. He grasped the BC’s hand and, through his own translator, welcomed them all to his office.

Seats were placed for the Americans on one side of the office, while the Iraqis all sat along the opposite wall. Mohammed stayed with Byrnes and the BC on the American side. Byrnes took note. Mohammed identifies with us.

Someone brought in hot tea with sugar. It was already well over 100 degrees outside, but somehow the steaming drink helped cool everyone. The governor finished one cigarette and immediately lit another. Byrnes noticed he seemed to forcibly prevent his hands from shaking by clasping and holding them together. Pleasantries were exchanged, and soon after, Byrnes was provided the promised escort to the police station. Through Mohammed he wished the governor and his staff well, and left. The BC stayed behind. He had many other things to discuss regarding the governance of the province. Soon Byrnes and his team were back in the Humvee, once again maneuvering the swarm of people, animals, and vehicles crowding the streets.

“Mohammed, we have a few minutes. Tell me about yourself,” the Captain said as they moved cautiously along. Byrnes’s curiosity was building about the young Iraqi. Mohammed had been the first to show up to translate for the Marines, and before that the first to make himself available to the Army and Byrnes’s college classmate. Then, just now, back in the governor’s office, he had sat on the side of the room with the Americans, not with the Iraqis.

“What would you like to know, Captain?”

 

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“Where did you learn your English?”

“Movies. American and British movies.”

“Really? Which ones were your favorites?

“All of Nicole Kidman’s. I think she is the most beautiful woman in the world!”

Billings, McCorvey, and Byrnes all laughed. “Yes, she is beautiful. White and red-haired. A bit different then the gals around here, huh?”

“Oh yes!” Mohammed said enthusiastically. “But I do have a girlfriend. She is up at the university in Baghdad.”

“Oh really? What’s her name? Did you study there also?”

“Her name is Jana. Yes, that’s where we met.”

“Why are you back here?

“It was getting too difficult for me at the university. My political views were not proper. And when Saddam’s police started opening my mail from the Nicole Kidman Fan Club before the letters were delivered to me, I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“So you quit?”

“Yes. I had to. But I knew the Americans would invade soon anyways, and everything would change. I wanted to be ready to help.”

The Marines all smiled, but Byrnes knew there was more to Mohammed’s story then just simple harassment over his love of a movie star. All of the Iraqis in this area were severely persecuted, particularly after the first Gulf War, when they had risen up against the Baathist regime. The Shiite victims of Saddam’s aggressive chemical warfare campaigns filled the mass graves littering the outskirts of the city.

“What other languages do you know, besides English and Arabic?”

“Farsi and Hebrew.”

“Four languages! Holy shit! You’re a machine, Mohammed.”

Mohammed, at last, smiled too. He finally looked more relaxed, and kept talking.

“After I left university, I came back home, and for a short time I was a tour guide out at the ruins.”

Byrnes got excited.

“Wow,” the young captain said with awe. “I haven’t been out to the ruins yet. I really want to see them. Do you know if it’s safe?”

“I think so. Some of the Iraqis here in town have been out there since the invasion. There was looting, mostly of Saddam’s palace nearby. I don’t think anyone is there right now.”

The Humvee neared the police station. The escort provided to them by the governor, occupying his own small vehicle ahead, was signaling that the station was the building just up on the left. They pulled off to the side of the road, and Byrnes, Mohammed, and Billings all got out again.

The police station was a British-built three-story compound with outer and inner courtyards. Nonuniformed police “volunteers” already populated the building. They had AK-47’s slung carelessly at their sides, with their fingers inconspicuously on the triggers. The two Marines and Mohammed linked up with the escort, who went to talk to the gate guard.

“The police chief is out right now,” Mohammed said after listening to the conversation.

“When will he be back?” Byrnes asked.

“They’re not sure. Probably in around three hours.”

“Oh. Okay. Let them know we’ll be back around noon. Tell him we want to have lunch with the police chief. We need to speak.”

Mohammed translated. After shaking hands with the gate guard, the captain, followed by the others, returned to the Humvee.

“Well gents,” Byrnes said, “we have a few hours. Any suggestions? I really have no desire to go back to the pistol factory, or the town hall.” Both Billings and McCorvey shook their heads. They would have probably preferred to return to the CP.

“Sir,” Mohammed interjected, “the Babylon ruins are only three kilometers away. While it’s still cool out, I can take you on a tour, if you want.”

“Really?” He turned to McCorvey and Billings. “What do you two think?” Their faces lit up, and they nodded.

“Let’s do it. McCorvey, radio to the CP and tell them where we’re going. Let them know we’ll check in when we arrive. Mohammed, tell us how to get there.”

The Humvee pulled up to the entrance of the ruins complex. The visitor center that was supposed to mark the beginning of the tour was clearly meant to be able to handle hundreds of tourists a day. The gift shop, the ticket booth, the snack bar—all were now deserted. A large painted mural depicting the archaeological site’s highlights, however, remained: the Ishtar Gate, Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, the Processional Way, the Tower of Babylon, Roman Arena. Byrnes and Billings dismounted the Humvee and walked toward the mural. Mohammed initially followed, then quickly moved in front of them as they got closer. Once at the mural, Mohammed turned around, taking his position as if he were about to start his tour, as if those armed men in front of him who had just invaded a country and toppled one of the world’s most vicious dictators were just an ordinary group of tourists.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” Mohammed caught himself. There were no ladies within miles. “Gentlemen,” he started again, “welcome to the ruins of ancient Babylon. You are now standing near one of the ancient wonders of the world—the Hanging Gardens—and near the cradle of civilization and mankind. Where Hammurabi’s code—the world’s first complex system of laws—was invented and the world’s first superpower was born, then conquered, rose, and was conquered again. Where Nebuchadnezzar ruled, where the Old Testament prophet Daniel was committed to the lion’s den, where Alexander the Great ruled and died. Let me now lead you…”

“Mohammed,” interrupted Byrnes.

“Yes, sir?

“That’s okay. Why don’t we just stroll through it? You can point out things to us along the way. No need for the formal tour.” He smiled at the young Iraqi.

“Yes, sir. That would probably be better.” Mohammed looked a little confused. He needed to be told what to do next. The Americans, even in this ancient site that Mohammed knew like the back of his hand, were in control. He stood, waiting for the young captain’s next command. Byrnes was eyeing the decorative blue brick of the Ishtar Gate just a few steps away. He started to walk toward it. Billings and Mohammed followed. Byrnes stopped in front of the massive structure and looked up.

“This is a fake,” Mohammed said. “The real one is in Berlin. It’s been there since World War I.” Byrnes nodded.

“Yeah, it looks a bit sloppy. Let’s go further in.”

The three walked through the gate toward the processional. Along the way were the famous brick reliefs of the Babylonian gods. The dragons, representing the god Marduk, and the bulls, representing the god Adad, protruded beautifully from the ancient walls. Mohammed talked about each, how they had been made, the beliefs surrounding them, and how they had weathered the storms of history. But these reliefs and various other artifacts weren’t the only ones in existence. The treasures of ancient Babylon were spread around museums all over the world, from London, to Berlin, to Paris, to the United States, even to museums throughout the Middle East and a few in East Asia.

Eventually they reached the famous Processional Way. The Marines and the Iraqi looked down along the gated stone walkway. They were silent. All were imagining the scene almost 2,500 years ago when the great Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great had entered the most legendary of imperial capitals, claiming it as his own, only to decide later on that Babylon “the Great,” as it was described in the Bible, was not sufficient. He wanted more. So after a brief stay, he ventured further east across Persia, through Central Asia, and the Hindu Kush, until he could go no further. He had been victorious in virtually every military campaign, but having gone that far into unknown lands, his army fell into despair and became mutinous. They abandoned all hope and lost faith in one of the world’s greatest military commanders. As a result they were forced to return to Babylon, where, stricken with malaria, Alexander died. His empire collapsed soon after. Byrnes thought about the despair he was starting to witness among the Marines in his own unit, and wondered if their fate was to eventually parallel that of the Macedonians.

“I think, sir,” Mohammed said, looking down the ancient walkway, “one day I will travel the world, and I will document where all of the treasures of Babylon are preserved. Every museum where Babylonian relics are displayed, I will visit them, and I will photograph them, and catalog them. I have to keep track of them. It’s important for Iraq. It may be ironic, but I think these ruins could represent a new beginning for us, something we can build on.”

“You’re right, Mohammed. You’re right.” Captain Byrnes smiled and patted Mohammed on the shoulder. In the short time Byrnes had known Mohammed, the sense of optimism and hope that the young Iraqi exuded was inspiring, especially as he considered the tasks that lay before him and his fellow Marines. Byrnes hoped Mohammed would never lose that sense of purpose, and he began to feel responsible for ensuring that the young man didn’t.

It was approaching noon. “We should probably get back to the Humvee.” Everyone understood the captain’s implied command, and they started back. Instead of walking behind them, Mohammed now walked beside Captain Byrnes and Sergeant Billings.

“You know, Mohammed, this is a beautiful place,” Byrnes said, smiling. “In the U.S. we read all the time about veterans of World War II, Korea, even now Vietnam returning to the countries they once fought in…fought for…as tourists. Some, like those Marines who fought the Japanese, even meet and have drinks with their former enemies. That’s what I want one of these days. To return to Iraq. To walk the ruins of Babylon, to take your tour, just as a friendly visitor. That should be our goal. When I’m able to do that someday with you, I’ll be satisfied.”

Mohammed smiled and looked at the captain. “I would like that very much too, sir.”

They all eventually reached the Humvee. Corporal McCorvey was faithfully guarding it, and when he saw them coming, he started the engine. They got in and drove to the police station. There was a lot of work to be done.

New York City, 2012

Nate Byrnes left work early and headed up to the 6 train from his office on 53rd Street and Park Avenue. He still had on his suit and tie. He was glad it was winter because, well, he hated the heat.

He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes. Plenty of time. But then the subway stopped just after leaving the 68th Street station. Dammit. One more stop and he would be there. Five minutes later the subway creaked forward, and within 60 seconds he arrived. He was still on time, but he would need to walk quickly up from 77th to 82nd Street and then over three blocks to Fifth Avenue.

Byrnes bounded up the steps of the subway station and then turned west toward Central Park. He hit Fifth Avenue with a few minutes to spare and headed north. Within a matter of moments he saw the large, white stone building that housed the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No lines! Nate thought. The crowds were either light or had dissipated earlier than usual. He stepped through one of the many doorways under the massive archways and raised his arms for the security batons to scan his body. Once standing in the Great Hall, he checked his phone.

He texted, “I’m here. Where are you?”

He waited a few seconds. Then came the reply.

“I’m here. Since 3 p.m.”

Nate chuckled to himself. Just like Mohammed. Always early.

Nate texted again. “Okay. But where, specifically?” He could have guessed the response, though.

“Ancient Near East. 2nd floor.”

Nate turned to the left and entered the museum galleries. He didn’t pay. Only tourists thought you had to do that, and he had lived in New York City for a while now. He walked quickly through the first few exhibits—Greek and Roman art—before ascending a staircase near the back of the museum. This one would take him directly to where he wanted to go. Once on the second floor, Nate looked around.

He hadn’t visited this segment of the museum in a long time, not since moving to New York, in fact. He moved slowly toward some of the larger artifacts on display: the gods Marduk and Adad represented in brick reliefs by, once again, a dragon and bull, respectively. They had been transported directly from the ruins decades ago, and were now on display in New York, safe from their tumultuous homeland, preserved for generations to come. Nate’s eyes moved to read the descriptions beneath and to look at the photographs accompanying them, when a familiar voice called out.

“Brother! Brother! I’m over here!” Nate, shaking off the emotions that were starting to flood over him, looked up. It was Mohammed.

“Hey, Marine. How are you?” Nate said. Mohammed smiled.

“I got discharged last week.”

“I know. Congratulations.”

The gallery was secluded and remote enough that there were no other visitors around. It was empty. The two old friends just stared for a moment at each other, surrounded by artifacts, motifs, paintings, and statues from the distant land where they had first met, where they had established a bond forged in conflict, where Mohammed had lost family—including his beloved Jana—and where a young Captain Byrnes had eventually departed, leaving his new friend to an uncertain future.

The two embraced. But Mohammed was just happy: happy to be in New York, happy to have become an American, happy to have re-established contact with his friend. He was, as always, optimistic. Mohammed had never lost the hope that Nate and the many other Marines, soldiers, and airmen who served with him came to admire. Unknowingly to the young Iraqi, Mohammed’s optimism sustained countless military operations, ensuring that the Americans, unlike the army of Alexander the Great, never became mired in their own setbacks, nor disillusioned in the cause to which they were committed.

Reggie Gibbs served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1998-2004. He currently lives in New York City with his wife, Sara, where he works, writes, and in his spare time studies the religious art collections of local museums.