Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Letter from Iraq

The young captain sat on his bed and sighed. "There are not too many people around here I can talk with,ë he said. íAll the young guys talk about is women and fighting."
This is my second trip to Iraq. Part of the trip is an embed with the 25th infantry division of the 1st brigade, nicknamed the Arctic Wolves. Another part is a stay in Baghdad, in both of the so-called Red and Green Zones.
With the Arctic Wolves, I was on a small base in the province Dyala, Combat Outpost Blackfoot, about sixty miles north of Baghdad.
One advantage of a small base is its informality. As a member of the press, or as a novelist for that matter (in Iraq there isn't much difference between those two) you can move around freely. There are no private security soldiers outside the dining facility asking for an ID. Actually there is no dining facility at all. Twice a day food is brought in from a larger base nearby. Some of the soldiers eat in their pajamas.
If the unit at the base is grumpy and the facilities are less than welcoming, the advantage of informality soon becomes a disadvantage. This is something I experienced last May.
But Combat Outpost Blackfoot seemed like an oasis.
The captain had said to me: "You can sleep in my room. There you'll get a decent bed."
It was the first time an officer had invited me to sleep in his quarters. The room was very comfortable, for an army base that is.
After fifteen minutes it was already clear that the captain had invited me to his room so that he could speak to me, but that was fine. I didn't go to Iraq to get a good rest, but to listen and to watch.
The captain's fiancée was living in Queens and she was looking for a job as an editor. Our conversation changed from Iraq to the upheavals in the publishing industry.
"What are you reading?" the captain asked. Not a common question on a military base.
Room in my duffel bag was limited. I took with me a book by the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann whom I was supposed to interview in March and The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.
I was impressed by Filkins' book, though sometimes it scared the shit out of me, probably because I was reading it in Iraq.
The captain looked at Filkins' book and said, "You know, the guys who talk about fighting all the time, they haven't seen anything. The guys who have seen stuff, they're silent about it. They keep it to themselves."
I guess that's why we discussed the future of book publishing until late at night.