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Villes en ruines dans le récit de guerre américain
City Ruins in American War Narratives

The City Is a Foreign Country

Kevin Powers

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1There is a void in the center of Mosul. In satellite imagery, it is a roughly diamond-shaped patchwork of various shades of brown with the occasional green section of arable land knitted into the fabric. The boundaries of the void are unnatural in their regularity, except on the southeastern side that follows a tributary as it curls toward the main stem of the Tigris River. But there is nothing unnatural about the regularity of the boundaries when you realize they are the remains of walls built by men.

2That void is all that survives of ancient Nineveh. Occupied for somewhere around 8,000 years, successive Assyrian kings ordered the visible remnants constructed over several generations, but it was deportees from the empire’s troubled regions and enslaved prisoners from the wars of Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal who made the bricks from mud and laid them into walls by hand. Their works were impressive, but impermanent. In her book Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, the Assyriologist Gwendolyn Leick writes that the destruction of Nineveh was ordered by the Babylonian king Nabopolassar in 612 BCE. The city was burned and then flooded in “a gesture of ritual annihilation” (Leick 242). At one time Nineveh may have been the largest city in the world, but it has been a ruin ever since.

3I did not know any of this when I encountered the ruins of Nineveh in person. The surrounding details have gone hazy over the last fourteen years, but few events in my life are as clear to me in certain particulars as the day I looked up at the mound of the ruined wall of that annihilated city. I was in my early twenties serving as a soldier in the United States Army, the most recent in a millennia-long line of invaders to trample across the plains of Northern Iraq. My job was simple. Our platoon had been given the task of providing security for an Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal team. In layman’s terms, we were supposed to find roadside bombs and make sure nobody killed the people whose job it was to make them safe.

4On the day in question, an infantry platoon discovered a bomb buried in debris along a modern highway running through the northeast section of Mosul. We dismounted our vehicles and organized a large perimeter around the suspect location. Accompanied by my assistant gunner after receiving instructions from my squad leader, I hauled my machine gun across the highway at a trot and scrambled up the grassy slope of a hill. At the crest of the hill, we laid out ammunition and took up a suitable firing position. It was only then that I was overtaken by a curious but undeniable sense of awe. The hill stretched out in a long line to my left and right. Along its length it looked like nothing less than the crest of a green wave frozen in time. It reminded me of the great prairies of the North American continent, oceanic in their vastness and subject only to geology and the scouring effects of wind. On the walls of Nineveh, I found something similar but as if in cross section, and its divergence from the claustrophobia-inducing tangle of the surrounding modern city of Mosul unsettled me with its starkness. The proportions were disorienting too, and though my sense of disorientation was intuitive and not immediately attributable to any particular element of the experience, it was singularly powerful nonetheless. In all honesty, I think I felt that green wave might break at any moment. And that with it I too might tumble and crash against the unforgiving shore of eternity.

5We left not long after shouts of “fire in the hole” cascaded down the perimeter, and a controlled detonation briefly bent the short grasses with the force of its noise. Dirt and dust and fragments of metal rained down, and I buried my face into the dust and the grasses that had grown up through the mud brick ruins, now kneaded back into earth by time and weather. We got back in our vehicles and went barreling through the impossibly narrow streets of central Mosul, toward what I can’t recall, another mission, to collapse in exhaustion for an hour or two? The days run together in one’s mind. But I know there was a wrong turn and a traffic jam and the terrifying stillness of being trapped between tall buildings. Compared to the unsettling expanse of history, here was the present moment concentrated and compressed. I felt its weight as I scanned the balconies and rooftops for the man who might kill me. He was not there that day, though it remains the most frightening moment from my year in Iraq.

6It is humbling to be young and know that you are going to die, to really know it in the core of whatever constitutes the thing we once called a soul. Even more humbling is to realize that a city can be killed just as irrevocably as a person can. The scale of it is what I found most unsettling. It’s one thing to sit in an air-conditioned classroom and learn that the inevitable fate of the planet is to be swallowed by the pulsing throes of our already dying star. This can be processed as information, but the figures involved are too large to transform knowledge into understanding. But to see the ruins of a once great city, to know that the works of thousands of human beings over thousands of years can be reduced to mere topography is terrifying in its comprehensibility; furthermore, to see the process in action again in a city built around those same ruins only reinforces an awareness of humanity’s essential hubris. Perhaps my fixation on these notions offers no great insight. After all, I am hardly the first to wonder whether a fundamental characteristic of humanity is to resist the idea that anything can fall outside of our dominion.

7The Rabbis say that in his old age Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. Who knows whether it was the great poem of wisdom or not, but a long time ago the author of that text wrote:

He has put eternity in their hearts […]. “Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like the animals.” For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. (585; Ecc. 3:11-19)

8To see the works of man torn down, to be among the ones who did the tearing, is to know that the poet told the truth. I went home after my tour and tried settling into a life I hoped would lack the extreme polarity of the one I lived for a while among the cities of Northern Iraq.

9I had grown up at a relative distance from urban life. My hometown was not really a town at all but horse and tobacco country just beyond the reach of the farthest tide of suburban Richmond, Virginia. It has changed a lot over the years. The tide of development now extends far beyond the country road where my childhood home stands. Some of the horse farms and stables remain, but most of the tobacco fields have been paved over for mall parking lots or master-planned communities. But my earliest memories of Richmond remain fixed. A drive down a road fringed by stands of hardwood and young loblolly pine. The old Huguenot bridge over a river that seemed impossibly wild as it went to whitewater against the rocks of Pony Pasture. Past the mansions lining Cary Street Road and down Monument Avenue until the spire of Saint James Episcopal Church came into view above the oaks and sugar maples and the statues of Confederate generals that gave the street its name. The city was a landmark in my life, but it was not where I lived.

10This is not unusual. The American military is mostly lower to middle class and its members come from all fifty states; however, the states in the south and mountain west are overrepresented if measured against population, so much of the military retains something of a rural perspective that always felt familiar to me. My return to Richmond must have mirrored the returns of many thousands of other veterans who went from war to peace in mid-sized cities of only local or regional significance. One suspects that the soldiers in the army of Ashurbanipal may have felt a similarly anchoring if distant relationship to Nineveh if they were lucky enough to return to their farms or villages after whatever wars they didn’t die in. This may also be why the line I find funniest in Slaughterhouse-Five is when Vonnegut says of post-war Dresden, “It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground” (Vonnegut 345). This is humor of the blackest kind. In its offhand description of destruction and renewal, it posits municipal drabness and homogeneity as the result of all human ingenuity and drives right to the heart of all our ridiculous pretensions.

11But I found few things funny those first days back in Richmond. Every backfiring car and poorly maintained diesel motor was potentially mentally and spiritually dislocating. Thomas McGrath describes a similar emotional state in his poem Homecoming. The pertinent lines read as follows:

The thing that takes our hand and leads us home—
Where we must clothe ourselves in the life of a stranger
Whose name we carry but can no longer know—
Is a new fear born between the doorstep and the door
Far from the night patrol, the terror, the long sweat.

And far from the dead boy who left so long ago. (McGrath 29)

Or to restate an admonition from Ecclesiastes, in my youth I remembered my grave.

12Richmond, like Nineveh, had burned once, an army on its doorstep. Its bricks were also laid by slaves, but its punishment, though well-deserved, was only partial. The wound was not fatal. To walk the cobblestone streets among the post bellum buildings seemed somehow to enlist myself in a resistance to the inevitable, to be divorced from it and married to an unspeakably arrogant presumption of permanence. I rented a studio apartment and tried retreating into the concentrated loneliness that only a city can provide, but I could not escape the intrusive knowledge that wherever I now went I headed one step closer to death. Eventually, I had to ask myself what I should do in the meantime.

13It should probably be stated that all this is told through the complicating and altering effects of memory. I can say now that I was desperate for some sense of equilibrium that I knew Richmond, or any other city, could not provide. A city is chaos and proximity and intensity of experience. It is growth and commerce and love and joy and suffering and death behind a thousand closed doors. It is movement along every axis in every direction. A city is a declaration of order and security, but now that cities are also the primary landscapes on which wars are fought, they are also deeply paradoxical places for the returning soldier. Of course wars produce intensely personal feelings in the people who fight in them, and it is probably not that surprising that some of those people will yearn for a repository for those feelings equal in scale to the ancient urges that contributed to their birth. I do not mean here to draw a bright line between cities and the natural world. It is an error to think that cities are distinct from nature. They are not separate categories. Cities are merely nodes in a particular kind of ecological web, specifically that web in which humans are the most significant actors. But cities are unquestionably distinct from wilderness, and it is into these wild spaces that some people have sought sanctuary from cities, not only as an escape but as a return as well.

14Maybe that’s what I thought. Maybe that’s what I think now. But at the time, all I remember for sure is thinking, “This is all too much. I’ve got to get out.” In his memoir Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote that “[e]very man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary” (1). I had a sense of where mine was, so I packed up my truck and went to it.

15About an hour west of Richmond on Interstate 64, the low green foothills of the Appalachian Mountains come into view above the highway’s forested edges. An hour farther south and you enter the Tye River Valley, an undistinguished alluvial plain of farms and cattle operations tucked beneath the encircling stretch of the Blue Ridge that the locals call the Religious Range. It’s a somewhat haughty name for three mountains, none of which are particularly remarkable in their measurements. They are not tall even by east of the Mississippi standards. The Priest is the largest, and I suppose it does have a somewhat imposing presence when one turns onto Crabtree Falls Highway and it looms in the corner of one’s eye. The valley narrows there, and the road winds alongside the creek bottom beneath the hardwood canopy. The Cardinal and the Friar are set back from the Priest relative to the road. Collectively, they are only known to most people, if they are known at all, because a scenic waterfall cascades down the north face of the Priest and the Appalachian Trail winds along their collective heights.

16I pulled my truck off the pavement and onto an old defunct logging road. The road was gravel once but by then was mostly rutted dirt, mud when it rained or snowed, and it wound up the mountainside and fell off sharply on the downslope side. The city stayed where I left it, and between it and me I felt a leveling out. Aldo Leopold once wrote that “[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 262). I parked my truck in a meadow of yellow sedge and oat-grass and prepared to hike the last two miles up to the summit of the Priest. Thinking back on my first trip to the mountains after the war, it occurs to me that it would take some persuading to get me to disagree with Mr. Leopold’s assessment.

17You may imagine that space is what I wanted, a long view over distances to counteract the urban claustrophobia I had arrived at as diagnosis for my ailment. But the Blue Ridge does not have much in the way of views. The entire range is below the elevation where the timberline falls in the higher, younger ranges of the earth. Here and there a bald meadow provides a break from the mountains forested heights. But mostly the peaks are cloistered in hardwood, with mountain laurel thick in the understory and along the draws, and one has to search out a rock ledge to get a look at the folds of ridge and valley headed westward. In a few rare places, the remnants of the even thicker spruce-fir forest that blanketed the higher elevations during the last ice age can still be found, but they are small stands, and being in them makes me prematurely mournful, as soon enough even these rare heights will be too warm for those islands of spruce and fir to survive.

18One is as confined spatially in those mountains as in any city, perhaps more so. A city’s arteries provide sightlines and a sense of perspective and proportion, whereas in some dense thickets in the mountains, visibility is limited to feet or mere inches if fog drops in. So the corrective I sought was not against those moments of fear in the tight spaces of contemporary Mosul’s spider-web of streets and alleys, or even against Richmond’s terrifying anonymity. I wasn’t up there to stand on a rock and survey the wilderness beneath. What I actually wanted, only intuitively and which I only now recognize in retrospect, was a corrective against that singular sense of awe I felt while staring across the long straight crest of Nineveh’s ruined walls, to find out if there was a way of engaging with and centering the essential ephemerality of all living things including, or perhaps especially, myself.

19This sense of dislocation was not the fault of cities, or at least not entirely. As much blame must go to the herds of cattle grazing in the distant valleys and drinking from the rivers that made the valleys. Our first currency, after all, may very well have been heads of cattle. Our first wars, or at least those we might recognize as such, may very well have been range wars where blood marked the boundaries of the best grazing territory. But now, as then, those cows are not going to feed the people in the mountains. They are not being butchered by the ranchers for their own use; instead, they go to rest in refrigerated cases in the Super Walmarts and Whole Foods that constitute the foraging grounds of contemporary urban and suburban humanity in America, just as in ages past the masses fed on stock who met their ends in the slaughterhouses of Nineveh.

20The tension between the urban and rural, between dependent and self-sufficient, is not new. Our oldest stories speak to it, as when Civilization in the form of a courtesan seduces the wild man Enkidu early in the Epic of Gilgamesh. She says to him, “You have become wise, like a god, Enkidu. Why did you range the wilderness with animals? Come, let me lead you to the heart of Uruk […] where Gilgamesh lives […] and like a wild bull stands supreme, mounted above his people (Gardner and Maier 78). If the scholars are correct, almost as many years passed between the carving of those words into clay and the destruction of Nineveh as have passed between that city’s destruction and my accidental meditation that day among its ruins fourteen years ago. And while it may require some conflation to connect the three events, at their center is evidence of humanity’s fraught relationship with the emergent hierarchical social structures that coincided with the birth of cities and that persist to this day. As Gilgamesh stood mounted above his people, so did Nineveh stand above the plains of Northern Iraq, and so did I in my naivety make myself subservient to those who ate the grazing cattle of the Blue Ridge in one hundred dollar a plate steak houses in Washington, D.C. and who brought war once again to the banks of the Tigris.

21Just as the wisdom poet of Ecclesiastes diagnosed the fundamental state of civilized humanity as “vanity and grasping at wind,” so too did the American wisdom poet Walt Whitman offer an equally fundamental but alternative way of being when he wrote in A Song for Occupations:

Neither a servant nor a master I []
I send no agent or medium, offer no representative of value, but offer the value itself []
The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the drift of them is something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness []
And [] the wonders that fill each minute of time forever,
What have you reckon’d them for, camerado? (84-88)

22I walked the trail to the summit of the Priest in something like a state of wonder, aware of grandness and a value beyond desire. I had my rifle with me, a short barreled Ruger American bolt action. I’d hunted those mountains in my youth, though without any meaningful relationship to death, and I now returned to them death’s intimate. Admittedly, the hunt I was on was only an exercise. I did not intend to live out my days as a hermit, eating only what I killed myself, but rather to make a gesture toward something like independence, to remember what was lost when Enkidu went to Uruk, what was lost when the city of Nineveh was both built and burned, and to recall again the fleeting sense of insignificance as I stared down the length of those ruined walls.

23I camped next to a spring among the tangled laurels. The clouds dropped into the drainage and covered the night. And when I slept I dreamed of stars I couldn’t see.

24Then, at first light in the high places, grey-green to the granite summits with naked oaks and the curled and hanging rhododendron leaves beneath, a shape moved through the shadows ridge to ridge. A buck, grey bodied and broad chested, lifted his head, scanned a copse of birch below him in a saddle, and returned to scouring the forest floor for the fallen mast that would help him through another Virginia mountain winter. But it was not winter yet. Though the air was cold, and the fog cob-webbed through the trees, and hung and floated along the sparse stands of birch, it warmed enough, if only, to keep the gently falling rain from freezing. The spring next to which I camped still ran downhill, and it cut through the yellow birch where it would tumble down the weathered rocks that hang high above the nearest folded valley.

25I was merely another shape among those trees. And I, too, moved from point to point and scanned, mirroring the movement of the deer. Across the cold stream, the buck bounded and stopped. I rested against a hillside oak and waited, tapping my foot silently as if marking time into the rain-soaked fallen leaves blanketing the mountainside. Once again, the great buck raised up his head and moved, one step, one step, pausing now and then to look behind him, and now and then again dipping down to eat the acorns that he’d found. Below him in the saddle of the rolling ridge, I raised my rifle, crosshairs came to rest where the old buck’s shoulder made a crease behind its chest. The crosshairs bobbed up and down with my breath, and then were still. Drops of mist collected across the lens. There was no sound except the quiet patter of the raindrops on the leaves, a little tinkle as the stream continued its work, cutting through the mountain bit by bit. I worked my finger into the trigger guard. Not another breath. A hundred yards uphill. Squeeze.

26The shot rang out, but the rifle stayed in place. A loud clatter as the buck jumped up then crashed through the understory. My right hand came off the trigger housing. The left kept the rifle up. I shrugged off my camelback and set it down against the tree and fished for a cigarette. I lit the smoke and checked my watch and leaned against the tree to wait.

27I knew what happened. Across the crest of the ridge the deer stalled on the level ground of a granite outcropping halfway down the steeply sloping mountainside. Standing still, the buck foamed pinkly at his mouth, his eyes black and wet, and his breath came steaming from his sides like a kettle brought to boil where the bullet passed through his lungs. He’d made it almost six years in those mountains before the bullet found him, but only half a mile after. Old age is relative. The breath runs out. The kettle quiet. The grey buck tumbled down the mountain.

28I followed, trying to recall everything about the shot I could. The buck barely backlit by a sky slightly greyer than itself. He’d stood atop the ridgeline, a rhododendron at his rear, its blossoms would have strewn a flame of pink across the mountain top the previous summer, and then remembered: a hundred yards uphill, the shoulder crease, a startled jump as the bullet carved its corridor right through and down he went into the unseen valley. When I crested the ridge, I saw the mountains like frozen waves recede into the distance. It was a fractal thing, that place’s geology. Every draw is mirrored and made miniature by the whole. Every crack in the stone seemed to refer to something larger that I could only grasp by notion.

29I felt the fever of the shot fade out. My pulse slowed to nearly normal, and I began to make my way, slowly, step by careful step, below. The rain had washed away already whatever blood the buck had left behind him as he ran. I looked for broken mountain laurel branches, the ground chewed up by desperate hooves beneath. I tested my footing, fully knowing that any misstep could send me down into the valley where we might both come to rest in death together, the buck and I. Or worse, to turn an ankle in a crevice might leave me waiting for a never coming help. I was far enough away from anything that it could have been next deer season before I was found, or the one after, or so long that the mountains themselves were ground down to the nothing I was already on my way to becoming.

30Slow going. An hour at least passed before I looked back and up the mountain to give myself a reference point. Maybe a thousand feet? The draw opened up a bit and leveled out. I saw where it met the main drainage into the valley, where a running brook fell down the northward slope. I hadn’t found the deer yet and started to wonder if I was off. Did I jerk the trigger? Did I take a breath before I squeezed or did I pause the way I should have?

31But there he was. Downhill in the leaves. I worked my way to him and took a knee. I made a point of looking into his eyes, death dulled and blank enough to make me shudder. “Thank you,” I said. My voice felt small and delicate as I spoke, but I knew that to those mountains every voice is small, and every living thing as fleeting as the wind.

32I dressed him out and made it down the mountain to the game check station just before dark. I called my brother. “Did you say your prayers?” he asked, by which he meant did I say thanks to the deer with intention, did I acknowledge its life and take responsibility for its death with humility?

33“I did,” I said. I realize how strange it might seem to call it a prayer, but I remember those first days back in the Priest Wilderness as an act of prayer in their entirety. I am not religious in any traditional sense, and I take no offense at any of the names people choose to call God or whether they choose to call out to any God at all or not. But if me and my brother’s notion of prayer has any relationship to reality at all, I genuinely hope that it was heard.

34Most of the time I don’t believe wisdom needs a sage to be expressed. On the drive back to my small apartment in Richmond, I remembered another conversation with my brother from many years before. When I was a teenager, long before I went to war, he stole a Cadillac and drove to California to live rough and pan for gold, stopping among the high peaks of the Rockies for a season, drifting along the blue-black Pacific for another, revolving among the places of the American West that have long been notable for their hospitality toward the outcast and dropout. I asked him what it was like, and he talked for a long time about the proximity of the stars at 14,000 feet on a Colorado mountain top, about the groves of sequoia where the light filtered down through the high canopy like flecks of gold at the bottom of a sifting pan. I asked him about the cities too, larger than any I had ever been to or expected to see. About those, he had much less to say. “Cities are all the same,” he said. “People, too, mostly. The land is the only thing with real variety.”

35I was sure he was wrong. Even now I suspect that if he wasn’t, he told only one part of a larger truth. As for myself, I had dreamed of cities. They were an escape from destiny, from the insignificant passing of a small life in the undistinguished stretches of America. They meant more when I was too immature to recognize enough. I had dreamed of the Champs-Élysées and Central Park and the Ponte Vecchio. But all is vanity, the poet said. A grasping at wind. And I say of such vanities are ruins made.

36I have had the chance to visit all these places over the years. I even lived in Florence for a while. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place, one that I have great affection for even today. Where Nineveh crumbled into dust, Florence was preserved as if in amber. And though my awareness of being a foreigner in that magical city surely had something to do with my broken Italian and my daily climb up the learning curve of the particular cultural mores of the Florentines, I knew something else was at work as well.

37Once while my wife was working late, I walked through the Oltrarno neighborhood at night. I stopped at the Ponte Vecchio and looked out toward the green moonlit distances beyond the Piazza Michelangelo. I thought about my brother, that conversation we’d had many years before, and in that moment the city walls along the Arno river felt both old and new, both permanent and passing into history, and I was struck then, as I am struck still, by the fact that my favorite spot in one of the world’s most beautiful cities was where a river cut through it and ran off toward the hills.

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Bibliographie

ABBEY, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. 1968. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

“The Book of Ecclesiastes.” The Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1985, p. 583-591.

GARDNER, John, and John R. MAIER. Gilgamesh: The Version of Sîn-Leqi-Unninnī. New York: Knopf, 1984.

LEICK, Gwendolyn. Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. London: Penguin, 2003.

LEOPOLD, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. 1949. Baraboo: Land Ethic Press, 2007.

MCGRATH, Thomas. “Homecoming.” Poetry, vol. 68, no. 1, 1946, p. 29. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=24422. Accessed 21 February 2022.

WHITMAN, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.

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Kevin Powers, « The City Is a Foreign Country »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/19105 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.19105

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