BAGHDAD—It is a familiar scene: Holding their M4 rifles at the ready, American soldiers push through the metal gate, swing open the front door and stomp into the house, stepping on shoes someone has left by the doorway and tracking dried mud onto the living room carpet, on which the family sits for dinner. They run into room after room, overturning chairs, tossing clothes out of closets as they search for weapons. The terrified family tries to huddle in the corner as the soldiers separate men from women and children.
I follow them. I trip over someone’s slipper in my dirty shoes. I track dirt onto the living room carpet. I look at the family’s possessions being spilled out onto the floor, old black-and-white wedding pictures lying on top of dirty sweatpants. I hear the women say something in Arabic to the American soldiers before the Army translator has even entered the house. I don’t understand a word.
I say “Salaam aleikum” to the family, or simply nod, depending on the ferocity of the search. It’s possible that these men have pissed off their neighbor, who told the Americans that they were the bad guys. Or they could be militants plotting to kill someone, maybe me. The women might be would-be suicide bombers. They may be directly responsible for the horrible deaths of other American soldiers from this unit, young men who left behind widows who are too young to be widows and whose children are too young to remember their fathers apart from the stories adults tell them. Anything is possible. I take detailed notes so that later I can write a story about it.
This time, Americans found nothing incriminating in the house, and everyone’s papers are in order. I take off my Kevlar helmet. The platoon leader is talking to the men politely, asking, through a translator, whether they have noticed any suspicious activity in the neighborhood. The men lie—at least in part—that they are happy that Americans patrol their streets. A child comes out, offering us some stale bread. Using the handful of Arabic words in my arsenal and a lot of body language, I ask for a glass of cold water. I introduce myself to the women and children. They say something back, but, again, I don’t understand a word. Maybe they’re telling me they are pleased to meet me. Maybe they are telling me to clean up before I leave.
Everybody shakes hands. I say “Ma’ salaama,” goodbye, and follow the soldiers. We are going to track some mud through another house. Maybe we’ll catch one of the bad guys, so that the streets of Baghdad become safer. Or maybe we’ll get some more bread, and I’ll get another glass of water.