Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist

Award-winning poet Brian Turner recently returned to Baghdad, but this time he was a tourist. When he was there in 2004, he was a U.S. soldier. Turner talks to Steve Inskeep about his trip, and his article in the July issue of National Geographic.

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Early in the war in Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, Brian Turner served there as an American enlisted man. He was a sergeant. Later, he left the military and became a poet. We heard his poetry on this program in 2006. And now the soldier-poet has returned to Iraq, this time as a civilian.

He writes about his experience in the July issue of National Geographic.

Mr. BRIAN TURNER (Veteran and Author): Sometimes I feel as if I am sort of haunted by - in good ways and bad ways; there's beauty and there's also difficult times - Im sort of haunted by the things that happened before. But in a similar way, I've been sort of haunting those streets as well, going back in my mind to where I was. And I wanted to just go there and see if I could speak to actual, living Iraqis and see where they are now.

INSKEEP: Without a gun, without a uniform, without his old unit, Brian Turner simply walked the streets of Baghdad, talking to people.

Mr. TURNER: Students, writers, cab drivers, welders, machinists, people at a restaurant.

INSKEEP: It must be different to approach the place as Brian Turner, a man not in uniform, as opposed to one of a group of Americans all in uniform, in a unit.

Mr. TURNER: To be honest, I was afraid. I had a lot of fear that never really left. At the same time, I did find myself doing things that I did when I was with the unit. So, as I write in the article at one point, I mentioned how I started making these slow circles as I was walking on al-Mutanabbi Street, where the bookseller shops are. And I found myself sort of shifting back to being on patrol.

I sort of had to adapt myself to the actual time that I live in, not where I was living - 'cause Baghdad is a new place.

INSKEEP: Describe what you mean by that, when you say walking in slow circles. Where were you? You were on a busy shopping street, a kind of bookselling street.

Mr. TURNER: Right. Al-Mutanabbi Street is named after a famed poet from the days of old, and there are a lot of bookshops along there. And there have been horrific attacks that have taken place on that same street, as throughout Baghdad.

Basically what it is, is a fairly narrow lane. And on both sides, there are shops. And outside, there are sort of books that are stacked up on tables and on the ground, on blankets. And as I was walking down the middle of this lane, I realized that every few yards or so, I would do a slow, pirouette turn. That's what I used to do what I had a rifle in my hand, just to see what's around you, if there's anything dangerous behind - that kind of thing.

INSKEEP: There is a single word in your description of this that made me know that I needed to talk with you again. You said, of those turning circles: It's a habit I've mostly broken back home in the states - mostly, after seven years.

Mr. TURNER: Yeah, there's - oh, how do I put it? The things that I did as a soldier, many of them I've sort of sloughed away. Like when I drive down the freeway, I don't catch myself off in sort of scanning the overpasses and underneath them for people that might be above the overpass, might drop a hand grenade or shoot at us. But there are other habits that are hard to break. Like when I go into a restaurant, I often want to sit where I can see everything, with my back to a wall. And I also sometimes catch myself watching mirrors to see what's, you know - glass windows to see who's behind me. Or I'll make turns, slow turns, here and there and - sometimes, especially when I'm in a crowded environment.

INSKEEP: That, depending on the person and the degree to which it happens, could be a symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Mr. TURNER: I think basically, there's a wide range of trauma. I'm able to lead a pretty healthy life, but there's still the baggage of war.

INSKEEP: Did you find little symptoms of what might be post-traumatic stress among the civilian populace in Baghdad, as you moved about and got a chance to talk with people?

Mr. TURNER: You know, I didn't so much, maybe because the pressure still feels a bit ongoing. There's helicopters flying overhead; now and then, you'll hear an explosion or gunfire.

INSKEEP: It's not post-traumatic because there's still the trauma going on, you're saying.

Mr. TURNER: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But what I did find was a sort of - with many people, there is sort of a deep kind of resignation. The one gentleman - he was a machinist-slash-welder, I guess. And I was in his shop, and he was telling me about how he felt like - that things, they come in waves, and that there's difficult times now, but things will get better later. And then they'll be difficult again. And he just sort of seems to be taking the day with what the day gives him.

INSKEEP: In conversations with civilians, some people must have offered you their opinions of the American intervention there, whether they thought it was useful or not useful.

Mr. TURNER: Mm-hmm. For example, Yusef(ph), he was one of the interpreters I was with. He said, man, America didn't bring - this is a paraphrase; I have it quoted in the article - but he said, America didn't bring democracy. America brought walls, man. And he was insisting; he said, you know, make sure you tell them that.

And I came across that sentiment fairly often as well.

INSKEEP: What does he mean, walls?

Mr. TURNER: Well, the T-walls, the blast walls, these huge concrete walls that look like a T flipped upside down. They just line many of the roadways in Baghdad itself. And it's a city that has checkpoints every few hundred meters, it seems. In a sense, I felt as if the city was sort of on pause, and it's waiting for the walls to be taken down at some point, and for the checkpoints to be removed so that they could kind of get back to their actual lives.

INSKEEP: Brian Turner, when you spoke with us five years ago, I asked if you felt that by your service in Iraq, that you'd made a difference. And essentially, you said no, you didn't think you had, except maybe for the soldiers you worked with the most directly. Some time has passed now, and you have a different sense, perhaps, of the broader mission. And some kind of partial victory has been declared, rightly or wrongly. And there's been a substantial withdrawal.

Looking at it now, do you feel you were part of anything that made a difference for the better, in Iraq?

Mr. TURNER: Hmm. You know, it might take another five years for us to get this. But I can say this: I sat with two artists in a courtyard in Baghdad, and I asked them a similar question; it was related. And they talked about the -when the British were in Iraq in the 1920s. And they said that they had assigned a British citizen to come in and start up a bookstore in Baghdad - which is still there to this day, by the way.

And through that bookstore, Edith Sitwell and T.S. Eliot came through there. And that was part of the spark that shifted Arabic verse, which had centuries of, you know, tradition behind it, and created, in part - was one of the influences on the modern Arabic free verse movement.

And so to get to the point, Sadiq Mohammed(ph), the man sitting across from me, said: You know, Brian, you brought your guns and your boots, just as the British did before. But where is the other part? Where is the cultural conversation?

And so I'm not sure if I did any good before. But I'm trying to figure out some way to attend to his question, and see if I can be a part of that conversation.

INSKEEP: Brian Turner is an American veteran and a poet, and the author of an article in National Geographic about his return visit to Iraq.

Mr. Turner, thanks very much.

Mr. TURNER: Oh, it's an honor. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Brian Turner writes about his return to Iraq in the latest issue of National Geographic. And you can see photos of Baghdad at NPR.org, on the Picture Show.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

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