Today, the marines will have to wait to log on to their chat rooms,,, and the online shopping sites. I myself have become something of a spendthrift in Iraq, ordering more books and CDs than I normally would. I have seen death enough times among people who had been indestructibly living only the day before. It is better to go ahead and buy the CD you have been meaning to get. There are reminders wherever you care to look. For instance, the pile of blood-soaked flak jackets sitting in the company’s combat operations center, a low-tech jumble of maps and radios. The flak jackets’ owners are either dead or in the hospital recovering from their wounds.

The executive officer reminds us that the flak jackets need to be sent back through the Marine Corps’s supply chain as soon as possible. Somewhere, somebody will wash them and inspect them for damage, filling out all the necessary paperwork. It is the banality, even more than the carnage, that shocks. Our occupation grinds on. Others will assign meaning to our lives here, noble or otherwise. For us, though, there is a close meanness to the fight. There are no flags, no dress uniforms. We are fighting a rival gang for the same turf: while the neighborhood residents cower and wait to see whose side they should come out on.

Imperceptibly, we are coming to the end of our deployment. Time has stood still for months, with days and nights fusing together in the burning-hot air of the desert. But now our deployment is being measured in finite units of time. It takes getting used to.

Returning from a patrol with my platoon, I find a blue sedan riddled with bullet holes on the side of the highway. There are a few Iraqi soldiers standing around when we find it. We quickly learn the car belongs to Captain Laithe, one of the senior men in the local police force. Connected, calculating, and English-speaking, he has collaborated with the Americans since the fall of Baghdad. I wondered since I first met him why he cast his lot with us, what calculation he made, and whether we could even understand it—what mix of nobility and venality it contained. His future, however he imagined it, ended with the finality of death in a hail of bullets on the highway less than a mile from our forward operating base.

Not long before we leave, I am awakened out of a sound sleep again, this time at midnight. The company executive officer is at the door. We have another K.I.A. I feel the same shock I did the first time, only there’s a certain numbness to it now, as if it were hitting a nerve becoming deadened by repeated blows. Our turn had almost passed, and now this. I nod, and begin collecting my gear. Lieutenant Lenz is outside in the pitch-black. It is the body of one of his marines that we will go out in the dead of night to recover. I ask Lenz if he is all right. I ask him if his marines are all right. The worst thing, he says, is that by now they are used to it. It is better and worse at the same time. I realize that we have all come to accept the loss of familiar faces, to live with it, and cross the line of departure again the next morning. It is this acceptance, rather than the thud of hidden bombs, that has finally made us veterans, and will finish the words on the obscure page of history that we occupy.

We head off in the pitch-black, navigating the highway through the grainy green glow of our night-vision goggles. We move north to a point just north of the place where we lost the two marines in the bomb explosion months before. One of the Humvees in the patrol struck a land mine a short distance from the Iraqi National Guard post the marines had been tasked with protecting.

The sun is rising above the river’s palm groves when the trucks arrive to remove the wrecked vehicle. The dead marine’s remains are loaded in another truck and driven north towards Al Asad Air Base. The remains will be laid in a flag-draped coffin, and then secured in the cargo hold of a transport plane to be flown back to the United States. We, too, will soon go to Al Asad. We will then strap ourselves into the cargo hold of an identical plane to begin our own journey home. The scrawled memorials on barracks walls to fallen buddies will stay behind for the troops who replace us. They might read the awkwardly-worded poems and epitaphs written in loving memory, and half wonder who we were. ♦