JANUARY 24, 2021
Photos in this piece by Hawre Khalid.
THE FIRST TIME I visited the village called Sargat in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, I drove down into its golden-green valley from Sulaymaniyah on a day off over Christmas. Unlike my native Virginia, Kurdistan becomes verdant over the course of the winter rains. Located just a few miles west of the Iranian border, Sargat was the site of one of the first operations of the 2003 Iraq War, a conflict that would end up claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,431 American soldiers. The consequences of the decision to go to war remain an insistent and disturbing reality, even in that now-quiet valley.
An al-Qaeda-affiliated group called Ansar al-Islam had established a presence there, and the George W. Bush administration disingenuously used the group’s presence there in its overstated attempt to link Saddam Hussein’s regime to the 9/11 attacks, accusing Ansar of attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. As a result, Sargat would be one of the first places targeted by the US military during the war.
Following a cruise missile barrage, a combined force of US 10th Special Forces Group soldiers, CIA paramilitary operations officers, and thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga began fighting its way up the valley on March 28, 2003, using a .50 caliber sniper rifle to take out emplacements dug into the surrounding ridges. By March 30, most of Ansar al-Islam’s fighters had either been killed or captured or driven over the border, where they were apprehended by the Iranians.
Scant evidence of a weapons program was uncovered following the battle. Three Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers were killed and 23 others were wounded, with no American casualties. Afterward, the American forces turned their focus toward Kirkuk and Baghdad, and the area around Sargat ceased to play an active role in the conflict.
My drive into the valley reminded me of my family’s visits to the historic battlefields that dot the Eastern United States. It’s an activity with aspects that are quintessential Americana: the performative recognition of patriotic and martial sacrifice paired with an attempt to fulfill a civic mandate to pass on the lessons of history to the younger generation, all tied together by a road trip to Gettysburg, Lexington, or Yorktown. The common experience of witnessing the places where our predecessors fought has the potential to bind us to them through the distance of time and to each other as a nation through the critical work of deciphering and contesting the meaning of the present.
Like many who went on such trips, I continued to visit battlefields and historic military sites into adulthood, going further afield into the Deep South to sites like Vicksburg and Chickamauga and finding more obscure ones like the World War I “ship graveyard” beneath the waters of Maryland’s Mallows Bay. So when I moved to the Kurdistan Region for work, I wanted to make a trip to Sargat, a much more recent and seldom-visited battlefield.
The reason for visiting was deeper than just checking off a box on a hobbyist’s bucket list: it was an opportunity to engage in what I hoped could be a meaningful way with a segment of the recent American experience that is all but inaccessible when it is increasingly needed and to hear from locals about how they interpret that event.
I went to Sargat again on a late golden summer day. Gangs of squawking geese rule the dirt paths between houses and gardens. Pomegranates and quinces ripen in the orchards, waiting for the rain to return and the harvest to start. Children work and water the horses that are used to carry goods over the nearby border. Families sit and drink tea together.
I felt the same incongruity between action and place that I did when I visited Burnside Bridge at Antietam or sat next to Bloody Pond at Shiloh. In the years after they are shaken by clashes of geopolitical importance, battlefields either become places curated into tranquility or allowed to slip back into the unassuming concerns of the everyday.
Unlike battlefields in the United States, there are few outward signals to indicate the importance of what happened in Sargat: no visitor center parking lots, no rangers in flat-brimmed hats, no split rail fences or interpretative materials, just a village where a war once began. All that is left of the houses where the Ansar fighters lived are piles of rubble whose significance only the locals know.
Visiting battlefields allows those who were not there to engage in an imaginative exercise, envisioning themselves in that place and time. It also allows for reflection on the grievous consequences of violence and the impact of war. The present-day site of the military prison at Andersonville exhibits and enforces a horrific understanding of just how small the space was that confined thousands of prisoners of war with only a trickling stream for sanitation; the adjacent cemetery makes the consequences all the more plain. Battlefields are also inhabited by social and political concerns: they invite visitors to answer difficult questions about why it was ever deemed necessary to kill and die there and whether we in the present could also justify and will ourselves to those actions. They ask us to interpret the meaning of past events for our present moment as individuals and polities, which is a fraught but necessary act. Physically and psychically, visiting battlefields is an intensely empathetic activity.
Veterans of the Civil War quickly established the practice of returning to battlefields to commemorate the fallen and engage in comradeship between former adversaries. That war’s recent sesquicentennial provided ample opportunity for modern-day pilgrimage. Pearl Harbor and Normandy receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. You can visit a museum on the site of the Hanoi Hilton. But, because of the distance of Iraq and Afghanistan from the United States, the irregular nature of those wars, and the continued instability there, it is hard to imagine the battlefields where the most recent generation of servicemen and women fought becoming ripe for tourism any time soon.
On a personal level, Sargat is part of the story of a war where my own generation fought and died and, therefore, unlike any battlefield I had ever visited. With the post-9/11 wars poised to enter their third decade, one of the possible consequences of the inaccessibility of these battlefields for ordinary Americans is to exacerbate the deepening divide between the experience of those who served in those conflicts and the vast majority of the population, including myself, who did not. Numerous commentators have warned about how the invisibility of our current conflicts to the broader public can cloud policy-making when it comes to the conduct of wars and do harm to those who serve in them. Battlefield tourism is not a catchall solution to that problem, but its absence forecloses an avenue for empathy and moral examination. Nearly 20 years after those conflicts began, we may be missing a vital tool for processing that past and what it means for our collective present.
As much as the Iraq War has meaning for Americans, it is far from the whole story. Iraqis and Kurds shape their own historical memory about events, and because battlefield tourism necessarily involves physical space, they play a more important part than any foreigners who might visit. Unlike the preserved battlefields of my childhood in Virginia, Sargat is still an active village, with people whose perspective on events is contextualized in an entirely different way from my own. For them, the battle was a brief episode dimmed by the relative importance of other elements of local history.
On my second visit, I was accompanied by two Kurdish journalists and spent an afternoon with Adnan, a local teacher. He has lived in the village for almost 30 years, including the period when it was controlled by Ansar al-Islam. In the days before the battle, he traveled to Khurmal, a market town about six miles away, because of warnings about the impending operation. He said he heard the cruise missile barrage and told us about a man who walked barefoot from Sargat to Khurmal to escape the fighting. A day after the United States and the Peshmerga cleared the village, Adnan returned home to Sargat. Why so soon after? To teach class, he said matter-of-factly.
We asked Adnan to tell us more, but his stories about the village continually diverted to other subjects: descriptions about nearby caves and archaeological sites; a disagreement over access to a spring in the 1950s; shelling by Ba’athist forces during the genocidal Anfal campaign in the 1980s; and his opinions about the current politics of the Kurdistan Region. Although his disinclination to discuss the 2003 battle could be chalked up to a desire not to talk about the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar, it seemed more likely that the US military’s intrusion into local life was a blip, a comparatively minor event in the multilayered history of his home.
“If you want to talk about our village, we’ve had many disasters,” he told us. “This place has existed for 2,000 years.”
For nearly all Kurds I have spoken to about this subject, battlefield tourism is a foreign concept. Getting out of the city and into the mountains is the essential local pastime, but ask around about where such and such a battle took place back in the day, and you will usually be met with a shrug. Asked about this seeming discrepancy, Adnan replied, “We care about our history, but there is no joy in it.”
At battlefields in the United States, visitors are told relatively simplistic narratives about heroic and desperate struggles and interpret them according to their own context and beliefs. For some, there is joy in connecting with the past this way because it feels meaningful. But ask Kurds and Iraqis about the wars of the past 30 years or even more distant liberation struggles that have had time to be mythologized, and the responses are more likely to be cynical, resigned, or despairing, which is an understandable reaction given the suffering that those conflicts have wrought.
In that way, Americans are perhaps all too eager to glorify our past conflicts, whose moral lessons are always more complex and tragic than what is typically presented at visitor centers. Although work has been done to correct and contextualize, Civil War battlefields nevertheless contain elements that celebrate the Confederacy, giving an opportunity for some to try to legitimize its white supremacist aims. The post-9/11 wars are no less fraught. By touring Sargat, do we valorize a preemptive war based on false pretenses, embodied in the nonexistent weapons program that the Bush administration falsely claimed Ansar al-Islam was pursuing? There are those who have a political interest in doing just that.
Driving away from Sargat and down onto the Shahrizor Plain, I asked my companions if they saw value in battlefield tourism in the Kurdistan Region. Journalist Hawre Khalid reflected that politicization of media and historical narrative by the local parties, combined with almost constant conflict, had rendered it largely meaningless as a way to understand the past. Unless there’s propaganda value to talking about the past, he argued, the authorities have little incentive to develop potential sites like Sargat; most people just want to get away from the violence and suffering of war.
As tourists, we would do well to remember this: that as laudable as our efforts to understand the past may be, they are always colored by the pressures of our present.