Fear the Reaper

Will more soldiers meet a fated death in Samarra?

To top off the most deadly month yet for our troops in Iraq, on the last day of November, two convoys carrying cash for local banks rolled into Samarra, a town near Saddam Hussein's birthplace. There, they were ambushed, and from inside armored vehicles, our soldiers killed and wounded some number of Iraqis (maybe eight, maybe 54) who were either vicious rebels or, the Iraqis insist, civilian bystanders.

(No cohesive story of the battle--or whatever it was--may ever emerge. Radically conflicting accounts are what you get when there aren't any journalists around. You think the media lacks objectivity? Try getting your information directly from the sheiks and generals.) Three buildings believed to house rebels were blasted with tank shells and apparently further damaged by tanks smashing into them. One of these buildings, the Iraqis say, was a kindergarten that had been evacuated just in time.

The whole thing, you had to think, was bound to play badly throughout the Islamic world: The Israelis have been doing stuff like this for years, and look how popular they are.

But the military action in Samarra is more than unfortunate. It's spooky, and not only because it reminds us old folks of the fanciful enemy body counts issued so relentlessly by Central Command in Vietnam. The incident seems doubly ominous, because it took place where it did: Samarra figures in a very old, very chilling Middle Eastern fable. Somerset Maugham tells it like this:

(Death is speaking.)

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market, a woman in the crowd jostled me, and when I turned and looked, I saw that it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will flee the city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there death will not find me. So the master lent him the horse and as fast as the horse could gallop the servant went. Then the master went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you threaten my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, but only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

The original significance of the town was more than likely just its location--a hard day's ride from Baghdad. For hundreds of years, though, Samarra has had an association with the idea of fated death.

In this case, it's only a folktale that has attached so much meaning to a place. War often has a similar effect, weighting place names with vast significance: Bunker Hill, Waterloo, Gettysburg, the Somme, Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh. Who among us would have ever heard of them had something huge not happened there? Who'd heard of Basra or Nasiriya before last March? (Somebody once said that war is how Americans learn geography. True fact.)

It's inevitable that a war in the cradle of civilization would drag up place names already dense with associations--like Baghdad itself--into public consciousness, investing them with new layers of association and creating a strange sort of double vision. Aladdin's city has become for us not just a place of wonders; maybe already replacing the old picture is an image of a dusty deathtrap stocked with cheap machine guns.

There were many obvious reasons not to go into Iraq, the least rational of which, I fully admit, was the sense that charging over the graves of the numberless war dead of Ur and Ninevah and Babylon the Great wasn't such a great idea. We've never had good luck on those fertile plains. The Hebrews sat down and wept by the waters of Babylon. It's there in the Psalms.

All that is literally ancient history. Still, many of us feared that when we marched into Iraq, our government made an appointment in Samarra for our soldiers, and very likely for America, too. It looks more and more as if that's exactly what we got.

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