In November 2013, I was traveling in and out of southern Turkey. I'd come there for a number of reasons but most fundamentally to understand how the wars I'd fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were echoing out into the current revolution in Syria.

One evening, a friend of mine named Abed, who worked for a humanitarian aid organization and himself had been a democratic activist in the Syrian revolution, told me he'd met someone in a refugee camp who "he really thought I should meet." He explained that the man's name was Abu Hassar, that he'd fought for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that he thought the two of us "would really get along."

A few days later, Abu Hassar and I met, two veterans of the Iraq war though we'd fought on opposite sides. Up to that point, the wars had been the defining event of my life. Fighting in them had been like a shadow dance, in which you never see your partner.

Ten years later, on that day in 2013, I wanted to meet my partner, this person who had so defined me. Meeting Abu Hassar was a gamble, because I was betting that my fascination with him would prove equal to his fascination with me.

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Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images

A hundred years ago, at the height of the First World War, John Tolkien, a 25-year-old former lieutenant with the Lancaster Fusiliers, went walking with his wife, Edith, in the Yorkshire countryside. He’d recently returned to Britain from the battlefields of France, after acquiring a case of trench fever. Both the condition and his harrowing experiences in the Battle of the Somme, which claimed the lives of some 600,000 allied soldiers, had weakened him. The carnage continued after he left, decimating nearly his entire battalion. “By 1918,” he wrote later, “all but one of my close friends was dead.” As he walked with his wife, they came to a glade flowered with hemlock. Tolkien sat down to rest. His wife, who was struggling to restore his spirits, began to dance for him among the flowers.

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