Seen from 75 feet above the desert pan at 100 mph, the western rim of the Euphrates Valley appears to be firmly occupied by the U.S. Army. Tanks and artillery, ammunition trucks and command posts pass beneath the fuselage of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a two-hour flight. American forces seem omnipresent if not omnipotent.
Two high-ranking officers from the 101st Airborne Division are inspecting the terrain, comparing mental images pulled from maps and reconnaissance photos with the reality of this Mesopotamian landscape. They may be heading this way soon with their troops.
The beautiful day is all the lovelier for following a three-day wind and dust storm of biblical intensity. Greening wheat fields patch the desert. Sheep scatter at the sound of rotor blades. Camels graze around a few scraggly palm trees. Farmers standing on a dike lift their arms in what may or may not be a sincere gesture of welcome.
"They're waving," one officer says. "That's a good sign."
Three little OH-58 Kiowa gunships trail the Black Hawk as bodyguards, zipping like water bugs. A pair of door gunners man M-60 machine guns in the Black Hawk. "There's a truck," one says over the intercom, "but I can't see what's in it."
The desert yields to marshes, punctuated with white egrets. A woman draped in black flicks a switch at a pair of donkeys. An old man in a turban looks up from the well next to a flat-roofed adobe house.
"Vehicle at 12 o'clock," one of the two pilots announces.
"Just let me know if there's a machine gun in the back," replies the senior officer.
Two miles to the east, atop a stony escarpment lined with palms, the besieged city of Najaf comes into view. Minarets and the dome of a mosque are visible above an apartment building. The city is now surrounded by troops from the 3rd Infantry Division, who have been fighting here all week against several thousand soldiers and paramilitary irregulars. A battery of M-109A6 Paladin self-propelled guns faces northeast, tubes raised toward Najaf.
"Sir, I really don't want to go near the town," the pilot says.
"Nor do I," the senior officer agrees.
The helicopter follows Alternate Supply Route Boston, code name for a blacktop highway running north.
"We're getting tagged with radar," the pilot says. "It's off to the west. Our stuff." There would be concern if the radar watching the helicopter were Iraqi.
"Looks like tanks out there."
Abandoned Iraqi trench lines squiggle across the desert. A destroyed pickup truck and antiaircraft gun litter the roadside. An American flag flaps above a one-story building.
The helicopter turns south after nearly reaching the northern limit of the 3rd Division's lines above Najaf. What is held is held firmly, but it is a small sliver of Mesopotamia after all.
On the return trip to the 101st headquarters at this desert base, an incident reminds everyone that danger lurks everywhere on the battlefield.
"Wait. Stop, stop," the senior officer calls to the pilot. "Turn around. Looks like someone is waving his arms."
Someone is in fact waving. Blinded by a sudden dust devil, the driver of a heavy truck towing a 2,500-gallon fuel tank has plowed head-on into a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The Black Hawk lands just as the driver, from the 82nd Airborne Division, is laid on a board by medics from the 3rd Division's 15th Infantry Regiment.
The truck cab is utterly crushed and splattered with blood. The smell of JP-8 fuel saturates the air. Detritus from the truck litters the desert: a bottle of Tabasco sauce, Power Duster in a spray can, two overshoes from a chemical protective suit, a crumpled ammunition box, a can of Mountain Dew.
The officers from the 101st lend their Black Hawk for medical evacuation to an aid station eight miles up the road. The driver is badly hurt, but he will live. His body armor may have saved him from fatal internal injuries. He gives a thumbs-up sign as medics lift him from the helicopter bay. His war is over.