Part 8 of TIME's Return to Baghdad series.
In nearly every American war, places such as Gettysburg and Normandy entered the lexicon because they were turning points, locations from which historians could draw a line to the conflicts' outcomes. Other places such as Antietam, Okinawa and Mutla Ridge earned their infamy because they were areas of brutal fighting and unprecedented carnage.
When historians assess the Iraq war from the far side of time, the city that will fall into the latter category will be Fallujah. The name itself became a symbol. Just as Abu Ghraib came to signify vicious cruelty, Fallujah, a city few had heard of before the war, personified the insurgency as U.S. troops fought Sunni guerrillas, making the place a byword for war as the most brutal of blood sports.
During two large battles in April and November 2004, U.S. Marines and soldiers experienced the most intense urban combat since the Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968. Between the battles, American troops erected a concrete wall around Fallujah to prevent suspected insurgents from leaving the city. Most of the wall still stands, and Iraqi army troops now guard the checkpoints, allowing only those with papers into the city.
News articles and books described the bravery of U.S. troops under despicable conditions. But, during this trip, I was curious about the residents behind the wall, the people of Fallujah, wondering how they managed to survive the carnage and what they are doing now that Americans have left the city. Knowing well the destructiveness of American weapons, I wondered how much of Fallujah had been rebuilt, and how much was left to mend. I was surprised: there was construction on most blocks of the city's main drag, funded by the American military before it left town.
We arrived at the home of a tribal chief who had helped us enter the city. He sat for an interview, arranged interviews with other people important to Fallujah's story and fed us a gargantuan lunch. When we asked to see landmarks of Fallujah's resistance against the Americans the school where Americans opened fire on protesters in April 2003 and the bridge where Fallujis hung the charred bodies of American contractors, prompting the first battle for the city the chief offered to drive us himself.
After donning sport sunglasses over his kaffiyeh, the chief jumped behind the wheel of his Nissan Xterra and gave us the VIP tour of the city. Everywhere we went, Fallujah's policemen greeted him with respect and allowed us access to everything we wished to see. When there was confusion, the chief stepped in himself to ensure we had access.
After four hours of the chief's hospitality, warmth and outright assistance, Bobby Ghosh asked him a question he had asked many Iraqis in other parts of the country. "It's not a perfect comparison," Bobby began, "but America fought a bitter war against Germany and Japan, who are now two close friends. Can you see a day when Fallujis can call the Americans friends?"
The chief barely hesitated before he replied, "No." There has been too much violence, he explained, too many dead for Fallujis to ever trust the Americans.
I digested the chief's answer with a bit of sadness. While he doesn't speak for all Fallujis, there is a good chance that the chief's view is representative of the majority. After tending to our every need for an entire day, knowing full well I was an American and that we write for an American magazine, he said there is no chance Fallujis could bestow forgiveness for the blood and destruction wrought by American hands. I am willing to bet that if you posed the same question to the families of the hundreds of Marines and soldiers who died there, you'd get the same answer. The bitterness of war may never be appeased, not by money or goods, perhaps not even by time.