When was the last time you spared a thought - any thought, good or ill - for the war in Iraq?
It isn't actually over, the war, though it is easy to forget that, given the paucity of U.S. news coverage. Insurgents struck three Iraqi cities only yesterday, killing at least 60 in what analysts think was an attempt to ratchet up the terror level as the U.S. and Iraqi governments discuss a continued American presence in the country past 2011.
That's right: Odds are that U.S. troops will still be in Iraq in 2012, two years after the ballyhooed 2010 withdrawal of the last combat brigade.
And yet, for most of us, the Iraq war is so 2004.
But not for everyone. Early this month, I got a call from Army Maj. Matthew Benigni, whom I met seven years ago at a dismal and dusty Army base nicknamed the Dirty Bird on the edge of Sadr City, a restive Baghdad suburb.
Back then, Benigni was a company commander in the First Cavalry Division, and he and his troops had the unenviable job of fighting elements of the Mahdi Army, the insurgent-political group led by the cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Camp Dirty Bird was only a few miles from the Green Zone, but it felt much farther than that. Mortars rained down on Benigni and his soldiers at all hours, the shelling especially intense at chow time. The commissary shelves were largely bare, except for the ample supply of dusty tins of sardines and magazine titles like Sophisticated Black Hair and Celebrity Hairstyles.
It was a miserable posting, and Benigni was there when it was just becoming clear that the United States was in for a far longer slog than President George W. Bush and company had advertised.
His men were a little testy, a little tired, and maybe a little unclear on their mission, which was evolving from pure combat to the far more sensitive counterinsurgency tactics - the drinking of tea and the meeting with sheikhs - that played a greater role as the war dragged on.
And then I showed up. An embed, working for this paper, to take notes on every last utterance made by then-Capt. Benigni and his troops over the course of a few long days.
They said some intemperate things.
One lieutenant likened Iraqis to cockroaches as he excitedly recounted the way a tank in a big operation in Sadr City the day before had crushed homes and marketplaces. Another lieutenant told Benigni, in front of me, that the insurgents were "winning." When Benigni assured him they weren't, the lieutenant replied, "It seems like it, sir. It seems like they're outsmarting us."
In the context of the war these guys were fighting, these remarks didn't seem crazy to me. But they did suggest that, in at least one unit, the switch from war mode to rebuilding mode was not going smoothly.
Unbeknownst to me, the story rankled Benigni for years.
"The analogy I would use is, if someone hung around your house for five days, they could write a story with actual quotes in it that doesn't portray your marriage the way you perceive it," Benigni told me this month, during a one-hour conversation he called an "embed reunion."
"The respect for life was very important to me, and it was very important for me to make sure that my unit was able to use force in a manner that would keep them safe and accomplish our mission, but [also] to treat people with respect and be able to leave there feeling good about what you did."
And yet, Benigni said, his view of the story, and of the war, had changed - some - over the years. When I arrived, Benigni had been in command for only a few weeks.
"I was really trying to turn around a - I wouldn't call it a culture - but you know, all the interaction those guys had with local nationals. Much of it was through the sights of their weapon at that point," he said.
In the months after I left, Benigni said, his company's focus changed. He and his men routinely visited the private residences of average Iraqis. Inside closed doors, he said, Iraqi hostility often melted away, and his soldiers would talk to Sadr City residents about life under Saddam Hussein, about what it was like to live in occupied Iraq.
The visits were designed to help Benigni construct an intelligence picture of his command area. But they served another purpose, too.
"That's what started to turn around a lot of the attitudes of my soldiers, sitting and listening to these conversations," Benigni said. "All of a sudden there was a context where they could view what's going on."
It was this evolution, repeated in many different companies, over many years, that ultimately made the country safe enough (relatively) for a U.S. exit to even be possible. And it is profoundly encouraging to know that there are self-aware Army officers like Benigni who are still chewing their experiences over so many years later.