THAT’S THE SIGN YOU READ as you leave Forward Operating Base Duke; it’s painted on a concrete barrier as you pass the gate. I saw it on my first convoy, as our three Humvees headed out to the city of Najaf. I was full of anticipation that day—the guys on my Civil Affairs team had taken me under their wing, and things were going well—and the sign caught my eye. Underneath the stenciled markings, the quote is attributed to Plato. For some reason, I find the words reassuring. I guess maybe because I’m not dead.

Najaf is in a Shia-controlled province, and it is where the mosque of Imam Ali (whom the Shia revere as the prophet Muhammad’s first deputy) and an enormous cemetery where all Shia wish to be buried are located. The mosque and the cemetery are the main sources of the Shia clerics’ power in Iraq, much like Mecca is an anchor of power for the Saudis. You might remember the August 2004 battle in Najaf between our military and the militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; we eventually evicted al-Sadr, and things now are relatively peaceful. Still, I have to admit that on my initial drive, I kept my eyes wide open, looking closely at the passing people, the cars, the palm groves, and the roadside fruit stands, watching for any sign of those dreaded IEDs.

Our first destination that day was the site of a new river walk, a reconstruction project along the Euphrates. On the surface, the intent behind a civic effort like this is to create a place for people to gather and socialize; on a deeper level, it’s an opportunity for us to win the Iraqis’ trust by showing how much we value their culture. Our team tracks these many reconstruction projects; we inspect for progress, oversee the Iraqi contractors and engineers, and determine payment as the project develops. You can’t pay the entire contract all up front, obviously—you’d probably never see progress and definitely never see the money again—so we go by a sliding scale based on the percentage of the project completed. This means that we have to check on the projects monthly, to determine who gets what on contractor payday.

For me, getting out of the Humvee by the Euphrates that first time was like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool. It’d been a long while since my first tour in Iraq, and back then I was a staff weenie. (I spent more time on the streets during my first week here than I did the entire time in 2003.) As I walked Najaf’s streets, I was surrounded by Iraqis working—there are many open-air markets in the city—walking, and driving by in trucks, cars, and little donkey carts. Some people could find this scary—there’s a definite sense of vulnerability—but for me it was invigorating, I’m not sure why. It still is. I’ve been doing this work for about two months now, and we go into Najaf about five times a week. Each time, we’ll look around a project, talk to the contractors, and then they’ll offer us some locally produced sodas. They always offer us sodas. We always take them and say, “Shukran, shukran” (“thank you” in Arabic). They offer lunch too, but we say that we must go, that there are many projects to see, and then we’re gone, off to the next site.

I have to be honest: The work is fun. And I’ve reached a point where I feel fairly safe. I’m not complacent—that’s dangerous—but with each experience, I get the feeling that most of the people in this region are happy we’re here. The other day, for example, we traveled south of Najaf to a small town. We have a project in that area—a bridge—but there had been a dispute between the contractor and the local sheik. Conflicts over projects typically arise when someone feels left out (his pride is hurt or he doesn’t understand why he isn’t profiting from the situation), and in this case, the sheik was giving the contractor hell every time he tried to start work. The sheik’s son had invited us to lunch to smooth things over, and we went to tell the sheik how important it was for both of us to get the bridge built.

When we arrived, all the men in the village had turned out, and after we exchanged greetings, they invited us into what looked like a big ramshackle hut. It was about a hundred feet long and twenty feet tall, and it was shaped like a loaf of bread; enormous bales of straw supported its sides, and straw mats lay overhead like a canopy. The inside, however, was incredible. The minute you entered, you were hit with cooler air. The men had a fire pit in the middle of the floor and several large brass urns for boiling water. The ground was covered end to end in rugs, and pillows lined the sides. We sat down on the floor with the sheik, his son, and the local police chief. All the other men sat around us; there were about twenty of us total. We discussed business for a while and eventually came to an agreement, and the sheik told us how much he wanted to cooperate. Then we had lunch. No—we had a feast. The Iraqis eat family style, each person helping himself from big plates in the middle. Utensils are few and far between, and this one old man (we called him “hajji,” a term of respect for either a Mecca pilgrim or an elder) kept grabbing big handfuls of food and throwing them on my plate, imploring me to eat. Despite my discomfort with the man’s poor hygiene, the meal was great. The dishes were piled high with saffron rice and loaded with whole roasted chickens. We had plates of tomato soup, filled with potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers; eggplants stuffed with rice, garlic, and tomatoes; piles of flat bread; bananas; apples; hummus; yogurt; and to top it all off, RC Cola! Amazing.

Afterward, we gathered around the fire pit. One of the helpers served us little glasses of chai tea, and we visited like family. Our translator, a 27-year-old Iraqi who learned English at the medical school in Baghdad, assisted us as we talked about the war, Hurricane Katrina, America, and our opinions of the Iraqi people. I’m realizing how much the Iraqis are, for the most part, really like us. We have different habits and customs, of course, but deep down, we’re more alike than different. They asked us, “What do you think about the Iraqi people?” One of my soldier friends who had helped organize the meeting answered, “The Iraqis are like Americans. You want security, you want a place for your family, and you want to be free.” They nodded their heads and smiled in agreement. It was a really cool moment.