Just Finished Reading: The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 at 12:10 PM EDT
This is one of those books that sits with you long after youâ€™ve finished it.
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, the renowned war correspondent from the New York Times, was a fascinating read chronicling the authorâ€™s time spent in Afghanistan before and after 9/11/2001, and his three plus years in Iraq after war was declared in March, 2003. Since the book is more memoir/diary than reportage, itâ€™s a bit hard to keep the timeline straight, but Filkins gives us pieces of the conflict in peaks and valleys, from the time Saddam falls to the Sunni Awakening (and all of the ugliness between).
As I was working through it I vacillated between whether it was an astonishingly beautiful and insightful account of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or an astonishing work of ego. While thereâ€™s no doubt that thereâ€™s ego at play here (what war correspondent doesnâ€™t have an obnoxiously large ego?), it really is such a stunning read that I was able to forgive the arrogance.
Besides, Filkins has earned the right to some ego. Heâ€™s spent much of the last decade (and more) reporting from some of the shittiest hell holes on earth, and is a remarkable writer to boot. The moment I decided to forgive him comes about halfway through the book. Heâ€™s gone out with his photographer and a group of marines in order to get a picture of a insurgent whoâ€™d been killed a couple days previous in a battle. The body lies at the top of a mosque minaret. One of the marines, Billy Miller, stepped forward to lead the way up the treacherous stair case. As you can probably see coming, Miller is shot and killed by another insurgent who has found himself (has he been their since the battle? did he come to retrieve his dead comrade and happen to be there at the wrong time?) at the top of the minaret.
Filkins has dedicated the book to Billy Miller, â€œwho went first.â€
Filkins doesnâ€™t come right out and say it, but theyâ€™re looking for that picture of the dead insurgent because someone has made a decision that itâ€™ll sell more newspapers. The New York Times, admirably, spent a lot of money on their Baghdad bureau but itâ€™s hard to forget that they were complicit in starting this war in the first place. With this at the back of my head, and as I was reveling in Filkins beautiful prose, I started thinking about the need for funded news outlets in places like this. On one hand, Filkins wouldnâ€™t have the access or resources that he did without the support of the Times. On the other, the Times helped get us in this mess in the first place, partly because they made editorial decisions to remain â€œneutralâ€ which meant shelving any personal doubts they may have had and focusing on the bottom line instead of the story. I kept wondering: if Filkins had written his stories for the paper as he wrote this book, what influence would it have had? He won numerous awards for his reporting from Fallujah, but those articles donâ€™t deliver the feeling of this war to you the way that this book does. Thereâ€™s a chapter about a raid on a Ramadi hospital that the Americans thought was being used by the insurgents. The Americans are also using this raid as a training mission for Iraqi troops. As Filkins tells it, the Iraqi troops didnâ€™t show up until the raid was over (the troops discovered a bag of cell phones and a bunch of elderly patients), and when they did come they made a big show of busting down doors to empty rooms, then taking a nap in the deserted hallways. The Americans let them sleep while they finished up. The next day, there was a press release from American forces which said â€œearly this morning Iraqi Security Forces, with support from Coalition forces, began searching a hospital in northern Ramadi, which was being used as a center for insurgent activity. This Iraqi Army-led operation will deny the insurgents use of the Saddam Hospital.â€ This little tidbit doesnâ€™t seem to have made it into the Times because Filkins didnâ€™t make it back to the bureau until a few days later. One wonders, if Filkins had written like he writes in this book (ie: if he was allowed to blog instead of succumbing to the constraints of NY Times edited â€œjournalismâ€) what difference it could have made.
Itâ€™s hard following a war from the comfort of Cambridge (ironically, where Filkins now calls home when heâ€™s in the states; heâ€™s currently reporting from Afghanistan in the lead up to that countryâ€™s August elections). Thereâ€™s only so much you can read or watch that will give you any idea whatâ€™s going on. The scale is just too big. Too much death, too much pain, too much destruction, too ugly. Filkins, simply by telling his story, saying what he saw and felt, has brought the war to a micro level that allows us to have some sense of what weâ€™ve signed up forâ€“willingly or unwillingly. He talks about his evening runs (to which I can relate) and what happens at the checkpoints set up along his route (to which I cannot). Itâ€™s his descriptions of the inanities of life going on in this war zone, the profiles of the individuals he met along the way, that bring the human cost into focus. Despite his ego, thereâ€™s a sense of humility that breaks through in his writing style. His writing seems to be both an apology and an act of catharsis. As much a peek into these post-9/11 conflicts this book is an attempt at personal healing. This war has clearly scarred Filkins (at one point after he returns to the States he says heâ€™s unable to speak to anyone who hasnâ€™t been to Iraq about anything at all), yet he keeps going back for more. Selfishly, I look forward to receiving has future dispatches from the front lines.
This article originally appeared on Steps in the Right Direction.