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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 you’ve finished it.

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, the renowned war correspondent from the New York Times, was a fascinating read chronicling the author’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, it’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 there’s no doubt that there’s ego at play here (what war correspondent doesn’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. He’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. He’s gone out with his photographer and a group of marines in order to get a picture of a insurgent who’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.

Ashley [the photographer] was still seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.

Miller appeared. Two marines had pulled him out, Goggin one of them, choking and coughing. Black lung, they called it later. Miller was on his back; he’d come out head first. His face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.

‘Please tell me he’s not dead,’ Ash said. ‘Please tell me.’

‘He’s dead,’ I said.

I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as people say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before. The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across a wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.

Filkins has dedicated the book to Billy Miller, “who went first.”

Filkins doesn’t come right out and say it, but they’re looking for that picture of the dead insurgent because someone has made a decision that it’ll sell more newspapers. The New York Times, admirably, spent a lot of money on their Baghdad bureau but it’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 wouldn’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 “neutral” 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 don’t deliver the feeling of this war to you the way that this book does. There’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 didn’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 “early 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.” This little tidbit doesn’t seem to have made it into the Times because Filkins didn’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 “journalism”) what difference it could have made.

It’s hard following a war from the comfort of Cambridge (ironically, where Filkins now calls home when he’s in the states; he’s currently reporting from Afghanistan in the lead up to that country’s August elections). There’s only so much you can read or watch that will give you any idea what’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 we’ve signed up for–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). It’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, there’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 he’s unable to speak to anyone who hasn’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.