The Forever War

Dexter Filkins reported from Afghanistan for the Los Angeles Times and from Iraq for The New York Times. To call him a frontline reporter would be to diminish his work; for the most part he was not embedded in the U.S. Army -- dangerous as that was -- but rather embedded in both Iraq and the United States. He went out to the villages and to the countryside, talking to tribal leaders, village elders, and all the men and women (and children) he could engage. Unlike the stud scuds of the first conflict with Iraq, secure in their rear echelon hotels, and unlike the pundits and theorists, ensconced in their Washington think tanks, Filkins learned everything he has to tell us about the wars and occupations in these lands from firsthand experience -- often near-death experiences.

Filkins gives us the face of battle, jihadi and fedayeen style, as their suicide bombs and sniper rounds take their toll on the young Marines he follows. His descriptions of the wounds are graphic, as are his descriptions of the different ways Sunnis and Shiites dispatch Western hostages. And he is full of practical information: when there are no toilets, he explains how thousands of troops use cardboard boxes. He knows that suicide bombs raise white smoke, unlike artillery rounds. He tells us that Marine helicopters need to take off at night because they lack the maneuverability of their Army counterparts and would get shot down in daylight flights. He reveals that the well-known "corkscrew" maneuver to land at Baghdad airport is a poor description of landing tactics: it turns out that smart pilots head straight for the ground, then pull up at the last minute to avoid incoming fire. If you see black flags, it means insurgents are signaling that American military units have entered the neighborhood. When you enter a kebab restaurant, it helps if your escort casually puts a Browning 9mm pistol on the table. If you want to see wonderful Western paintings by Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, and others (including two by the Jewish painter Marc Chagall), you could cross the border to take in a tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Teheran. You'll even learn quite a bit of useful Arabic from this book: Aktuluhum! (Kill them!); Kala kala Ameriki (No, no to Americans); Ashrab min Damhum (I will drink their blood).

Often Filkins gets into trouble. If he follows Marine units, he takes the same fire they do; he unsparingly (and perhaps unfairly) blames himself for getting a Marine killed because he and a cameraman wanted to go into a mosque to take a picture, and it led to a fatal ambush. If he goes off by himself, he is subject to the whim of anyone with a gun. Here he describes a Taliban checkpoint in Herat: "The Talibs pulled me out of the taxi and one of them raised his gun to my head so I pulled out a business card, embossed with gothic letters, Los Angeles Times, very impressive, a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Talib grasped it, looked at it, and threw it into the street." It took fast talking from Filkin's interpreter to get him out of that jam. On another occasion, in Iraq, Filkins concluded a successful interview with a Sunni sheikh and then learned from his interpreter that the sheikh "was proposing that both of us kidnap you and hold you for ransom and split the money."

Although most of the book consists of harrowing reportage, Filkins is a wonderful social analyst when he chooses to generalize, especially about postwar Iraq: "Some days I thought we had broken into a mental institution, one of the old ones, from the nineteenth century, where societies used to dump people and forget about them. It was like we had pried the doors off and found all these people clutching themselves and burying their heads in the corners and sitting in their own filth. It was useful to think of Iraq this way. It helped in your analysis. Murder and torture and sadism: it was part of Iraq. It was in people's brains." Yet there were idealistic Iraqis, and Filkins describes them: the doctors who staffed hospitals, the journalists and teachers trying to create a civil society. But he also recounts the tragedy that befell these people, as they were targeted by insurgents determined that no such society could be created.

There were tragedies aplenty for the Americans as well. Filkins recounts how a "can-do" Army lieutenant colonel (who had been a successful West Point quarterback) began his tour of duty with efforts at civil reconstruction. As the insurgency took off, his commanders insisted on higher body counts and harsher measures. The colonel tolerated tough tactics. When some of his men threw two Iraqis into a river and one of them drowned, the colonel failed to cooperate fully with military investigators, was censured, and eventually quit the military. The one enlisted man who had tried to prevent the incident was ostracized in his unit, and he, too, quit the military -- eventually robbing a bank Stateside.

Filkins ultimately found himself cut off from reporting by the deteriorating conditions. The New York Times bureau "became a fortress, a high-walled castle from another century." The street was blocked off, concrete blast walls erected, coils of razor wire strung, 40 armed guards hired, searchlights placed on the roof, a security adviser retained. The bureau kept three armored cars for transportation. To keep his sanity, Filkins jogged by the river, meeting children along the way; two of them often jogged with him, perhaps to keep their sanity as well.

"You had to accept your ignorance," Filkins tells us about analyzing events in Iraq. "It was the beginning of whatever wisdom you could hope to muster." In this extraordinary book of reportage, Filkins has given us all the wisdom he could hope to muster, and in so doing helps to reduce the ignorance of the rest of us.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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