During the August 2004 Mahdi uprising in Najaf, when a barefoot army of poor Shia workers, neglected by their own (American-selected) leaders in Baghdad, took up arms in a doomed struggle against the U.S. military, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins snuck down an alley behind golden-domed Imam Ali mosque, where the Mahdi fighters were making their last stand. In his new book, The Forever War, Filkins describes an encounter that day with a small group of enemy combatants fleeing an American Apache gunship pursuing them from the sky. “A pair of Mahdi fighters entered the alley, carrying a bleeding comrade. ... His black tunic was soaked in blood. ‘You are a hero,’ one of them whispered to the wounded man. ‘A hero.’”
Of the many reports to come from Western journalists in Iraq these past several years, few have managed to capture the humanity of enemy combatants, as Filkins does in several places throughout The Forever War, portraying them as committed, brave, tender. To apply the term “hero,” even in quotes, to an enemy fighter is a small but radical act by the prevailing standards of American journalism. But Filkins, who started at the Miami Herald and served as the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in New Delhi before moving to The New York Times in 2000, is a courageous reporter and an original writer.
The Forever War encompasses roughly eight years of reportage, beginning in Afghanistan in 1998 and ending in Iraq in 2006. Fresh from assignments in Afghanistan, Filkins had the peculiar good luck to make it into Lower Manhattan within hours of the collapse of the Twin Towers, before returning to the Middle East to cover the American invasions. To the many readers for whom the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are neither comparable nor equally justified, the idea of squeezing them together into the same book might be problematic. Moreover, Filkins avoids any discussion of policy or strategy that might connect the two disparate war zones. For him, it suffices that he was witness to more key events in the “War on Terror” than all but a handful of people on the planet. It turns out his calculations were sound, largely because Filkins has the instincts of a short-story writer. The book unfolds episodically. Locations and characters change, but the narrative holds together through the power of his writing.
Filkins arrived in Afghanistan in 1998 as the Taliban was attempting to consolidate its rule after nearly two decades of war. He describes that nascent fundamentalist republic in almost bitterly comic terms: “It was a freak show, a novel experiment, a place where, if you were willing to fly the distance and endure the hardships, you could see with your own eyes a civilization imploded, and all the new creatures and philosophies it produced.”
Filkins’ account of Taliban rule includes the many oddities and horrors that became familiar to Americans after the 9/11 attacks — the hardscrabble life in shattered cities, the harsh subjugation of women, the executions and dismemberments in the name of shari’a justice. His description of events is detailed and deeply felt, while his reporting is of the arm’s-length variety — mingling with executioners or victims’ family members as they witness and react to events alongside him. Filkins employs the first person throughout, but his presence is muted; he serves as narrator, but the book never becomes a reporter’s adventure story.
Among the best passages are those in which Filkins veers into unexpected settings and displays his talent for the evocative detail. On a road outside Kandahar, he introduces us to Juma, a butcher whose worktable, laid out with knives, is set up beside an old minefield. He survives by harvesting the goats that periodically stray into the field and blow themselves up. Retrieving their carcasses at great personal risk, Juma proves his mastery over the perverse ecosystem of war.
Filkins has a keen instinct for conflict as it bears down on the smallest players — foot soldiers, low-level commanders and farmers, street merchants and others trying to scrape by in war, yet he occasionally encounters the generals and political leaders seeking to wrest control of uncontrollable situations. For the most part, the higher authorities appear like drunken gods, sweeping down to stir and mock the mortals. In Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, Filkins recounts accompanying then–U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson to broker peace between the Taliban leaders and assorted warlords. Aboard the plane with Richardson as they fly out of Kabul at the end of the mission, Filkins quotes the ambassador making the doomed, fatuous pronouncement, “I looked into the eyes of the Afghan people today and saw that they want peace.” Filkins notes that while the plane gained altitude, the sky below turned orange, as warring factions on the ground resumed their nightly artillery duels.