By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The Forever War chronicles the near destruction of social order under the appalling leadership of chief American-occupation authority L. Paul Bremer, whose incompetence reached the moral equivalent of a war crime. Filkins’ early encounters with U.S. troops reveal a military occupation force operating totally out of its depth. When he arrives at a roadblock in a town outside Baghdad moments after a U.S. Army unit has accidentally killed all but one member of a family riding together in a car, he interviews soldiers who numbly try to pass blame on the driver, until one of them turns to take in the devastation and begins to weep. His description of the typical American soldier as “a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance” could stand for the entire U.S. military presence in Iraq at the time.
But Iraq, the U.S. military and Filkins’ own reactions evolve during his nearly four years on the ground. He deftly chronicles the surge in violence that consumed Iraq. As senseless as the bombings and deaths appeared on American TV screens, Filkins delineates the logic underlying much of the carnage. In the sectarian wars waged between Sunni and Shia, he notes that Sunni insurgents purged residents from Shia neighborhoods through targeted murder campaigns in which they methodically killed trash collectors, then bakers and finally teachers. For the Shia, to whom American authorities handed the nation’s powerful security ministries, the task of victimizing Sunni civilians was somewhat easier. They entered Sunni neighborhoods in official vehicles and uniforms and openly rounded up combat-age Sunni males, who were typically driven to government facilities, tortured with power drills and executed, before their corpses were left in soccer fields and other public places. Writing with dispassion, Filkins allows the enormity of the horror to speak for itself.
Personal sentiment does occasionally color his prose, but with a restraint that lends it all the more power. He tells the story of Wijdan Al-Khuzai, an Iraqi woman who sought a role as political reformer and was tortured and murdered by insurgents in a campaign aimed at judges and newspaper editors. “The insurgents were brilliant at that,” Filkins writes. “They could spot a fine mind or a tender soul, chase it down and kill it dead. The heart of a nation. Their precision was astounding.”
Filkins wisely chooses to avoid the issues that have obsessed the American public — the lies and incompetence of the Bush administration, the failure to find WMD, Abu Ghraib and the lack of proper armor among some troops. By doing so, he highlights important themes overlooked in our domestic debate. Back home, the rising death toll of U.S. troops was often seen as prima facie evidence of the Iraqi people rejecting an American presence. The Forever War often makes the opposite argument. While Filkins dutifully quotes Iraqis who vow to eject the “American occupiers,” more often than not he finds himself at the scenes of bombings and firefights where Iraqis pull him aside to whisper their support for American troops. Their reasoning is self-evident: In the growing sectarian warfare, despite bad tactics and poor leadership of the U.S. troops Filkins encounters early on, American soldiers form the only barrier against total anarchy. Ultimately, as they repeatedly march into harm’s way, the American troops earn Filkins’ admiration for their professionalism. Accompanying a Marine captain named Omohundro into some of the worst combat in Fallujah, he writes, “It was an odd thing about leadership; people talked about it and CEOs wrote books about it. But there was nothing like facing death to feel it in the flesh. Omohundro never wavered. ... It was as if he wore a mask, and with that mask he gave people more courage than they knew they had.” But later, describing the deaths in combat of several young Marines he came to know and depend on, he makes the plain observation: “There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. And they were good killers, too; they didn’t ask a lot of questions. They took orders and they did it.”
Near the end of his stay in Iraq, even anti-American Sunni insurgents complain to Filkins of indiscriminate murders committed by foreign jihadists in the name of al Qaeda. In its own way, The Forever War affirms the case made by General Petraeus at the start of the surge in early 2007: that above all else, Iraqis wanted basic security, no matter who could provide it. As Filkins puts it, “Iraq might have been a traumatized country, it might have been broken, it might have been atomized.... But whenever the prospect of normalcy presented itself, a long line of Iraqis always stood up and reached for it.”
While it ends before the imposition of the surge led to the dramatic reductions in violence of the past year, Filkins’ account contains an oblique warning to those trumpeting success today. As he writes, “From the beginning, Iraq was a con game, with the Iraqis moving and rearranging shells, and the Americans trying to guess which one hid the stone.” Getting to know Iraq, as Filkins presents it, one can’t help but worry that the success of the surge may be part of a newer, even more elaborate con game to which we aren’t fully wise.