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.
The author arrived in Iraq on the first day of the invasion, driving a rented GMC truck over the border as U.S. and British troops poured in. Shunning the strictures of the U.S. military’s embed program, he got out and mixed with Iraqis, and was consequently able to capture the exuberance, hope and desperation with which many Iraqis initially greeted the Americans. At the same time, he notes the star-crossed nature of Iraqi-American relations from the beginning: “There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans, and the one they were having among themselves.”
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.
The Forever War is an astonishingly good book about a subject many Americans are increasingly resistant to inquire about. If it weren’t fact-based, but a novel, it would simply be a haunting work about the frailty of the human condition.
THE FOREVER WAR | By DEXTER FILKINS | Alfred A. Knopf | 384 pages | $25 hardcover
Dexter Filkins appears with fellow foreign correspondent Farnaz Fassihi at ALOUD, Los Angeles Central Library, on Thursday, September 18 at 7 p.m. (213) 228-7025 or aloudla.org.
Evan Wright is the author of Generation Kill. He was last in Iraq in August 2007, reporting on the U.S. troop surge.