When he left Iraq in August 2006, Dexter Filkins didn’t expect to return anytime soon. He’d been there, reporting for The New York Times, since the U.S. invaded three years earlier. Before that he was in Afghanistan, covering a different war. He’d filled 561 notebooks over the course of his years in the Middle East, and that felt like enough: As he put it last week in an interview with The Observer, he was pretty wiped out.
He said this over the phone, speaking from The Times’ Baghdad bureau. He’d been there a month. The city was calmer than it was when he’d left it two years before, he said, and it felt good to be back.
It was a well-timed trip, given that this week brings the publication of Mr. Filkins’ book The Forever War, which draws almost entirely on those 561 notebooks. They weren’t supposed to be a book, Mr. Filkins said. It wasn’t until the very end of his time in Iraq that he decided they might add up to one. Of course, the war was nothing like over by the time he left; as he explained last week, Baghdad was a “dying city” and “the country was tearing itself to pieces.” The story did not have an ending, in other words, but Mr. Filkins had realized that waiting for one was hopeless, so he decided to go ahead and start writing anyway.
“It was this gigantic thing, and this extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, to put it mildly,” Mr. Filkins said of the war. “I was always waiting for it to turn. I was waiting for some kind of resolution, whether bad or good. It didn’t come by the late summer of 2006, and that’s a long time. It was as good a place as any to end. … Certainly Iraq is not over by any stretch—nor is Afghanistan for that matter—but that wasn’t my purpose. I didn’t want to write a blow-by-blow of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
What he wanted, Mr. Filkins said, was to write about how it felt to be there: “What it’s like to go to a car bombing. What it’s like to see someone die in front of you. What it’s like to be shot at and missed. That kind of thing. But more than that, really, the fear, the elation that you can experience in a situation like that—the ambiguity, the confusion. You know, being in the middle of a war is a very intense experience both intellectually and emotionally, and I wanted to try to capture that.”
Mr. Filkins wrote most of the book at Harvard, where he spent two academic years—from September 2006 through this past June—as a fellow. He did a lot of the work in Widener Library, he said, spreading before him on the long wooden tables in the reading room the photos that his colleagues had taken of dead Iraqis and bloody battlefields, trying to “breathe all this stuff in and revive the memories” as students around him worked on problem sets and English papers.
“I had no outline when I wrote,” Mr. Filkins said. “I really just wanted to open a vein and write.”
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH the book, Mr. Filkins is in a Black Hawk, flying high over Iraq and looking out the window. “The anarchy of the streets carried no sound so high; every haphazardness of the place, the trash, the goats, the fields of junk, seemed, from the distance, planned and carefully measured, like a city by L’Enfant,” he writes. “It was useful to fly in helicopters for this reason, I thought to myself, useful to think this way, to take a wider view of the world. Too much detail, too much death, clouded the mind.”
It must have been a fleeting thought, because The Forever War is first and foremost a work of detail: an object lesson in how to notice, how to restrain yourself from taking the wider view.