The Forever War
By Dexter Filkins
Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $25
Dexter Filkins is a runner. During his three and a half years in Iraq, he’d regularly lace up his shoes, don his short shorts and stride along the Tigris River even in unbearable, 100-degree-plus heat. At first it was a simple, there-and-back, five-mile course, past waving children and friendly folks, past a field of green the Americans had laid by the riverbank as part of a park project. Then his path was truncated by a checkpoint, then by another, until finally his run was a short sprint distance that he’d repeat enough times to make his mileage. Over time, a pack of dogs that had taken over the park got together to bark and howl as he, quite possibly their only human visitor, ran past. The checkpoint guards—once so friendly they’d bought him an Iraqi soccer uniform—came to eye him with indifference or worse. These were new guards, and they weren’t interested in goodwill gestures.
The handful of interludes in The Forever War when he takes off on a jog—recently stitched together with some other material from the book for a New York Times Magazine story—reveal as much about Mr. Filkins, an almost absurdly brave war correspondent for The Times, as anything else in his brilliant, sad, unique book. Mr. Filkins gives away very little about himself directly, except that he’s a serious runner. And serious runners are a type, sort of like racehorses with their blinders: They will endure just about anything—pain, discomfort, fear—for the relief and satisfaction that come at the end of a run.
It seems to be the same with our best war correspondents and photographers. We marvel at how they tolerate so much danger for a story or a photograph, but the fact is they just can’t help it. It’s not so much deliberate heroism or a desire to prove something as it is a compulsion. A serious runner doesn’t decide to train—she just does. Nor does a war reporter decide each day to risk his life, though he does.
MR. FILKINS DOESN’T BOAST in The Forever War, which is sort of a collection of vignettes from Afghanistan and Iraq from 1998 to 2006. It matters less to him in what order things happened, though the book is roughly chronological, than how the events of his reporting lined up in his mind. Reading The Forever War is like spending a few days with a storyteller whose memory is jogged to tell a new tale each time he’s finished the last one.
One minute you’re at a shrine in Najaf in 2004, watching the Mahdi Army file out; then you’re in Mosul at the scene of a shooting of two American soldiers; then leaving Ramadi in 2003, driving on Highway 10 after a meeting with a colonel, witnessing the aftermath of a roadside bomb attack. There’s no real cast of characters to follow, though Mr. Filkins’ translators and drivers pop up here and there, often in life-saving roles. And so does Ashley Gilbertson, his frequent photographer companion. Though The Forever War isn’t particularly easy to read—I needed a break from the war and its brutality every 10 or 15 pages (some war correspondent I’d make!)—it may be the most readable book about Iraq. It’s certainly one of the most artful.
Of course, The Forever War amounts to far more than a series of sketches. Over its 350-odd pages, Mr. Filkins shows again and again how the Americans willfully deceived themselves into thinking that with enough public works projects and cash and candy and footballs, they could rebuild Iraq and stabilize it (with brute force if necessary), and turn it into a democracy. Iraqis, meanwhile, were all the time leading double lives—a fact that the U.S. government, for the most part, refused to grasp even as correspondents such as Mr. Filkins were reporting it out.
“There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves,” writes Mr. Filkins. “The one the Iraqis were having with us—that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing, or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered of course. That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it.”
As the war goes on and the insurgency grows, the two conversations grow into three or four, and then more, with the Americans as likely to double-speak as anyone else. Unveiling ceremonies for public works projects requested by local leaders and paid for by the Americans become sites for car and suicide bombers, who may be Sunni, Shiite or Al Qaeda. An interview appointment begins only after Mr. Filkins’ subject inquires of his interpreter about joining forces and kidnapping the reporter, in order to exact an enormous ransom. Upright military men begin to lose their minds, and allow their soldiers to come up with innovative methods of “non-lethal” force, including shoving Iraqis out past curfew into the river. Mr. Filkins’ postcards get darker and darker as he travels the country less and less; the reader can feel his sadness at being cut off from the places where he once collected stories.
Near the end of the book, in a section about a Sunni neighborhood under attack by the Shiite police, Mr. Filkins writes: “I couldn’t go to Adamiyah anymore, so I had one of our drivers bring some of the Adamiyah locals to me.” There’s sadness in that line, sadness for himself, but especially for the country.
In his epilogue, Mr. Filkins is back in the States, and people are asking if Iraq “is as bad as people said. … ‘Oh, definitely,’ I told them, and then, usually, I stopped.” He watches as their eyes glaze over while he tells his stories. He gives up. A fellow reporter tells him that he can’t discuss Iraq with anyone who hasn’t been there. Writes Mr. Filkins: “I told him I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.”
Dexter Filkins may feel he can’t talk to just anyone about Iraq, let alone anything else. But he can, and he has. We’re the better for it.
Hillary Frey is a senior editor at The Observer. She can be reached at email@example.com.