Postcards From the Red Zone

“The book very explicitly doesn’t make an argument,” Mr. Filkins said. “I think most people have been exhausted by the

“The book very explicitly doesn’t make an argument,” Mr. Filkins said. “I think most people have been exhausted by the argument, this way or that. Iraq as an argument, Afghanistan as an argument, what went wrong, what went right, should we or shouldn’t we have. … I really, really didn’t want to go there.”

The big picture, the history of the invasion, so to speak, he would leave to others. The Forever War was going to be about the gust of wind he felt in Fallujah as bullets flew past his head during a shootout, the sound of the American soldier helplessly weeping after opening fire on a minibus carrying a family of 10 because of a misunderstanding, and killing so many of them that the 15-year-old boy who survived did not know who to mourn.

“I could have written an analytical book,” Mr. Filkins said. “But frankly I don’t think it would have been very different from a lot of books out there. The arguments are pretty well known at this point. There isn’t a lot left to say.”

Instead Mr. Filkins wrote down stories—hundreds of them, it feels like, one after the other. About a group of soldiers almost getting blown up because the American gunship hovering over them thought they were insurgents. About an Iraqi sniper soundlessly haunting a group of Marines huddled on a rooftop and trying to pick them off one by one from a building across the street before finally escaping on a bike. About the suicide bombers who liked to drive around Baghdad until they found a group of people they could run over and explode.

Mr. Filkins said he was influenced, from a formal standpoint, by Francois Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. “If I had a subtitle, it would probably be ‘87 short films about Iraq and Afghanistan,’” he said. “That was what I had in mind: These are the things I’ve seen.”

He had 500 pages by the time he was done. Jonathan Segal, his editor at Knopf, helped him cut it to about 350.

“The book was too long,” Mr. Filkins said. “I understood that. When I wrote it, it was like an outpouring—I just had a lot of stuff in there that I needed to get out, but it didn’t necessarily mean that it would fit together, and I think a book like this ideally is pretty rich, and so I think it’s gotta be contained. You just can’t go on forever with this kind of stuff.”

Choosing what stayed and what didn’t, he said, was not as painful as one might expect.

“My measure really was, I wouldn’t write it unless I remembered it,” he said. “If I didn’t remember it, I didn’t go and dig it up. I wanted to write about the things that haunted me. And there was a lot of that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a public execution, but it’s just not something you forget.”

Postcards From the Red Zone