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A Journalist Draws on 561 Notebooks to Tell about the War in Afghanistan and Iraq

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Dexter Filkins

Reviewed by Art Winslow
Chicago Tribune

In 1998, before the clarifying attacks of 2001 shocked the West into higher gear in its anti-terror efforts, Dexter Filkins was a reporter making trips into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Among the things he witnessed was a public execution at a Kabul soccer stadium, a sanctioned revenge killing by the brother of a murder victim in accordance with sharia law. Filkins had been given a choice seat, midfield, as the loudspeakers proclaimed, "Nothing that is being done here is against God's law," and a departing spectator later told him, "In America, you have television and movies -- the cinema. Here, there is only this."

Filkins recalls the land-mine-saturated terrain and the population of amputees and orphans as inhabiting a place "self-absorbed in its writhings," a civilization "imploded" from 23 years of war that was more or less lost to sight of the larger world. September 11 changed all that, and Filkins was there to report on the fighting that ensued, a stark prologue to Iraq, where he followed the war as well, from the U.S. invasion in 2003 until 2006.

The Forever War is Filkins's first-person account of what he saw in those years, and of whom he interviewed as well, including the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud (an enemy of Osama bin Ladin assassinated by agents of Al Qaeda just two days before 9/11), Ahmad Chalabi, (the Iraqi exile whose claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction helped clear the path for the war), Sunni and Shia sheiks, paramilitary leaders, insurgents and members of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia (the Mahdi Army), the parents of a suicide bomber, a host of U.S. servicemen, and Paul "Jerry" Bremer (head of the Coalition Provisional Authority the first year following Saddam Hussein's ouster).

Simply put, The Forever War is credibly the best single source from which to glean an understanding of the so-called war on terror from its front lines. This is not to slight the journalistic insights of Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind, Seymour Hersh, Lawrence Wright, Steve Coll, George Packer, Richard Clarke, Thomas Ricks and others who have shed light on varied aspects of this war, either the limited war geographically or the more globalized contest in cultural terms. But what Filkins has to offer—the mixed motives and experience of the participants, the fluidity and nuance of action and reaction, the volatility of many fidelities, the sheer hatred and violence as they play out, the sorrow atop sorrow—is first-rate perspective that derives from lived circumstance, not policy debates.

The source of Filkins's somber title can be found in the comments of a 17-year-old jihadist he interviewed in Afghanistan. A Pakistani taken prisoner near Kabul by the Northern Alliance, the young man had been taught at a madrassa (religious school) by his father, wished to avenge a brother who had been killed fighting the Soviet Union, and told Filkins that "There is no end to the jihad. It will go on forever until doomsday."

Much of Filkins's book hurtles its way through Anbar Province, the bedrock of the insurgency, and the rubble of embattled Iraqi cities, most notably Falluja, Ramadi and Najaf, where he was witness to some of the signal battles; it also chronicles his frequent trips into the patchwork of neighborhoods and suburbs that constitute greater Baghdad, amid warring factions bent on ethnic cleansing, where car bombs, suicide bombers and kidnappings have been the order of the day. (Filkins's reporting predates the troop surge in the city, it should be noted.)

Filkins has double-checked with many of his original sources to recast material from 561 notebooks he had filled, frequently grouping it around themes. Thus, varied episodes involving snipers, or car and suicide bombs, will be clustered together rather than separated in chronological fashion. One minor complaint to be voiced about The Forever War is that it would have benefited from more specific dating, to signal when in the course of the war the events took place. (The car bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad was relatively early in the insurgency, in October 2003, for example, while the suicide bombing of the Buratha Mosque took place in June 2006.)

Filkins quite casually refers to the Sunni-Shia fighting as civil war, a characterization that has been much debated here; overall, he lets what he reports speak for itself rather than argue such points. His sharp eye for detail and the telling quotation lend great authority. Car bombs and suicide bombers usually produce a white smoke cloud, U.S. bombs a black one; the head of a suicide bomber is often blown clear, intact; the concrete walled lanes of the protected Green Zone in Baghdad "look like the chutes in a slaughterhouse"; in Fallujah, Americans painted a school and insurgents shot the teachers; the 105 mm cannon on a AC-130 gunship makes a popping sound "as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls"; a hospital doctor despairs of using "medicines here that are of only historical interest in the West."

One of the great strengths of Filkins's journalism is to let the ambiguities stand as they stand. He remarks that however "traumatized," "broken" and "atomized" a country one may consider Iraq, still "whenever the prospect of normalcy presented itself, a long line of Iraqis always stood up and reached for it." Nonetheless, thousands and thousands of them went "to the slaughter."

Art Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.

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4 Responses to "A Journalist Draws on 561 Notebooks to Tell about the War in Afghanistan and Iraq"

    s h a r o n October 22nd, 2008 at 6:46 am

    Does no one on this planet question how and why the US (and its "allies") invaded Iraq under the pretext of a "war", when in fact, it had no understanding of--and no intelligence/expertise--to deal with the insane divisiveness of the "country"? Imagine US Marines going into the midst of this lacking absolutely any clue of the meaning of "insurgents"; of the long history of factions within the "country" involving inscrutable (to them) religious zealotry between disparate cultures; taking orders on what and whom to target from their superiors who had no insight and lacked any historical appreciation of this maelstrom?

    The most heinous crime committed by the neo-cons/Bush government with regard to this invasion was cloaking the effort as a "war"; cloaking the little-man goals of the President in words implying some "patriotic" duty of America.

    Philip Brantingham October 22nd, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    The far Left must rejoice in this kind of tripe. It reaffirms their delusions that that war in Afghanistan is pointless. Such is the total self-mystification of this section of the intelligentsia. War is evil and we are against it. Time to real Clausewitz , kids, and get your thumbs out of your mouths.

    The Far Left October 23rd, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Yes Philip, yes we do. Rejoice!

    antonia hildebrand October 23rd, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Very amusing. The idea of a 'forever war' is not a concept of the Jihadists: it is the concept of the CIA and the Pentagon who are as much use as a fifth leg on a cow if there's not a war going on somewhere. With the fall of the Soviet Union they realized this and set about creating another global enemy. The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable: that's the point. In 1905 the British and the Russians were both debating whether or not to invade Afghanistan. The Tsar decided not to, much later the Communists decided they would . The Communists lost. In the 1800 the British did invade Afghanistan. They had a disastrous defeat. There is no way to win a military victory in Afghanistan. It reminds me of the Russian general who said Napoleon wouldn't win against Russia because they had an invincible general. "Who?' he was asked. 'General Winter,' he told them. In Afghanistan it's General Mountain and General Cave but the outcome is the same. That general wasn't around to advise the Communists. Donald Rumsfeld said there were 'No good targets' in Afghanistan. For once in his life he was right.

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