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The Forever War

The Forever War (Vintage)The Forever War (Vintage) by Dexter Filkins

Reviewed by John Leonard
Harper's Magazine

After nine years of reporting from the Middle East and South Asia, the last three and a half spent in Iraq, Dexter Filkins seems to have been not so much the dutiful journalist embedded in an American military unit as a sojourner embedded in war itself: "I'd become part of the place, part of the despair, part of the death and the bad food and the heat and the sandy-colored brown of it." He woke up each morning in the Red Zone of Baghdad; rode to work in an armored car to a New York Times bureau fortified with blast walls, watchtowers, and Kalashnikov-equipped security guards; dealt all day long with "marginal people -- creeps, hustlers, gunmen"; and was forever ready at a moment's notice to hail a helicopter or a Humvee to the latest hospital looting, suicide bombing, sectarian riot, or siege of a holy shrine. And every night, to the amazement of Iraqi soldiers and wild dogs alike, he jogged on the banks of the Tigris, as if fleeing ghosts.

Even the writing of this extraordinary book of exorcism, The Forever War (Knopf, $25), was haunted. Emerging from Harvard's Widener Library for a lunch break, Filkins is the only one to notice a red-tailed hawk, which follows him, shrieking, half a mile to the law school. Still, the book got written. And if what Michael Herr brought back from Vietnam in Dispatches (1977) was a sort of Jackson Pollock -- streaks of blood, trickles of dread, splattershot of hard rock and harder drugs -- The Forever War is like a pointillist Seurat, a neo-Impressionist juxtaposition of spots of pure color with black holes and open wounds. In this corner: laptops, satellite phones, "Wag Bags," razor wire, Black Hawks, Sea Stallions, infrared strobe beacons, AC/DC, and Metallica. Yonder: watermelons, soccer balls, kebabs, goat skeletons, kidnapped children, detached feet, decapitation videos, and snipers shooting down from minarets. All around: the found art of communiques from bloodthirsty groups claiming credit for yesterday's atrocities; a ragtag populace who, after invasion, insurgency, and civil war, "weren't survivors as much as they were leftovers"; major generals issuing orders to "increase lethality"; warlords, opportunists, the impossibly brave, the contemptibly corrupt, and the invincibly stupid.

How's this for a parable of the whole unholy war? A young Marine took a fatal bullet for Filkins and his photographer, who had wanted a front-page snapshot of a dead jihadi but who got instead an ambush in a mosque.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Forever War (Vintage) Used Trade Paper $5.95

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