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Original Essays

History, Past and Present

by Dexter Filkins
  1. The Forever War
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Forever War

    Dexter Filkins
    "Carl von Clausewitz said war is a chameleon. In vividly illustrating the varied ways people in Afghanistan and Iraq have been affected by ongoing war, Filkins demonstrates that truth in prose." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "A portrait of the difficulty, complexity, and savagery of a conflict that will be with us for some time." Booklist

A decade ago, in a far corner of the world that hardly anyone seemed to know about, I sat in a football stadium and watched a group of strange men perform an amputation and an execution before a large assembled crowd. It was a crystal blue Friday afternoon. The men read aloud religious verses that they believed justified their acts, and when the ceremony was finished, a bearded man in a green hood held up a severed hand. He tossed it in the grass.

What is this thing I'm seeing? I wondered to myself that day. I was sitting in the grass just off midfield, in the Kabul Sports Stadium in the capital of Afghanistan in the autumn of 1998. And the answer then was: I'm not seeing much at all. It is lurid and fascinating, but this strange ceremony in this landlocked Central Asian country seemed hardly consequential outside its own neighborhood, hardly important enough to remark on to my readers back home.

And then, of course, not three years later, when the planes hit the towers in Lower Manhattan, the public execution I'd witnessed that day suddenly appeared to be important after all. The Taliban, the bearded men who'd carried out the execution that day, were harboring Osama bin Laden, and he'd dispatched the planes. The present exploded on September 11 and changed everything — including, even, the past.

History is like that: always moving, growing, or receding — depending, as much as anything, on what is happening today. A dark foreboding flashed before me on that day in Kabul, and I never noticed a thing.

As a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and, before that, the Los Angeles Times, I never set out to write a book, much less a personal history called The Forever War. I was following the news, looking for the compelling and the consequential in the astonishing rush of events that unfolded in the years before and after 9/11. I did my best in those wild places, struggling to write history's first rough draft. Some days were easier than others.

On the morning of April 9, 2003, I drove a Ford Yukon into downtown Baghdad as the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed. I had rented the car myself in Kuwait City a month before and had driven up on my own as the invading army pushed north. That morning — the morning of April 9 — I'd slept in a grove of date palms just outside the capital. The American marines, whose movements I'd shadowed, were expecting a big fight — Saddam's last stand.

By early morning, as I wheeled my car into the outskirts of Baghdad, it was clear there would be no fight at all. The closest I came that day to seeing Saddam's army was the piles of discarded uniforms that littered the sides of the roads. By late morning, as I pushed deeper into the city, it became obvious that something else entirely was underway. The government had fallen, the army had disappeared, and the looting had begun. By 12 o'clock, most of the government ministries were on fire.

Stopping my car here and there, I witnessed astonishing scenes: ordinary Iraqis gone wild, rushing into government buildings that once housed one of the world's most terrifying regimes — and carrying it all away. One Iraqi I spoke to was piling enormous carpets and even a refrigerator onto the top of his car. Some impoverished Iraqis in tattered clothes, with creaking carts, had come from a ghetto nearby and were making off with things they could not possibly use or even understand, like circuit boards and computer terminals. Out in front of the offices of the Iraqi Olympic Committee — the personal fief of Saddam's megalomaniacal son, Uday — young Iraqi men were leading away Arabian race horses, beautiful and groomed. To where I did not know.

I was not the only American watching the events unfold in front of the Olympic Committee that day. A young American lieutenant and the platoon he was commanding were looking on from about 30 paces away. The lieutenant, a marine, seemed frustrated by his own inaction, jittery and angry over what was becoming of the easy victory he had imagined that morning. "Why don't you stop them?" I asked the lieutenant. "Why don't you stop the looting?" "I don't have any orders," he told me.

I could feel it in my stomach that day, the horrible reversal of events. The Americans had entered Baghdad that morning as a conquering army, marching 350 miles and toppling a government in less than three weeks. And now they were losing it all in just a few hours. Watching a crowd of Iraqis loot the Ministry of Communications, I remarked to myself that every hour that passed with the anarchy unchecked would take the Americans another a month to put right. I wasn't off by much.

Finally, there is history itself. In the months and years that followed the American invasion of Iraq, I could never escape the sense that history was looming over everything — shaping events, changing minds, moving the country in places where I might not otherwise have predicted. In Iraq, the most obvious manifestation of the past was the deep psychological wounds inflicted on so many by Saddam's regime.

Just a few days after the government fell, with much of Baghdad still in flames, I casually asked a taxi driver if he knew of any interrogation centers. I might have said "torture chambers," but the driver knew what I meant. Of course, he said with a shrug, and sure enough, within minutes I was walking the halls of a place called Al-Hakemiya. In Saddam's network of dungeons, Al-Hakemiya had garnered one of the most terrible reputations. It was a place where Iraqis were taken to be interrogated before they were dispatched into the larger system of prisons that included places like Abu Ghraib.

It had been a monstrous place. There were files scattered about the floor, with the names and interrogation notes of the prisoners, and even snapshots of their unhappy faces. Stock certificates and change-of-ownership forms suggested that Al-Hakemiya, whatever else it was, was a shakedown operation. In the basement I found an operating table and cutting instruments. Out back I found a morgue.

Of all the images that linger in memory from that day, one of the most powerful is that of the Iraqis walking the halls. They were the Iraqis who had been held prisoner at Al-Hakemiya; they were returning to this place of their unbearable pain. I walked a little with a man named Masawi. He'd been a businessman, an importer of jewelry, and he'd been arrested one day and brought here. His family had paid $25,000 to get him out, he said. As Masawi told me his story, we walked down a long row of prison cells. He stopped at the one marked "36." His old cell.

Masawi lit a cigarette. He stared at it for a long time, but he did not venture inside.

"Being here gives me a doomed feeling," he said.

I never saw Masawi again, but I wonder sometimes what happened to him. In the years since that day, his country has gone through an extraordinary ordeal, the outcome of which is still not certain. The old is dying in Iraq, and the new is struggling hideously to be born. One day soon, we will call that history.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Before that, he worked for the Los Angeles Times, where he was chief of the paper's New Delhi bureau, and for The Miami Herald. He has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a winner of a George Polk Award and two Overseas Press Club awards. Most recently, he was a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. spacer

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