The Forever War
by Dexter Filkins
Reviewed by Art Winslow
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.