The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008
It took me a long time to read this book. I wanted to read it quickly, to get it over with, but all I could do was read a chapter or two. Then I would have to put it down, walk the dog, putter in the garden, read something else, just to come back to myself, to get over the sadness and anger.
Dexter Filkins, a correspondent for The Los Angeles Times in the late 1990’s and then for The New York Times, has gathered his reporting and folded it into a sobering, heart-rendering book. In the tradition of Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” Filkins describes with clarity and honesty the human and cultural dimensions of our war on terror, and how war changes places and people over time.
Starting in the late 1990’s Filkins spent time in Afghanistan. He saw the rise of the Taliban and witnessed the influence of supporters like the Pakistanis and Arabs. He heard Afghans talk of Osama Bin Laden and his suitcases filled with American dollars. He found the place unbelievable and yet fell in love.
In Afghanistan, the brutality and the humor went hand in hand; the knife with the tender flesh. There seemed no collapse of their fortunes in which the Afghans could not find some reason to laugh.
In my many trips to Afghanistan, I grew to adore the place, for its beauty and its perversions, for the generosity of its people in the face of madness The brutality one could witness in the course of a working day was often astonishing, the casualness of it more so; and the way that brutality seeped into every corner of human life was a thing to behold. And yet somewhere, deep down, a place in the heart stayed tender.
I sat in a mud-brick hut near Bamiyan, the site of a gnawing famine, and a man and his family pressed upon me, their overfed American guest, their final disk of bread.
“Please,”said the bedraggled man, his face mottled with white patches. “Please take.” page 24/25
In September of 2001 Filkins stood in the ruins of the World Trade Center. When Americans entered Afghanistan in force he was there. He heard stories of bin Laden riding out of small villages just hours before the U.S. bombs hit. The people and the place taught him something about war.
People fought in Afghanistan and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed and elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basket ball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way…War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose. Page 50/51
And when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003 he was there. He spoke to everyone he could, and he listened.
There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having am among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us – that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing, or because it brought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered, of course. That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it.
The most basic barrier was language itself. Very few of the Americans in Iraq, whether soldiers or diplomats or newspaper reporters, could speak more than a few words of Arabic. A remarkable number of them didn’t even have translators. That meant that for many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance. Page 115/116
It was in the green zone that I would think the war was lost. I didn’t think about losing when I was outside – when I was in Iraq. There was too much reality pressing in, too many things changing, too much in play. No: it was when I was waiting for the bus outside the Rashid Hotel, watching the overweight American contractors, making more money than they’d ever dreamed of, saunter into the restaurant for dinner at 5p.m. It was when one of the American generals in charge of Baghdad, in his office at Camp Victory, pronounced the name of the Iraqi prime minister three different ways in a half an hour, “Molokai,” “Maleeki,” “Malaaki,” each time as if he were speaking of some sort of exotic plant. Page 230/231
Filkins writes without judgement, fearlessly, with compassion. He writes with brutal honesty about the people he met and the things he saw. This is a hard book, it is a difficult book. If you are at all interested in world affairs and American influence you should read it.