Dexter Filkins, war correspondent for The New York Times, fittingly begins his wonderfully written and carefully researched debut book, The Forever War, in the middle of a nightmarish battle in Fallujah, Iraq.
It is November 2004: “The marines were pressed flat on a rooftop,” Filkins writes, “[I]t was 2 a.m. The minarets were flashing by the light of airstrikes, and rockets were sailing on trails of sparks.” By battle’s end, seven pages later, you will be wrung out.
Having covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, including four dangerous years reporting from Iraq, Filkins focuses on much more than the fragile security situations of both places.
He explores the positions of Iraq’s many factions from Sunni insurgents to Shia jihadists to Iraqi government officials to everyday Iraqis simply trying to avoid getting killed in the constant crossfire.
In Afghanistan, he observes the effects of a centuries-old culture of war, where shifting loyalties and betrayals are daily occurrences: “War was serious in Afghanistan,” Filkins writes, “It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.”
Filkins’s meticulous attention to detail and his bravery (sometimes blending into complete disdain for his own safety) is evident on every page. He interviews the type of extremists who kill and kidnap on a daily basis and who would just as soon kill him.
Iraqi anger at America
As this prize-winning war correspondent describes the increasing violence of the Iraqi insurgency, he also notes the rampant cynicism among Iraqi civilians and government officials about US intentions.
One Iraqi government minister bluntly shares his opinion of the Americans: “ ‘I take their money, but I hate them.... The Americans are the occupiers. We are trying to evict them.’ ”
Filkins makes it clear that Iraq’s unforgiving society, mired in a cycle of betrayal and revenge, is built on a tenuous foundation of trust that influences even the occupying Americans.
“The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question,” writes Filkins. “But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed [these lies] because it was convenient – and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.”
For instance, American assumptions that the Iraqis would embrace democracy would prove misguided. To drive this point home, Filkins focuses on US Army Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, who spends his days patiently building the foundations for local democracy in Baghdad among skeptical Iraqis – and his nights spreading terror among insurgents.
A series of narrow escapes
Filkins, like all great war reporters, is singularly driven to understand what’s happening on the ground. Through Iraqi friends and sources, he burrows deep inside the underworld of religious extremism and tit-for-tat violence.
He’s nearly kidnapped or killed on numerous occasions.
After arriving at the scene of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, Filkins barely escapes an angry mob: “I wasn’t sure if the car would move with all the people around it ... the people were falling off as the rocks kept coming and the windows kept shattering. We plowed through the crowd....”
Filkins is at his best when describing the many differences of strategy and outlook inside the anti-American insurgency. The Sunni-Shia religious divide is one example, but Filkins also examines the way the goal of global jihad, fueled by Iraqi nationalism, drives other insurgent groups, even turning them against multinational Al Qaeda, until “A civil war of sorts was breaking out inside the insurgency itself.”
“The Forever War” also serves as a powerful lesson in what it takes to cover the complexities of war. Near the book’s end, Filkins tries to help find kidnapped Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll. Under pressure, he reluctantly shares information with the CIA about her possible whereabouts, risking a relationship with an important source.
In turn, the agency uses this intelligence to capture an insurgent leader and fails to recover Carroll. Filkins feels betrayed and demands an explanation. “In this country,” a CIA agent tells him, “everyone is lying to everyone else.”
Dexter Filkins’s gripping account gives readers a clear, though disturbing, view of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. And he has put himself in the middle of this madness to deliver a stunning and illuminating story.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.