‘The Forever War’ by Dexter Filkins
THE LITERATURE of human conflict divides itself into two schools: One -- the more ancient -- is bardic and celebrates war and warriors; the other is the tradition of witness, which elucidates war and records the fates of those caught up in it.
Dexter Filkins’ brilliant new reportorial memoir, “The Forever War,” deserves to be ranked as a classic of the latter genre and is likely to be regarded as the definitive account of how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were experienced by those who actually waged them.
Because we associate war correspondence with mass media, there’s a tendency to overlook the witness tradition’s own antique roots. This writer is of the admittedly unconventional opinion that they extend all the way back to 401 BC and Xenophon’s “Anabasis” (“The March Up Country”), the classic account of how he helped lead 10,000 stranded Greek mercenaries on a fighting retreat from the heart of the Persian empire. His reportage was not only admired for the simple, unadorned quality of its Attic sentences but also was so accurate that Alexander the Great used it as a field guide when he invaded Mesopotamia. Roman officers appear to have been inveterate letter writers, and their reports from the front apparently also were widely circulated. Some scholars now believe that Julius Caesar composed his “Gallic Wars” to set straight a record he believed was being distorted by disgruntled subordinates.
What we would recognize as war correspondence of the sort upon which Filkins’ book is based began in the mid-19th century, during the Crimean War, when the editor of the Times of London became dissatisfied with the hit-or-miss dispatches of officers upon whom most newspapers relied. The Times hired the Irishman William Howard Russell and sent him to file exclusive reports. It was a huge success. Here, for example, is the lead he wrote on the charge of the Light Brigade:
“HEIGHTS BEFORE SEBASTOPOL, OCTOBER 25 -- If the exhibition of the most brilliant valor, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.
“I shall proceed to describe, to the best of my power, what occurred under my own eyes, and to state the facts which I have heard from men whose veracity is unimpeachable, reserving to myself the right of private judgement.”
The declaration embedded in that second paragraph has guided great war correspondents ever since, and Filkins surely is among them. Not long before his death, David Halberstam -- whose combat journalism defined the Vietnam conflict in the same way “The Forever War” promises to do for the war in Iraq -- and I discussed the quality of on-the-ground reporting coming out of this conflict. Halberstam was careful to point out that the conditions of combat correspondence in Iraq were, on a daily basis, much more dangerous and restrictive than those he experienced in Southeast Asia. Even so, he said, Filkins’ work stood out as first rate in any circumstance.
“The Forever War” validates Halberstam’s judgment. Filkins first went to Afghanistan in 1998 as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, he was arrested and expelled by the Taliban. He joined the staff of the New York Times, reported from ground zero on 9/11, then returned to Afghanistan with the invading U.S. forces. He covered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and continued to report from there until 2007.
His account of those years is unadorned in the style of Xenophon and utterly harrowing in its accumulation of detail. Rather than construct a synthetic narrative, the author has chosen to proceed from one meticulously constructed vignette to another. The opening sequence, for example, is a stunning reconstruction of a Marine platoon’s first night in Fallujah that could stand as a pitch-perfect evocation of Carl von Clausewitz’s infamous “fog of war.” From there, the narrative moves between Afghanistan and Iraq in a way that perfectly captures the ambiguous, borderless struggle with the many variants of Islamic extremism and Mideastern and Central Asian nationalisms.
One strength of Filkins’ account is that he refrains from political judgments but never hesitates to express a moving human solidarity that encompasses not only his fellow Americans under arms but also the tormented people of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Here, for example, is part of his conversation with the headmaster of Baghdad College, the old Jesuit high school once renowned throughout the region. Yacob Yusef described to Filkins how his brother had been abducted and executed on a pretext by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.
When Yusef went to reclaim the body, the authorities refused to release it until he’d paid for the bullets used in the murder: “By this time, Yusef’s formal demeanor had collapsed and his cheeks were covered with tears. ‘Two bullets they used to kill Saadi. Two bullets and I paid for them. . . . And this man gave me a receipt. . . .’ ”
“Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef. They weren’t survivors as much as they were leftovers. The ruined byproducts of terrible times.”
Filkins’ almost tender appreciation of the duality of life that conflict has forced on the Afghans and the Iraqis sets “The Forever War” distinctly apart as reportage. So too does his admission that a full comprehension of that duality remains outside the reach of even the most empathetic Americans there. When it comes to his more distant countrymen, a deep silence descends.
“People asked me about the war, of course,” Filkins writes in a brief but unsentimental epilogue that ends at the Arkansas graveside of Billy Miller, a Marine killed while escorting the reporter to a photo op. “They asked me whether it was as bad as people said. ‘Oh, definitely,’ I told them and then, usually I stopped. In the beginning I’d go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences. We drew closer to each other, the hacks and the vets and the diplomats, anyone who’d been over there. My friend George, an American reporter I’d gotten to know in Iraq, told me he couldn’t have a conversation with anyone about Iraq who hadn’t been there. I told him I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.”
It’s a sentiment, one suspects, that’s as old as war itself. When the bloody summer campaign of 1708 was over, and the Hapsburg and English armies had driven the French from the Spanish Netherlands, Prince Eugene of Savoy wrote this to the Duke of Marlborough, his great comrade in arms: “He who has not seen this has seen nothing.”
We will never feel the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as Filkins and his colleagues have felt them. Now, though, thanks to one reporter’s heroic act of witness and brilliant recitation of what he saw, we can see the war -- as it is, and for ourselves.
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