Friday, September 25, 2009

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins

Immediacy and vivid descriptions are the strengths of Dexter Filkins’ series of articles about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, collected in his book The Forever War (Knopf, 2008). Filkins doesn’t dwell much on the political aspects of these conflicts and instead simply describes them. What he describes brings the political context out. A main point of his book is his refutation of the notion that American intrusion in Iraq and Afghanistan was welcomed by the people living there, that American intervention will have a lasting beneficial impact. Even the Iraqis friendly to American forces did not like the American presence. Filkins does take issue with the characters and strategies of several commanding officers, but mostly he focuses on the soldiers themselves. As a reporter for the New York Times he was assigned to various units which he followed to the front lines, right into the middle of ongoing battles. Descriptive power is the great strength of this book—few writers have described the Iraqi and Afghani wars with such graphic immediacy. Filkins doesn’t flinch from what he sees, doesn’t resort to indirection. He notes at one point that after a car bombing it is not unusual to see a human spine in the wreckage. He put himself at significant risk. In one of the most harrowing episodes, he describes how he and a cameraman ask several servicemen to take them into a building to view the body of a supposedly dead sniper. When they enter the building, two of the servicemen are shot and killed, either by the sniper or a compatriot. Filkins feels guilt for the deaths of these men, but does not dwell on his feelings. There is a minor-key element of self-promotion in these articles. Filkins on occasion notes his own bravado, or recklessness, though for the most part he does not make himself a major issue. At the end of the book, acknowledging various people who supported and assisted him, he remarks that his work in these two wars cost him a relationship with someone he loved.

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