Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Forever War

Dexter Filkins served as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Afghanistan in the 1990s and witnessed the rise of the Taliban, and he worked for the New York Times in Iraq from the beginning of the war and during the worst of the sectarian fighting and anarchy that followed. The Forever War is a compilation of his remarkable and unflinching reporting on the war. It includes a view from the ground as he accompanied U.S. troops into combat in Fallujah and Ramadi, interviews with insurgents and common Iraqis caught in the midst of the struggle, and conversations with major military and political figures on various sides of the conflict in Iraq. This is not a book with a political agenda; there isn’t a theme or point of view that has been imposed in retrospect. Filkins’ object was to report what he saw as a journalist, and rather than producing a book that takes on the character of memoir, he has retained the happenstance character of the reporting in the transfer of his material to book form. His preparation and editing included research to confirm the accuracy of his original reporting and to add any appropriate annotation, something he has done without sacrificing the immediacy or integrity of his original reporting.

Among the major stories Filkins has interspersed some personal accounts of his life as a reporter in Iraq, but the object of these accounts is not to provide an opening for introspection or point of view but to give us a sense of what life was like in Iraq during his time there. If there is a tension of a personal nature in the book, it comes in circumstances that threaten to cloud his role as a journalist with that of a participant. The difference is a role he accepts, not being “one” of any group he observes, and the reproach for that from soldiers and citizens he can accept as part of the territory that comes with his job. But there are times when the pressure to cross that distance is strong, as when he is asked to compromise his sources by the CIA to assist in finding the kidnapped reporter Jill Carroll. In what is perhaps the most poignant story in the book, Filkins witnesses the death of a soldier who had tried to help him and a photographer out by leading them to a site where they could get a picture of a dead Iraqi insurgent. It produces a rush of guilt, a violent and instant conflation of his distance, and Filkins relates it with vivid and unforgiving detail. He doesn’t have to say much about his feelings. We know from the way the story is told that this is the singular experience of the war that has permanently altered him. When he gets back to the United States he visits the parents and the grave of the soldier. The book is dedicated to him.

It seems an odd thing that the visceral truth about the nature of war and chaos in Iraq is something we must get from the written word and not from the broadcast media. Perhaps it is more than just a tacit agreement between government and broadcast media however and we, the consumers of broadcast news, are complicit as well. We don’t really want to be shown what the scene looks like after a suicide bombing, we don’t want to see our soldiers beheaded, we don’t have the stomach for anything too disagreeable over dinner. It would give emotion and revulsion sway over more sober and considered opinion, or so the argument goes. But it means too that we lose a sense of what war is really about, that we can’t understand or appreciate the horrors faced by our soldiers or by the population of a country torn apart, and that there is no room at the table for the hard and gruesome truth in our councils of war and peace. We are happy to hear from children that they read for their personal enjoyment, and we tell them reading should be a pleasure. But literacy also carries with it as we grow older a moral responsibility, an imperative that we also read what is unpleasant if we wish to understand and attempt to change the way things are. It seems that there really are some things you must read. Such a book is The Forever War.

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