In James Meek’s recent novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, a troubled hack returns from Afghanistan, goes to a dinner party in Clapham. The host, a rich leftist, making conversation, just trying to be polite, asks “What was it like in Afghanistan?” Our hero replies, “You don’t want to know.” The host tells him of course he wants to know, why wouldn’t he want to know? Our hero continues to demur, the host continues to insist. Finally the answer, clear and memorable: the hack hurls a bust of Lenin through a plate glass window, smashes the crockery, the wine bottles, tips over a table, destroys a few precious works of art. The guests are aghast, the civilized dinner party trashed. Our hero says to host, “That’s what it is like”, and walks out into the London night.
Dexter Filkins would understand. In the epilogue to his stunning book of reportage, The Forever War, he describes coming back to America after three and a half years in Iraq and several more in Afghanistan. A friend tells he can’t talk about the war with anybody who hadn’t been in Iraq. Filkins replies, ”I told him I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.” This book is the upturned table, the smashed crockery; Filkins’s gorgeous reply to those who asked him, not particularly interested, just to be polite, “What was it like over there?”
I hadn’t planned on reading it. Although I spend three months a year in Iraq, I am, probably like you, getting bored with the story. So when a colleague from another news organization dropped it off at our villa in the unofficial media village in the centre of Baghdad, I opened it, just to read the first page, just to justify my own lack of interest. The book begins in 2004 in Falluja as the New York Times reporter accompanies a platoon of marines in their house-to-house battle. The next chapter is set six years earlier at the football stadium in Kabul, watching orphans selling cigarettes watch a sword wielding Talib chop the hand off a pickpocket. The writing is descriptive, flat. The structure episodic. The effect hallucinogenic. I read all night, finished the 350-page book in…