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 less than 24 hours.
The great thing about journalism is that you get to see things most people go out of their way to avoid. The terrible thing about journalism is that you need to pretend you understand what is going on. You, in London, in Washington, in your comfortable flat in Clapham, probably understand Iraq. I have been here longer than you and I don’t have a clue. Or rather, I have lots of clues—contradictory clues. The picture, which may seem clear and straightforward to you (Sunnis have always hated the Shia; or, the surge is working), is murky and confusing to me.
Filkins has been here longer than both of us and the wonderful thing about this book is that he does not try to explain anything, does not propagate any vision or views. Instead, he describes what he saw, what you would have seen had you been here instead of him. His compassion extends from the orphan children of Kabul to the US Marines in Falluja to his shady fixer in Baghdad to the Sunni insurgent dedicated killing Americans in the triangle of death. He accepts their common humanity, their common predicament, which of course is less than they grant each other.
Images from this book I won’t forget: a woman at Kabul Airport, Ferrangamo shoes poking out from under her burqa, complaining in a Saudi accent to her friends that she is stuck in this dump just because her idiot husband has fantasies of being a Jihadi; a little 9 year old girl in Baghdad, an orphan, her parents dead in an air strike, living in a riverside restaurant, a sleazy man kissing her hard on the lips. The best story? Maybe the time the CIA pressured Filkins to rat out his fixer in the hope that it would lead them to a kidnapped American journalist. They didn’t find the journalist, but they did almost get his fixer killed.
This is the Dispatches of the war on terror. It probably won’t change your opinions, it isn’t trying to, but it will make you realize how much you don’t know, how much of the world you have yet to experience, how lucky you are you probably never will.
Tom Steithorst has worked as a cameraman for 20 years. He currently spends three months a year based in Iraq.