Dexter Filkins has produced an astonishing book about Iraq: an account that tells us everything we don't want to knowby Tom Streithorst / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror by Dexter Filkins (Bodley Head, £18.99)
In James Meek’s latest novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, a troubled hack, returned 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 comes, 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 and destroys a few precious works of art. The guests are aghast, the civilised dinner party trashed. “That’s what it is like,” our hero says to the host and walks out into the London night.
New York Times reporter 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 him 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 dropped it off at our villa in central Baghdad’s unofficial media village, I opened it only to read the first page, only to justify my own lack of interest. The book begins in Falluja in 2004, as Filkins 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, where orphans selling cigarettes watch a sword-wielding Talib chop off a pickpocket’s hand. The writing is descriptive, flat; the structure episodic, the effect hallucinogenic. I read all night, finishing the 350-page book in less than 24 hours.
The great thing about journalism is that you get to…