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 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 Shias, or the surge is working), is murky and confusing to me.
Filkins (pictured, right) has been here longer than both of us and the wonderful thing about this book is that he does not try to explain anything, or propagate any vision or views. Instead, he describes what he saw, what you would have seen had you been here. His compassion extends from the orphan children of Kabul to the US marines in Falluja, from his shady fixer in Baghdad to the Sunni insurgent dedicated to killing Americans in the triangle of death. He accepts their common humanity, their common predicament, which is less than they grant each other.
There are images from this book that I won’t forget: a woman at Kabul Airport, Ferragamo shoes poking out from under her burqa, complaining that she is stuck in this dump just because her idiot husband has fantasies of being a jihadi; a nine-year-old girl in Baghdad, 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, but it will make you realise how much you don’t know, how much of the world you have yet to experience, how lucky you are that you probably never will.