This splendid work by Dexter Filkins is the most disturbing book of this or probably any other year for me. If Filkins’ on-the-ground, in-your-face accounts of the physical and psychological brutality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t enough by themselves (and they are), I have in addition the experiences of a niece recently returned from Baghdad. As a USAID executive, she wasn’t exposed to nearly the level of blood and guts that Filkins was, but she saw things she can’t talk about, was under constant bombardment even when she was in the Green Zone, and had an excursion to Mosul that anyone would be glad to forgo. So, coupled with her conversations and e-mails, The Forever War is a volume that will live with me for a long time. I asked her last night if she’d read it. She nodded and changed the subject.
As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times, Filkins served lengthy tours first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. The Taliban arrested him and kicked him out of the former country, and he went to Iraq shortly after the American (whoops, “coalition”) invasion. Thus, he has a unique perspective on pre-post 9/11 conflicts in both countries. His experiences have obviously left him with a large dose of emotional distress, and the pain seethes on every page.
The Forever War is structured rather like a narrative non-fiction picaresque; i.e., a whole story told in short episodes. Much of the material has appeared in other forms in the newspapers he worked for, much of it gleaned from voluminous notebooks. There is little here of overt political opinionating. That, the reader must infer from the events and characters that inhabit the narrative. And there is plenty to infer, of which more later. However, the most poignant and potent aspects of the book are his unsparing insights into the human costs of war in general (an unfortunately timeless old story) and of this particular war (new twists in that old story). When I say “unsparing,” I’m talking of the author as well, for (among other tales) he recounts the story of a young soldier killed by a sniper while climbing to the top of a minaret to help him (the correspondent) get a picture of a dead insurgent. He later (talk about guts) meets (more than once) with the boy’s family in the states and finds them (unfathomably) grateful for his writings about the incident.
There’s the story of a Christian family forced out of their home, choosing between death or exile to Syria. Stories of Shia and Sunni practicing ethnic cleansing on one another after decades of living together without apparent rancor (except, presumably, toward Saddam.) And dozens more.
Threaded through all these is the story of Filkins’ own struggle to keep somewhat sane, somewhat centered amidst utter chaos. His insistence on a routine of five-mile runs in 100 degree heat; his bewildering attempts to interpret the information he gets (or doesn’t) from his Iraqi informants, from our own military, from the CIA; his attempts to overcome the horrors of seeing his colleagues kidnapped, killed, decapitated; the horror of his own near kidnappings and death; his attempts to deal with his feelings about ugly deeds of our own troops. All this makes for a potent stew and tough reading.
Underlying it all is the picture of societies disintegrating. Particularly Iraqi society. The Afghanis had imploded sometime around the time the Russians left, and was already in bad shape when he arrived. Or is it Islamic society disintegrating? Or is it, as some would contend, Islamic society continuing as it always has? Filkins never says so, but others would.
I’m reminded of a New Yorker piece I read back in the days when the Soviet Union was falling apart. It told the tale of a man in an obscure Eastern European village, a man of middle age or so. He was a near-vegetable. The family fed and clothed and bathed him. He didn’t do much. Sat in the corner, walked around a little bit, chatted some. A doctor came, examined the man, determined he had a nutritional deficiency of some sort, corrected for it, and the guy suddenly became more or less normal. Within six months he was dead–from a cancer that had been kept in semi-remission by the low metabolism of his “deficiency,” but flourished with the new nutrition. An apocryphal story, surely, but the analogy was that all the tribal and religious animosities that had been kept dormant by Soviet repression, not allowed to be worked through, erupted in volcanoes like the Serbo-Croation conflict. Thus, also, are we given the Sunni/Shiite ugliness in Iraq? There was a lot of mixing between the two denominations under Saddam. My niece’s best Iraqi employee at the embassy was a young lady (now studying in the U.S. and perhaps staying in our house this fall.) who is the product of such a mixed marriage. Such matches aren’t happening now, she says.
Apparently, though, the Shia’s and the Sunni’s have been at it for some time all over the Arab world. Some posit that such conflicts are inherent in savage Islam. You’re supposed to kill unbelievers, and if you run out of Hindus or Christians or Jews, you make unbelievers our of your fellow Muslims to satisfy the inherent bloodlust of your faith. Such would be the conclusion of another author I read recently, Michael Cappi, in his A Never Ending War. However, Cappi’s book (self-published since I guess, no publisher would buy it either out of lack guts or demand for better scholarship. I can only guess.) is a collection of facts and omission of facts and distortions of history all carefully arranged to fit his preconceived conclusion–that Islam is basically bloodthirsty, and essentially incorrigible and dangerous to itself and others. Take just this statement near the beginning of the book for illustration: Even during periods in history when horrific abuses to tolerance occurred at the hands of the West, it was in spite of the prevailing philosophy and not because of it. And most importantly the return to the basic beliefs always followed any behavioral aberration. I’m reminded of what a devout family man and churchgoer the Godfather was.
On the other hand, it could be the tribe that’s the most important–more than country or religion–at least in the impoverished rural areas, especially in Afghanistan. Filkins recounts stories of soldiers changing sides according to who paid better or seemed stronger, serving not any central state, but preserving real loyalty only to their tribes. National borders and governments were abstractions. In Iraq as well, he talked to men who moved back and forth among Iraq, Syria, Iran, staying with family, not country. So how far can the West hope to get with the nation-building in a climate like that?
Filkins draws no conclusions, offers no predictions, though his title might imply one. No war, no society, lasts forever, and this one won’t either, even if it seems so. Filkins is smart enough to know that, so perhaps he’s speaking of a war against the transcendent evil of the human soul which manifests eternally in different forms–radical Islam being one of the worst. I do assume these terrorists are not reformable and need to be eliminated or neutralized. Nor can one imagine Saudi women free to wander around in mini-skirts any time soon. However, there are distinct strains of Islam (See my comments on American Islam, June 11) which offer clear examples and demonstrate clear possibilities of peaceful coexistence. As well, there are millions of Muslims living around and in Western society who do not bomb or behead their neighbors. Unfortunately, those sort don’t make for very good TV, so the radicals and the misfits get to dictate the images on our screens and in our minds. I simply have no place in my being for the notion that a whole religion, nation, or other such segment of humanity, can be dismissed and defined as ineluctable brutes. The rich once thought that about the poor, whites about blacks, Indians, Chinese. It’s what some Jews and Arabs think about each other. With the way that’s working out for both of them, why should we seek to imitate?
And such are the meditations that I predict The Forever War will lead you to. Open it at your own risk.