As the horrors in Afghanistan and Iraq have rolled across our field of vision, swathed in the smoke of lies, propaganda and naïve ignorance, over the last five years American readers have been given much clarification, if not consolation, by some remarkable books: They include Karl Meyer’s The Dust of Empire, Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and now Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. But whereas those earlier accounts provided a more or less broad historical and political background, this one gives us a tormented worm’s eye view of a world racked by nonstop violence, fanatical hatred and lethal stupidity, with only random flashes of kindness and self-sacrifice.
Filkins, who visited Afghanistan both before and after 9/11, and who reported from Iraq for The New York Times from 2003 through 2006, understands the ideological motivations of all the various killers; but as he keeps dodging their bullets and RPG’s and noting the dead and wounded all around him, his main focus is the sheer moment-to-moment terror, agony and revulsion that has engulfed him. War, to splice John Keats with Philip Henry Sheridan, is all we know of hell on earth, and all we need to know.
The book opens with the Taliban chopping the hand off a thief and the head off a murderer at a packed soccer stadium in Kabul. (“There was a special section for the handicapped on the far side, a section for women. The orphans were walking up and down the bleachers on my side selling candy and cigarettes. A couple of older men carried whips. They wore grenade launchers on their backs.”) It is 1998, and the war has barely begun—if you ignore the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the counterattacks by the mujahideen. Segue to the Twin Towers (Filkins was there) and the Northern Alliance-U.S. campaign against Mullah Omar & Co.
All this is bad enough, but the time in Iraq will prove to be far worse. Filkins lived through the apocalyptic second battle of Fallujah in 2004, including an episode when he and an Australian photographer went to check out a sniper in a minaret. A Marine corporal told them to wait while he went up the stairs to see if it was safe, only to be instantly blasted by the sniper (“his face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling”).
And so it goes, page after page. Iraqi sectarian fury and madness seem to know no bounds. At one point, Filkins looks away from the shattered corpses to list the groups that claimed responsibility for attacks on Americans and Iraqis from May to October 2005. There are no fewer than 103 such zealous bands, and the fact that stateside Americans have never heard of the Al-Farouq Brigade or the Al-Furqan Battalion does not mean that they weren’t doing some highly effective butchery.
Meanwhile, the world’s best-equipped army can barely control the chaos. The cluelessness of L. Paul Bremer and his staff in the first stages of the occupation has been documented over and over; but even after the American learning curve shot up, there was (and is) no satisfactory way to manage a centrifugal country, where most of the occupied population—once Saddam was removed—hate your presence, and where you cannot tell friend from foe. From “surgical strikes” gone awry to Abu Ghraib and beyond, even the most bellicose Cheneyites would have to admit that grievous mistakes were made. And the survivors of such mistakes do not tend to forgive and forget. In the summer of 2005 the most popular videos in Iraq showed things like the bombing of the Palestine and Sheraton hotels and the beheading of Nicholas Berg. And we have all seen the crowds celebrating over the charred bodies of American contractors dangling from the bridge over the Euphrates.
But the larger truth that Filkins illuminates is the writhing snake-pit of vengeance into which the Americans heedlessly stumbled—and which they disastrously stirred up. He cites the case of Abu Marwa, an insurgent from the Islamic Army of Iraq (Group No. 81), whose uncle, a Shiite, was tortured with electric power tools, beaten, burned and killed by some Syrian (Sunni) members of Al Qaeda. Abu Marwa and his men had tracked the Syrians down, finished them off, and then presented their keffiyehs to his grieving aunt—along with a vial of the murderers’ blood, which she drank. When it comes to pure animosity, their civil war makes ours look tame.
One of the truisms of war reporting is that a soldier’s ultimate loyalty is to his buddies; and Filkins confirms that whenever he talks about his translators, drivers, Iraqi friends and colleagues at The Times. As for the troops he is embedded with, he is too old (now 47), too educated and too liberal to be their buddy. But there is nothing like sharing mortal danger and repeated heartbreak to forge bonds; so when he returns to the United States, Filkins makes a point of visiting some of the infantrymen—or, if they had died, their parents.
He feels relief to be out of harm’s way, of course; but his final state of mind is a sort of permanent isolation.
When I was in Iraq, I might as well have been circling the earth from a space capsule.... Like Laika in Sputnik. A dog in space. Sending signals back to base, unmoored and weightless, and no longer keeping time. Home was far away, a distant place that gobbled up what I sent back, ignorant and happy but touchingly eager to know.
Now that he is home, Filkins says he still feels like Laika, the Russian space dog, looking back up at the ship he once sailed in, but floating “through the regular people in the regular world.” War will do that to you.