Dexter Filkins has been covering the biggest story of the last ten years for the last ten years. A good argument can be made that this New York Times reporter has seen more war than any other journalist working today, not to mention any soldier or marine. From Kabul to Kandahar, Baghdad to Ramadi, Falluja to Haditha, Filkins has been bullets and blood and copy-inches deep in these wars that have fatigued, befuddled, and killed sheiks and politicians, snipers and supply officers, civilians and insurgents. His need to be there for the story and his seemingly indefatigable ability to sip tea and dodge bullets whizzing by his ear are a pointed corrective to the blather of the blogosphere and the nauseating (and lethal) know-nothingness inside the Beltway and, more often than not, the Green Zone.
Sublime and tenacious, The Forever War takes us from Kabul in 1998 through the summer of 2006 in Iraq. In the course of this journey, Filkins reminds us that there is still some way of comprehending man’s worst undertaking, a messy war: getting dirty (and sometimes bloody and beaten) while asking tough questions of everyone involved.
In Iraq, for example, things sometimes fall apart before the reporter is able to ask questions. One morning Filkins is drinking his coffee when an explosion goes off near enough to the Times compound that “the walls of the house swayed and the windows rattled.” A car bomber in an ambulance targeting the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross had been cut off in the road by another driver—a Good Samaritan, as Filkins calls him, who paid with his own life, “his hands on the wheel, his head arched in a final fiery grimace.”
As Filkins surveys the carnage, he hears two thuds in the distance and the news that there have been two more bombs. With four colleagues he hurries over to Shaab, a poor Shiite neighborhood, the scene of a police-station bombing. Almost at once, the situation turns ugly. Filkins gets into a shouting match with an Iraqi civilian, which leads to more ominous developments: “Someone stripped the phone from my hand, then my notebook, and then others grabbed my arms. I began to float, as if in a riptide, dragged to the sea . . . .” An old man repeats the word aktuluhum: kill them. Waleed al-Hadithi, the driver, saves Filkins from whatever nasty end the crowd had planned for him, but still the men and their car are pelted with bricks. Why did the crowd turn on three western journalists and an Iraqi driver and interpreter? Filkins leaves that to the reader’s imagination.
Early in Dispatches, his masterpiece of Vietnam reportage, Michael Herr writes: “Everywhere you went people said, ‘Well, I hope you get a story,’ and everywhere you went you did.” The same is true for Filkins in Iraq. And Syria. In the border town of Abu Kamal, Filkins follows the story of two twenty-five-year-old men, cousins, one from Syria, the other from Iraq, who had reportedly been killed by an American sniper while crossing into Iraq at night. The border had always been porous, and the adjoining inhabitants “belonged to the same tribe, smuggled the same goods, grazed their sheep on both sides. No one had ever stopped them from doing that before.” Filkins has tea with the father of one of the men, who predicts the pipeline of willing suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria: “People here are angry enough to go and fight. They are quite ready to go and fight the Americans.”
In the same town, he interviews another man, who offers a large Middle Eastern lunch and asks Filkins: “Would you mind if we watched a short video?” It turns out to be martyrdom propaganda, depicting the beheading of a Caucasian man. After the head is held high onscreen, the reporter’s elated host is “beside himself, rocking back and forth, running his finger across his throat.”