Readers might ask why this book is necessary. After all, it covers a lot of the same ground as other books—for instance, Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, one of the more important and compelling accounts of the hostilities in Iraq. And indeed, The Forever War is based completely on the reporting Filkins has done for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. If you happen to be a reader of these papers, you’ve no doubt been down some of these same bloody avenues already with the author. The itinerary is familiar. There is the bombing of the Red Cross building; the rise of the Mahdi army; Chalabi’s fall from grace and grandstanding return; the battles for Falluja and Ramadi; the internecine Sunni conflicts; disastrous decisions by American politicians and military leaders. Is this simply Filkins’s due after filling 561 notebooks: a yearlong fellowship in Boston to write a book after the ravages of war?
Some readers and critics will make that complaint. But it’s an unfair one. Starting with the invasion of Afghanistan, Filkins established himself as one of the premier chroniclers of the conflict and its political and tactical maneuverings on all sides. Minute-by-minute war reporting doesn’t get any better than this. And without the constraints of Times style, Filkins is free to explore the emotional highways and byways of each story. In these pages, we encounter not just the facts, but also the impact, the ripple effects.
As Janet Malcolm famously observed in The Journalist and the Murderer, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The indefensibility of the journalist’s intrusion is amplified in warfare. Of the many heartbreaking deaths and deformities that Filkins narrates for us, none is as tinged with this dubious morality as the death of Marine Corps Lance Corporal William L. Miller, twenty-two, of Pearland, Texas.
This young soldier was killed during the second battle of Falluja—what the Marine Corps has come to call this war’s Khe Sanh. “The generals were reporting hundreds of dead,” recounts the author, “thousands even, we knew that from the radio, but we weren’t seeing many. You’d think by then we would have seen an arm. A head.” Filkins and his photographer, Ash Gilbertson, were traveling with a contingent of marines, one of whom had snapped a photo of a corpse at the top of a nearby minaret. At once, Gilbertson asked for permission to document this scene for the paper.
“With the fighting over,” we read, “it seemed the thing to do.” Captain Read Omohundro, a universally respected thirty-four-year-old über-officer, gave the journalists a dozen guys to go on the photo mission.
Before this misbegotten mission is over, Lance Corporal Miller is dead, stuck halfway up the minaret. The young (some would say crazy) marines in his unit risk their own lives again and again, climbing up the minaret to retrieve their comrade’s body. This is no surprise for Filkins, who has already seen such a scenario several times during the battle for Falluja: live marines retrieving dead marines, themselves becoming injured or dead marines in the process. Gilbertson, meanwhile, is a wreck, “seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.” Miller is finally retrieved, but the contingent is attacked by small-arms fire, and after delivering their comrade’s corpse to a troop carrier, the men must extract themselves from the firefight.
It’s a harrowing and problematic sequence of events for the journalists. As they escape the scene, Filkins hears his friend and colleague mutter, “I want to die. I hope they shoot me.” Back at the base camp, two marines react in totally different ways to Miller’s death, and to the journalists’ assertion of responsibility. First Sergeant Sam Williams, the twenty-six-year-old who led the marines and journalists on the mission, offers at least a measure of comfort: “ ’I know you guys are thinking you got Miller killed.’ . . . He seemed a wise old man sitting there, not a line in his face, and we the children. ‘It’s a war,’ he said slowly, like a man as old as time. ‘That’s what happens in war.’ ” But Lieutenant Andy Eckert—whom Filkins had previously witnessed cracking under fire, and who was not on the mission—had a different verdict: “Yeah, it was your fault.”