It’s your fault. It’s not your fault. In a sense, these two sentences sum up the entire experience of war for anyone—civilian, combatant, journalist. One never knows which market to visit (it might be blown up), which weapon to deploy (it might malfunction), which story to pursue (it might get a marine killed). When you make the wrong choice, and somebody dies, is it your fault—or is it simply what happens in war?
Filkins, in any case, gets to the heart of what happens in war. Stylistically he never hits the high notes of, say, Dispatches or A Rumor of War. But maybe those are unfair benchmarks, from a different conflict and a different time (despite what some people insist, Falluja was no Khe Sanh). And Filkins has his own particular strengths. One of these is the loose structural footing that he employs throughout much of The Forever War. At first, this feels like narrative sloppiness and a deficit to the overall fineness of the book. But eventually the reader recognizes that these waves of action and inaction, of warfare followed by tea, followed by a run, followed by speeding convoy rides with Ahmad Chalabi, often without time or date stamps, are a replica of life at war. They convey the actual biorhythm of combat for soldier and journalist alike.
The author’s decision to include coverage of his early years in Afghanistan is prescient, as that country has now returned to the forefront of our “forever war.” Americans tend to forget recent history, and the sixty-page primer on the Taliban and the rise of Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions is a shocking reminder of just how far afield the Iraq war took America from real terrorist threats. At the same time, the book is filled with absurd and lovely memories. At one point, the author’s trusted translator returns to the scene of a riot to retrieve a pair of Ray-Bans, a gift from another Times reporter. At another, Filkins senses trouble when the kebab house where he is dining empties out in a flash, only to realize that the 2006 World Cup is in progress and everyone has rushed home to watch a soccer match.
Filkins saw a lot of the war, and the war saw a lot of him. His admiration for an officer like Captain Omohundro is unwavering. And at the end of this probing and often painful book, the reader senses that if he witnessed the two men on a street in, say, Boston, it would be almost impossible to discern the differences between their burdens.