Iraq Bottom

In The Forever War, his memoir of the years he spent reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins writes about meeting an American officer tasked with distributing funds for reconstruction projects in the early days of the Iraq War. “Weve made friends here,” the officer says confidently. He is equally certain that he has a good rapport with his Iraqi counterpart, a man named Allawi, who is a provincial minister. The American officer agrees to provide $14,000 to repair a dilapidated dam. But when the officers back is turned and Filkins asks Allawi what he thinks of the Americans, the minister says, “I take their money, but I hate them. I am cooperating with the Americans for the sake of my country. The Americans are the occupiers. We are trying to evict them.” He will collaborate with Americans even as he tries to kill them. “There were always two conversations in Iraq,” Filkins writes: “the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having with themselves That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And they almost never saw it.”

Five and seven years on, respectively, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan bear little resemblance to what we thought they would be when we first launched them, carried on by their own momentum and internal logic. What is most striking in Filkinss account is the complexity and opacity (to the Americans, at least) of these places, and even of the wars themselves. Filkins raises uncomfortable questions about the gullibility of Americans, perhaps including meas I blundered across eastern Afghanistan as a soldier in 2003, I grew to rely closely on my Afghan counterparts and often considered them reliable colleagues, if not friends. I know that I was played for a sucker many times, but how often was I as oblivious to my environment as Allawis American “friend”?

Filkins was based in Baghdad from 2003 to 2006, and before that worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Los Angeles Times. His memoir encompasses both assignments, but the bulk of the book is about Iraq, where he bore witness to the most violent and anarchic days of the war. The focus on Iraq is in some ways unfortunate, as Afghanistan seems to inspire his best writing. This is a reporters book, and it showsFilkins writes exclusively about what he personally saw and did, and who he interviewed. His knowledge of his subject matter is broad and deep, if not encyclopedic. He keeps the editorializing and speculation to a minimum. Refreshingly, he offers no forecasts or suggestions for the future, and fleshes out portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan as they are (or were; Filkins left Iraq in 2006), not as they should or could be. This focuses the writing, which is trenchant and visceral as he describes Iraqs spiral into madness. Ever the good reporter, Filkins allows the many contradictions of the place and the things he witnessed and experienced there to speak for themselves. His language is straightforward and economical, allowing the war to come through with an unfiltered-seeming intensity and immediacy. Most chapters are comprised of a series of vignettes, sometimes related but often not. Although Filkinss tight prose has little in common with the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s, comparisons to Michael Herrs Vietnam masterpiece Dispatches are not unwarranted.

Chapter 1 of The Forever War opens in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1998. Filkins is in the stands of the national soccer stadium to witness one of the Talibans now infamous public executions. A pickpockets hand is amputated; a murderer is executed by the victims brother. When Filkins asks the spectators about this form of justice, most of them voice approval, but with little enthusiasm: “‘In America, you have television and moviesthe cinema,’ one of the Afghans said. ‘Here there is only this.'”

“Just then a jumbo jet appeared in the sky above, rumbling, forcing a pause in the ceremony,” Filkins writes. “The brother stood holding his Kalashnikov. I looked up. I wondered how a jet airliner could happen in such a place, over a city such as this, wondered where it might be going. I considered for a second the momentary collision of centuries.” As the roar of the distant jet faded, the man with the Kalashnikov took his shot. “In revenge there is life,” intoned the voice from the loudspeaker as the dead man slumped over.

A scant seven years after the fall of the World Trade Center, its difficult to remember a day when the Taliban werent our blood enemies. Filkinss account of the public execution reads like a postcard from a more naive era, when the Taliban, of whom we knew so little, seemed almost quaint as they busied themselves with such eccentric tasks as blowing up ancient statues. But they also brought order to the anarchy that descended on Afghanistan and provided some semblance of law and order to a population that had grown accustomed to having neither. Filkins admits a grudging admiration for a Talib he interviews:

“The biggest scourge was the checkpoints,” [the man] said, “the commanders, the warlords, they would loot and plunder and violate all who passed. Rape and violate the women They were a plague on the people.” Mohammedi was an old man, with weathered skin and a stringy beard. But he was tough and hard and honest, you could see that in his eyes, and he was straight as a two-by-four. As I listened to him that night in the little room off the hotel lobby, I found myself admiring the old man. Anarchy had taken over, and the Taliban were the only guys mean enough and dark enough to wrestle it back to dusty earth.

If the complex loyalties of Iraqis were beyond the understanding of Americans involved in prosecuting the Iraq War, in Afghanistan the same thing was true of the simple fact of warfare itself. “They had been fighting for so long,” Filkins writes:

twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the fighting could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

If a more accurate statement has ever been written about modern Afghanistan, Im not aware of it. Anyone who has experience in that country knows that the Taliban are not a monolithic cohesive force, and that the enemies we fight there represent an entire constellation of motives and affronts. It is little surprise that the Afghans opinion of the soldiers profession is correspondingly low.

In Iraq, even as security deteriorated, Filkins did most of his reporting far from the protection of American guns. He covered the battle of Najaf, when Muqtada al-Sadrs followers rose up and seized the Shiite holy places, from the side of the Mahdi armywhich is to say that he was with that rag-tag militia as American firepower tore them to bits. (A sharia court almost executed Filkins for his trouble.) His most unique contribution, though, has to be his description of the trials the Times bureau went through in order to remain in Baghdad. Piece by piece the newspaper acquired an army and built a castle, complete with guard towers and manned machine guns, even closing down a street in order to dissuade suicide bombers.

Filkins is not above self-criticism, and is honest about his own failingssuch as his egregiously dangerous nightly five-mile runs, which he took at the same hour, on the same route, every night, at a time when every correspondent was a high-value target for kidnappers. Filkins is frank in acknowledging his contribution to the death of an American Marine during the battle of Fallujah, although he wasnt directly responsible for it: near the end of the battle, a photographer whod accompanied Filkins during the house-to-house fighting needed a picture of a dead Iraqi fighter; one of the Marines who guarded them on this fools errand was killed. His death has the unnerving effect of implicating not just the reporters who report and package our news, but also those of us who consume it. A war story demands a war picturewar cant be hell unless we can experience some small measure of it.

The one real problem with The Forever War is its timing. Filkins left Iraq in 2006, and doesnt write about the troop surge and diminished violence that followed his departure. This is more than unfortunate, as Filkinss intimacy with Iraq would have gone far in explaining just what exactly stemmed the tide and brought the country back from the abyss. Instead, The Forever War leaves a Baghdad in ruins. Since his subsequent return to a Baghdad posting this year, Filkins has marveled at the positive changes that struck him as beyond comprehension two years ago. None of this is in the bookand, of course, it couldnt be. Ive heard the claim made that the Iraq War was not one war, but many: different phases, different belligerents, different circumstances. The Forever War describes the first series of these wars so completely that its author can be forgiven for not getting to what happened next.

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