The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. Nonfiction—investigative journalism. A journalist’s stories from Afghanistan and Iraq. Highly violent and disturbing, filled with bizarre wartime details, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, conveying at times the hallucinogenic weirdness of wartime events (for example, the story “Blonde,” in which an American army platoon displays one of their female soldiers and announces that she is “for sale,” as a distraction to the Iraqi males in a village, thereby allowing the unit to search the Iraqis’ homes without encountering resistance). Obviously not a cheerful book. Just look at the author photo.
The book opens with a prologue entitled “Hells Bells,” describing the 2004 assault on Fallujah from the footsoldier’s perspective in terms that are not mournful but grimly exuberant—just like the heavy metal rock song “Hells Bells” (by AC/DC), which is playing from loudspeakers during the attack. We witness combat as a lethal game of tackle football, in which the marines and the journalist sprint downfield, dive for cover, bullets whip past, and a “jihadi’s head bursts like a tomato.”
After this attention-grabbing beginning, we go back in time to Afghanistan, where Filkins travelled for the Los Angeles Times in 1998. The next four chapters, respectively, cover a Taliban execution, the dissolution of the Northern Alliance, the September 11th attack in New York City, and the Afghan way of war. This brings us to Part Two of the book, under the heading “Baghdad, Iraq, March 2003-.” In the next 240-odd pages, Filkins shows us the war in Iraq through a series of scenes and episodes gathered during his work for the New York Times.
These scenes and episodes, which have the feeling of dispatches, are Filkins’ basic building blocks as a writer. Sometimes he uses them to illustrate a fairly explicit theme, as in Chapter 7, “A Hand in the Air,” which reflects on the impossibility of knowing anything for certain in Iraq, due to the language barrier, duplicity (Iraqi), self-delusion (American), and the death of truth in wartime (“Iraq was a con game”). But much of the time, there is just a story without a conclusion attached to it, as in “Pearland,” which recounts the avoidable death of Lance Corporal Miller, from Pearland, Texas. In such cases, the unifying theme is simply the war: this is what happened, this is what the author saw.
Filkins’ writing style is an effective tool for conveying wartime events: plain and direct, he lets the blood and brains hit you in the face without fancy language getting in the way. (The decapitated jihadi in Fallujah flings his arms out “like a headless Jesus.”) He uses the f-word when he wants to, but never distractingly. He has a good touch. And he is capable of inspired description, as when rendering an aerial bombing in Afghanistan: “Then, without warning, the sharp, titanic bursts, the clouds tumbling upwards, the ground moaning as if something crucial in the world had broken off and fallen away.” One of his primary stylistic techniques is fragmentation—especially the sentence fragment—used for dramatic impact. Space breaks occur every page or so. Some chapters are under a page, such as “The Cloud” (the cloud of smoke that rises when a car bomb goes off), resembling the short, stand-alone paragraph blocks of post-modern fiction. They leave you with a hollow ringing sound. At one point, he uses a list of insurgent groups’ names to create a kind of koan. This deliberate understatement and abridgement is a form of shrapnel-poetry, used to suggest things that cannot otherwise be said. He is both a straight shooter and a stylist, and neither approach is overdone.
In his direct, well-balanced voice, Filkins delivers a litany of tragedy that never gets better and seems to never end. Hopes are raised and dashed, failure and death return. The book is the chronicle of a descent, the chapter titles going from “I Love You, March 2003” to “The Vanishing World” to “Fuck Us.” Frame after frame, we witness the war’s nihilism, barbarism, mercilessness, pointlessness, illogicality, weirdness, necrophilia, waste, and failure. It feels endless, because it is. The title is perfect. For the reader, it is a depressing book, as it should be. But for the author, who lived the book, it must have been psychologically damaging.
Among the many disturbing aspects of the book, for me, is the sense that the author was subtly corrupted by the war. Filkins himself calls Iraq hell, yet he returned to it again and again by choice. The danger, heat, heartbreak, and hatred were not enough to keep him away. Describing flying in and out of the country, he says “As much as I hated arriving, I hated leaving more.” He felt he had “become a part of the place,” that he “understood its paradoxes.” In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges says that war is a powerful drug, one that Filkins may have gotten hooked on.
One anecdote in particular gave me this impression. An Iraqi whom the author knew, Abdul Razzaq al-Saeidi, whose brother was killed by Saddam, eventually managed to escape to the United States to study at Harvard University, where Filkins was completing work on the book. Filkins notes with satisfaction that, once he was safely in the United States, the Iraqi became more self-assertive, even venturing to interrupt the author in conversation. In class, when Harvard students repeated their standard formula that the war was an unmitigated moral outrage and Islam a religion of peace, Abdul would stand up and disagree with them.
This episode is presented as evidence that Abdul had recovered his self respect, his human dignity. But what is assumed in the retelling of the episode, what is packed into it, is the assumption that the war was not simply a moral outrage. Filkins seems to be saying that the Harvard students were well-intentioned but naïve in condemning the war completely, that there actually might be redeeming features to the war, things that the students in their sheltered way were unable to appreciate, but that Filkins and Abdul, and others who survived it, might understand.
This suggestion is schizoid in the context of the 337 pages of horrors to which we have just been treated. It is evidence that Filkins’ judgment has been warped.
When war survivors have ambiguous feelings about the war, stopping short of condemning it completely, all they are proving is just how corrupting war is. Those who swim in the River Styx aren’t purified, they are tainted—made weird in their inability to condemn a thing so obviously terrible. The more you study war, the more revolting it is. The entire book with its doom-ringing title The Forever War, is a powerful case that the world would have been better off without this travesty. Despite the fact that the students had arrived at their opinion of the war from a distance—possibly through politically correct groupthink—does not mean that their conclusion was wrong. I was waiting for Filkins to acknowledge this. He never did.
Maybe it is noncombatants who can best judge war, with the aid of books like this one.
Atticus Lish lives with Beth, his wife of 17 years, in New York. He is the author of Life Is with People, a book of drawings and captions, published by Tyrant Books.