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Reuel Marc Gerecht reviews The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins.
Reuel Marc Gerecht
The second Iraq war, unlike the first, has produced a lot of books. It has not yet, however, provoked a great work–a personal and historical voyage into the conflict that mesmerizes and illuminates. Nothing yet has come close to the beauty of Michael Kelly’s Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War, an account of America’s first collision with Saddam Hussein. Kelly wove together and expanded his numerous filings into a seamless story that was both a Naipaulian travelogue–Kelly’s eye for small details that denote big things astonishes–and a war journal recounting everybody’s suffering with tenderness and mordancy.
In The Forever War, Dexter Filkins aims large, a tour d’horizon of America’s battles since 2001. An intrepid, war-weary New York Times correspondent, he was in Afghanistan with the Lion of the Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and his enemies in 1998; he was there when the Taliban fell; and most tellingly, he was in Iraq for three-and-a-half years, from the invasion in March 2003 through August 2006. In Baghdad, Filkins served with the Times‘s bureau chief, John F. Burns, the most literate and historically sensitive foreign correspondent in the English-speaking press. His other colleague, Michael Gordon, provided the finest military coverage of the Iraq war, and in Cobra II the reference work for assessing the conflict’s battlefield maneuvers.
So the bar is high for Filkins: He is not some callow reporter writing with disbelief about the daily life of Baghdad’s Green Zone and the ineptitude of the Anglo-American occupation. Filkins knows the good, the bad, and the ugly of what happens when men organize to kill each other. He knows that Americans have enormous faults.
Filkins has the bad luck to bring out a book of such unremitting darkness when rays of light are appearing.
It is with this standard in mind that The Forever War disappoints. Filkins’s problems are both mechanical and spiritual. He aggravates the reader, achieving far less as a writer than he should, in large part because the style of his writing–edgy, popping sentences that are meant to rake the reader’s nerves and not threaten anyone’s attention span–does an injustice to what Filkins has experienced. The Forever War isn’t really a book with a beginning, middle, and an end, but a collection of hurried vignettes that may well represent the continuing jumble of Iraq in the author’s mind.
Filkins makes a telling confession after he’s returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives. He’s talking to another American reporter who had been in Iraq, who was finding it difficult to talk about Iraq with people who’d not been there.
“I told him,” Filkins writes, “I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.”
We can easily appreciate the all-consuming nature of Filkins’s Iraqi life, but it isn’t literarily a wise choice for him to transfer his anxiety, restlessness, guilt, and confusion to the reader without a more reflective, historical filter. His frenetic, eyewitness Mesopotamian sojourn inevitably wears Filkins out. It exhausts the reader, too.
Filkins leads us to hope that this blood-soaked voyage through Afghanistan and Iraq will help answer big questions about evil. On Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban, he writes:
[I went] to see what human beings were really capable of, what they could do to each other . . . I went to watch. I went so I could go all the way to the bottom, into the blackest pit of the human way . . . to throw open the door and see what was inside, to smell it, to turn it over in my hands, to feel the heat of its terrible essence.
And Afghanistan is an appetizer for what’s coming in Iraq. Yet by the end of the book, we know no more about man’s dark side than we did at the beginning. Iraq and Algeria are the two great killing fields in modern Arab history, where traditional Arab-Islamic ethics, which largely kept Muslim societies from going berserk, utterly broke down, allowing for organized carnage and personal savagery that rival the worst of the West. (The Taliban’s brutality is, so far, prosaic and primitive by comparison.)
Why has modern Iraq produced such barbarism? Is it just its passionate embrace of imported national socialism, or is it something deeper? The Fascist French pre-empted and surprised German Nazis with their enthusiasm for the Final Solution, but it’s pretty difficult to imagine the French, even at their very worst, executing the Holocaust from scratch. In the 1930s and ’40s there was something special about the Austrians and Germans. If Iraqis now have a higher savage quota than most, if they can’t recover because of tribalism or religion from Baathist totalitarianism, then the enormous American effort to bring representative government to Mesopotamia would appear to be doomed. The stunning success of the surge is just a respite.
Surrounded by a daily symphony of suicide-bombers, Filkins by autumn 2006 appears to have lost hope. He doesn’t anticipate that al Qaeda’s excesses will change the sympathies and calculations of Iraq’s pro-insurgent Sunni community; he does not really see the rise of the Sunni “Awakening,” or the weakening of anti-Sunni Shiite anger after the Shiite victory in the Battle of Baghdad during 2006 and 2007. He cannot envision General Petraeus’s surge and how it will propel all the other factors into a startling reduction in violence and tepid-but-intensifying late-night inter-communal negotiations.
In discussing the tactics of an idealistic American colonel, Nathan Sassaman, a tough and rule-bending commander who was reprimanded by Lt. General Raymond Odierno for allowing his men to go too far with the use of “non-lethal” force, Filkins suggests that, by 2006, nothing militarily can be done to save Iraq. He worries, then, about “not only what the Americans were doing to Iraq, but what Iraq was doing to the Americans.”
Filkins has the bad luck to bring out a book of such unremitting darkness when rays of light are appearing. Yet Filkins could have rapidly inserted a closing chapter making a more nuanced somber assessment of where Iraq might go–and suggesting more strongly that it may be Afghanistan, not Iraq, that will be forever at war. He recently published a long, sensitive essay in the Times about how disorienting it was to be back in Iraq where violence had dropped by 90 precent. Filkins was “jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope.” Until the trip this summer, too late to send revisions to the publisher, Filkins just couldn’t quite believe that evil had not triumphed.
Filkins isn’t an ideological antiwar reporter, always trying to set the stage to prove a point, so it’s difficult to know what he is trying to say since he is such a visual journalist. Photo-journalism–of which Filkins’s is the print equivalent–isn’t a nuanced art; graphic war photography unavoidably renders even “the best of wars” into a losing cause.
Filkins tells us he filled up 561 notebooks that, in some fashion, went into this book–which probably would have been much deeper if he’d filled up far fewer. He constantly touches on intriguing men and women who cry out for more time and homework. (In particular, religious Iraqis quickly come into view and just as quickly vanish.) He isn’t comfortable with religious Muslims, which puts him in the company of most Western journalists. The Forever War would be much better at describing what makes Iraqis and Afghans tick–and the odds of eventual national salvation and peace–if its author had been able to spend more time with men and women who think about God as much as they think about anything else. It’s not a question of empathy–Filkins appears to be an empathetic fellow–but of personal preferences, patience (talking to the devout takes a lot more time than talking to the less faithful), and, perhaps, personal security.
Filkins does better with Ahmad Chalabi, the most notorious secular Iraqi. He spends more pages on Chalabi than he does on any other individual because he knows that Chalabi is an excellent vehicle for prying into post-Saddam Iraq:
Chalabi was someone whom I never missed a chance to follow around. It wasn’t just that he was brilliant, or nimble, or ruthless or fun. When I looked in Chalabi’s eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he’d returned. L’ état, c’est lui. Chalabi was Iraq.
Well, then, give us more.
Tell us something about Chalabi that we don’t know. Chalabi has become a cliché in the West–“gamesman, exile, idealist, fraud”–and his prewar influence along the Potomac has been wildly exaggerated by critics of the Iraq war. Filkins, too, engages in a bit of historical silliness by writing that “Chalabi had persuaded the American government to go to war to topple Saddam. Then Iraq imploded, and the super weapons Chalabi assured the United States were there never turned up.”
George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and Kenneth Pollack–the former Clinton administration official who wrote the most influential book arguing for war against Saddam and who spent much of the 1990s trashing Chalabi’s intelligence value and his efforts to get the United States to support a “rollback” guerrilla campaign against the Baathist regime–formed their reasons for eliminating Saddam without any help from the Iraqi “Proteus.” Anyone who thinks Chalabi conned Paul Wolfowitz (who grew cool towards Chalabi before the Iraq invasion), who then conned Rumsfeld into the Iraq war, should not be allowed to drink, drive, or watch a PG movie. I have a strong suspicion that Filkins, like his colleague John Burns, supported the war in 2003. Was Chalabi a pivotal influence on them? Unlikely.
Talking about Chalabi is a litmus test for writers, a way to gauge how far they have moved from the antiwar rhetorical swamp that has made far too many gifted intellectuals and reporters sound like Frank Rich. Anyone with a literary itch ought to want to look at Chalabi. He is a voracious intellect who was never completely at home in the West, even though most of him is of Occidental manufacture. More than any other big-paper reporter, Filkins tries to give Chalabi-in-Iraq his due:
No Iraqi leader worked harder than Chalabi. Many of them worked for a few hours in the morning and slept away the afternoons. Many of them, as the chaos deepened, returned to exile. Whenever I went to Chalabi’s house, night or day, I found him working, often on the most mundane aspects of public administration.
Filkins ultimately finds Chalabi, like Iraq, unknowable: too many doors, too Levantine, too big an IQ that allowed him to play politics and people like “three-dimensional chess,” leaving normal humans wondering whether they’d been “conned and charmed into submission.”
This is a pity. There is a bit too much of this Iraq-is-an-Oriental-labyrinth in Filkins’s writing. It is part of his sense of hopelessness. Knowing Iraq is certainly hard, vastly harder than trying to understand a Western country at peace. But Iraq is no different from any other land: With the right tools and patience, one can pry it open. Americans got into a mess in Mesopotamia in part because American generals like John Abizaid and George Casey bought into the notion that Iraq was too complicated for Americans to understand, and that we always do more harm than good by trying to insert ourselves more deeply into Iraqi society. Perhaps not coincidentally, this view rescued the U.S. military from having any responsibility for the bloodbath that was occurring outside of America’s heavily fortified bases.
Chalabi is no different than Filkins. In March 2003 they both started a crash course on Mesopotamia. What makes Chalabi a magnetic character is that he’s actually more open, more accessible, more comprehensible, and even more truthful than most in explaining what he has learned. Chalabi would probably not admit that he is a student: He always wants the observer to believe that he is the baptismal font. Kanan Makiya, the chronicler of Baathist totalitarianism and Arab intellectual decline, believes that Chalabi might possibly have held Iraq together in 2003-04 if both he and the Americans had acted more wisely.
I’m not convinced–Chalabi probably couldn’t win an election in Iraq even if he were the only man running–but Makiya’s point that Chalabi was perhaps the only Iraqi who potentially had the skills, intellect, international ties, and all-critical family connections to process all that was going on is probably more true than false. Filkins deserves credit for trying to understand this radioactive personality; I just wish he’d been less conventional about it.
With all his literary problems, Filkins is still well worth reading. And for those who want to digest an eyewitness rendering of the savagery and sadness that befell Iraq between 2004 and 2007 (and all of us should) there is no more upsetting account published. Filkins was scarred by Iraq: A young Marine lance corporal, William Miller, died helping him and a colleague get a photograph of a dead Iraqi, quite likely saved Filkins’s life in the process, and Filkins can’t shake the guilt and fortuity surrounding the corporal’s death. His spiritual wounds haunt the book and certainly make it, at times, a compelling read.
No other writer has been as sardonically descriptive of Iraq’s unbelievable routine bloodletting: The scattering of eerily life-like severed heads and intact spinal columns of suicide bombers, and the lexical creativity required to deal with all this killing:
The insurgents were always looking for a new and improved way to deliver a bomb. First came the car bombs, then the suicide bombers, then the car bombs driven by suicide bombers. Every time the insurgents figured out a new delivery system the Americans gave it a new acronym. Or most of the time. Car bombs, for instance, were VBIEDs, pronounced VEE-BID, for Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Device. Suicide bombers were called SVBIEDs, for Suicide Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device. I never heard the acronym for suicide bombers on bicycles; they rode them into weddings and funerals. The insurgents hid bombs underneath dead animals, especially dogs. No acronym for that. And then they strapped bombs to dogs. Live bombs to live dogs. That would be DBIED, or Dog-born IED. Also, the D could have stood for Donkey, when they tied bombs to donkeys.
Filkins ran incessantly along the Tigris in Baghdad, at considerable risk to himself, to escape from the boredom of the claustrophobic, heavily guarded Times compound and, no doubt, to sweat out the ugliness and demons that inevitably become the bedrock of the mordant humor that sustain life in surreal circumstances. It’s a good bet that, no matter where Filkins goes in the future, he will be forever running in Baghdad.
This was his war, and there is no chance in hell that it will ever let go of him.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at AEI.
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