Review: Dexter Filkins on the War on Terror

Americans are tired of the war on terror. It's been a while, the images don't seem to change, and as we make progress in one place (Iraq), everything seems to fall apart in another (Afghanistan). People have a lot of other stuff to worry about. Small wonder, then, that media coverage of the war has dropped dramatically. Yet U.S. soldiers are still fighting and dying, and insulating Americans from their suffering lets them forget that U.S. policies have a cost—both for them and for people living in the places where Washington has chosen to fight.

That's why "The Forever War," the new memoir by New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins of his time spent covering the war on terror, is so important. Filkins has seen more of this story than just about any one else around. (Full disclosure: he and I are friends.) In the late 1990s, he reported from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In September 2001 he visited the rubble of the World Trade Center just hours after the attacks. And from 2003 to 2006 he covered the war in Iraq— including the horrific Battle of Fallujah in 2005. The Marine unit Filkins accompanied in that operation lost a quarter of its men. He has witnessed executions, narrowly escaped abduction and cheated death on numerous occasions.

Along the way he's developed an extraordinary ability to reproduce a world of hollow-eyed fanatics, tobacco-chewing boy-warriors, jovial murderers and shattered survivors. "The Forever War"—in contrast to many of the works on Iraq and Afghanistan that already crowd bookstores—isn't really about dissecting policy or advancing an argument. It is a ravenous search for the particular.

A Taliban grandee has a "small, constipated smile," while the driver of a fearsome American tank has "a boy's voice, the voice of a child before it changes." Walking through the smoking rubble of a street in lower Manhattan he notices a "gray-green thing spread across the puddles and rocks. Elongated, unrolled, sitting there, unnoticed. An intestine."

No, Filkins is not circumspect. He refuses to sugar the pill, and there are moments when his reporting might offend. To that I can only reply: terrorism is in very bad taste. So, too, is war—even wars fought for good causes.

But there is a kind of redemption to be found in brutal honesty. Filkins is so attentive to detail that the reader is rewarded by revelation. Abstraction is the enemy of truth, as is ideology. Since its appearance, the book has been attacked by critics on both sides of the red-blue divide. "Sometimes I envied them their patriotism and their faith, honed out there on the plains of Osawatomie," writes Filkins of the young Marines he's with. "Sometimes I thought they needed to ask more questions." Liberals will hate the first part, conservatives the second. But Filkins has the tuning just about right.

Filkins assumes that his readers are grown-ups. He doesn't feel compelled to follow a timeline. Analysis and context are sometimes dispensed with. Yet however gruesome his subject matter, Filkins's writing is always supple and sharp, with a flair for succinct observation: "From the very beginning, Iraq was an elaborate con game; the Iraqis moving and rearranging the shells, the Americans trying to guess which one had the stone." Perhaps surprisingly, there is plenty of grim humor to be eked from the mayhem. One grandiose account recounts Marines spending six hours blasting a building apart as they try to kill a sniper—only to watch the likely culprit pedal away on a bicycle, just out of reach.

Throughout it all, Filkins spares no one, including himself. The moral center of the book revolves around the death of a Marine detailed to provide security for Filkins and his photographer during the hellish Battle of Fallujah in 2005. (He's killed when they go out to take a picture of a dead enemy fighter—a tough order, since the jihadists take their dead with them.) The two journalists eventually attend his memorial service in North Carolina and meet his parents—and are shocked when the family thanks Filkins rather than lacerating him. They're grateful, the family says, that Filkins provided an account of the way their son died.

Filkins wonders if they're telling him the truth. I think they were. When it comes to the death of loved ones in combat, it's the uncertainty that causes the most suffering. If nothing else does, that should remind us why our society so urgently needs people willing to bear unadorned witness. Filkins doesn't feel absolved, and neither should we. But at least we'll finally know what we mean when we talk about the war.