The Magazine

Darkness at Noon

A premature report from Iraq.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The Forever War

by Dexter Filkins

Knopf, 384 pp., $25

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.

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.)