On the ground

A decade in the war on terror
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  November 5, 2008


Through journalistic instincts, hunches, and sheer luck, Dexter Filkins has, for the past ten years, managed to frequently be in the wrong place at the right time. His book, The Forever War — a collection made up mostly of his war reporting for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times — contains street-level observations of crucial moments in recent history.

In the late '90s, he observes the increasing audacity of the Taliban against Northern Alliance troops and Afghanistan's government. On September 11, 2001, he's in New York City, sneaking around police checkpoints, and sleeping in a Brooks Brothers across the street from the World Trade Center as police officers try on cashmere coats. That December, he's in Tora Bora after Osama bin Laden avoids assassination by mere hours while nearby residents are still combing through debris. In 2004, he's embedded with the United States Marines for the second siege on Falluja.

If anything, it may seem that Filkins underanalyzes these momentous events. In the context of his book, which is sort of a narrative tapestry — he moves chronologically from slice-of-life interviews to stints with American troops in Iraq and discussions with insurgents and politicians — every airstrike or car bomb is another instance of innocent lives destroyed, a mere mile-marker on the long march of history. (On September 11: "My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened every day...") Filkins rarely portrays subjective optimism or pessimism. "Turning points" are few; just things getting better, things getting worse, and who knows what to expect tomorrow? He almost never attaches dates to interviews or incidents, as if to say that all of these stories occur every day.

The Forever War isn't the work of a hardened cynic, though. Filkins does a remarkable and important job of ferreting out the day-to-day humanity in the Middle East among citizens and militants. His observations in late-1990s Afghanistan seem particularly cogent. For many, war isn't a struggle of ideas or religion; it's a steady paycheck. "[O]n Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again... promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was a part of every day life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose." Those civilians, exhausted yet unfailingly polite, try to conceal and savor whatever pieces of a normal life they can: hiding televisions in vaults, or music and alcohol in secret compartments in their homes.

While he never says so, Filkins clearly sees the invasion of Iraq as a more dangerous event. If life was brutal under Saddam Hussein, it was relatively predictable; after he's deposed, the volatility is drastic. Everyday citizens are bankrupted by kidnapping ransoms, murdered by suicide bombers in bazaars. Even newly mundane events, such as walking to work in the Green Zone, are perilous. Worse, the danger is exacerbated by inept leadership. "The lines moved at a glacial pace, stalling because of the searches; and the suicide bombers feasted on them. In the beginning, the Americans just pushed the lines farther out into the street, presumably because it was the Green Zone itself they wanted to protect. So the bombers struck the Iraqis there."

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