Living and Dying on the Front Lines

By Bing West,
who fought as a Marine in Vietnam, served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and is the author of "The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq"
Thursday, September 18, 2008


By Dexter Filkins

Knopf. 368 pp. $25

"The Forever War" is a splendid volume of short nonfiction pieces about two dozen incidents of war in Iraq and Afghanistan between 1998 and 2006. Dexter Filkins previously covered several of these events in news articles for the New York Times, where he is a correspondent. He has now reworked his material, sculpting each story so that it shines as a work of literature, illuminating the human cost of war.

Writing as an observer in some stories and a protagonist in others, Filkins focuses on how violence reveals character, including his own. The book is not arranged chronologically; it is a journalist's snapshots of war's effects. The preamble cites Melville: "Oh, horrible vultureism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free." In that vein, the stories have a haunting fickleness; characters don't get what they deserve but what war chooses to dispense. An Iraqi doctor fires an AK-47 to stop looters from entering his hospital. A Jordanian father flips through photos of his dead son, wondering how "an English-speaking, American-loving, hair-gel-wearing lawyer who'd walked among the bikinis of Santa Monica" came to blow himself up in a suicide attack in Iraq. Filkins and Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi tour a modern art collection in Tehran, wandering alone past works by Degas, Warhol and Chagall.

"The Forever War" is akin to Michael Herr's "Dispatches," published in 1977. But in my view, "Dispatches" is a conceited, self-centered book; in Vietnam, journalists lavishly praised fellow journalists for their courage and understanding of war, as if they were better-trained, more insightful and more valorous than the infantrymen. Many reporters made themselves the center of the action, using U.S. soldiers as props. Spurning such narcissism, Filkins expresses empathy for the grunts in Iraq.

Yet he stands apart from them. When he first got to Iraq, Filkins apparently was determined not to take sides. Iraq "wasn't my war, not my army," he writes. At one point in "The Forever War," a Marine tells Filkins to keep his mouth shut because he is "not part of this unit." During the 2004 battle for Fallujah, however, the author's tone changes. He stops writing about "them" and starts writing about "us." "We had become part of the team," he declares. "I knew they would save me if I got into trouble." And, in fact, they did. A Marine, Lance Cpl. William L. Miller, 22, of Pearland, Tex., was killed while escorting him to the top of a minaret in Fallujah, an incident recounted in "Pearland," the finest story in this collection.

On the other hand, insurgents did not try to kill Filkins when he was living in Baghdad, causing him to wonder about his journalistic detachment. "The insurgents knew where to find us. . . . So why did they let us live?" he writes. "I assumed they had decided that we were useful to them." The notion of being useful to al-Qaeda was "not a comforting thought," he adds. After all, a U.S. platoon had stood by him and paid a tragic price for doing so. Iraq wasn't his war, but it was his army.

In many of these stories, Filkins depicts loss and grief uncompensated by accomplishment. To him, it seems, war is sound and fury, signifying nothing except pathos and irony. And that point of view, common in academia, is part of a larger problem. Reviewers in cliquish fashion praise books by reporters while ignoring the writing of warriors like former Staff Sgts. Michael Yon and David Bellavia, who balance war's ugliness with its purpose. Now that violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically, the war has fallen off the front pages without anyone adequately explaining how our troops turned it around. Because journalists and editors shape the public's view, Iraq is likely to be perceived not just as the forever war but as the forever-lost war.

Filkins's singular skill in this book rests in showing how war shatters lives and how some people manage to survive amid fear, violence, intrigue and chaos. He does not describe the intricacies of combat or strategy; his book is not a history of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, he shows us the oleaginous manipulations of men like Chalabi, who served for a year as Iraq's deputy prime minister; the Dark Ages cruelty of Taliban warlords; the shrink-wrapped self-importance of such high-level U.S. officials as Ambassador Paul Bremer; and the instinctive, unassuming valor of grunts like Lance Cpl. Miller.

These stories are accurate but not antiseptic, detached but not uncaring. And they force the reader to reflect on how fragile civilization is and how fortunate we Americans are.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company