Read Filkins’ ‘Forever War.’ Now.

Jeremy Gantz

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When I met Dexter Filkins early last year, I was astonished by how well-adjusted and just plain sane he seemed to be. I had assumed that anyone who fought or reported on the frontlines of Falluja in late 2004 must be slightly unhinged. Anyone who chooses to live in a war zone without a weapon must be, right?Remarkably, Filkins wasn't. The fearless (for once, this word really is appropriate) New York Times reporter was relaxed and chatty at the Northwestern University luncheon, but also frank and self-critical about the more than three years he spent living in Iraq. He had moved back to the United States just a few months before, to take a break from the Times as a fellow at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy––and write his first book.The book, called The Forever War, weaves together his experiences covering the Taliban ('98), 9/11 (in New York) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It happens to be one of the best war books I've ever read. (Not to be confused with this book, also called The Forever War, although both are about the inhumanity of war.)The book's reportage -- beyond battlefields, it includes a public Taliban execution and a brilliant profile of the deceptive Ahmad Chalabi -- builds a 10-year narrative that is epic but never pretentious. As a war correspondent, Filkins doesn't care about the blame game of Washington officials and pundits. He's seen too much war to even care about the short-sighted ideology and reckless policies that pushed U.S. forces into the Middle East in the first place.So Forever War makes no explicit argument: it simply reveals the destructive insanity of war and its terrible toll on the innocent. Filkins allows what he saw, heard and learned to speak for itself: the carnage, the implosion of Iraqi society, the isolation and incompetence of U.S. officials, the heroism of U.S. troops.While Rajiv Chanrasekaran's brilliant Imperial Life in the Emerald City catalogues the ineptitude and folly of proconsul Paul Bremer and the U.S. occupation, The Forever War is after bigger game. And Filkins delivers: it's difficult to imagine a better (English-language) window into wartime Iraq and Afghanistan, and the universal horror of war.Filkins wasn't really well-adjusted when I met him last year, of course, although he put on a good face for the young journalists assembled before him. As he writes at the end of his book, about returning home:People asked me about the war, of course. They asked me whether it was as bad as people said. "Oh, definitely," I told them, and then, usually, I stopped. In the beginning I'd go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences… Your eyes won't wander a few sentences into The Forever War. Quite the opposite. Read this book.

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Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/​Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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