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Books and Culture

Jacob Laksin
Scenes from a Carnage
A New York Times war correspondent chronicles how Iraq came undone.
21 November 2008

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (Knopf, 384 pp., $25)

Crouching behind a brick wall in Fallujah, Iraq, as insurgents’ bullets and Marine-fired mortars flew overhead, New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins suddenly had doubts about his career choice. “For a moment I felt like a coward behind that wall,” he writes, “and then I remembered it wasn’t my war, not my army. I’m just a goddamn reporter and I’ll wait the war out here.” But to judge from The Forever War, Filkins’s bracingly honest and unforgettably detailed report from the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was never a chance of his staying behind the wall. Filkins’s life as a war reporter has been deeply bound up with the tragic fates of both countries, and despite the qualms he feels when the bullets fly, Iraq—which Filkins has covered on and off since the 2003 U.S. invasion—is very much “his war.”

For Filkins, the war really began in 1998. At the time, based in Afghanistan, he got his first glimpse of a country ravaged by decades of sectarian fighting. As he does throughout the book, Filkins dispenses with potted history and editorializing to tell real-life stories of the people he meets. On a soccer field in Kabul, for instance, he witnesses Taliban justice firsthand. A blindfolded man, accused of murder in a dispute over irrigation, squats on the midfield dirt. The condemned man’s father pleads with the wronged family to spare his son’s life. The family refuses. The crowd grows quiet. Two shots are fired, and the condemned man collapses. Spectators rush the field “just like the end of a college football game.” One tells Filkins: “In America, you have television and movies. Here there is only this.”

Similarly, though Filkins grows disillusioned with the war in Iraq, he is too meticulous a reporter to ignore the tyranny that the Americans brought down there. In Baghdad in 2003, he meets the headmaster of a Jesuit high school, Yacob Yusef, whose brother Sadi vanished in 1988. A few weeks after the disappearance, Yusef received a call from an anonymous government official, who told him to come collect the body of his executed sibling. He made the two-hour drive from Baghdad to the southern city of Kut, where his brother’s corpse was being held inside a refrigerated produce truck. Yusef explains what happened next: “The man who I had talked to on the phone was there and he said to me, ‘You are very lucky, most people never get a body. You should be very grateful to us.’ So I thanked him. And then this man said, ‘I cannot release your brother’s body just yet.’ Why? I asked the man. And he said to me, ‘Because you must pay for the bullets that we used to kill him.’” Yusef paid for the two bullets. He got a receipt and a body. “Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef,” Filkins reminds us.

If men like Yusef brought to mind Iraq’s awful past, Wijdan al-Khuzai represented its hopeful future—at least before the country was plunged into a sectarian bloodbath. Al-Khuzai, a 47-year-old mother of five, is the kind of person whom the war was intended to empower. A relentless reformer and dissident even under Saddam Hussein, she embraced Iraq’s liberation and campaigned for the national assembly elections in the winter of 2004. Though a target of death threats, she traveled without armed guards—and paid the ultimate price for her courage. On Christmas Eve of that year, an American patrol on the road to Baghdad’s airport found her lifeless body, bruised, broken, and shot five times. “People ask me what happened in Iraq, and I tell them the story of Wijdan-al-Khuzai,” Filkins writes.

At the center of the chaos is Filkins himself. War often blurs the boundary between bravery and recklessness, and Filkins’s predicament is no exception. Indeed, the reader loses count of his dalliances with death. If he is not fleeing a murderous Tikriti mob at the funeral of Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, then he is narrowly escaping a kidnapping at the hands of a conniving Sunni sheikh or talking his way out of a death sentence before a sharia court run by Shiite militants. (Filkins pays special tribute to his Iraqi translators, whom he credits with repeatedly saving his life.) In 2004, he comes close to being killed again: while embedded with a Marine battalion in Fallujah, he dodges an insurgent’s bullet. The Marine escort immediately in front of him, 22-year-old Lance Corporal William Miller, is fatally hit. Filkins reports that the Times subsequently took out a $14,000-per-month insurance policy on him and its other reporters—“an amount we figured indicated that the insurance company had determined at least one of us was not going to live.”

Filkins survives to publish his book, but by the end of it he seems less certain that Iraq will do the same. Security had so deteriorated by 2005 that reporters could no longer get around the country, relying on Iraqi fixers to arrange interviews within the safety of the Times’s heavily guarded Baghdad compound. Literally and figuratively, the author was walled off from the rest of the country. Even for a veteran war reporter, the scale of the violence proved overwhelming. During the week of October 7, 2005, Filkins notes, there were 743 attacks on Americans and Iraqis—an average of 106 per day. Behind the attacks were at least 100 insurgent groups operating inside the country. It’s no surprise that by the time he leaves the Times’s Baghdad bureau in August 2006, Filkins describes the capital as a “dying city,” while he himself is so numbed by the carnage that he can barely communicate with the “normals” back home.

In light of all that he’s seen, it would be terribly unjust to question the legitimacy of Filkins’s despair. But since The Forever War was written before the troop surge went into effect in early 2007, one can’t help but wonder if the book’s obituary for Iraq is premature. Consider that this past September, the Times ran a cautiously hopeful report on a Baghdad neighborhood that had once been beset by suicide bombers and Mahdi Army thugs. Post-surge, it bustled with “families with children, women in jeans, women walking alone.” The reporter conceded that he had once “believed that evil had triumphed,” but a raft of new evidence—including a 90 percent drop-off in violence, the return of Iraqis from abroad, and the comprehensive destruction of the Mahdi Army and al-Qaida—had left him “disoriented” at the incredible progress made in his absence.

That reporter was none other than Dexter Filkins. Perhaps he would agree now that even the “forever war” may end one day.

Jacob Laksin is a senior editor for FrontPage Magazine.

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