Jun 17, 09
Read in March, 2009
Dexter Filkins, the author of The Forever War, is a New York Times foreign correspondent who covered the middle east from Afghanistan's Taliban rule in 1998 to Iraq through 2006.
I should probably confess right away that I'm not a fan of journalism. I resent the whole idea of getting information from people who are in the business of selling it. I don't know what the alternative would be, but still....it seems like a conflict of interest.
On top of that, there is the issue of bias. We all have it. I'm not sure it's possible to communicate without it. So, when it's somebody's job to write/talk/share about an issue, I don't believe anyone is completely able to leave it out. It's a lot more obvious to detect when your own bias stands in opposition. I can't read Arianna Huffington or Ann Coulter without some serious eye rolling, but Peggy Noonan? I think she's brilliant. I think she's fair. I can't see her bias as easily, but I'm sure that's because I agree with her, most of the time.
I must agree with Dexter Filkins too because I had a very hard time detecting any bias in his book. The Forever War doesn't give a chronological time line of the war on terror, or even a history or reason for the conflict up to this point. Instead, the book's focus is much more narrow. Using small snippets from his observations, conversations and the various situations he found himself in as an American journalist living in a fundamental Islam dominated middle east, the war takes its own shape without much molding from the author. Through Filkin's reporting, the war is viewed from many various perspectives. The Taliban's, Afghani women, American soldiers, American politicians, American ambassadors, Iraqi Sunni's, Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, hardliners, moderates, families, women, children. Iraqis as gracious hosts. Iraqis blind to American goodwill. Iraqis determined to keep their country in chaos. Iraqis as the neighbor or friend you wish you had.
As he sometimes traveled under the protection of the US Forces, he was able to observe their behavior too. Like their Iraqi counterparts, soldiers and military leaders ranged from the truly valiant, noble even, to complete jerks. But, because he told individual stories and reported moments in time as they happened, very few of his reports are tinged with the burden of hindsight or the sensationalism that I so loathe. It's incredibly present. A snapshot with words.
Filkins manages to keep himself out of his reporting most of the time as well. Even when he's part of the story, such as when he runs in shorts that he knows bothers Muslim modesty, it's not about his running or even his legs, it's about the Iraqi guard's humor, generosity and discomfort. When he's not part of the story, his presence is hardly noticeable. For example, he doesn't editorialize an interview with an Iraqi jihadist. The emotion, that spills out of the pages is one of the jihadist's single-mindedness and hatred for the infidels, not of Filkin's response. No apologies. No excuses. When he's interviewing a 19 year-old American soldier from Pearland, Texas, the pages fill with the soldier's optimism, hope and unquestioning obedience to his superiors, not Filkin's east-coast, Harvard educated sensibilities.
Sometimes, the book becomes more than raw reporting. Sometimes, Filkins allows his own confusion and conflicting emotions to tell this story too. Like the time he gets lifted into an angry anti-American mob, and his certain soon-to-be death, but before any harm befalls him, he is pulled back into the safety of his car by his Iraqi driver. Gratitude for one Iraqi and fear of another. Conflict.
If there should ever be required reading on the present day conflict in Iraq, The Forever War should hold a place at the top of that list. While it is a book that no doubt Filkins hopes will sell, I don't think he's trying to sell a view of this war to the left or to the right. Instead, like a meaningful piece of art, he captures what war is - past, present and future: hope, corruption, fear, courage, sacrifice, weariness, destruction, honor, death and change - all together. Forever.