Naeem's Reviews > The Forever War

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
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's review
Apr 04, 2009

really liked it
Recommended to Naeem by: John Hickey (Ithaca College librarian)

I withheld a star despite my belief that this book MUST be read; read today.

Filkins writes about his experiences as a war reporter in Afghanistan and Iraq (mostly the book is about Iraq). It is composed of short, medium, and long vignettes. He makes no effort to connect them.

It works as fiction works, implicitly. Mainly Filkins describes his situations and leaves his readers the job of interpreting. Some of these are as mundane as jogging along the Tigris river. Others are in the middle of firefights. His descriptions and his multiple angles reminded me how the show "The Wire" works. That is the highest praise I can deliver.

Sometimes I detested Filkins. He does not hide his loyalty to the U.S. soldiers with whom he is embedded. But because he does not hide his commitments (neither does he parade them), the reader can sense when he is trying to stretch himself towards Afghans and Iraqis. To some degree Afghans and Iraqis get to tell their story. But locals with whom he speaks are translators, drivers, photographers, snitches, and con artists. It is rare indeed for Filkins to portray an Afghan or Iraqi as an equal, as a seriously considered adversary.

This bias comes out especially strongly near the end of the book. The section called "The Departed," is an homage to the dead. Here especially I felt the absence of proportion, an inability to imagine adversarial Iraqis as whole human beings. The "acknowledgments" are also revealing. The confirm my sense of Filkins mostly uncritical embrace of the status quo.

Still, I found the book compelling. I wouldn't hesitate to use it in a classroom. Filkins strength is an overwhelming faithfulness to the messiness of the concrete details. This not only gives us a thousand images for each word (to invert the usual saying), but allows us the benefit of our own interpretations.

Here is book that is wholly better than the author. I am not sure I would turn down a chance for coffee with Filkins, but nor am I sure I wouldn't have some sharp question I would like to put to him. He is better than, say the likes of Steve Coll (Ghost Wars) but not as humane as Mary Anne Weaver (Children of the Jihad).

I offer three of my favorite quotations from the book below.


There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us – that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing, or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered, of course. That conversation was the the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it. 115


“I am so tired,” Yusra said. “In Saddam’s time, I knew that if I kept my mouth shut, if I did not say anything against him, I would be safe. But now it is different. There are so many reasons why someone would want to kill me now: because I am Shia, because I have a Sunni son, because I work for the Americans, because I drive, because I am a woman with a job, because” – she picked up her abaya – “I don’t wear my stupid hejab.”

She took my notebook and flipped it to a blank page. This was Yusra’s way of explaining her situation and, sensing the limitations of language, she would sometimes seize a reporter’s notebook and diagram her predicament. She drew a large circle in the middle.

“This was Saddam,” She said. “He is here. Big. During Saddam’s time, all you had to do was stay away from this giant thing. That was not pleasant, but not so hard.”

She flipped to another blank age. She drew a dozen circles, some of them touching, some overlapping. A small galaxy. She put her pen in the middle and made a dot.

“The dot I the middle, that is me – that is every Iraqi,” she said. “From everywhere you can be killed, from here, from here, from here.” She was stabbing her pen into the notepad.

“We Iraqis,” she said. “We are all sentence to death and we do not know by whom.” 326


When I was in Iraq, I might as well have been circling the earth from a space capsule, circling in farthest orbit. Like Laika in Sputnik. A dog in space. Sending signals back to base, unmoored and weightless and no longer keeping time. Home was far away, a distant place that gobbled up whatever I sent back, ignorant and happy but touchingly hungry to know. And then I was back, back in the world with everyone else, looking back on the ship myself though not returning all the way, still floating like Laika, through the regular people in the regular world.

Back in the world, people were serious, about the fillings in their sandwiches, about the winner last night’s ballgame. I couldn’t blame them of course. For me, the war sort of flattened things out, flattened things out here and flattened them out there, too. Toward the end, when I was still there, so many bombs had gone off so many times that they no longer shocked or even roused; the people screamed in silence and in slow motion. And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead. Your days may die but your dreams explode. Not with any specific recollections; they were more the by-products of the raw material I carried back. Rarely anything I saw. 339-40.
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Started Reading
March 1, 2009 – Finished Reading
April 4, 2009 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Martin Hi Naeem-

I am a bit confused about the review. Is the book fiction or non-fiction? Why did you at times detest Filkins?

Is the book must reading because it is reflects your position on the war, or because, like some of the "pro-American" books you have read, fails to see the folly of the war while attempting to justify it?

Your review made me want to read the book anyway.


Naeem - non-fiction.
- i found myself detesting Filkins when his nationalism shone through.
- it is a must read because it takes you there, into the chaos.

Martin Answer #2: That's what I thought. It's so hard to take off the nationalist prism through which we view events.

I'd appreciate your thoughts on my review of Taliban. I like how you review books better than I do.. I sense how you are feeling and what you are thinking.

message 4: by Will (new)

Will Nassau i had to put this book down several times simply due to its format. he reminds me of ryszard kapuscinski, though kapuscinski was able to bridge the divide it a bit better...

tavion Can't read it won't let me

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