The Forever War

Issue section: 
(328)

Dexter Filkins, The Bodley Head, £18.99

Prize-winning New York Times (NYT) war correspondent Dexter Filkins has written this eyewitness account of the "war on terror".

Based on his frontline experience in Afghanistan and Iraq between 1998 and 2007, his book is a pulsating kaleidoscope of incidents, anecdotes and interviews with the protagonists and victims.

Filkins was sent to Afghanistan by the Los Angeles Times in 1998 and reported from there until he was arrested and expelled by the Taliban in 2000. On 11 September 2001 he covered Ground Zero for the New York Times and returned to Afghanistan, reporting for the newspaper until 2002.

In March 2003 he went into Iraq with the US invasion and witnessed the civilian bombing and the capture of Baghdad. He reported for the NYT as an embedded war correspondent with US troops until 2007.

The Forever War is essentially a compendium of reports previously published in the NYT and the LA Times. Through the eyes of a US journalist we witness a chain of events that begin with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, move to the 11 September attacks on New York and then onto the bloody wars the US unleashed on Afghanistan and Iraq.

For eight days during November 2004 Filkins was with the US marines as they fought to retake Fallujah from the Iraqi resistance by obliterating everything in sight - "the most sustained period of street to street fighting the Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War".

Indeed Filkins takes his title, The Forever War, from Joe Haldeman's 1974 science fiction parable about the Vietnam War set in outer space. Filkins' eyewitness accounts of Afghanistan and Iraq are more brutal and candid than I anticipated. In a sense the book is a series of condemnations of war itself.

He meets the US and Iraqi politicians and military leaders, increasingly cocooned inside their Green Zone in Baghdad. He interviews ordinary Iraqi civilians, resistance fighters and young US footsoldiers forced to deal with the grim reality of war and the descent into hell.

The book has been hailed by some reviewers for its "visceral understanding of the war in Iraq" and for its "refusal to preach or offer solutions". Yet the book is not without comment and analysis and that's where its shortcomings lie.

Filkins writes with concern for the victims of the war and is prepared to condemn the way the US is waging it. He also acknowledges that the bulk of ordinary Iraqis oppose the occupation and that talk of a US victory is absurd.

Yet he believes US troops will have to stay for some time in order to help stabilise Iraq and that withdrawal will take years to complete. Interviewed in a US television discussion earlier this year, he even argued that the recent surge has achieved limited progress in this regard.

Filkins might be a candid war correspondent but he remains a liberal apologist for US imperialism and its long term interests in the Middle East. Nonetheless his book is revealing and worth reading.