Reporter's finely wrought vignettes of Bush's nebulous war on terror


BOOK OF THE DAY: The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on TerrorBy Dexter Filkins

IN THE late 1970s Michael Herr’s Dispatches, with its vivid chronicling of the sound and fury of the US’s misadventures in Vietnam, became a classic of war reportage. Many have since attempted to emulate Herr’s visceral style, but few have succeeded. Dexter Filkins comes closer than most. His war is an altogether more nebulous one – the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror, the Forever War of the book’s title – but it owes much to Herr’s trailblazing approach.

Filkins first travelled to Afghanistan in 1998. Two years later, he was expelled by the Taliban. After joining the New York Times, he reported from lower Manhattan on 9/11, before returning to Afghanistan weeks after the attack. He went on to cover the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and continued to report from there until two years ago.

The Forever War– interestingly, the same title Joe Haldeman chose for his 1974 sci-fi parable about the Vietnam war – is a collection of Filkins’s eyewitness reporting from the past decade. It does not seek to make sense of 9/11 and all that came after, nor does it lecture, moralise or offer prescriptions. Instead, this is one man’s compelling attempt to capture the madness of a very modern war.

Filkins’s narrative is intentionally disjointed and jumpy, a stream of finely wrought vignettes that flits from Kabul to Baghdad, and from the devastated streets of Falluja to a marine’s grave in an Arkansas cemetery. Here are tales both of determined insurgents and civilians maddened by grief and loss; nihilistic fighters and cynical politicians; generals and grunts; those who help steer the chaos and those unwittingly dragged into it. Many linger long after reading – such as the burqa-clad woman who whispers “This is like a death” as Filkins passes her on a street in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The series of anecdotes is enlivened by Filkins’s eye for the tiniest detail and his arresting powers of description. The teenage soldier driving an American tank in Iraq has “a boy’s voice, the voice of a child before it changes”. A Taliban luminary has a “small, constipated smile”. Walking along a rubble-strewn street on 9/11, Filkins’s gaze is drawn to a “gray-green thing spread across the puddles and rocks. Elongated, unrolled, sitting there, unnoticed. An intestine.”

On the wave of suicide bombings that convulsed Iraq, he notes how the head of the bomber often remained intact after the explosion. “So there it would be, the head, sitting on a pile of bricks or underneath a telephone pole.”

The bulk of the book focuses on the war in Iraq. Filkins recounts what he experienced in unflinching yet often tender detail.

His observations are brutally honest.

“The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question,” he writes. “But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient – and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.”

Filkins’s chapter on Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi emigre whose dubious claims did much to quicken the Bush administration’s drumbeats of war, is a fine study of ambition and hubris. After observing Chalabi woo Shia hardliners in Najaf, he writes: “Gamesman, exile, idealist, fraud . . . When I looked into Chalabi’s eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he’d returned.”

The Forever Waris a valuable addition to the often all too mediocre corpus of writing on Iraq and the so-called war on terror.

The Forever War: Dispatches from the Waron Terror By Dexter Filkins Bodley Head pp368, £18.99

Mary Fitzgerald isThe Irish Times Foreign Affairs Correspondent