- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE FOREVER WAR
By Dexter Filkins
Knopf, $25, 368 pages
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN

In the opening scene of a book containing the best war reportage you are apt to read in a lifetime, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times is on a search mission with a company of Marines in the Iraqi city of Fallujah when a jeep lurches to the curb. Hooded men emerge, brandishing guns and rocket-propelled grenades. “I thought they had us, they thought they had us. I thought we were dead,” Mr. Filkins writes. Marines on a rooftop opened fire. “The head of one of the jihadis burst like a tomato, the deep red of his brainy blood splattering against his clammy skin and his head disappearing. The jihadi fell back onto the street and spread his arms like a headless Christ.”

One of the wounded jihadis rolled over and tugged on his jacket. His body exploded. A Marine shouted (and I delete the expletives) “They’ve rigged themselves!”

Spare us any more blather about Western correspondents writing about war from air-conditioned offices, far from harm’s way. Mr. Filkins covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001, and he did so from ground level, sharing the dangers of urban combat with the military, often under sniper and mortar fire. Eventually one begins to wonder how he survived to write “The Forever War.” The book is at once horrifying and absorbing.

And it is only fair that I warn you that parts are truly gruesome. Young American soldiers Mr. Filkins accurately calls them “kids” on occasion suffer horrific wounds, and he is watching when some die agonizing deaths. He writes with you-are-there vividness. And with candor, to be sure. He reflexively dashes into the street with a platoon of Marines. “I took ten strides and felt the bullets whiz past and bounce off the pavement and I knew I was going to die so I stopped cold, knowing immediately I’d done a stupid thing, running and stopping both. I turned and dashed back behind that wall. For a moment I felt like a coward and then I remember it wasn’t my war, nor my army. I’m just a _____ reporter, I’ll wait the war out here.”

But when the Marines beckoned to him, he dashed into the street again, staggering under 70 pounds of gear until friendly hands pulled him through a door to safety. He continues on the mission, and this and other episodes constitute a superb portrait of a war that has torn our nation, with no definitive end in sight.

That Mr. Filkins volunteered for such an assignment says much about the grit of the man. His best reports are the episodic accounts of the young soldiers with whom he shared combat experiences. He is less sympathetic toward those who planned the war. Based on what he saw as an on-the-scene reporter and was told by numerous Iraqis the massive bombing raids that kicked off the war alienated the populace from the start. The American command felt that the vaunted “Republican Guard” would defend Saddam Hussein to the end. But his forces simply vanished, and the citizenry was enraged. As one medical worker stormed to Mr. Filkins, “You want to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime? Go to Baghdad. What are you doing here?”

Few Iraqis showed any inclination to cooperate with the invading force, both from fear of retaliation and hatred of Americans for civilian deaths. Mr. Filkins writes, “From the beginning, Iraq was a con game, with the Iraqis moving and rearranging the shells, and the Americans trying to guess which one held the stone. The insurgency: it was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Americans would bring in the heavy artillery and the troops, they would roll into Iraq ready for a fight, and they would discover, invariably, that the enemy had disappeared. Often, the people they were looking for were standing a few feet away.”

Further, the Iraqis were quite ready to denounce the United States at every turn. The mobs who looted stores and government buildings? America’s fault, for not stopping them. The chaos of the first elections in decades? Well, Iraqis had no desire for democracy, so why did the Americans seem so intent in imposing the system? (When I was reporting from Central America decades ago, an American diplomat spoke at length about the public mind-set of a country I’ll leave nameless. His solution: “Stop all the aid and the like; what this country needs is a good national psychiatrist.” I suggest the Iraqi national psyche, as described by Mr. Filkins, could benefit from some time on the couch.)

At a time when the U.S. media is having to pinch pennies to stay in business, I found fascinating the costs of reporting a war. For security purposes, the Times Baghdad bureau bunkered down in a house that resembled “a high-walled castle from another century,” surrounded by concrete “blast walls” a foot thick and 20 feet high, topped with razor wire. The security force ultimately numbered 40 guards, each with a Kalashnikov. On the roof were machine guns, 7.62 mm, belt-fed. “Then there was the life insurance the newspaper took out for us, about $14,000 per month each, an amount we figured indicated that at least one of us was not going to live.” A security adviser, at $1,000 a day, was “the highest-paid member of our staff.”

One personal aside: In late 2007, along with Mr. Filkins, I was on a panel at the Times honoring the late David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for that paper for his Vietnam reporting. I mused afterward that Mr. Filkins had a slightly haunted demeanor, as if he had seen things he would rather forget. I now realize that he had been an eyewitness to horrors that few of us ever see, and I hope that writing this book purged the demons from his memory.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is Joseph G894@aol.com.

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