Loyalist writer Beano Niblock reviews an important book on war.
Dexter Filkins currently writes for The New Yorker magazine but was a Pulitzer nominated journalist with the New York Times. He covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was also a major reporter during the many insurgencies in Pakistan.
He is at the forefront of combat journalism and in The Forever War has produced a book to rival Herr’s Dispatches, Swofford’s Jarhead or Caputo’s A Rumour of War. It is a scintillating read one that offers no rhyme or reason — on sentimentality — for young men’s actions other than to say, “they were trained to kill”.
Beginning in Afghanistan he vividly captures the terror and hopelessness of the people who have been subjected to endless terror at the hands of the warlords. He relates the hope — false as it turns out — of the same people as the Taliban banish those warlords. Filkins has many hairy moments and rides his luck on many occasions.
After the initial sojourn to Afghanistan he returns to the US where he is caught up in the mayhem of New York 9/11. Surviving this he returns to Afghanistan where by now the Taliban have morphed into the Northern Alliance. This was a common theme throughout his stays in Afghanistan — the switching of sides. He illustrates this vividly by recounting the story of visiting a barbers shop in Taloqan. There, the barber is knee deep in beard clippings after he has shaved all the ex-Taliban fighters who have now become the Northern Alliance.
The main body of the book deals with Filkins reportage of his time spent with the Marines — most of it during the attack on the city of Falluja. Running parallel to this was the civil war being fought between the Shia and the Sunni. This was a brutal period and is recaptured brilliantly and lucidly by Filkins.
He relates the utter despondency and misery felt by the civilian population and illustrates this with a bleak comment from one: “the past always seemed to overwhelm the present ...before the present became unbearable too”.
The book gives new insight to the televised war in Iraq. Like Vietnam before and all wars in between our opinions and views were formed by whatever coverage we watched — and more importantly by who broadcast it.
Filkins succeeds in reporting in an unadorned and stoical fashion. He offers up no excuses or defences and refrains where possible for pinning blame or taking sides. He moves effortlessly across a vista of crazy characters and mind boggling depictions of utter carnage and devastation — public hangings and amputations — carried out by the warlords who ride their Toyota Hi-Lux’s like modern day charioteers. Car bombs, gun battles, total chaos, the loss of a quarter of an entire Marines platoon in 8 hours of street fighting — Filkins records it all first hand and at close quarters. His work is reminiscent of the craft of the great war photographer Don McCullin who also risked life and limb on a daily basis to bring us first hand reportage.
The Forever War is much more than a war book or indeed an American combat book. It is a brilliantly intuitive and gut wrenching book. It is a courageous and in many ways fearless book. It covers the lives and experiences of both innocents and combatants and gives an incalculable insight into the nature of war itself.