The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, is perhaps the best book written to date by an American news reporter about the American military adventures under Bush II. A majority of his competition, it must be said, is some of the worst second-rate hackwork cranked out that ever wasted forest resources in cashing in quick and to kiss up to the Army or the Republicans. Still, he’s got some decent competition–Ricks, Chakandrasan, Packer, Wright–they’ve all turned up fair or better books so far. Filkins takes the prize, however, for having the cojones to say in his book many of the unpleasant truths about American actions in the war zones. Honesty is always the best policy for reporters too, and honesty in reporting starts with honesty about yourself.
Filkins was a reporter in Afghanistan for two years during the Taliban years, and this book starts with his posting to Afghanistan to cover our invasion there. Once our war in Iraq starts, he goes there, and stays there for almost the first four years of that one. The book’s coverage is from this time period. The Afghanistan parts, good as they are, are a small fraction of the book’s length, which is a loss as they are quite good. Alas, you can only be in one place or one war at the same time, and most of the book covers Iraq in the 2003-7 time period.
That and this book is object proof of the failings of traditional American j-school trained mainstream reportage. The truth in points afar is better revealed by a skilled observer’s story, well told, rather than a recitation of facts and official statements. There are many of these stories well told, and most of the best of them are from the voices of ordinary Iraqis.
The larger problems of American journalism’s coverage of our two miserable wars abroad is best told from a story in US history, from back in the days after the Civil War. In the post-civil war South, much argument went on for two decades or better about why the South lost the war. There were all sorts of arguments that raged as to whether or not General A at battle B lost the war because he did C instead of D. One Confederate general was one day interviewed by some reporter on the issue of who lost the war. The reporter raised the whole alphabet of arguments that were in circulation in those days as to who and when did what that lost the war, and asked the General what his opinion was. The General thought for a minute, and said “You know, I always thought the Yankees had something to do with our losing the war, myself.”
Any explanation of the wars we are fighting that overlooks how the locals there see things is every bit as incomplete as those Confederate-ocentric Civil War explanations that overlooked the Yankees. We don’t hardly ever make any efforts to factor in the people in the countries we now war in. Same thing happened in the Vietnam War. You can look high and low through Ricks’ book to find a single word from a single Iraqi in his or her own voice. We are so instinctively blind and self-centered that we quite completely overlook most all of the people’s there, the there where we squander billions of our treasure, thousands of American lives, and inflict monstrous tolls of death and destruction on the inhabitants therein that exceeds our own Civil War’s. Ricks and most all his colleagues report official Washington’s statements, be they press releases or behind-the-scenes gossipy backstabbing. Out in the field, they report American voices, whether press releases or some conversation or interview with some grunt. (Some officer, usually. Class differences between the reportorial corps and the NCO ranks make officer voices the predominant American voices from the field.) Ricks et al in the American news corps in their doing this are unwittingly being a perfect reflection of how most Americans, certainly how all of official America, sees the world. Not a very wise way to see things.
It is my impression that this book isn’t making any waves in reviewing circles, and isn’t being promoted by the publisher, and is being ignored. Tex, things are well afoot to sweep the war, and critical comment on it, well under the rug, and I fear this book is a victim of it, much as Nancy Schiersci’s wonderful but DOA movie was. Future generations will judge us harshly, rightly, for our doing it.
Best thing in a review in a lot of cases is just to let the author’s words speak again, unedited. Here’s some good selections:
(Filkins is writing about the death of an Iraqi woman, Wijdan Al-Khuzai, who ran for office in the 2004 elections. She was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered.) From pp. 81-2:
“…People ask me what happened in Iraq, and I tell them the story of Wijdan al-Khuzai. Iraq might have been a traumatized country, it might have been broken, it might have been atomized–it might have been a mental hospital. But whenever the prospect of normalcy presented itself, a long line of Iraqis always stood up and reached for it…And they went to the slaughter. Thousands and thousands of them: editors, pamphleteers, judges and police officers, and women like Wijdan al-Khuzai. The insurgents were brilliant at that. They could spot a fine mind or a tender soul wherever it might be, chase it down and kill it dead. The heart of a nation. The precision was astounding.”
On American-Iraqi interactions, from pp. 119-20:
“…Language was not the only barrier; it was not even the biggest. From the beginning, any number of Iraqis realized that they could tell the Americans pretty much anything they wanted, and there was a good chance that the Americans would believe them, if only because they were too overworked, too lazy, or just unable to check out the stories. By and large, the Iraqis were right. It was the two conversations: tell the Americans what they want to hear and they will go away, and we can carry on the way we want. And the money will keep flowing: to repair the dams, to paint the schools. It was a game the Iraqis rarely gave away…”
Filkins continues to the story of an interview of a General Bassem, one of the first US-trained Shiite “police commandos”. Bassem conducts the interview in excellent English, and denies repeatedly that he or any of his men are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods going on. But his assistant makes an aside in Arabic to Filkins’ translator, and they both laugh. On p. 121:
“…Afterwards, driving home, I asked Ahmad what he and the commander’s assistant had been joking about. And he laughed again. “Sir” Ahmad said, “when General Bassem told you that the Volcano Brigade had never killed anyone, he whispered into my ear and said, ‘I personally have killed fifty people during our operations. And that’s just me.’ Ha ha ha, sir. It is very funny.”
On US operations’ effectiveness, and how the US forces knew they were watched, and set up, on p. 123:
“…It drove the Americans crazy. They would drive through a village and spot an Iraqi man standing on the roadside, marking the convoy’s time and speed as it passed. Working for the insurgency, no doubt, but how do you shoot a guy for looking at his watch? Then the Americans would spot a guy on a rooftop, fifty yards away, tracking the convoy’s route. It wasn’t just that the insurgents lurked in the shadows; they actually were the shadows, flitting and changing with the light…It wasn’t just that the Iraqis lied. Of course they lied. It was that they had more to consider than the Americans were ever willing to give them credit for. The Iraqis had to live in their neighborhoods, after the American soldiers had gone home. The Iraqis had to survive. They had their children to consider. For the Iraqis, life among the Americans often meant living a double life, the one they thought the Americans wanted to see, and the real one they lived when the Americans went home.”
On American self-delusion, from p. 130:
“…’I reject the idea that things have gone bad here,’ Colonel Joe Anderson told me. He was in command of about five thousand soldiers in the heart of the city. ‘Most of the Iraqis are glad we are here, and they are cooperating with us.’
The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. 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.”
A good story from pp. 132-3, wherein Filkins is first at the scene of a successful IED ambush, and sees the mangled, burned, bleeding, but still alive American truck driver on a stretcher next to his truck. An Iraqi crowd gathers:
“…One of them was holding up the bloody shreds of an American uniform…the Iraqis began to cheer, quietly at first, almost a hum, then rising to a shriek each time the bloody shirt came up.”
An American tank shows up, and to disperse the crowd it fires its 50 caliber into an empty field next to the Iraqi crowd. Filkins:
“…’Look at what the Americans are doing to the Iraqi people!’ an Iraqi man yelled at me. ‘Look at what they are doing!’
I was angry for the bleeding man in the road and for some reason I felt no fear. ‘That’s because they blew up an American soldier, you dumb fuck,’ I shouted. Nadia told me to shut up, noting that everyone in the Arab world knows that word. ‘Death to America!’ the Iraqis started cheering, turning to face me. ‘God is great! The American army will collapse in Iraq!’
After a few minutes, the tank came rumbling our way, a huge, monstrous thing, clanking and smoking, towing the smoldering truck behind it. The crowd grew quiet. As the tank passed, a young American crewman, his helmeted head peering out of the turret, trained his machine gun on the crowd. He looked angry and afraid, clenching his teeth, hands on his gun.
The cheers went up again.
I walked back toward our car, passing the Iraqis who were still stopped in traffic. As I did, I came to an Iraqi police car. Brand-new, white and blue. Four Iraqi officers sat inside, with their car doors open, relaxing and smoking cigarettes.”
And a final quote, from pp. 243-4, wherein Filkins interviews an Iraqi woman on why she voted in the 2004 elections. Filkins:
“…Why vote at all? I asked Saadi. Why not just stay home?
She shot me a withering look.
‘I voted in order to prevent my country from being destroyed by its enemies,’ she said. She spoke English without an accent.
What enemies? I asked Saadi. What enemies are you referring to?
She began to tremble.
‘You–you destroyed our country,’ Saadi said. ‘The Americans, the British. I am sorry to be impolite. But you destroyed our country, and you called it democracy. Democracy,’ she said. ‘It is just talking.’
So someone needs to do the work, Tex, of figuring out how much, if any, of this book, in particular the pointed and critical stories like those above, ever made it into the pages of The New York Times. I suspect that none of the above did. And that sort of censorship–self-censorship mostly–is a big part of why we got into our wars, and why they still continue. Someone needs to answer for it.