Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Knopf, 2008), 368pp.
With the presidential election and the meltdown of Wall Street having pushed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq off the front page, Dexter Filkins's book is a disturbing reminder that America still has 161,000 troops occupying those two countries (with calls for more). We've already spent $872 billion on the two wars, have lost more than 4,100 troops, and continue to spend over $12 billion a month to sustain the two efforts. No one can predict the outcome. According to the Pentagon, "the security, political and economic trends in Iraq continue to be positive, however, they remain fragile, reversible and uneven." In Afghanistan things seem to be getting worse.
Filkins scribbled 561 notebooks full of anecdotes, interviews, conversations and firsthand experiences during nine years in the Middle East and South Asia. He first went to Afghanistan in 1998 as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He reported on the war there for more than two years, until he was arrested and expelled by the Taliban in 2000. He returned in 2002 for much of that year. Part I of his new book (pp. 3–67) cover that time and place — the rise of dozens of competing war lords after the humiliation of the Soviet Union, the Taliban that restored theocratic order, the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban, and then the American bombs that rained down after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In March 2003 Filkins went to Iraq at the beginning of the American invasion, reporting for the New York Times from their Baghad bureau. Part II (pp. 69–342) of The Forever War collects his eyewitness accounts. By now, much of his book is old history — the looting right after the invasion, the anarchy, the advent of IEDs used by over 100 different insurgent groups, the gross incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the writing of the constitution, Iraq's first elections, and the disinformation by the American military (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman). When Filkins left after three and a half years, he believed that "the nation’s social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock." Things got worse after he left in August 2006, which is where The Forever War ends.
This book requires a significant footnote. In the fall of 2008 Filkins returned to Iraq. He was shocked by the progress. In his article for the NYT called "Back in Iraq, Jarred By the Calm" (September 20, 2008), he writes that "to return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope. The questions are jarring, too. Is it really different now? Is this something like peace or victory? And, if so, for whom: the Americans or the Iraqis? In a personal email, Filkins says that he's not ready to use words like "success" or "victory." "There has been too much blood for that."