Digging Deeper recently read The Forever War, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins.  --  The reviews of the book have been glowing, and Mark Jensen agrees that the book achieves some powerful literary effects.  --  But he also thinks there is a lot to criticize in the book.[1]  --  A synopsis of The Forever War is available here....


[Book review]


By Mark Jensen

United for Peace of Pierce County
November 16, 2009

Review of Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008; Vintage paperback 2009).

The Forever War is a curious book.  Dexter Filkins says it “comes entirely from my own experiences and my own reporting” based on 561 notebooks from nine years of reporting in the Middle East, first for the Los Angeles Times and then for the New York Times (347).  But as his epigraphs from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) suggest, Filkins’s ambitions here are more than journalistic.  (Other direct literary references are rare; Filkins does refer to Eric Ambler (263) and Boo Radley of To Kill a Mockingbird (297).)  In a word, Filkins's ambitions are literary, and he does achieve some powerful effects. 

The Forever War consists of essayistic, retrospective, dreamy, impressions of complicated, often horrific experiences in war zones that can be subtle, bizarre, or opaque.  Filkins often juxtaposes details as though free-associating.  The implicit plot line of the book is tragic, but the author has expunged the American intentions that created the Iraq war from his narrative and substituted a vague notion of the defectiveness of reality itself.  Sometimes this defectiveness is historical and sometimes it is moral.  But more often it is metaphysical.  The title of the book goes unexplained, but Filkins seems to believe that war is part of the nature of human society [cf. 329]).   The epigraphs confirm this interpretation. 

The literary persona Dexter Filkins adopts here is, rather implausibly, usually that of a solitary wanderer in a war zone.  E.g.: “After about an hour of this I wandered over . . .” (313).  Filkins usually does not explain how he came to be where he is, what he is up to, or who he is with.

Madness is a recurrent theme (e.g. 315).  At one point Filkins remarks of journalists like himself who continued to work in Iraq when conditions worsened, “we were crazy” (226).  His own motivations remain something of a mystery.  He never explains how or why he became a journalist.  We learn almost nothing about his personal life.  And he does not say what his intentions in this book are. 

In The Forever War, Americans invariably figure not as perpetrators of crimes but victims, often of their own good intentions.  Given Filkins’s own ordeal and the extraordinary risks he ran, it is impossible to ascribe this position to cynicism; it must correspond to his sincere beliefs, though he never accounts for them. 

Without saying so and without ever referring to them directly, Filkins communicates a vast disdain for antiwar critics, and he concludes his volume with an act of solidarity with the Arkansas family of a soldier killed in Falluja (341-42). 

Often what one comes away with from Filkins’s writing is a mood.  As is the case for a work of literature, it is hard to say precisely what it is that one one has learned from reading Filkins’s book.  Obscure places are not identified and the book is almost devoid of exposition, so strange names mostly create an atmosphere.  Brief tales of horror are told in a matter-of-fact way, with little commentary. 

Nothing is explained.  Though we read that “Oil lay at the heart of everything in Iraq” (258; cf. 180), oil is never discussed in The Forever War (burning wells do sometimes “glow orange along the far horizon” [88], though).  The destruction of the Golden Mosque at the Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February 2006, which set off the civil war, goes unmentioned, for example. 

However, though the effect seems initially absurdist, the cumulative effect is to tell Americans what they want to hear.  Evildoers are never Americans in The Forever War.  Though they prove powerless to transform Iraq generally, Americans are always portrayed as locally all-powerful (the book begins with what amounts to a celebration of the destruction of Falluja).  Americans always prevail in local contests; they act with “amazing speed” (87); there is no force that can resist their might. 

Above all, they are good.  There are no American torturers in this book, and the Abu Ghraib scandal is downplayed in the single sentence that mentions it.  Any harm done willfully is excused as a response to provocation.  Almost all Americans are well-intentioned.  Soldiers are often “soft-spoken” (87) or have “a boyish voice” (91), and while they often fail to achieve their good intentions, this is not really their fault, but rather the fault of an understandable ignorance, or bad luck, or an inability to grasp the all but incomprehensible nature of the dysfunctional societies they are dealing with. 

Americans are innocents abroad, doomed to a sort of noble failure.  There are regular intimations that things are not explainable, that irrational forces rule.  Consequently, Filkins implies, Americans are not really responsible for failure in Iraq:  “Fallujah was like that from the start, even before the big battle in November 2004.  Anything the Americans tried there turned to dust.  The Americans repaired a brick factory and the insurgents blew it up.  The Americans painted a school and the insurgents shot the teachers.  The Americans threw candy to the kids and the kids called it poison” (82-83). 

In the epilogue, Filkins subtly and indirectly rebukes Americans who think that “the American invasion moral disaster, and Islam peaceful in its heart” (337).  Well-intentioned foreigners, on the other hand, are presented as ineffectual or slightly toqué:  “[Wijdan al-Khuzai] was one of those people found in dreadful countries the world over, fearless and determined and unwilling, for reasons always unclear, to make the same calculations of personal safety as everyone else” (80-81; Filkins doesn’t note that the same description could apply to Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other Americans) -- these people go “to the slaughter” in the “[t]housands and thousands” (82). 

In the end, this volume serves to legitimate the U.S. national security state.  It is fully consonant with what Chomsky calls “the Doctrine of Good Intentions,” which holds that American intentions can never be presented as malign. 

But Filkins doesn’t tell Americans everything they want to hear:  Christianity seems to leave him cold.  He is silent about it, except for a one-line allusion to his church by a 19-year-old marine (301), a mention of the plight of Chaldean Christians of Iraq (329-31), and a visit to a Christian cemetery in Iraq (332).

We don't learn a lot about Dexter Filkins from this book.  He know was born around 1961, since he mentions his age while describing the second battle of Falluja.  He is “from Florida” (134).  He worked one summer on a natural gas pipeline (228).  He doesn't say so in his book, but he has a B.A. in political science from the University of Florida (1983) and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford University. 

The Forever War won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2008.  Robert Stone has called Filkins "one of the New York Times's most talented reporters," John Marshall of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has called him "the pre-eminent war reporter of this tumultuous era," and Jeffrey Goldberg has called him "the greatest war correspondent of my generation."  Daniel N. White has called The Forever War "perhaps the best book written to date by an American news reporter about the American military adventures under Bush II." 

Charlie Rose's long interview with Filkins can be viewed here.