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The Forever War

By Dexter Filkins

The Forever War
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2008,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2009,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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Cindy Warner (11/14/08)

Dexter's introduces his photographer Ash in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
[Editor's note: The introduction to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is written by Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War. As many, if not all, the photos in the book relate to The Forever War, the review of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is included here.

Would you like to dance habibi?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot actually does have a military meaning . . . which we learn eventually one way or another. Dexter introduces his young Australian freelance photographer's book. Similar candid visceral tone of Forever War.

Should note the audio version with Dexter's own reading of Forever War is exciting because he actually lived the stories. So his intonation sounds perfectly natural and real. His pronunciation of the language adds authenticity and color to the dramatic and vivid writing . . .

Similarly on first impression of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot . . . while Dexter's book is so vivid, his partner's photography brings those emotions into focus with pictures of the real individuals Dexter describes encountering.

For example. The reader sees what remains of a structure after Sassaman's fateful wrath; that infamous obelisk of a mosque aiming it's lonely self skyward like a rocket before a 500 pound American bomb sends it to oblivion and rightly so; Ash puts a face on American hopes such as Chalabi who does look Americanized and the Iraqi and Kurd candidates who do not. Although the Kurd is in a suit and tie not robes. Both men have beards while Chalabi is clean shaven.

We see Dexter transmitting from his laptop as if he has blinkers on while a marine uses the same space as a latrine . . . we get words of wisdom in the form of Dexter stories ("Don't piss yourself" he tells Ash at bedtime . . . you will see why later . . . ) I have to say I find this team compelling. I tried to hide from the war for years . . . the way Ash says he tried to escape an enormous rocket that turned out to be American.
If I cover my eyes it won't be there, it will go away. Now because of these trustworthy journalists I can look it square in the face and try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Just having some order to the chaos, to this most macho and foreign of macho and foreign worlds, brings me some sense of peace. Knowledge is power. Dexter and Ash are candid about their emotions and actions and I feel I can share my emotions too.

So in closing, this pair also puts young fresh and handsome and chiseled and whiskery faces on our brave and strong young men. Such a tragedy to see them coming home in a box--I live near the controversial hillside of white crosses in California, the one that has more than four thousand now, one for each dead soldier. Ash says Iraqi deaths number more than 600,000 . . . Not being maudlin I didn't mean to make the pilgrimage to this cemetery but last Christmas I was alone and tired and dozed off on BART late one night only to awake at the station with a platform over the hillside of crosses. It was a religious experience for me, a sign, not just a wrong train. Indeed it was right on track.

Cindy Warner
Cindy Warner (10/14/08)

Laish Laish Habibi (why, why friend?)
Finished first reading of The Forever War just now after picking it up in San Francisco on my bike Thursday night. Took leap of faith and paid the $25 based on the integrity of the groups and media you have been talking to as well as that of the NY Times. You get what you pay for. So, Dexter, Shukran jazeelan.

I feel that I have read the diary of a friend, who spoke to me as a peer and gave me some credit and refrained from gratuitous violence. I am starved for answers or at least information and feared being traumatized beyond Katrina and the economy by war stories. I live like a nun in the suburbs and I don't even have a car, I ride a bike that survived Katrina as I mentioned before.

So I particularly appreciated your brief moments of comic relief so to speak. I laughed out loud about page 196, Ash in the outhouse transmitting his photos and also at him screaming at you as he ran through the field of shit after a false lead. To be fair, who would ever guess what was going on in the outhouse though. You taught me in the Middle East things are not what they seem, there is a dual universe.

Not what they seem especially when the primitive meets technology and brutality--e.g. the DBIED(s) of page 173. Or when you find that Pearl Land is Pear Land, not a gem but a humble piece of fruit. What can you say when you work in a place when even the geese seem confused . . . but they get back into formation after readjusting in flight (page 205).

The producer of Survivor (in Los Angeles by way of the English army) said you don't have to have the specifics planned step by step, you just have to be like a plane in flight, readjusting as things happen in the air to head for your goal again.

In any event. You have a gift for juxtaposition then again, who is to say it is irony after all. It's a new reality.

Speaking of the mayhem, one of the funnier moments (more so in hindsight probably) would be the 6000 marines breaking into somebody's house and using it as a latrine. That's one non-violent means of ending a war that's based on religious nobility and selflessness--just use degradation and humiliation . . . who would ever expect this maneuver? I can just see them crying out, Laish Laish Habibi . . . when showing your knees was bad enough.

But seriously, I did get some thoughts organized as to the linear progression of the Middle East. Russia invades Afghanistan and we save the Afghans from the brutality of communism but we leave to early and the lessons are forgotten. The area ends up in chaos and the Taliban rises to establish order. I'm thinking demographically there are a lot of broken families and orphans which give rise to the gangs and fiefdoms and their cruelty. Yet they mix and intermarry . . . then as you say there's the post-Saddamian implosion. Chalabi returns from exile and tells Iraqis to liberate themselves by holding the election even though he has been disassociated after all those years away. Concurrently there's the notion that the population is so tough a leader needs a whip. But how far down is the Mid East to mainly women, children and old folk? Yet the children are being taught, the Koran mandates the killing of nonbelievers? Will the fighting die down, literally?

So maybe borders will be redrawn. Wasn't it the British at the turn of the century that redrew the borders for their own administrative ends? Then the Brits withdrew slowly and according to promise and plan? That was peaceful enough but created the vacuum for the Americans to enter. Do the Iraqi's want a plan? How can you reach a goal with no plan?

Let's leave the embassy--everybody has embassies and San Francisco has more than any other city. Let's leave things the Iraqis like such as American movies, music, the World Cup (didn't that come with the British a century before?) . . . let's give them whatever it was that got Jill Carroll and her pink hair released in three months . . . diplomatic things.

But to wrap up with a song of musical mayhem set in London long ago . . . here's Sweeney Todd, a demon barber created by corruption and brutality and coveting of what is rightfully another's . . .

Johnny Depp sings upon his return to London after being transported to Australia as a criminal:

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and it's morals aren't worth
what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London

At the top of the hole are the privileged few
Making mockery of the vermin in the lower zoo
Turning beauty into filth and greed
I too have sailed the world and seen it's wonders
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there's no place like London . . .

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it's filled with people who are filled with shit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it . . .

So Dexter, enjoy your beautiful autumn runs in New York and Florida and Cambridge. Let me know what dreams you are sorting out in your head as you go. Thanks so much for making me feel my trust is well placed and my time invested well. I had meant to finish your book by November 4th but it was captivating.

Well done.
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