While the economy and a new President have recently and powerfully captured the
attention of America and much of the world, the United States-led war on terror, as the
military actions following the September 11th attacks are often
called, seems to have fallen from the front of our collective consciousness.
Even without intervening worries like natural disasters and dwindling
investments, attention in our culture is hard to keep. There are many reasons
some valid, some embarrassing why we may have lost interest in these wars, but
where our distraction is caused by the disconnection of receiving information in
media snippets, The Forever War is the cure.
Think about it: can your family's struggles, your customs or your faith be explained in a one minute sound bite? Can a nation's? Is there any organized group you are acquainted with that is composed of entirely homogeneous people? So it is with the U.S. military, where thousands of individual lives are represented by one country, one official account of events. And so it is with the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, countries with myriad people groups and intricate, often violent, histories. Stories of individual participants, brought to us in captivating detail by journalist Dexter Filkins, are the real story.
If there is any writer who can bring this convolution of conflicts, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, back to our attention, it is Dexter Filkins. Filkins is an award-winning reporter, a veteran foreign correspondent who is nearly fearless in his pursuit of human stories. He was one of a small group of journalists and aid workers who were in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He returned to Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks, staying through much of 2002 and then moved to Iraq as the American invasion began in 2003. He stayed in Iraq for over three years, recording (in 561 notebooks), writing and surviving. The Forever War gives us the opportunity to look over the shoulder of someone who has been there, who has spoken to nearly every segment of Afghani and Iraqi society and has witnessed the death, destruction, hope and absurdity of war.
The greatest strength of Filkins' book is that he shuns passing judgment. He is a journalist above all, avoiding revealing nearly any personal opinion and eschewing discussions of morality. His interviews, whether with warlords, diplomats or military officers, are presented without political sway, freeing us to join him in the role of careful observer. Filkins' apolitical account is not without feeling, however. It quietly reveals wide ranges of emotion rage, apathy, boredom, panic both in the author and in so many others caught in the turmoil of a long war.
The book's dispassionate recounting of conversations and battles across Afghanistan and Iraq also succeeds in illuminating the tangled cause and effect of war. Filkins exposes, frankly and repeatedly, the confusion and chaos experienced by both temporary and permanent residents of these countries. Progress is slow and sometimes nearly futile. Rapidly changing alliances and disrupted daily life turn survival into an intricate puzzle to be solved.
For anyone who despairs, as I have, of ever understanding the nations and events which orbit around the date September 11, 2001, The Forever War is part antidote, part exacerbation. As in the rest of life, the more we learn, the less we really know. Yet, this is the great value of the book. Filkins shows us that black and white ideologies political, moral or otherwise may be easy to stand by in our comfortable, peaceful world, but they become much harder to proclaim from the other side of the world, in the grey heart of war.
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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