"The Forever War" is akin to Michael Herr's "Dispatches," published in 1977. But in my view, "Dispatches" is a conceited, self-centered book; in Vietnam, journalists lavishly praised fellow journalists for their courage and understanding of war, as if they were better-trained, more insightful and more valorous than the infantrymen. Many reporters made themselves the center of the action, using U.S. soldiers as props. Spurning such narcissism, Filkins expresses empathy for the grunts in Iraq.
Yet he stands apart from them. When he first got to Iraq, Filkins apparently was determined not to take sides. Iraq "wasn't my war, not my army," he writes. At one point in "The Forever War," a Marine tells Filkins to keep his mouth shut because he is "not part of this unit." During the 2004 battle for Fallujah, however, the author's tone changes. He stops writing about "them" and starts writing about "us." "We had become part of the team," he declares. "I knew they would save me if I got into trouble." And, in fact, they did. A Marine, Lance Cpl. William L. Miller, 22, of Pearland, Tex., was killed while escorting him to the top of a minaret in Fallujah, an incident recounted in "Pearland," the finest story in this collection.
On the other hand, insurgents did not try to kill Filkins when he was living in Baghdad, causing him to wonder about his journalistic detachment. "The insurgents knew where to find us. . . . So why did they let us live?" he writes. "I assumed they had decided that we were useful to them." The notion of being useful to al-Qaeda was "not a comforting thought," he adds. After all, a U.S. platoon had stood by him and paid a tragic price for doing so. Iraq wasn't his war, but it was his army.
In many of these stories, Filkins depicts loss and grief uncompensated by accomplishment. To him, it seems, war is sound and fury, signifying nothing except pathos and irony. And that point of view, common in academia, is part of a larger problem. Reviewers in cliquish fashion praise books by reporters while ignoring the writing of warriors like former Staff Sgts. Michael Yon and David Bellavia, who balance war's ugliness with its purpose. Now that violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically, the war has fallen off the front pages without anyone adequately explaining how our troops turned it around. Because journalists and editors shape the public's view, Iraq is likely to be perceived not just as the forever war but as the forever-lost war.
Filkins's singular skill in this book rests in showing how war shatters lives and how some people manage to survive amid fear, violence, intrigue and chaos. He does not describe the intricacies of combat or strategy; his book is not a history of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, he shows us the oleaginous manipulations of men like Chalabi, who served for a year as Iraq's deputy prime minister; the Dark Ages cruelty of Taliban warlords; the shrink-wrapped self-importance of such high-level U.S. officials as Ambassador Paul Bremer; and the instinctive, unassuming valor of grunts like Lance Cpl. Miller.