When the term "art" is applied to writing about war, it's usually followed by a reference to novelist Stephen Crane, while James Jones and Ernest Hemingway often are mentioned in the next breath.
But war reporting -- even by the great Ernie Pyle -- is rarely labeled art or literature. Still, there's simply no other way to describe the transcendent writing of New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins, whose reporting on America's war against jihadists is compiled in The Forever War.
With reckless disregard for his own safety, Filkins follows Marines into combat, canvasses militant-ridden neighborhoods in the aftermath of suicide bombs or IEDs, and seeks out jihadists even as journalists are being kidnapped around him. He covered the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and saw the effects of their ideology at Ground Zero from a rather precarious perch.
It's not only the amazing scope and immediacy of Filkins's reporting that will take your breath away; it's the way he captures the raw emotions of each moment. Whether it's the heroic machismo of a Marine, the frustration of a soldier not allowed to effectively fight an elusive enemy, the grief of al Qaeda's victims, the grim determination of Iraqis trying to make something of their country's chance at freedom,or the darkness of Islamist rage, Filkins makes the reader feel every moment he covers.
Thelonius Monk is famously reported to have said, "Writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture." Writing about Filkins' writing presents a similar problem. Check out for yourself his chilling chapter about the evening's entertainment offered by the Taliban at a Kabul soccer stadium in 1998. The warmup act was the removal of a thief's hand. The main event? A beheading, of course.
Mainstream journalists in the last half of the 20th century established a peculiar pattern for reportage: Give America's enemies every benefit of the doubt, while holding Third World allies to the standard of a New England town meeting. Thus, Mao Zedong was dubbed a "nationalist agrarian reformer," while Chiang Kai-Shek was China's "strongman." Ho Chi Minh enjoyed status similar to Mao's during the Vietnam War.
One might have chalked this up to leftists being soft on communism -- Bob Novak once said liberal American journalists thought communist dictators were merely "the bad boys of social justice." The pattern, however, continues in the fight against jihadists, the most illiberal enemy America has faced in centuries.
Filkins resists the routine of focusing on the imperfections of America and its allies while ignoring the atrocities of the enemy.
Without spinning or cheerleading, he nonetheless knows the difference between imperfection and evil. He wades in the gore left by a suicide bomber and records the grief of the survivors. He records the feelings of guilt by American soldiers who make a mistake and the revelry of savage glee expressed by those who kill innocents to promote jihad.
In fact, Filkins seems to have reckless personal disregard for his own safety. The book's amazing prologue, "Hell's Bells," finds the author under fire with Marines in Fallujah in 2004, dodging bullets along with a frontline combat squad.
Filkins is so close to the fighting that he witnesses this extraordinary bit of soldiering, a first-hand view of something that even top-notch Iraq war correspondents Bing West and Michael Yon have only hinted at:
For seven months, Fallujah had been controlled by jihadis who had held the city in a Medieval thrall. And now the Marines were taking it back, six thousand of them, on foot in the middle of a November night
Gunfire rang out, and we scrambled for the walls on the sides of the street. The insurgents knew what they were doing, they were bracketing us with their shells, dropping them to the left and the right. They were getting close now.
Four men stepped from the darkness. They were not part of Bravo Company; I hadn't seen them before. They wore flight suits that shimmered in the night and tennis shoes and hoods that made them look like executioners. The four men wore goggles that shrouded their eyes and gave off lime-green penumbras that lightened their faces. With the shells exploding I got off the wall and rejoined the captain in the street, shaking in the knees, and I listened to him tell the executioners the location of the snipers. Up ahead, he said. One of the four men mumbled something but I couldn't hear. I couldn't see their eyes through the green glowing but one of them was on the balls of his feet, bouncing, like a football player on the sidelines. Coach, he seemed to be saying, put me in the game.
The four men peeled off into the blackness without a sound. Moments passed and the shelling stopped. And then the sniper fire stopped. We never saw the men again.
The specific roles of Delta Force and Navy SEALs have been closely guarded secrets in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with some estimates that they are responsible for as much as 75 percent of the al-Qaeda terrorists captured or killed. This telling glimpse is revealing, indeed.
Also revealing are two chapters about the two opponents whose conflict unintentionally set the stage for the near disaster in Iraq: Paul "Jerry" Bremer, the U.S. administrator of occupied Iraq, and Ahmad Chalabi, a founder of the Iraqi National Congress.
Many observers blame Bremer, who ruled as President Bush's appointed viceroy, as the cause of the widespread nature of the Iraqi insurgency. As Bremer is about to depart Iraq, he embarks on a publicity tour and is followed by Filkins, who paints a telling portrait of the man.
Bremer tours a hospital, which the doctors say has had electricity restored just in time for the visit. The hospital staff assume Bremer has come on a fact-finding tour and press him about the fact that babies are dying because the incubators can't run without electricity, Bremer brushes aside the perplexed doctors and nurses' concerns by challenging them as to whether they would rather have Saddam Hussein back in charge. The Iraqis are befuddled: Those are their choices, dead babies or Saddam's terror?
Chalabi, on the other hand, cannot seem to put aside practical work on behalf of the Iraqi people long enough to sit down and talk to Filkins. Whatever Chalabi's faults, it's hard to imagine that Bremer was more occupied with fighting Chalabi than the insurgents. While Filkins makes little editorial comment about either man — and seems to find Chalabi as enigmatic a figure as anyone in Iraq — reading about each in action provides a valuable addition to the public portrait of both.
Other stories range from the heart rending, when Filkins accompanies an Iraqi man to the cell where he was tortured by Saddam's secret police, to the darkly humorous, when an Army unit ingeniously pretends to auction off a blonde woman in a hostile village to get men out of their houses so they can be searched for guns.
The tone of the book progressively darkens through 2005 and 2006, as the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis approaches all-out civil war, and American soldiers become more frustrated by the ineffective tactics they have been saddled with.
The book's title, The Forever War (not to be confused with Joe Haldeman's award-winning science fiction novel), is perhaps the most misunderstood since Bing West's No True Glory. Some who haven't read the book or have seen only excerpts assume it's a comment on the United States' inability to ever finish the conflict in Iraq. In fact, as I was looking at the book in a chain bookstore, a clerk said, "Dude, I hear that's a great book about the never-ending mess that idiot Bush got us into."
Even though Filkins left Iraq in 2006, during the darkest time of the war, and the book ends on a pessimistic note, the cautionary title is about something else entirely. The "forever war" phrase comes from an interview Filkins conducts with a jihadi and reflects the jihadist attitude toward the West.
Filkin's real point of emphasis is that the jihadist is -- and always will be -- at war with us, no matter what we do or how we react to terrorist atrocities.
Unfortunately, The Forever War rolling off the presses by the time Filkins returned to Iraq and filed this hopeful report on the success of Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency.
When I left Iraq in the summer of 2006, after living three and a half years here following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, I believed that evil had triumphed, and that it would be many years before it might be stopped. Iraq, filled with so many people living so close together, nurturing dark and unknowable grievances, seemed destined for a ghastly unraveling.
And now, in the late summer of 2008, comes the calm. Violence has dropped by as much as 90 percent. A handful of the five million Iraqis who fled their homes — one-sixth of all Iraqis — are beginning to return. The mornings, once punctuated by the sounds of exploding bombs, are still. Is it possible that the rage, the thirst for revenge, the sectarian furies, have begun to fade? That Iraqis have been exhausted and frightened by what they have seen?
This report would be a perfect final chapter for the paperback, as events since Petraeus took charge in Iraq have made The Forever War seem woefully incomplete now. Still, if you want a history of the war, there is no better place to look than Bing West's The Strongest Tribe.
But for an up-close look at the war's effect, the stories of people affected by it at every level and a chillingly personal encounter with the evil that proposes to threaten the West "forever," there is nothing like Dexter Filkins's account in The Forever War.