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Book Review

The human cost of a war without end

By Jim Chiavelli
October 18, 2008
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The Forever War
By Dexter Filkins
Knopf, 368 pp., $25

There's a bright, poetic scene in the Iranian film "Kandahar" in which a score of Afghan men, crippled by their country's wars, race on crutches across the desert for prostheses dropped by a relief plane. Dexter Filkins recounts a similar but less pretty scene, of Kabulis devastated by decades of fighting, emerging from the ruins of the Jadi Maiwand district one day in the late 1990s. "They were crawling out to greet me: legless men, armless boys, women in tents. Children without teeth. Hair stringy and matted. Help us, they said."

In "The Forever War," Filkins, a New York Times reporter who spent most of a decade recording the horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq, has created a prose photo-mosaic: a set of vignettes, mostly connected only by his witnessing them, that build a bleak and lingering portrait of conflict without end. It's an impressionistic chronicle of man's endless and sometimes inventive inhumanity, in places where religion, politics, and tribal loyalty are valued over truth or even life.

Filkins is not the hero of his own tale, even when dodging bullets with the Marines in Fallujah; he's a cool, sometimes dreamlike observer, only occasionally letting out flashes of anger or sorrow at the endless ugliness. In Kabul, he watches the Taliban cut off a thief's hand and execute a murderer in the soccer stadium while intoning Koranic justification. In New York on 9/11, he makes his way to ground zero and discovers bits of both airplane and human intestine, ultimately taking refuge in Brooks Brothers and finding police trying on cashmere coats. And in Iraq, source of most of the book's reportage, he calmly notes the slaughter of Iraq's best and brightest. "The insurgents were brilliant at that," he says. "They could spot a fine mind or a tender soul wherever it might be, chase it down and kill it dead. ..... The precision was astounding."

The few Americans he depicts are detached administrators or edgy combat troops, fierce in battle but confused about the mission. "By day, we are putting on a happy face," one Army colonel explains. "By night, we are hunting down and killing our enemies." Iraqis lied to US soldiers, Filkins notes, but "the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves," about Iraqis being grateful for their presence.

The Iraqis are his focus -- anti-Al Qaeda militants, indolent police, slick politicos, scheming clerics, and ordinary people trying to survive through wit, deception, fight, or flight. All, he says, were as hurt by the Saddam years as if they had been in "a mental institution. ..... It was like we had pried the doors off and found all these people clutching themselves and burying their heads in the corners and sitting in their own filth."

Besides their madness, the unifying trait seems to be anger at the occupation. A local official whose projects are funded by the Army tells Filkins, "I take their money but I hate them. ..... We are trying to evict them."

His timeline shifts, moving from combat casualties to stateside memorial services and following subjects through time and geography. It helps create a fuguelike state, broken only when the bullets and body parts fly. A great many of Filkins's subjects end up dead, or in prison, disgraced or humbled; a damaged few, including himself, survive.

Ultimately, it's a chilling and ethereal narrative of loss and the promise of loss. "We Iraqis. We are all sentenced to death and we do not know by whom," says a Times interpreter.

Gratifyingly, Filkins tacks on no neat ending; as his title admits, there is none -- it's only that his part is, for now, mercifully over.

Jim Chiavelli is director of communications and public relations at Northeastern University. He worked with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan in 2005-06.

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