Excerpted from The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Copyright © 2008 by Dexter Filkins. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Dexter Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Before that, he worked for the Los Angeles Times, where he was chief of the paper’s New Delhi bureau, and for The Miami Herald. In 2009, he was part of a team of Times reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has received a George Polk Award and two Overseas Press Club awards. Most recently, he was a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He lives in New York City.
Dexter Filkins is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).
Q: Why did you write THE FOREVER WAR, and why did you choose that title?
Whenever I went home to the U.S., people would ask me: what’s it like over there? What does it feel like? What’s it like to be shot at? What’s it like to be woken up by a car bomb? What’s it like to sleep in a village with no electricity? How do you talk to a warlord? Hence my book: I want to show people what it feels like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan: the ambiguity, the heartbreak, the fear and the joy. It’s a visceral book, not really an intellectual one.
As for the title, I should say: the book makes no argument. It is very explicitly not a political book. The title, “The Forever War,” is more metaphor than literal truth. (At least I hope it is). The first chapter of the book takes place in 1998, at the Kabul Sports Stadium, at a public execution carried about by the Taliban on a Friday afternoon. It’s 2008 now, and we are still at war. I’ve expended much of my life’s energies in those wars. Many of us have. It already feels like forever, and it isn’t even over yet.
Q: There are less dangerous posts to be had in the world of reporting—why did you choose to go to Afghanistan and Iraq?
There is a saying about the sea; you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it during a storm. The same is true of men and women, I think. In war, people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and in those circumstances they act in extraordinary ways. In war, you see people at their very best and their very worst, acting in ways you could never imagine. War is human drama at its most epic and most intense.
Q: You were based in Afghanistan in 1998, long before it was really in the news as far as many Americans were concerned. What was it like, reporting from such a war-torn, almost forgotten place? Were there many other journalists there, or did you feel a bit like the Lone Ranger?
It was a very strange time. The Taliban were so weird; it was like they were from another century, another galaxy. In those days I was just mystified by Afghanistan—what it was, where it was going. Any Westerner who was there—reporters or aid workers; we were about the only ones— felt exactly the same way. What the hell is this? Where is it going? We could tell things there were going bad, that they were headed toward some terrible end. We just knew; we could feel it. Once, I think it was in the summer of 2000—I actually told my editors back home: “Something really bad is going to happen here.” But of course I didn’t know what. When the planes hit the towers on September 11, it all came together.
K N O P F Q & A
Q: You write that the Iraqis had "two conversations" — one amongst themselves and another where they'd "tell the Americans what they wanted to hear" so they'd go away and the Iraqis could get on with their lives. This must have made your reporting complicated. How were you able to determine who to trust?
I was a fly on the wall. That’s all a reporter really is. As a result, in Iraq, I was often privy to many things that American officials or American soldiers never saw. I’d be standing there, for instance, watching an Iraqi guy tell some American soldiers something and then, when the soldiers had walked away, say something totally different to his friends. And I’d be standing right there. You can do that if you’re a reporter. I didn’t have a uniform on. I didn’t have a gun or a checkbook. It was extraordinary, the things I witnessed.
Also, I should say: I could never have understood the first thing about Iraq without the Iraqis I worked with, Jaff and Razzaq and Waleed. They were brave and smart and savvy and tireless, and they were friends. We were very close; we trusted one another. They told me everything.
Q: You spent a lot of time face to face with Ahmad Chalabi, and you write that he was someone you "never missed a chance to follow around" and that "Chalabi was Iraq." What about him was so fascinating? How was he emblematic of the country itself?
Chalabi is extraordinary. If you were a novelist you could not—you would not—invent him. He is brilliant and unreliable and mysterious and funny and very, very fast. And, whatever I thought of him, he was important. He was in the middle of everything. I could not have been a responsible reporter had I ignored him; I just needed to be careful.
And yes: Iraq was Chalabi and Chalabi was Iraq—mercurial and manic and many-layered—all those things. He was the essence of the place.
Q: You must have strong opinions about the war on terror, and both the Iraq war and the way in which operations in Afghanistan have been conducted. Yet the book is almost apolitical. Why?
I think we’ve all heard our share of arguments about these wars. We’ve all heard a lot of moralizing—who was right and who was wrong. I’m exhausted by it; I think probably most people are. But in a deeper sense, I think much of the moralizing we’ve heard is self-indulgent. Moralizing is something you get to do from a TV studio, what someone at a cocktail party gets to do. If you are actually in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t get a chance to do a lot of that. People are dying. If my book is about anything, it’s about the reality on the ground. Down there, politics is irrelevant.
Q: Reporting from Iraq, you met many well-known people, like Chalabi and Bremer, but many whose names won’t be familiar to readers. Who among them stick out in your mind? Are you still in touch with servicemen and women you were embedded with, or any Iraqis you met there?
Yeah. There are a lot of people I’m still in touch with. Just yesterday, for instance, I got an email from Sam Williams, a 26-year-old sergeant from Northern Michigan who is on his fourth tour in Iraq. (Get that: twenty six and on his fourth tour in Iraq.) Sam’s an amazing guy; he lead me out of a terrible situation in 2004, where, but for him, I probably would have died.
Then there’s Farid Yusufzai. He was a translator for me in Afghanistan in 2000, when I was arrested and expelled by the Taliban. He was beaten and imprisoned and he escaped. I helped him get to the U.S. He’s a physician now in Atlanta. Incredible guy.
Q: You are a dedicated runner and regularly ran while based in Baghdad, which was risky and often unbearably hot. Do you think being out like that—off duty, doing something that many Iraqis thought was a little crazy—wound up giving you a different perspective on things?
Well, it WAS crazy. I was still running in 2006, when Baghdad was in a state of total anarchy. It was reckless, but I needed to do it to stay sane. I couldn’t have stayed otherwise. In Iraq, especially in the really bad times, we were cooped up a lot—in a car, in people’s homes, in our bureau, darting from one interview to another. When I ran, I felt free.
Q: You have said that "the further you are away from Iraq, the more decisive you are… if you’ve spent any time on the ground there, you’re not too sure of anything." Have you found yourself becoming more decisive about things over the year and a half you’ve been back?
First all, it’s true. Any American who has spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan will tell you: the closer you get, the less certain you are of anything. If you are in Iraq, if you are in Afghanistan, everything is ambiguous. Everything is murky and gray and uncertain and possibly lethal. You are constantly asking yourself if what you are seeing is real, if it is what you think it is, if it will last. And then you go back to the hotel and turn on the TV, and some retired colonel in a studio in New York is telling you what happened in Iraq today. And if you disagree with him you are a traitor and a fool. Really, it’s jarring.
Am I more opinionated now that I have been away? No, I don’t think so. In 2006, when I left Baghdad, Iraq was collapsing and Afghanistan was on the mend. Today, the reverse is true. There is just no predicting what’s going to happen in these places.
Q: What are your thoughts on the surge—has it worked? Was it the "right" course of action? What do you think the future holds for the United States in Iraq?
Well, this is something I actually do feel strongly about. I wasn’t sure that the surge would work, but I thought it was worth a try. I felt we owed to the Iraqis. We toppled Saddam, after all, and we made so many mistakes in the aftermath that helped send the country into its tailspin. By late 2006, the country was headed toward the abyss. So I thought we owed to the Iraqis to stick it out and get it right. And it’s worked—at least for the time being. The violence is down dramatically. I’m in Iraq right now and the changes are just extraordinary. I can barely recognize the place.
Will it last? I hope so. But I won’t make a prediction about Iraq. That’s a fool’s game.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Stunning. . . . This unforgettable narrative represents . . . a haunting spiritual witness that will make this volume a part of this awful war's history.” —Robert Stone, The New York Times Book Review
“Filkins makes us see, with almost hallucinogenic immediacy, the true human meaning and consequences of the “war on terror.” —The New York Times
“Unflinching. . . . Filkins confronts the absurdity of war head-on. . . . This is a page-turner, and one of the most astounding books yet written about the war in Iraq.” —Time
“Thanks to one reporter's heroic act of witness and brilliant recitation of what he saw, we can see the war¬ as it is, and for ourselves.” —Los Angeles Times
“Not since Michael Herr in Dispatches . . . has a reporter written as vividly about combat as Filkins does from Afghanistan and Iraq.” —USA Today 10 Best Books of 2008
“The Forever War . . . achieves a gripping, raw immediacy.” —The Boston Globe’s Year’s Best Books
“Splendid.” —Washington Post Book World Best Nonfiction of 2008
“Dexter Filkins's The Forever War is the best piece of war journalism I've ever read. He paints a portrait of war that is so nuanced, so filled with absurdities and heartbreak and unexpected heroes and villains, that it makes most of what we see and hear about Iraq and Afghanistan seem shrill and two-dimensional by comparison. And yet, as tragic as the events he describes are, the book manages to be a thing of towering beauty.” —Dave Eggers, Guardian Best Books of the Year
"The Forever War is already a classic–it has the timeless feel of all great war literature. Dexter Filkins’s combination of courage and sensitivity is so rare that books like his come along only once every major war. This one is ours." —George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq
“Dexter Filkins is the preeminent war correspondent of my generation, fearless, compassionate, and brutally honest. The Forever War is his astonishing story. It is one of the best books about war that I have ever read. It will stay with me forever.” —Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
“Dexter Filkins has seen the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan; he has stood in the ruins of the World Trade Center; he has been in the heat of battle in Iraq; indeed, no one else has been closer to the action than this courageous and thoughtful observer. This is a sensational book in the best sense.” —Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
"Stunning ... it is not facetious to speak of work like that of Dexter Filkins as defining the 'culture' of a war...This unforgettable narrative [represents] ... a haunting spiritual witness that will make this volume a part of this awful war's history." —Robert Stone, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review
“Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, brutally intimate, compassionate, often poetic accounts of the battle against Islamic fundamentalism, is destined to become a classic.” —Vanity Fair
“Extraordinary. . . . if what Michael Herr brought back from Vietnam in Dispatches was a sort of Jackson Pollock–streaks of blood, trickles of dread, splattershot of hard rock and harder drugs–The Forever War is like a pointillist Seurat, a neo-Impressionist juxtaposition of spots of pure color with black holes and open wounds.” —John Leonard, Harper’s
“The definitive–and heartbreakingly humanizing–report from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . The Forever War [is] about all wars, everywhere–and a book that will be read fifty years from now.” —Andrew Corsello, GQ
“Dexter Filkins is one of war writings’ modern marvels, a writer of tremendous gifts and appropriate grit to go where others will not.” —Henry C. Jackson, Associated Press
“The best war reportage you are apt to read in a lifetime.” —Joseph C. Goulden, The Washington Times
“Unflinching. . . . Filkins confronts the absurdity of war head-on. . . . This is a page-turner, and one of the most astounding books yet written about the war in Iraq. . . . Filkins doesn’t lecture, he just reports, in great and perfect detail.” —Gilbert Cruz, Time
“[Filkins is] an almost absurdly brave war correspondent . . . his brilliant, sad, unique book . . . may be the most readable book about Iraq. It’s certainly one of the most artful. . . . We’re the better for it.” —Hilary Frey, The New York Observer
“Brilliant. . . . The Forever War . . . deserves to be ranked as a classic . . . and is likely to be regarded as the definitive account of how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were experienced by those who actually waged them. . . . Thanks to one reporter’s heroic act of witness and brilliant recitation of what he saw, we can see the war–as it is, and for ourselves.” —Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
“A kaleidoscope of images and intensity. . . . It is written in finely honed bursts of vibrant color that capture the peculiar culture of the war. . . . It is a raw and riveting account . . . his honesty in portraying the war implicitly exposes the hollowness of the platitudes used in Washington to defend it.” —Chris Hedges, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Splendid. . . . it shines as a work of literature, illuminating the human cost of war.” —Bing West, The Washington Post
“Rich with details both grotesque and sublime. . . . The Forever War is a masterpiece of nuance.” —Matthew B. Stannard, The San Francisco Chronicle
“Gut-wrenching and touching. . . . Mr. Filkins’s stories are those of a writer willing to endure hardship, danger and anguish to paint an accurate picture of war for the American public. . . . His prose is as blunt as it is powerful.” —Lee H. Hamilton, The New York Times
“Filkins . . . is a courageous reporter and an original writer. . . . The narrative holds together through the power of his writing. . . . The Forever War is an astonishingly good book.” —Evan Wright, LA Weekly
“Addictive. . . . [Filkins is] a master of the moment, of the concrete, of texture; where others try to explain, he wants you to know what being there feels like. . . . I couldn’t put this book down.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg
“Dexter Filkins . . . is well on his way to becoming the preeminent war reporter of this tumultuous era. . . . His understated prose offers a stiletto-sharp account of places he’s gone and people he’s met.” —John Marshall, Seattle Post Intelligencer
“Wonderfully written and carefully researched. . . . Filkins’s meticulous attention to detail and his bravery . . . [are] evident on every page . . . The Forever War . . . serves as a powerful lesson in what it takes to cover the complexities of war . . . [Dexter Filkins] has put himself in the middle of this madness to deliver a stunning and illuminating story.” —Chuck Leddy, Christian Science Monitor
“[Filkins is] the real deal, a reporter’s reporter . . . his brave and stunning new book . . . pulses with prose so lean–whipsawing between brutality and beauty–that it takes your breath away.” —Paul Grondahl, Times Union
“A chilling and ethereal narrative of loss and the promise of loss.” —Jim Chiavelli, The Boston Globe
“Phenomenal. . . . The Forever War makes the war in Iraq so real, so haunting, that you’ll want to sleep with the book next to your bed and read it in every spare moment until the last page. It does what a great book about war, loss, politics, and sacrifice should–it moves, shocks, entertains, educates, and inspires. The Forever War is peerless–a classic.” —Genvieve Long, The Epoch Times