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The Forever War (2008)

by Dexter Filkins

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1,2113611,422 (4.19)38
A prizewinning "New York Times" correspondent chronicles a remarkable chain of events that begins with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, continues with the attacks of 9/11, and moves on to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
excellent pieces on the US involvement in the Middle East.
  hvg | Apr 30, 2019 |
You know what you're in for when you step into a book about the Iraq war after 9/11 written by a New York Times writer. It's going to be bleak, maybe a bit odd, and it's going to be fair. Filkins's book is all of that but what stands out to me is his deft pacing and striking language. While this could easily have devolved into a series of anecdotes, there are thematic guy wires helping the reader stay on course. There is darkness here. A lot of it. But there's just enough light and humor that the humanity doesn't disappear. There's also an adept sense that neither Filkins himself nor the Iraqis understand the disaster that befell that country in the wake of the US invasion. This book doesn't seek to explain or dissect but tells the story of the people involved and how they coped. A wonderful book full of honesty, humanity, and horror. ( )
  alexezell | Nov 14, 2018 |
It was good, I think maybe my rating is an aberration. I started the book thinking that this was a book from a soldier's point of view and continuously kept wondering how this guy could walk out of situations he didn't like or want to be in. Finally I reread and found the sentence where he talks about photojournalism. Still, it was just "good" not fabulous. A long long story of tidbits of the author's experiences in occupation zones and war zones, but not a lot of character depth.

The audiobook narrator was great and I do recommend this for anyone wanting to get smatterings of the Iraq wars and occupations. I'm more of a goal oriented reader so maybe that's why I liked it less. ( )
  marshapetry | Mar 11, 2016 |
Already, the Iraq War is fading from our memory. 2003 already seems in the distant past, and the withdrawal in 2011 is getting there. Still wrought with civil war, our attention has already shifted to other wars, both present and potential: Iran, Libya, Syria.

This amnesia should be surprising. the Vietnam War—a similar quagmire—traumatized the nation, and led to a suspicion of the military that only started to thaw by the time of Desert Storm. Yet there's one important difference: the draft is gone, and an all-volunteer army increasingly draws from rural and poor youth, all categories nearly invisible in the media. Rather than a shared sacrifice, war is increasingly waged using the unprivileged few.

This forgetting and ignorance, which had already started during the occupation itself, means the public isn't so easily soured by war—making books like The Forever War all the more crucial as reminders of just how crazy the times were. Crazy is almost a cruel way to describe the events, as that doesn't capture the very real suffering inflicted on all parties involved, but especially Iraqi civilians. For them there was no withdrawal coming, no salve to the daily reality of trying to balance the hope of collaboration with the sobering knowledge that it would make them a target for violence.

It's apt that the writing style reflects this craziness, a pointillist vision through dozens of discrete events, all adding together to chronicle the deeply dysfunctional occupation. At first, the institutional corruption and the violence are two separate problems. Before long, though, they merge: sectarian militias made official instruments of the state, carrying out civil war under police uniforms.

Filkins' book works because it captures the street-level degeneration, shows how the civilians are pulled between the will of the state and the much more dangerous will of the insurgency—or really, how that dichotomy is false, concealing a much more complex tug-of-war between powers, some clothed in official authority and others not. It's hard to go into much more detail, because in some sense this book is all detail; it resists summary, and therein is its power. Sorry if this sounds like a mess as a result. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
The Forever War is war as recorded in a journal. The best comparison I have to it are Thomas Goltz's books, but this is much less gory or political and more observational. Just stories, not always chronological.

Filkins spent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. He saw the ins and outs of both wars from the front lines and lived to tell the story. What he saw wasn't exactly the same thing that Americans wanted to see. For example, when 5,000 Marines assault a city where there is no running water, how do you use the bathroom? You kick down the doors random peoples' houses, or mosques and fill theirs to an overflowing mess.

"There were always two conversations in Iraq-- the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans, and the one the Iraqis were having among themselves."

Filkins saw throughout the Iraq war that U.S. troops and actions were overwhelmingly hated, even where they were glad to be rid of Saddam. Where there was cooperation with Americans to work, rebuild, police, etc., Iraqis took the money, did some work, and resented it. "Nobody likes being told what to do. The Americans are the occupiers." There was always an understanding that one day-- one way or another-- the Americans would leave, the sooner the better. The price they'd imposed outweighed the benefit, at least in the Iraqi's shortened lifetimes.

"I long ago quit believing that the Defense Department knew any better than I did."

It was never just Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd (Kurds are hardly mentioned in the book), you have so many Arab tribes maintaining power and status in certain neighborhoods of certain cities. Mix in foreigners streaming in, criminals on the loose, people just looking for a quick buck through kidnapping, extortion, blood feuds demanding reprisals, etc. and you have a real mess.

This book makes me look at Bush's Decision Points (my review) differently, and more angrily-- even though I've already read Fiasco (my review) and other books on Iraq. I think President Bush's administration made the mistake of thinking democracy would heal all wounds--and quickly. Democracy (not to mention a free market) however, requires a level of trust that does not exist in many Arab countries at any level. An elected Shiite majority quickly settled scores with Sunnis, leading to outright civil war-- as Filkins documents the evidence of showing up slowly but surely.
How dumb were we to think this would all be over quickly or even be above 50% likely to turn out "well?" Filkins, by and large, isn't critical of the war-- he just observes events and conversations as they happen. He tells one poignant story of how he had to have a dealing with the CIA and reached a conclusion they were incompetent, when it turns out he was being duped by Iraqis he had long trusted and thought he was helping. He admits to his own ignorance.

For the first several chapters, I'd assumed Filkins spoke Arabic. He sometimes has quick conversations with a hostile crowd before diving back into his truck for safety. Later, he says he never learned Arabic and talks about the role of his translators. That takes some of the shine off the book, but not a lot. But I'm struck by how little anyone knows anything in these situations. After reading President Bush's Decision Points, it seems years later the attitude of Iraqis on the ground never really filtered up to him, or he doesn't fully believe the accounts of people like Filkins.

I did admire Filkins' courage in his forays into Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban and the perspective it gave him when he was in New York for 9/11, and traveling along with the Northern Alliance immediately after 9/11 (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). What's it like to be in a Syrian household, where your gracious host is ranting against American and pops in a videotape of an American being beheaded in Iraq, eagerly enjoying and praising it?

Filkins shows a very sensitive side. He records random encounters with children, while he's jogging, in stores, etc. He includes descriptions of the women and children he sees, as well as dogs and others, bringing the brutal human aspects of war home. He records the random conversations he has with the soldiers, and the difficult conditions. Filkins feels particularly responsible for one particular soldiers' death and meets with his parents when the battalion returns to the U.S. I hope his insurance pays for whatever counseling he most likely needs. ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins has written a gripping book, rich in vivid vignettes of courage, chaos, service, depravity, and death. . . . Filkins highlights the murderousness of the Taliban, of the Baathists, of the jihadist terrorists who think of themselves as "forever" at war with the infidels.
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He thought that in the beauty of the world hid a secret. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.
-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Oh, horrible vultureism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
To Khalid Hassan and Fakher Haider, friends and colleague who were killed while looking for the truth, and Lance Corporal William L. Miller, who went first.
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The marines were pressed flat on a rooftop when the dialogue began to unfold.
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A prizewinning "New York Times" correspondent chronicles a remarkable chain of events that begins with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, continues with the attacks of 9/11, and moves on to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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