The Forever War

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The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

The Forever War
By Dexter Filkins
Knopf; 368 pp.

The Gist:
Filkins, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, delivers an unflinching look behind the front lines of the war on terror. Whether it's a crowd impassively watching a soccer field execution in pre-9/11 Afghanistan or a group of American soldiers throwing everything they have at a sniper (bullets, grenades, tank shells, air-to-ground missiles) for six hours — only to watch him escape on a bike — Filkins confronts the absurdity of war head-on.

Highlight Reel:
1. On walking through downtown Manhattan on 9/11 after years of reporting in Afghanistan: "Walking in, watching the flames shoot upward, the first thing I thought was that I was back in the Third World. My countrymen were going to think that this was the worst thing that had ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened every day: earthquakes, famines, plagues ... All those street vendors who worked near the World Trade Center, from all those different countries, selling falafel and schwarma. When they heard the planes and watched the towers they must have thought the same thing as I did: that they'd come home."

2. On the rampant looting that occurred following the fall of Baghdad: "A young lieutenant stood with his men, looking on with a troubled expression. I asked him why he was letting the Iraqis destroy the building, destroy the city. 'I don't have orders,' he said, shaking his head. 'No orders.'"

3. On the Army's sometimes counterproductive methods: "By midmorning, Sassaman's battalion had searched seventy homes in Abu Shakur and questioned dozens of men, but netted not a single gun nor a single suspect. If you multiplied the raid on Abu Shakur a thousand times, it was not difficult to conclude that the war was being lost: however many Iraqis opposed them before the Americans came into the village, dozens and dozens more did by the time they left. The Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them."

4. On the rash of suicide bombings that swept across Iraq — often dozens or more a day: "The craziest thing about the suicide bombings were the heads — how the head of the bomber often remained intact after the explosion. It was the result of some weird law that only a physicist could explain: the force of the blast would detach the bomber's head and throw it up and away, too fast for the blast to destroy it. So there it would be, the head, sitting on a pile of bricks or underneath a telephone pole."

The Lowdown:
Is it cruel to suggest that a nonfiction account of the atrocities of war is a page-turner? Very well: this is a page turner, and one of the most astounding books yet written about the war in Iraq. The magic of The Forever War is the dispassionate yet hyper-involving manner in which Filkins offers scores of mini-narratives — stories about Iraqi civilians, insurgents and politicians, American grunts and generals alike — without judgment. Filkins doesn't lecture, he just reports, in great and perfect detail. It's possibly the only true requirement for a good war story. Or any story, for that matter.

The Verdict: Read