Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review (#11 of 2014) The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

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.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. 

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