Someone Else's Pain

Dozens of books have appeared about the U.S. invasion, occupation, destruction, and inept reconstruction of Iraq. Generals, ordinary soldiers, journalists, government officials, consultants, academics, politicians, and returned Iraqi exiles have told their stories, sometimes justifying, sometimes criticizing what they did and what they saw others do. These volumes along with reams of newspaper and magazine copy and miles of TV footage make the war in Iraq the most closely observed in history. And this leaves out the blogs and e-mails that tell the stories of the day-to-day lives of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers, which most of us never see.

Much of this voluminous information, even when it defends the invasion, ends up pointing to its dubious justification and incompetent execution. The announced reason for the war, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, proved unfounded. The idea that Iraq posed a threat to the United States and to its neighbors was groundless. The plan that Iraq would spring up a functioning democracy was spectacularly in error. The war was not justified, and it has not been successful, unless the only goal was the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The war happened and it goes on; Saddam is long gone and the killing continues. Its pointlessness from beginning to end is beyond comprehension. It is an absurd war.

Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War does not try to do what other books have done: explain, justify, or criticize the war. But the absurdity comes through in extraordinary clarity and detail. Ordinary people, Iraqis and Americans, civilians and soldiers carry on in the face of pointless mayhem—mayhem that they both live in the midst of and are themselves perpetrating. Twenty-one chapters, some barely a page, set loose a kaleidoscope of stories and images. There is no continuous narrative; like the war itself, the book is a fury of random and inexplicable events. Some pieces appeared in Filkins’s New York Times stories; other parts appear to be notes or diary entries; and still others are fragments of memory from Filkins or the photographers endlessly running with him to a car bombing, a battle, an atrocity. In a war that will not stop, Filkins cannot stop himself either.

As the invasion began, Filkins drove a rental car from Kuwait into Iraq behind the U.S. army. What did he find? Memories: Southern Iraqis remember 1991 and President George H. W. Bush’s promises of liberation. Were his son’s promises more reliable, or would Saddam come back to kill anyone who welcomed the Americans? The Iraqis had reason to fear the promises. “Should I be afraid?” asked one sobbing woman. Visiting one of Saddam’s security centers, Filkins followed a man searching for the cell where he was tortured. “Masawi stopped at number 36. ‘Here it is,’ he said. ‘My cell.’” The man paused at the threshold, saying, “Being here gives me a doomed feeling.”

Filkins came upon looting at UN headquarters—a rampage without priorities, where anything and everything went. He watched with an American colonel, who was “walking slowly and without much purpose” on the second floor of the building. When the Iraqis had removed the last of the equipment, the colonel “ordered his men to close up the building,” and observed to Filkins, “there is a vacuum of authority.”

Filkins walked into the Baghdad bureau of the New York Times to find the Iraqi employees watching Saddam-era torture videos, available at the local market. “None of the Iraqis in the newsroom said anything” as they watched silent film of a man’s arm being not just broken but torn in two. Filkins observes: when American readers write “expressing anger at the Iraqis—why are they so ungrateful? why can’t they govern themselves?—I consider sending them one of the videos.”

In November 2004, the U.S. military launched a second round of operations to subdue Fallujah, the scene of a persistent insurgency. Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson were embedded with a company of Marines sent to rout the insurgents. Filkins’s account appeared in the New York Times on November 21, 2004. His news story opened with the retrieval of the mortally wounded Lance Corporal Willi Miller from a staircase circling the interior of a minaret.

In the chapter “Pearland,” Miller’s death is given larger context—and cause. Gilbertson was in search of dead Iraqi insurgents to photograph, but found none. A marine showed Gilbertson a photo he took of a dead man at the top of winding stairs: “Black, possibly an Arab from North Africa, covered by a thick layer of dust. Rubble around the head. Lips parted slightly. No blood.” Gilbertson decided to pursue the photo-op. “When Ash needed a photo, he had no fear,” writes Filkins. Just as Gilbertson and Filkins stepped into the doorway of the minaret, two Marines pushed in front of them, volunteering to go first up the narrow stairway. Then: “The shot was loud inside the staircase.... The second Marine was falling backwards, falling onto Ashley, who fell onto me. Warm liquid spattered on my face.... The first Marine was stuck maybe three-quarters of the way up”—Corporal Willi Miller of the Times article.

In the book’s account, when Miller’s body was finally retrieved, “his face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.” No dead Iraqi for the photo shoot, but a dead Marine. The full story didn’t make the Times, but it’s in the book: “Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of Marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.” Filkins concedes the point: “The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain.”

Iraq was not his first war. He was in Afghanistan in 1998 and again in 2001; he was in New York on 9/11. He covered the Taliban and Al Qaeda for the Los Angeles Times. “Dumb as a brick, but that hardly mattered. Great cultures are like that. Always have been. The Greeks, the Romans, the British: they didn’t care what other people thought.... The Taliban: their strength was their ignorance.” He saw the Taliban cut off the hand of a pickpocket. He heard the pleas of shrouded and veiled Afghani women—“This is like death”—living under the Taliban and Sharia law. In November 2001 he watched the Taliban “just sitting in their trenches. Trapped. Uncomprehending. Waiting to be bombed.”

Filkins has captured the crazed, daring, rash, unthinking acts and gestures of the Taliban, Iraqis, and, yes, U.S. Marines. Their madness entered his bloodstream. Yet he remained ever the note-taking reporter, so the reader can grasp the absurdity of what he saw and heard.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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