Book Review: ‘The Forever War’ Shocks and Moves to the Core

October 8, 2008 Updated: October 17, 2008

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If you start to read The Forever War with the intention of passing time, you might change your plans. No matter what label you give Dexter Filkins’ phenomenal work about life and war in Afghanistan and Iraq, only the most desensitized of readers could keep it from getting under their skin. The more you read, the harder it is to put down.

As a New York Times correspondent in first Afghanistan and then Iraq, Filkins’ life and work in the past ten years reflect the wars in these countries in a stark light. The book’s interwoven tales straddle encounters ranging from violently angry Iraqi civilian mobs to a villager host who enjoys watching an insurgent video of an American being murdered.

Yet it also touches on the warmth, confusion and personal struggles of the Iraqi people. The Forever War masterfully paints a picture of a complex Iraq, full of duality. It is a persistent, underlying dichotomy that Filkins describes as the “two conversations” always taking place.

In one instance, he recounts a day at different polling places during an election. One can plainly see the determined faces of the citizens who have come out to vote, despite the threat of death for “cooperating with the Americans.” Filkins describes voters like 80-year-old Rashid Majid, who pushes his way through the doors of the polling place saying, “Get out of my way. I want to vote.” It is difficult not to read this and other parts of the book without a surge of pride in American idealism.

But the hard reality of the cost Iraqis have paid in the last several years is illuminated through a final encounter with a lone woman who, shaking over what the Americans and British have done to her country, insists that democracy is “just talking.” They are simple words that put the death and chaos of the war in a new, shocking and human light—a feat Filkins accomplishes throughout his book. The result is a very real connection between the reader and the Iraqi people described in the book’s pages.

Through the voting stories and other encounters, Filkins examines geopolitical conflict with a lens so finite that it can soften the heart and mind one moment, and frighten the next. Using brief conversations, surface observations, rare touches of playfulness, and sometimes single sentences, some very core questions about the war in Iraq are steadily unraveled.

Filkins’ work also describes in painstaking, minute detail the feel of the landscape, the complexities of the people, and the richness and longevity of regional traditions. He accomplishes all of this without slowing the pace or loosening his grip on the reader. What is revealed in The Forever War goes far beyond a simple accounting of people, places, and things.

From beginning to bittersweet end, Filkins uses prose that is both factual and heartbreaking. By the epilogue, it feels like you’ve watched a friend pull themselves through mud in the darkest night, and emerge a stranger to themselves and you. Yet Filkins never strays into self-indulging byways through the more the 340 pages of his narrative. He simply manages to write with such immediacy and a masterful command of the written word that it is impossible not to be moved by his obvious personal sacrifices.

In fact, Filkins is as much a part of the story as the many interpreters, colleagues, Iraqis, and members of the military that weave in and out of the pages. It is through Filkins’ eyes that the reader is shown what it looks and feels like to be in the middle of a firefight with the Marines in Falluja. It is through his ventures past curfew, outside of the safety of the Green Zone, walking through a desert, or sleeping under the night sky that the reader can taste the fear and death and delicacy of the place.

The loss of a Marine, Lance Corporal William Miller, is a poignant example of this.

Miller was shot and killed trying to help a photographer with Filkins, Ashley Gilbertson, get pictures of a dead insurgent. Gilbertson’s guilt and grief make the loss gut-wrenching. It hits home in a way that no news report or official government account of military casualties ever could.

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.