Friday, July 10, 2009

Dexter Filkins, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Dexter Filkins
I've just finished reading The Forever War, Dexter Filkins' superb account of his work as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. All told, he spent at least three years each of the two countries--plenty of time to get to know people and plumb the depths of each conflict. Most of the book concerns Iraq, taking us up through 2007, when matters still seemed pretty dismal. Since then the situation has by most accounts improved. American troops have now supposedly moved out of the cities. Yet there's been a recent surge in suicide bomb attacks on city streets. The length of time Filkins was "on the ground," as they say, means that he's able to provide a genuine feel for Iraqi culture, introducing us to a number of Iraqis of all stripes. His descriptions of the action--mostly in cities--is often harrowing because of his proximity. It's astonishing that he avoids getting injured or killed.

This book has at times been compared to Michael Herr's Vietnam reportage, Dispatches. Filkins is less flamboyant and ironic than Herr and relies less on the sort of dark humor that was so typical of Herr. The uncertainty and guesswork involved in fighting Iraqi insurgents is in many ways comparable to the sort of conflict Herr reports in Vietnam, though that conflict was less city-based. Herr's writing catches the tone of the futile war in Southeast Asia. But his limited time in-country (in contrast to Filkins' long visits) leads him to focus more exclusively on American soldiers than the broader tableau of individuals found in Filkins' book.

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