Dexter Filkins in The Forever War provides his readers with a vivid, emotionally searing, and intensely personal description of his experiences covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In doing so, he continues a distinguished reportorial tradition pioneered by American war correspondents in the interwar years of the 1920’s and 1930’s. One of the first and most influential of these was Vincent Sheean’s Personal History (1935). In this book, Sheean gave a highly subjective account of his experiences covering conflicts that ranged from Morocco to China to Palestine. Sheean was a product of the literary modernism that was ushered in by the moral disaster of the Great War. He was a member of the lost generation, unmoored from Victorian moral absolutes and from confidence in progress. He identified his own confusion at the mad, bloody rush of events in the 1920’s with the situation of the Western democracies, paralyzed by recent and bitter memories of trench warfare and morally helpless in the face of emergent totalitarianisms. Sheean’s record of personalized history culminated in an epiphany at the Acropolis in Athens, when he embraced a vaguely collectivist vision of life born of conversations with a Communist revolutionary. Sheean’s response to his experiences was unexceptional for an engaged intellectual with leftist leanings during the “Red Decade.” More significant was the pattern his best-selling memoir set for the literarily ambitious newsmen who came after him. Reports from Europe and Asia in the 1930’s, during World War II, the Korea War, and the Vietnam War, were every bit as personal as history. The reporter was not a detached observer; he was an active participant, sharing in the danger, excitement, camaraderie, and horror. He was constantly attuned to the effects of his experiences on his psyche and his evolving perceptions about authority.
There were variations on this theme. Michael Herr, writing about the Vietnam War in Dispatches (1977), was deeply influenced by the New Journalism of the 1960’s, and he developed a powerful, highly literary style of writing that captured detail with almost hallucinogenic clarity. Herr’s prose shaped a generation of reportorial memoirs. Thematically, however, he and his heirs followed the path laid down by Sheean.
Filkins echoes Sheean and Herr on every page of The Forever War. Even though he is describing a Near Eastern and Islamic world alien to the experience of most Americans, the reader nonetheless is in familiar territory. When Filkins writes about Muslim warlords and American generals attempting to impose order on chaotic madness in Afghanistan and Iraq, the reader is comfortably ensconced in the modernist theater of the absurd bequeathed by twentieth century literature and philosophy. It in no way denigrates Filkins’s reporting to say that the reader has been here before. Through Filkins’s eyes the reader sees what the reader expects to see. Not until a reader encounters a journalistic memoir with a radically different perspective on war, on authority, and on the meaning of human life will there be evidence of a new, emergent literature of the twenty-first century.
Filkins’s The Forever War is not a conventional narrative about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is an impressionistic account, conveying a mood rather than a reasoned assessment of the Bush administration’s war on terror. Ultimately, it is a meditation on war and the “other.” As such it draws on that mainspring of modernist reportage, a correspondent’s journey into a Joseph Conrad heart of darkness. What Sheean found in the Rif War and the first bloodlettings between Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land, and what Herr encountered amid the firefights in Vietnam, Filkins discovers in the streets of Kabul and Baghdad. He sees combat in the company of the U.S. Marines in places such as Falluja in Iraq. This is conventional warfare, grim, relentless, and bloody urban battle. It is nerve-wracking and awful, but something akin to what other men saw in Normandy and Hue. More telling is the unconventional warfare, the undifferentiated bloodshed launched by the Taliban in Afghanistan and especially by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Filkins observes that terror is the root of the overly familiar word terrorism. He lived for years with the slaughter of men, women, and children, who died horribly only so that their deaths would horrify others. Filkins also lived with the knowledge that he was a target, that at the whim of seemingly omnipresent killers he could be taken, tortured, and ritually butchered for the edification of zealots surfing the Internet. Like his predecessors, Filkins is acutely conscious of the psychological toll he suffers from his daily exposure to human carnage. At the end, he grew numb to the death around him. He lost the self-defense instincts that had helped him survive in the...
(The entire section is 2004 words.)