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Reviewed by:
  • The Forever War
  • Fred L. Borch
The Forever War. By Dexter Filkins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. ISBN 978-0-307-26639-2. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. 368. $25.00.

This is an important book about the on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its strength is that it is about real people–men, women, soldiers, marines, civilians–fighting, dying, enduring, and surviving in the villages, cities, deserts, and mountains of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Forever War is not a narrative of military operations, and is devoid of analysis. It lacks a strategic or operational perspective. Rather, the book is a chronological assembly of stories and vignettes collected by Filkins while working as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times in Afghanistan and Iraq between 1998 and 2007. The result is a worm’s-eye view of life on and off the battlefield that is both emotionally gripping and highly informative.

From the opening pages, when Filkins tells the story of horrific fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004, The Forever War is hard to put down. Filkins understands better than most Americans what it means to live and work in Afghanistan and Iraq, since he spent two years in the former and more than three years in the latter and filled more than 560 notebooks with interviews of people and details of events he experienced. The stories he tells in The Forever War reveal him as a keen observer of human nature. Some are harrowing tales of warfighting, but some are simply sad. At least one is humorous. Titled “Blonde,” this vignette tells how soldiers in Iraq “came up with a great way to search villages” (pp. 134–35). While looking for weapons in the villages around Mosul, they put a blonde female soldier on top of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and notified the Iraqis by loudspeaker that the American woman was for sale. As Filkins tells it, the male Iraqis began to bid excitedly– “offering their goats, trucks, all their money” –to purchase the blonde American woman. While the Iraqis were distracted by the auction, other American soldiers conducted searches of all the homes in the village, and uncovered and seized “a huge pile of guns.” Their mission [End Page 1395] accomplished, the Americans then cancelled the auction, telling the Iraqi men that their bids were too low for the sale to be consummated. The Army captain who told Filkins about this novel search method concludes wistfully that the idea was “brilliant,” but that it was stopped by his superiors once they heard about it.

The writing in The Forever War is crisp and clear, and Filkins’s work has already garnered a number of prestigious literary accolades, including New York Times Editors’ Choice Winner (2008), National Book Club Critics Circle Award Winner (2008), and Overseas Press Book Club Award Winner (2008). The Forever War also received the 2009 Colby Award (which recognizes a first work of fiction or nonfiction that makes a significant contribution to the understanding of intelligence operations, military history, or international affairs).

But the book is not without its shortcomings. While much of The Forever War has the ring of truth, there is little in the way of information in the six pages of “A Note on Sources” (pp. 347–53) that allows a reader to verify the accuracy of facts or events. Filkins claims that his book, “except where otherwise noted … comes entirely from my [Filkins] own experiences and my own reporting,” (p. 347) (emphasis supplied). But this really means that one is not necessarily reading what Filkins saw or experienced first-hand–or what in fact happened–because Filkins is also reporting what others told him.

The chapter (pp. 149–167) on Lt. Col. Nathan “Nate” Sassaman, the West Point graduate who led the academy to its first football bowl victory and seemed destined for greatness as a soldier, is illustrative. Sassaman’s promising career was ruined when he ordered his men to lie to Army investigators about forcing two Iraqi civilians to jump into an irrigation canal off the Tigris River–one of whom died. Filkins explains that this drowning occurred after Maj...