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thedrifter
09-15-08, 12:56 PM
Close-up of the real face of war
THE FOREVER WAR: DISPATCHES FROM THE WAR ON TERROR BY DEXTER FILKINS (BODLEY HEAD, 18.99)

By Philip Jacobson
Last updated at 1:48 PM on 15th September 2008


The prologue to this outstanding collection of frontline reportage finds Dexter Filkins, a New York Times correspondent based in Baghdad, in the maelstrom of the battle for the town of Fallujah, an Islamic militant stronghold, in November 2004.

A member of Charlie Company of the U.S. Marines First Division, Eighth regiment, named as James Blake Miller, who has been hailed 'The Face of Fallujah' - at least in America, Nov. 9, 2004.

Embedded with a company of U.S. marines, Filkins is swept up in a mad, adrenaline-fuelled scramble through ruined streets crackling with enemy fire.

As mortar shells rain down, he notices that some of the marines 'were grimacing, preparing to be hit'. Just a small detail, caught from the corner of an eye, yet conveying a vivid image of soldiers braced for the bullet or piece of shrapnel with their name on it.

Filkins spent three years chasing the war in Iraq, risking his life repeatedly to describe what was really happening on the ground.

Written in taut, pared-down prose, his book roams across a desolate urban battlefield where innocent civilians are dying like flies. Snipers lurk on the balustrades of mosques, death squads torture victims with power drills and every parked car could be about to explode.

Suicide attacks are so frequent that Filkins presumed some bombers just set off 'loaded up and cruising, looking for a target of opportunity'. The rumour mill claimed that drivers were sometimes handcuffed to the steering wheel in case they changed their mind about ascending to paradise.

Before Iraq, Filkins had been reporting from Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a weird and profoundly dislocated place, he writes, 'where the brutality one could witness in the course of a working day was often astonishing, the casualness of it more so'.

Once, he joined an expectant crowd in a football stadium to witness the execution of a murderer, the main event being preceded by the amputation of a thief's hand. Yet, in time, he came to adore the country, marvelling at the warmth and generosity of ordinary Afghans in the face of adversity.

Filkins seems rather more ambivalent about his feelings towards the Iraqis, though he rightly extols the courage and commitment of the drivers, translators and fixers at his newspaper's fortress-like office, who saved his skin more than once.

He did not lack compassion for the ordinary people whose country was being torn apart, but he worried about becoming habituated to the relentless cycle of suffering and death in which he was immersed. Occasionally, Filkins slept through the explosions that scattered body parts regularly across the streets.

'Sometimes it felt like the sounds of bombs and the call to prayer were the only sounds the country could produce, its own strange national anthem.' In one of his most thoughtful dispatches, Filkins introduces Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, a bright and idealistic officer, the son of a Methodist minister, whom he thought embodied 'the best that America could offer' to Iraq.

Sassaman's unit was based in a dirt-poor town dominated by Shi'ite Muslims: working round the clock, he brought security to their neighbourhoods, introduced a democratically elected local council and rebuilt schools and mosques.

But out in the surrounding countryside, an armed insurgency was developing among Sunni Muslims bitterly hostile to the U.S. presence and soon enough his troops began to die.

As casualties mounted, Sassaman confided despairingly to Filkins: ' I'm getting tired of telling mothers and fathers that they have lost their sons.' W HEN they next met, he told Filkins that he believed it was time for 'a heavy dose of fear and violence' to convince Iraqis that the U.S. was there to help them. Following his instructions to get tough with troublemakers, his men threw two curfew-breakers into the Tigris river, apparently drowning one of them.

Sassaman ordered the incident to be covered up, but after a soldier who witnessed the incident blew the whistle, his military career was over. Filkins reckoned he was lucky not to have gone to jail, as two of his men did.

In a moving coda to this exceptional book, Filkins travels to a small town in Texas to see the parents of a young marine called William Miller, who was killed in Falujah while leading him and his photographer to a position from which they could get a picture of a dead insurgent.

Filkins was still carrying a heavy load of guilt about that, but the parents had no word of blame for him.

Although their son lay in a cemetery nearby, 'they joked and smiled, talked of Billy and his life almost as if he was still there', sending Filkins on his way with a couple of magnetic stickers displaying his photo, the American flag and a memorial ribbon.