Book Brief: The Forever War

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (Vintage Books, 2008): A Book Brief

by David Nelson

Returning from a trip overseas recently, I had one of those long layovers that was accompanied by the disappointment that I’d read every book I’d carried with me. That led me to the Borders bookstore in the Detroit airport where I picked up Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War.

The book has collected plenty of awards, so no one needs my review of the quality of the work. But it is excellent. It’s among the best war reporting I’ve ever read, from any war. Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, has given us a series of vignettes about the US conflict against Islamic fundamentalism waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book begins with an execution the author witnessed in Kabul in 1998, and carries us through 9/11 and Filkins’ tenure in the war in Iraq.

The Forgotten War is not even so much reporting about war (though it is that) as it is an account of living in and through a war. Filkins doesn’t give a sustained argument about the war, or a critique of it. Rather, this is an attempt – a successful one – to make us come to terms with the realities and consequences of war at the human level, with all its horror.

The book is a narrative of real people, not simply battles. People like politicians, soldiers, insurgents, and ordinary citizens. I had a visceral reaction to certain sections of the book. I was reminded that war really is hell, and Filkins helps us to grapple with the fact that war sometimes seems necessary, and it is always horrible, and sometimes simply absurd.

I appreciate the manner in which Filkins allows the stories to stand on their own, without feeling the need to provide ideological commentary or to make facile judgments about complex matters. He does the work of a real journalist, and does it very well.

I also appreciate the manner in which Filkins reminds us of the horror that is fundamentalism, whether religious, political, or otherwise. We see how fundamentalism always moves to extremes, and how it is dehumanizing, giving preference to ideology over humanity at every turn.

Filkins also helps us to appreciate from the ground level why nation building, in particular the notion of instituting a democracy in an Islamic context, is so difficult.

In the end I recommend this book because it reminds us that war takes a very real human toll. It affects ordinary people in extraordinary ways, whether they are combatants of not. Filkins himself seems to be a casualty of this war, yet he has the strength to tell us the raw truth about a story that too many wish to retell for their own purposes.

Read this book if you want a sobering account of why we should all pray and work for peace in our day, and long for that day when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.”