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The Forever War: A Review

I’ve read a lot of modern war memoirs. Most of them are about heroism, leadership or the glory of battle; optimistic tales of team work, triumph and camaraderie.

The Forever War isn’t about any of those things. Instead, Dexter Filkins rummages through the dark side of war, almost 350 pages of pure “War at its Worst”. (And it has, indeed, inspired two “War at its Worst” posts already.)

I’ve been on a bit of a post-9/11 war memoir winning streak recently. Between Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom and Sebastian Junger’s War, I’ve read some of the best war memoir writing since I began trudging through this tiring literary sub-genre. And I’m glad to say the streak continues today with Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War, an impossibly bleak memoir of his experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Forever War describes war at its ugliest, most fatalistic and hopeless. If I had to put my opinion on it, I’d say it is anti-war; it is also a must read.  

Dexter Filkins captures his memories of time spent in Afghanistan in the late 90’s, in the midst of Taliban rule, then covers the American invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11, and ends with his experience as a reporter for The New York Times in Baghdad after the American invasion. Filkins’ memoir is more of a collage than a chronological narrative, a collection of short stories, anecdotes and impressions. If you remember my review of Dispatches, you know I think this is the ideal form for a war memoir. Reality doesn’t conform to a nice, neat war narrative. (As Michael C discussed with me, though, it isn’t an overview of the war. If you come in expecting that, you’ll be disappointed.)

Dozen of war memoirs into this project, Filkins still found ways to surprise me; nothing about the book is expected. He opens with a quote from Melville and a non-Blood Meridian quote from Cormac McCarthy, which I love. Compared with the quotes in Junger’s War--which felt rote and incorrect--Filkins challenged the reader with quotes that aren’t a part of the modern military lexicon.

Filkins shows both sides of war, painting a hideous portrait of war’s backward moral boundaries and alliances. With his security guards in Iraq, Filkins watches videos of Saddam’s guards torturing prisoners. But Filkins juxtaposes those stories with images of Iraqis killed by stray American bombs, mortars or artillery shells. “‘I saw how the Americans bombed our civilians with my own eyes,’ Ali said, and he held up a bloody sleeve. ‘I dragged them to the ambulance myself.’” (89) Complicating the picture further, Filkins talks with Iraqis who, despite all the violence, welcome Americans. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Filkins describes a battlefield with shifting alliances and moral quandaries.

Nothing, it seems, in war is simple.

These complications extend to the emotional understanding of soldiers, whom Filkins portrays in the same honest light, letting their words do the talking. After killing six members of a ten person family in Iraq, one marine says to another, “Better them than us.” Then one of the marines starts crying.

Or a marine, describing war “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait to see the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again.” (93) Most memoirists love their subjects, usually by and about Americans soldiers, and describe these soldiers in a consistently positive light. But reality, especially in war, is never that simple.

This nuance extends to the enemies as well, like when Filkins tells the story of a dying insurgent from Saudi Arabia named Nasir. The youthful Nasir comes to Afghanistan, joins the resistance, his side surrenders, he gets shot and wishes he had never joined the jihad. “Nasir said he had given up his dreams of jihad. He said he did not care for bin Laden. More than anything, Nasir said, he wished he were the naive young man he had been only a few months earlier.” Filkins never hears of him again.

Filkins has no qualms about injecting his opinion into the story. “The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient--and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.” (138) You don’t read commentary like this in other memoirs. The great war memoirists--Rooney, Herr, O’Brien--understand that every memoir should try to figure out what war is. All of Filkins’ questions and analysis serves this purpose.

Amid all this good, there are two things about The Forever War I didn’t like. The first I really, really hated: its title. Just three years after its first printing, it feels like both wars are winding down. To make the case, in the title, that the wars will last forever speaks to a book that is a history, or an analysis, not a series of anecdotes.

As good as The Forever War is, I would also point out that it is just a little too long, especially for a memoir this depressing and ugly and violent. It’s an ugly war in the forever war, and I’m not sure I wanted to read 350 pages of it. I put the book down emotionally exhausted.

Then again, that may have been the point.

four comments

I think this is by far the best war memoir I’ve read. I disagree that it is too long, however. I loved every page and wanted more, despite its darkness. One of the most powerful parts for me is the story about the Marine who was shot trying to help Filkins and his photographer get the picture they were looking for and the guilt he felt over that. Powerful stuff.

@ Will – It wasn’t long in a bad way, if that makes sense. Long in the sense that I was tired when I was finished reading it.

I’d say it is in Schindler’s List territory. Great film, but watching it once was enough.

I liked Filkin’s Forever War. But Haldeman did it better 30 years earlier.

@ Don – Yeah, a review of the original Forever War is totally needed on this site. I’ll search around for my copy and re-read it. Also, Forever Peace was amazing.