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The Best of The Forever War

As I’m wont to do recently, I’ve compiled a small selection of some of my favorite passages from Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War. With stellar prose and crisp, frightening details, these are some of the best passages war literature has to offer.

Without further ado...

       “They’d [Afghans] look at you and you’d think, Jesus, they are not killable. They’re from another world”

       “Talking to Wali that day, and Mohammedi and the other Talibs, it seemed obvious enough that what lay at the foundation of the Taliban’s rule was fear, but not the fear of the Taliban themselves, at least not in the beginning. No: it was fear of the past. Fear that the past would return, that it would come back in all its disaggregated fury. That the past would become the future. The beards, the burqas, the whips, the stones; anything, you want. Anything but the past.”

Another poignant part from Afghanistan:

       “People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans had arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got underway. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs...War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of every day life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

       “Battles were often decided not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.”

And from Iraq:

       “Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in The New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I’d find our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Baghdad...In one of the videos, some Baath party men had pinned a man down on the floor and were holding down his outstretched arm, while another official beat the man’s forearm with a heavy metal pipe until his arm broke into two places. There was no sound in the video, but you could see that the man was screaming...

       “I tried to recall these things when I got impatient with the Iraqis. Sometimes, when readers from America sent me e-mails expressing anger at the Iraqis--why are the so ungrateful? why can’t they govern themselves?--I considered sending them one of the videos.”

And then there is this haunting reference to Lara Logan near the end of the book.

       “There were some guys standing around a sign-up sheet...They were talking about Lara Logan, the sexy CBS correspondent who had visited a couple of weeks before. The sign-up sheet was recording suggestions for the logo on Kilo Company’s T-shirt. The boys were going home soon.

       “‘Kilo Company,” one of the Marines had written. ‘Killed More People Than Cancer’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Iraq’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Ramadi’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck Lara Logan’

       “‘Kilo Company: Fuck us!’”

two comments

Sometimes it seems that war reporting is as much about the reporter as the subject. Yet, if we are really define the much maligned word “hero”, I would seriously throw in the names of Filkins,Burns,Ricks, Shadid, Logan, and a flock of photographers. If we are to study the past decade in far future years, their reporting and recording of what went down will be the definative sources.

Couldn’t agree more. Hero is such a charged word, and reporters definitely are only one part—but it is hard to deny their impact and bravery.