Everybody has an opinion about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — but very few have risked their life to understand them. One reporter in particular spent years alongside soldiers, warlords and insurgents to bring back the real story.
Dexter Filkins first covered Afghanistan from Istanbul, where he wrote about life under the Taliban before 9/11 and the American invasion that followed. In 2003 he moved to Baghdad to cover the war in Iraq, and was based there with The New York Times from the beginning of the war until September 2006. In 2005 Filkins received the George Polk Award for his reports on the assault on Falluja that left 51 American Marines dead– six of whom he knew personally, being from the unit with which he was embedded. Filkins’ reporting brought back the somber absurdity of life and death in a war zone.
It started with a face. Black, possibly an Arab from North Africa, covered by a thin layer of dust. Rubble around the head. Lips parted slightly. No blood. The Marines had found him at the top of the minaret in the southern part of town, at the top of a winding set of stairs, and snapped a photo. It had been in the evening, and the face had a bluish cast. From the start, the guerrillas had used the minarets: to shoot, to spot, to signal one another. When American soldiers first came into Falluja, 6,000 of them on foot in the middle of a November night in 2004, they weren’t allowed to shoot at mosques without permission. After 12 hours, they threw the rule away.
His reporting on the intense battles, treacherous negotiations and risky give-and-take with Iraqi insurgents helped bring Americans into the trenches of the war they were supporting with their children and tax dollars. But it was his personal account– captured in the 2008 book “The Forever War” (Knopf)– that was most moving, exploring the daily ambiguities, absurdities, and tragedies that accompany war but seldom make it into the news. The Forever War won numerous awards and was named a best book of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and the Boston Globe.
“There’s nothing really more repelant to me than to have to listen to some retired coronel sitting in a chair in a studio opine about war and how people who don’t agree with him are bad people. That’s not what it is. War is on the ground. It’s people dying. It’s people getting killed. That’s what history is. History is what happens to real people. It’s not these abstract ideas. I was so exhausted by the abstractions that I wanted to write something that was very, very concrete. And in that sense, I hope powerful.”