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‘The Forever War’ Author Dexter Filkins Recounts Covering Iraq, Afghanistan Wars

October 1, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins' book, "The Forever War," provides a window into his experiences covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the last decade. He talks to Jeffrey Brown about reporting from the front lines.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, war from a reporter’s point of view. Jeffrey Brown has a book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: For much of the last decade, Dexter Filkins reported from Afghanistan and Iraq, one of a small group of journalists who became the day- to-day chroniclers of war for American readers and viewers.

A correspondent for the New York Times, Filkins reported on events for his paper and also often joined us on the NewsHour from Baghdad. Now he’s written a book, “The Forever War,” that takes the reader to the front lines and behind the scenes, a portrait of war, and a reporter’s attempt to cover it.

Dexter Filkins joins me now.

And welcome.

DEXTER FILKINS, Author: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I guess I can say thank you for your help during those years on the NewsHour.

The first thing that struck me in reading this was that it’s not a narrative in the traditional sense of, “Here’s what happened, Point A to Point B.” It’s episodic, impressionistic. What were you trying to do?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I felt like there had been a lot books on Iraq and Afghanistan. And most of them, even the really, really good ones, were kind of written from 10,000 feet up, you know, from a distance, discussing decisions in Washington or decisions in the field.

I wanted to write a book because I thought I could about what it felt like to be there. You know, I wanted to write less an intellectual book than a visceral one, than an emotional one. You know, what’s it like to be at a car bombing? Or what’s it like to sit across from a Sunni sheikh who’s lying to you?

You know, I wanted to kind of bring the reader with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s very visceral. And that meant getting you more into the story than we’re used to in reading our daily newspaper.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes. I mean, you know, in a book, you can do whatever you want. So, yes, there I was.

Iraq as a 'kaleidoscope'

Dexter Filkins
Author
Iraq was this kind of kaleidoscope, you know, and so whenever you felt like you had a fix on it, it would just rearrange itself for you right in front of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel at the time that you could tell the story? I mean, if you take yourself back a few years, how much did you feel you were seeing?

DEXTER FILKINS: The things that newspapers do are very, very important, but it's news. You know, it's very formal. And it's, you know, you move the ball down the field every day.

But I kind of -- you can't get a lot in there about what it felt like and what you really kind of saw, like the blood, and the sweat, and the sand, and the fear, and the ambiguity. I mean, that's much harder, you know, and that's kind of what I wanted to do here, because it really is at the essence of the place.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a section in this book where you talked about you take a helicopter ride. And you think out loud and you write about this sense of seeing the larger picture. And you say, you write, "I thought to myself, 'Useful to think this way to take a wider view of the world. Too much detail, too much death clouded the mind.'"

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, yes. I remember that moment very well. I was in a helicopter, a Black Hawk. And, you know, the Black Hawks are extraordinary. You go about 140 miles an hour. You're about 70 feet off the ground. And you're actually leaping over the telephone wires as you blow across Iraq.

And I was kind of looking out at the country, you know? And I was taking a longer view, I mean, literally and figuratively. And I thought at the time, you know, maybe I've seen too many car bombings. You know, maybe there's something else going on here, you know, that I need to think about.

And I felt that from time to time, but in that particular moment, it was very jarring.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another striking thing here is the range of people you talk to, the officials, of course, and the soldiers, but good guys, a lot of bad guys, a lot of regular folks on the street, victims.

When you're trying to get your arms around something this big, how do you feel about it as you're doing it? You know, "Who do I need to talk to? How much do I need to talk?"

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes. I mean, I've never, ever been confronted with anything so big, particularly as Iraq. I mean, I spent -- most of this book is from Iraq, a lot from Afghanistan, but most from Iraq -- something so gigantic, so complicated, but so changing all the time.

I mean, Iraq was this kind of kaleidoscope, you know, and so whenever you felt like you had a fix on it, it would just rearrange itself for you right in front of you.

So there was really no end to what you could do. I mean, there was no -- there was always more to do. And kind of every -- it often seemed like every time I opened a door in Iraq, there were 90 other doors, you know?

Harrowing danger in Iraq

Dexter Filkins
Author
... often you're just, you know, driving down the road and something bad starts happening ... I'm thinking of, you know, any number of gun battles that I just happened to drive into. I just took a wrong turn, and there it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also put yourself in harm's way, in great, great danger. And I wondered as I was reading it, do you think about it as you're doing it? Do you think to yourself, "This is dangerous, but I have to do it"? Or do you just kind of rush in because that's the story and you've got to go?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, it kind of depends. I mean, you know, often you're just, you know, driving down the road and something bad starts happening.

And then you just -- you know, I mean, I'm thinking of, you know, any number of gun battles that I just happened to drive into. I just took a wrong turn, and there it was.

And so a lot of the times you don't really have enough time to make up your mind. But, you know, the violence there is just something to be dealt with.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's the very harrowing story of Fallujah.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in that case, you and a photographer were in the -- as often, I guess, you were protected by others. And in one instance, you and a photographer were trying to get a shot, and a Marine who was escorting you was shot and killed.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, yes, that was really awful. Yes, I mean, that was a split second, like so many things in war. Actually, Gilbertson and I, the photographer, we were going into a minaret, because there was a dead insurgent at the top of the minaret. You know, we thought the battle was over.

We stepped into the minaret. Right when we did that, a couple of Marines kind of put their hand out. You know, I think I was 43 years old at the time. Those guys were 21, but they said, "We'll go first." And they went first. And one of them was killed.

Iraq as a parallel universe

Dexter Filkins
Author
I was an American, but I didn't have a uniform. I didn't have a gun. And because of that, I often was able to see things, I think, that a lot of the Americans there weren't able to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also write about -- this is going back to trying to get your arms around this story -- you write that there were, as you say, two conversations in Iraq, one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and one they were having among themselves.

DEXTER FILKINS: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you wend your way through those two conversations?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, I was an American, but I didn't have a uniform. I didn't have a gun. And because of that, I often was able to see things, I think, that a lot of the Americans there weren't able to see.

I mean, it was this kind of parallel universe. And occasionally it would sort of open up, and I would get a glimpse, and then, bam, it would close again, you know?

I mean, there's a moment in the book where, you know, I'm with a lieutenant, Christopher Rausch, I think his name was. He's from South Carolina. We were driving along the Euphrates. And he's, you know, doling money out to Iraqis. And, of course, they're happy to take the money. They're saying, you know, "Thank you. We love America."

And then, sort of at the end of the day, you know, as the lieutenant is getting into his Humvee to drive away, I turn to the Iraqis and say, "So what do you think? You know, what do you think of those guys?"

And they said, "Well, we hate them. You know, we want to drive them out of the country. We'll take the money, but we hate them." You know, that's something I got to see that was pretty rare.

A new time of relief

Dexter Filkins
Author
... leave the politics aside, as I try to do in the book, anyway, but leave the politics aside. It's just a nice thing to see, you know? It's just nice to see the look of relief on people's faces.

JEFFREY BROWN: The years you were there and the years on which this book is based were the worst of the worst...

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... carnage everywhere and suicide bombs. You went back very recently just a few weeks ago, I understand.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, just got back, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And while in the book you're writing about the death of any kind of social civic life...

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... what did you see this time, something a little different?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, it was pretty extraordinary, I have to say. I just got back. And, I mean, I thought when I left Iraq in late 2006 that it was -- the social fabric was completely shredded in every way.

I mean, if I just think of, you know, Baghdad, 40, 50 kidnappings every day. I mean, children being kidnapped and sort of dumped in the street. And go to the morgue any day, there would be 100 new bodies, you know, drilled with holes, burned with acid, you know, handcuffed, bags over their head, I mean, just, you know, the end, the absolute end, you know? How do you come back from that?

It's much better now. I think the country -- it might be very temporary. I think it's extremely fragile. It might be over tomorrow.

But there's been a kind of stepping back, which -- you know, leave the politics aside, as I try to do in the book, anyway, but leave the politics aside. It's just a nice thing to see, you know? It's just nice to see the look of relief on people's faces.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is "The Forever War," Dexter Filkins, thanks very much.

DEXTER FILKINS: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: We have video of Dexter Filkins reading an excerpt from his book on our Web site. Just go to PBS.org and then scroll down to NewsHour Reports.