Nonfiction — print. Vintage Books, 2009. Originally published 2008. 368 pgs. Purchased.
Winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award and named Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, Filkins’ memoir chronicling his time as a foreign correspondent (i.e. reporter) for The New York Times begins, briefly, with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s and is followed by the War in Iraq. The later makes up the majority of the memoir, which is why my class is reading it whilst we discuss former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The nonfiction book does not specifically address or analysis policy, rather it shows the very human costs of those policies; best summed up by the very last sentences of the acknowledgments:
“I fared better than many of the people I wrote about in this book; yet even so over the course of the events depicted here, I lost the person I cared for most. The war didn’t get her; it got me.” (pg. 346)
I don’t mean to spoil the book for anyone; I honestly don’t think it’s a book that can be spoiled. Rather the book is a collection of short stories — recollections, if you will — that show the most troubling, graphic, heartbreaking side of both war and the policies that dictate it. Filkins is not a solider; he’s a reporter that was often times imbeded with the troops or traveling through a war zone with a translator and a notebook. He’ll readily admit he has no idea what’s going on, but is just trying to thread together some truths to make sense of the situation.
“I took ten strides and felt the bullets whiz past and bounce off the pavement and I knew I was going to die so I stopped cold, knowing immediately. I’d done a stupid thing, running and stopping both. I turned and dashed back behind the wall. For a moment I felt like a coward behind that wall, and then I remembered it wasn’t my war, not my army. I’m just a goddamn reporter, and I’ll wait the war out here. Come back and get me when it’s over.” (pg. 6-7)
I was worried that this book would be like reading a series of newspaper stories, but Filkin’s tone is more personal, more anguished than conventional journalism usually allows. And his tales kept pulling me through, urging me to keep reading. Interpretation of events and situations are left up to the reader; Filkin leaves the reader to decide if his source was just using him for money, for example.
“After so long I’d become part of the place, part of the despair, part of the death and the bad food and the heat and the sandy-colored brown of it. I felt I understood its complications and its paradoxes and even its humor, felt a jealous brotherhood with everyone who was trying to keep it from sinking even deeper.” (pg. 147)
The book begins with Afghanistan, and I wish it hadn’t because I kept thinking throughout the rest of the book that I would have liked to have read more about Afghanistan because that particular section is just so damn good. Sometimes the author frustrated me because he rarely expressed much respect for the average Iraqi (i.e. the ones not protecting him or acting as his source). His admiration for those he worked intimately with are not misplaced, but sometimes it felt like he was stretching himself in his portrayal of Iraqis and Afghans in both a good and bad way. Sometimes I felt like what the Iraqis did was a scam to him.
“There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us – that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing, or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered, of course. That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it.” (pg. 115)
But maybe that’s something we need to know, something we need to hear. My mom started reading this book before I did, and she actually abandoned it because of how graphic she perceived it to be. Maybe I’ve been too desensitizes to the subject matter and its most graphic parts (what a terrible thought), but I have the same reaction. It’s a portrayal of war and war is inherently graphic and bloody. Overall, I liked the book and felt like I learned a lot about the war in Iraq. Filkins has a different point of view; one that just not easily captured in the articles he writes and I read. To echo my professor’s sentiment, “Filkins strength is an overwhelming faithfulness to the messiness of the concrete details, which makes for a very real portrayal of war”.