The Forever War
(Random House, 2008)
Mutilation is usually the stuff of unhinged, calculating sadists. During the Iraq War, Shiites have trademarked their murders by boring holes into their victims’ bodies with electric drills, while Sunnis have used decapitation and self-immolation as their modus operandi. That Iraq has been overrun by a determined band of serial killers is a picture veteran New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins can’t help but paint in his powerful new book, The Forever War. Perhaps more than any other work written about Iraq, Filkins’s book captures what happens to the civilians, soldiers, and journalists who live through such extreme violence.
The murderous derangement that has ravaged Iraq began taking root long before U.S. troops set foot in the country. In 1988, Yacob Yusef, after a desperate three-week search for his missing brother, received a call from a government official. His brother was executed for engaging in “suspicious activities,” the official said over the phone, and summoned Yusef to retrieve the body. “You are very lucky. Most people never get a body,” he told Yusef, who was forced to thank him for the courtesy. But before Yusef could take the body home, he had to pay for the two bullets that were used to kill his brother. The official gave him a receipt for the payment.
“Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef,” Filkins writes. “They weren’t survivors as much as they were leftovers. The ruined by-products of terrible times.”
The U.S. invasion unleashed anarchy across Iraq, creating a climate of impunity that emboldened killers. In the first five years of the war, 900 suicide bombers ripped through Iraq. Thousands of car bombs where the driver exited before the explosion also maimed and killed an untold number. Add the mass kidnappings and execution-style killings by death squads to the mix, and you can understand why Filkins likens Iraq to an insane asylum.
“Some days I thought we had broken into a mental institution,” Filkins writes. “One of the old ones, from the nineteenth century, where people were dumped and forgotten. It was like we had pried the doors off and found all these people clutching themselves and burying their heads in the corners and sitting in their own filth. Murder and torture and sadism: it was part of Iraq. It was in people’s brains.”
The American soldiers who blasted open the doors of Iraq were sucked into this vortex of madness almost from the beginning. In the fall of 2003, just months after the invasion, the insurgency that would claim the lives of thousands of U.S. servicemen was already gathering steam in what became known as the Sunni Triangle. At the time, Filkins was following Nathan Sassaman, “the most impressive American field commander in Iraq” and the man responsible for keeping the peace in that restive swath north and west of Baghdad. The 40-year old colonel, who helped Iraqis form a city council and elect a mayor, believed so fervently in the American promise of bringing democracy to Iraq that he slept in his boots.
But the same man who engaged in nation building by day also led his soldiers on the night-time, house-to-house raids that would fan the hatred of American soldiers. Filkins tagged along for one such raid, where U.S. soldiers, rifles at the ready, stormed Iraqi homes, “pulling mattresses off bedframes and clothing from closets, throwing lamps and cushions onto the floor,” as they searched for guns and explosives. Three small girls, standing beside their mother, held their hands behind their heads, Filkins recalls. The Americans didn’t find any weapons, but they “were making enemies faster than they could kill them.”
Sassaman later narrowly escaped prison after U.S. investigators alleged he instructed his men to lie about the death of an unarmed Iraqi. The soldiers forced the man, who had violated a curfew, into a frigid Tigris River in a punishment they dubbed “getting people wet.” The Iraqi, who couldn’t swim, drowned.
“Sassaman himself sometimes seemed like two people, the visionary American officer setting up a city council, and the warrior who took too much joy in the brutalities of his job,” Filkins writes.
The mind-numbing brutality of the Iraq War is a theme Filkins reinforces throughout the book with striking vignettes. Surveying the wreckage caused by a suicide bomber who drove his car into a hotel, he spotted a “pair of feet, bloodless and green,” and an unfurled spinal cord on the sidewalk. Filkins is candid about his inability to shake these images, even after leaving the country. “Your dreams come alive, though, when you come home,” he writes. “Your days may die but your dreams explode. Not with any specific recollections; they were more the by-products of the raw material I carried back. Rarely anything I ever actually saw.”
That Iraq has changed Filkins comes across most powerfully when, now back in the U.S., he tells a fellow journalist how he’s unable to “have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.’’ For Filkins, the Iraq War remains all-encompassing. It will be with him forever.