A bleak litany of war’s savage absurdity in Afghanistan and Iraq by accomplished New York Times correspondent Filkins.
His dispatches from the front lines begin in September 1998, when he stealthily moved among the Taliban in Kabul and observed their murderous rule by fear, and continue through nearly four years of shadowing American maneuvers in Iraq, from “liberation” to anarchy. Filkins writes with candor and clarity of the brutality he witnessed, such as the execution of a criminal in a Kabul soccer field crowded with spectators. He imbues his narrative with galvanizing snapshots of Afghanistan’s dramatic contrasts: An interview with Taliban’s minister for the promotion of virtue, cheerfully describing the punishments doled out to women who fail to cover themselves, is followed by a woman’s bitter whisper through the vent of her imprisoning burqa, “This is like a death.” While he found that the Taliban waged war “like a game of pickup basketball” (constantly shifting sides and bargaining) and judged the typical fighter “dumb as a brick,” Filkins was genuinely moved by the generosity of the Afghan people. Baghdad seemed to him like “a mental institution. One of the old ones, from the 19th century, where societies used to dump people and forget about them.” The author records how the general euphoria over Saddam’s fall gradually turned to disillusionment and lust for revenge. He toured Saddam’s palace right before the Marines arrived; visited the family of the female politician Wijdan al-Khuzai, slain while campaigning for Iraq’s first free elections; talked to scores of the maimed and bombing victims; trailed American field commander Nathan Sassaman and influential returned Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. Filkins also joined a company of 150 Marines as they penetrated Fallujah and took it back from the jihadis. Nonetheless, in his judgment, looters, suicide bombers and kidnappers gained ascendancy, civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis accelerated and the country was lost.
Sharing his deeply humbling, transforming journey, the author tempers numbing details of slaughter and carnage with affecting human stories.