Dexter Filkins' The Forever War (Knopf) is among the very best book on the Iran and Iraq wars this year--its style elegiac, its reporting mercilessly objective and observant, its effect visceral: you churn along with the tales and leave off every page wondering how, knowing what Filkins was witnessing, the men in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan managed to turn prideful blindness into a virtue.
I'll have occasions to write about Filkins again, but I wanted to highlight one passage, early in the book, that illustrates the way he sees things and the way he writes. It's the morning of 9/11. He's just made it into Manhattan. No one has really begun to understand what just took place, except, and ironically--and this is Filkins' insurgent eye at work--the Arabs, the Middle Easterners, the South Asians to whom violence of the sort is the one thing, in southern Manhattan, that isn't foreign to them: Walking in, watching the flames shoot upward, the first thing I thought was that I was back in the Third World. My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened every day: earthquakes, famines, plagues. In Orissa, on the eastern coast of India, after the cyclone, the dead were piled up so high and for so long that the dogs couldn't eat any more; they just lay about waiting for their appetites to come back. Lazily looking at one another. Fifteen thousand dead in that one. Seventeen thousand died in the earthquake in Turkey. In Afghanistan, in the earthquake there, four thousand. This was mass murder, that was clear, it was an act of evil. Though I'd seen that, too: the forty thousand dead in Kabul. I don't think I was the only person thinking this, who had the darker perspective. All those street vendors who worked near the World Trade Center, from all those different countries, selling falafel and shwarma. When they heard the planes and watched the towers they must have thought the same as I did: that they'd come home.The double-meaning in that last line is devastating in aim and accuracy, though those who spoke it, less subtly (like Susan Sontag) immediately after the attacks were reviled and declared unfit to read. The first reflex against blowback is denial.