Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

A casual remark in a recent department meeting about whether a piece of writing was journalism or memoir made me realize I was holding to a strict distinction between the two that isn't at all true anymore (if it ever was). Because the piece contained quite a bit of personal stuff I was calling it memoir while my colleague (rightly, I think in hindsight) was calling it journalism because of all the non-personal stuff. The difference in genre didn't matter in the slightest for our purposes but it did remind me that most of my favorite books by journalists (Oracle Bones, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Orchid Thief...) are at least in part memoir. And Dexter Filkins has written a book that is being marketed as a journalistic account of the Iraq war, but which has definite memoirish qualities. There was no way for Filkins to pretend that he wasn't a part of the events depicted--in one case, his mission (obtaining a photograph to illustrate an article) results in the death of a soldier. So this isn't an objective historian's account. But it's probably all the better for it.

I've been interested in reading accounts of the Iraq war by soldiers and have looked at a few over the years, but in many cases the soldiers lack the ability to address their subjectivity. Their accounts are interesting because they experienced high stakes events that I otherwise feel very removed from. But their prejudices tend to go unaddressed. What Filkins is able to do very well is acknowledge his own subjectivity (his liking and admiration for the soldiers he is embedded with, his fear, his thrill-seeking desires, his growing cynicism and callousness as the war goes on and life in the country worsens) and how that subjectivity influences his thinking. So while the journalist's code used to be objectivity, maybe in a post-objective world, the next best option (or possibly the better option) is objectivity about your subjectivity. Or in non-invented-theory-language: awareness of your own position.

One of the remarkable things about the book is how long Filkins stayed in the Middle East. He starts out in pre-9/11 Afghanistan but gets booted from there, and then spends many years in Iraq. As a result he is able to depict the change from the hopeful and cooperative position of the Iraqis in the early days of the occupation to the growing resistance and frustration as the country's infrastructure gets worse rather than better and foreign insurgents are able to enter the country. You really feel like you're getting the whole story so far.

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