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Q&A: DEXTER FILKINS

Highlights from The DC Issue

Photography by Ashley Gilbertson

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Monday, November 10, 2008


The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


REPORTING HISTORY: DEXTER FILKINS

By Louis Abelman

While much of the press, and most of the government, rubber-stamped George W. Bush’s wars, Dexter Filkins, as a correspondent for the New York Times, reported on the reach of the regime’s power and documented the form it took: soccer fields littered with shrapnel, a torrent of lost limbs, families and societies torn asunder. The Forever War, his first book, reflects on and reckons with his time as a journalist in Afghanistan and, starting in 2003, Iraq.

Stop Smiling: The opening pages of the book are searing and immediate: As insurgents call for jihad from minaret loudspeakers across Fallujah, the Marines you’re following set up enormous amplifiers and begin blasting AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” an anthem to Satan. Did you actually jot that down in your notebook, or did the parallel come to you in memory?

Dexter Filkins: The old saw is correct: War is seven parts boredom and one part terror. I took very good notes in Fallujah, usually during the lulls between fighting. But that episode was surreal: The machine-gun fire was unremitting, buildings were exploding and “Allahu Akbar!” was streaming from the minarets. The AC/DC song was playing on the loudspeakers, which must have been 12 feet high — the kind they use at rock concerts — and were only 50 yards behind us.

But you raise an important question. After I left Iraq, I reinterviewed some of the principal characters to make sure my recollections were correct. I tracked down Bravo Company’s translator to verify my recollection of what was being said on the mosque loudspeakers. But let me say this: I could have written that whole first chapter without a single page of notes. Some things you don’t forget.

SS: Ashley Gilbertson, an Australian photographer you worked with closely and who figures prominently in the book, took this picture of you [see above] during the assault on Fallujah. What were you thinking at the time?

DF: We were inside a building somewhere, and there was a lull in the fighting, and the officers were planning the next phase of their attack. In front of me was a map of the city spread out across the floor. Bravo Company’s commander was using his enormous K-bar knife to point out the places on the map where we were going to go. At that point, I guess I was in some sort of trance. A lot of guys had been killed already. We hadn’t slept in a long time. The fighting was just endless. Fallujah, it’s kind of hard to describe — I went through a lot in Iraq, but nothing like that.

SS: You’ve been witness to a relentless procession of horrors in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book you describe becoming numb to it all, and at times being disgusted with your position as a journalist covering it. Yet you also stayed in Baghdad longer than most — certainly longer than anyone had any right to expect. What kept you there?

DF: I stayed on for several reasons. The Iraq war is epic, dramatic, tragic and important. It is a rare thing to see history unfold before your eyes, and that’s quite thrilling, whatever else it is. It’s a drug. There was some self-aggrandizement, of course. I loved being on the front page every day, and believing I was doing something important. Iraq is an enormously complicated story, one that requires nuance to get right, and as the months wore on I felt like I knew it as well as anyone else. The question, for me, was when would I finally burn out?

Perhaps I was punishing myself, but not in the way you might think. As difficult as Iraq was, it was even more difficult to leave. People were dying, a whole society was imploding. Two months in Iraq and I was just a wreck. Everyone was. Sometimes I felt ambivalent about what I was doing because for me, at the end of the day, Iraq and Afghanistan were just stories. At the end of the day, I could have a beer smuggled overland from Jordan, kept cold by a refrigerator powered by a generator that was brought at great expense from the UK and kept running by black-market gasoline. People died, and I went home and had a beer. Intellectually, though, I don’t buy that. I believe in journalism. We need to go to these places and listen to people and hear their stories and share them with the rest of the world. I believe that to my core. It’s just that emotionally, sometimes, in a war, it’s easy to feel otherwise.

But when I’d leave Iraq and land in the US, the dichotomy was almost unbearable, particularly in a place like Manhattan, where most people have no personal connection to the war. Iraq, Afghanistan — they’re just abstractions, things to talk about, like last night’s ballgame. In that sense, going back to Iraq was a relief: It’s a place where real people were doing real things, living and striving and fighting and dying.

I’ll go back again, but I’m not sure for how much longer. I used to be interested in many things: football, Russia, literature, birds. My focus has narrowed. War does that, I think.

SS: If each of those hundreds of bylines from Afghanistan and Iraq were sallies to pin down the meaning of these wars as they churned around you, has the time you’ve spent away from the carnage helped you sort it out?

DF: Journalism is a rough draft of history. It’s important, it’s absolutely vital, but it’s very “of the moment.” There is no time for anything; you’re just running and writing all the time. So the book was a kind of liberation. There’s a scene in it where this Army captain tells me a story about how his unit was carrying out searches of Iraqi villages. There was a blonde woman in his company, and when his guys rolled into a hostile Iraqi town they would put her on top of an armored personnel carrier and take her helmet off and let her blonde hair spill out. There isn’t a lot of blonde hair in Iraq, and all the men would come out to see her. Then the soldiers would conduct an auction — “This woman is for sale!” — and the Iraqis would go crazy, offering money and cars and whatever. It was a fake auction, of course, but as it happened the captain’s men would search the Iraqi homes for guns. There isn’t a lot of room in a newspaper story for that. In a book, there is.


For more on Issue 37: The DC Issue, click here

 

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