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In the screen adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, about a crack sniper unit deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991, marines at movie night joyously sing along with the “Ride of the Valkyries” soundtrack as they watch napalm-bearing helicopters swoop down over rice paddies in Apocalypse Now. “There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar,” writes Swofford in the greatly superior book, but “filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” Killing is what the snipers have shed sweat and tears to do, and they do not want to be cheated of the opportunity. HBO’s summer offering about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Generation Kill, features young marines with similarly itchy trigger fingers.
For most soldiers–and Swofford is open about the fact that he saw very little combat–the frisson of drawing blood, naturally, does not last. In The Forever War, Dexter Filkins finds Capt. Sal Aguilar gazing upon a field strewn with dead Iraqi soldiers who had vainly resisted the initial US drive to Baghdad. “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait for the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again,” Aguilar says. Filkins’s first encounters with gore make it clear that he concurs.
The Forever War is no ordinary reporter’s book. Filkins, who was in Iraq for the New York Times from 2003 to 2006 and previously in Afghanistan for several years, has comprehensively recast the events that he wrote about in the newspaper–as well as chronicling some personal experiences that haven’t seen print before–to better convey what it was like to be there. The chapters are discrete vignettes organized in only loose chronological order. For this unconventional format, and for its literary merit, The Forever War has been compared–and not at all outrageously–to Michael Herr’s Dispatches.
Filkins evokes the terror and terrible thrill of battle better than any of his colleagues who have so numerously crammed their notebooks between hard covers. Not only does he display a reporter’s sharp eye for detail, both grisly and mundane; he captures the sights and sounds of combat with considerable skill, in spare but powerful prose. His account of the November 2004 US assault on Falluja, wherein militants’ shouts of “God is great!” are drowned out by AC/DC singer Brian Johnson’s screech of “Satan get ya!” from the marines’ massive loudspeakers, is unforgettable for its craft. Equally fluid and affecting is his narration of an episode days later, when he and his photographer Ashley Gilbertson, looking for a good camera angle, are escorted up the stairs of a Falluja minaret by Lance Cpl. William Miller, only for Miller to be shot dead by a waiting fighter. “That’s what happens in war,” philosophizes the platoon sergeant, seeing Filkins and Gilbertson’s grief. “Yeah, it was your fault,” Miller’s lieutenant tells the journalists later.