Dexter Filkins is among fine war writers

Dexter Filkins is one of war writings modern marvels, a writer of tremendous gifts and the appropriate grit to go where others will not. His newspaper work has put him in a pantheon of fine war writers and his remarkable new book, "The Forever War," is a testament to why he belongs.

The author, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, has braved the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and crafted his experiences into a vivid living history of Islamic terrorism's rise in the late 1990s and America's fitful efforts to contain it on into the 2000s.

What sets "The Forever War" apart is its clarity. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced copious volumes of nonfiction from some of the best in their craft. Many of them are very good. Few, though, would flirt with the level of accessibility of Filkins' work.

This is the writer's greatest gift. He parts the gun smoke in a preternatural way. He seems to see things others simply do not - or fail to note. It's an ability that allows him to convey inelegant truths of war in crisp, never saccharine prose. The reader merely reaps the rewards.

In a gripping introduction, Filkins dives right into the Battle for Fallujah in Iraq. The scene is fully rendered. The Mohammadiya Mosque is "resplendent with its shot-up green dome." We see the "black eyes, pale skin and baggy gray suits" of Jihadis on the attack. Even the color the Jeep Cherokee - blue - that the insurgents disembark is noted to sharpen the visual.

The details culled in battle set the scene for a more quiet but much more potent scene pages later. Captain Omohundro, the leader of the unit in which Filkins' is embedded, has led his men across a hellacious gun fight and into a building about 100 yards from where they started. Omohundro looks out a window and calls for his radio man so he can contact his commander:

" I found Omohundro, who had planted himself on the second floor. Steady as a brick. He was standing next to the window, scanning the scene, and he raised his hand over his shoulder and asked for the radio. Snapped his fingers. ... 'Hudson, radio,' Omohundro said. 'Hudson, give me the radio,' he said again. He turned around. 'He's been shot sir,' someone said."

Filkins' eye is not just for the profound. He captures the incongruities and absurdities of war with a sociologist's eye. He sums up Afghans at one point this way: "In Afghanistan the brutality and the humor went hand in hand; the knife with the tender flesh. There seemed no collapse of their fortune in which the Afghans could not find some reason to laugh."

In Iraq, he intersperses history with scenes that would never find their way into the newspaper with unadorned humanity. Filkins spends some time explaining Jaff, an irascible Iraqi who worked with Filkins and other journalists in the country.

Filkins had told Jaff the story of once being called a "college boy" as an insult, a way to imply that he was a sissy, while on a summer job.

Jaff was always listening, Filkins writes. He found this out after Jaff recounted a night when he and some of his mates wandered into a sketchy Baghdad neighborhood for a late night kebab and were stopped by an American unit. They began to eye Jaff's New York Times issue satellite phone:

"'Hey let me see that,' one of the soldiers said. ... Jaff handed it over. 'You mind if I use this to call my mom?' the soldier asked in a cocky way. 'Forget it, college boy,' Jaff said, and all the soldiers burst out laughing at their comrade."

The importance of what Filkins captures here is inestimable. To those who've never seen it, war will probably always remain an abstract concept. The disconnect is even more pronounced, many believe, because of the asymmetrical nature of America's current War on Terror.

If no book can ever truly take you into the foxhole, Filkins' "War" takes you as close as you might be comfortable.

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