Vol. LXII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins, spoke about his new book last Wednesday at Princeton University. The Forever War (Knopf) was published in September and is comprised of a series of stories from his experience as an embedded journalist in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I wanted to take people with me and show them what it feels like in these places,” Mr. Filkins said of his goals, adding, “I wanted to write a visceral book, an emotional book.”
Beginning his work in Afghanistan in 1998, Mr. Filkins described Kabul as a city in ruins the year he arrived. “By the time of 9/11, Afghanistan was a kind of imploded civilization,” he said. “Out of this came the Taliban, and back then they weren’t the sort of horrible, terrible people that they became. They were these kind of righteous country boys.”
Mr. Filkins’s lecture at McCosh 10 also featured a slideshow of photographs taken by James Hill and Ashley Gilbertson, who were Times photographers on assignment with him. The pictures evoked a kind of surreal paradox, with the beauty of the environment and people coupled with the obscene trauma of war.
The photographs illustrated his characterization of Afghanistan as “this gorgeous, amazing place, where the people are incredibly warm, but at the same time it’s a place of unbelievable suffering and cruelty.”
Pointing to a picture showing an Afghan couple in the foreground and an arid, mountainous landscape in the background Mr. Filkins said, “You see where the Americans are fighting. It’s like a war in the Grand Canyon.”
Interspersing his commentary with readings from The Forever War, Mr. Filkins recalled the the people he met, ranging from Northern Alliance boy soldiers who were the last remote holdouts against the Taliban, to US Army soldiers and Marines also embroiled in battle. His vivid account brought the audience close to both the individuals and the action he described.
Mr. Filkins rented a car in Kuwait City and drove to Baghdad to cover the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. Of the experience, he said, “It’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”
“We made it to Baghdad and back in a GMC Yukon, and almost got killed 50 times, and the car didn’t have a scratch on it. As we were handing the keys to the man, another car backed into us and took out the side mirror,” he said of returning the car in Kuwait.
Mr. Filkins also described a number of desperate situations, observing that “the Americans were never ready for the insurgency. It caught them flat-footed.”
“At the end of eight days in Fallujah, a quarter of the Marines we were embedded with were killed or wounded.” When he asked a 24-year-old Marine Sergeant what he was going to do next, the response was, “I have no orders,” Mr. Filkins somberly reported.
“If you’ve ever been to a car bombing, you know it’s just the end of the world,” Mr. Filkins declared, urging the audience to imagine 3,000 car bombs blasting through Baghdad over the course of five years and how that might affect life there.
Of present-day Iraq, Mr. Filkins said that “the surge has had a lot to do with the decrease in violence, which is down 80 to 90 percent.” This is largely due to “essentially putting the insurgency on the payroll,” he explained, adding that the US had “brokered a deal with the moderate insurgent groups” for $300 per person per month, with about 100,000 gunmen participating.
“The peace is extremely fragile and tenuous. It’s a house of cards, but it’s better than no house at all,” he said.
Responding to a question about journalism’s relationship to policy, Mr. Filkins said that his commitment is to reporting what is actually occurring on the ground. The quantity of hate mail his stories have received has decreased dramatically over the past few years, and of the change he says, “It took a long time, but I think the truth finally got through.”
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