The cost of a 'forever war'

Numbers have defined milestones in the Iraq war: More than 4,000 American troops killed; 94,000 Iraqi civilians dead; 4.2 million Iraqis displaced; a $1 trillion price tag. Though these numbers are important, in "The Forever War," Dexter Filkins -- through gut-wrenching and touching vignettes -- repeatedly illustrates their limits and reveals the human side of war.

Filkins' stories are those of a writer willing to endure hardship, danger and anguish to paint an accurate picture of war for the American public. In Iraq, the pursuit of a story can cost a journalist his or her life -- a fate that Filkins, a reporter for The New York Times, and others have tempted each day outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. As I read this book, I could not help but contrast his courageous, at times even foolhardy, journalism with the reportage by those restricted to the Green Zone or spoon-fed information by the Defense Department's powerful public relations machine. No doubt such commentators take some risks, but Filkins' experience is of an entirely different magnitude.

His prose is as blunt as it is powerful. Iraqis, and Afghanis, have spoken for themselves, and Filkins has listened carefully.

He observes that in the Green Zone, it is not just blast walls and checkpoints that bind trailers, buildings and personnel together. There is also a continuing conversation, detailing the ebbs and flows of the insurgency, American progress, the stability of the Iraqi government and the readiness of Iraqi Security Forces.

And beyond the Green Zone there is another conversation, he writes, the Iraqi conversation, the one that really matters: "a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it." This conversation is Filkins' focus.

Recalling Iraq before civil war engulfs it, he writes of the lies Americans told themselves: "They believed them because it was convenient -- and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about."

The near-complete American failure to understand Iraq is still evident 5 years into the war. I have seen firsthand the dearth of Arabic speakers in the U.S. embassy. Still, the concrete implications of cultural ignorance pack a subtle, yet powerful punch. Filkins describes the Tigris River Park, a $1.5 million American project in Baghdad. An effort of misplaced good will, the new park deprived Iraqis of several favored soccer fields in favor of a "curvy, S-shaped sidewalk." It is a small incident -- no explosions or casualties -- but it speaks volumes.

This is not, however, a book about finger-pointing. Nor is it about policy failures or prescriptions. The author portrays and sympathizes with the men and women facing impossible challenges in Iraq.

A pamphlet discovered in Ramadi in May 2005 lists 105 insurgent groups that have claimed responsibility for attacks. American soldiers must greet Iraqis at times with smiles and at other times with the barrel of a gun, perhaps without knowing which is appropriate until it is too late.

A lieutenant colonel grapples with balancing what he was trained to do -- fight -- and what he has been ordered to do: rebuild. "Sometimes, I wish there were more people who knew more about nation-building," the colonel admits in a stinging indictment of our institutional preparedness for the Iraq war and for nation-building in general.

Later, a pair of soldiers under his command go to prison for pushing two Iraqis into the Tigris River, one of whom drowned. Another American who refused orders to join them later reflects on his tour in Iraq, saying that "the gray area in the middle" is where the grimmer business of war occurs. That dissenter is serving a two-year prison sentence for robbing a Comfort Inn in Ohio after leaving the military.

Filkins wonders, as too few Americans have, about "not only what the Americans were doing to Iraq, but what Iraq was doing to the Americans." As more brave men and women return home and face formidable challenges adjusting to civilian life, this is a question all Americans are duty bound to consider.