A journalistic work by acclaimed foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, The Forever War is not quite aptly titled, in retrospect, but it does reveal the general understanding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as of 2008, when the book was published. Setting aside hindsight, at a time when combat operations have ceased in Iraq and negotiation prevails in Afghanistan, credit must be given to Filkins, who for many years served the New York Times in war zones and later became a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Though Filkins does not acknowledge it explicitly, his book is a tale of two vastly different conflicts with only superficial connecting threads. His story begins not with the terrorist attacks of 2001 or the American invasion of Iraq, but with a public execution in Kabul, in 1998. From the outset, the reader is led to depose a moral judgement against the Taliban regime; its removal is justified. In fact Filkins depicts the Taliban as pre-modern, not by virtue of isolation, but by choice. Nothing, forty years ago, could have incited the presumption that the pace of social and economic change in Afghanisation would be slowed, stopped, and eventually reversed. Filkins’ portrayal of life under the Taliban, then, is a shot at the sense of inevitability that accompanies such potent forces as globalisation and secularisation. So much of what occurs in the world is still the result of local fears, concerns, and customs.
The same sense comes across the author’s treatment of Iraq, which constitutes the bulk of his work, but without the hushed condemnation of that country’s culture or political leaders. Here all is more nuanced, which speaks well of Filkins’ ability to report objectively and with an ear for differing angles. The journalist relates conversations with American troops, the culture of Marine Corps units in which he is imbedded, and the experience of urban warfare. He also gives a voice to Iraqis and foreign nationals, so that while there is little to no distance between the journalist and his subject matter, there is a balance in perspectives.
Reader beware! The content is gory, and provides no underlying feel-good story. As with news reporting in general, one must place the supreme value on, and take comfort in, truth, and though it is at times dispiriting, no doubt there is a very heavy but edifying dose of it in this work.
Those who prefer fiction will find greater satisfaction in a different kind of thrilling experience from remote areas, as in C. J. Box’s Back of Beyond and Rose Tremain’s Trespass, both recent library acquisitions. Box casts Cody Hoyt, a detective who, in the wilds of Montana, must investigate the murder of a friend, as the centre of an unravelling narrative that soon threatens Hoyt’s son and other wilderness enthusiasts. This “deadly cat-and-mouse game” becomes even more threatening – and cause for frustration – as other members of Hoyt’s family are involved. The novel has been the object of high praise by critics. A thriller of a very different sort, Trespass alternately follows several sets of characters in an isolated region of France, all in unfulfilling relationships, all testing the boundaries of affection amidst larger, troubling events.
Tremain writes directly, but never sacrifices the quality of her writing; deftly, she mobilises language in the interest of the plot and in so doing enriches both.
In keeping with the theme, children may be inspired by Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales, a collection of over thirty traditional stories for nearly every region of the rising continent. Each has its own author and illustrator and communicates some of the foundational wisdom and values of African peoples. “The Hare’s Revenge,” for instance, explains how the buffalo was willing to take advantage of the hare under the pretence of friendship. Trusting neither the buffalo nor his friend the lion, the hare set out to teach both a stinging lesson by way of a sealed hut and some well-placed bees. By the time the two larger beasts had recovered – and had perhaps understood that one ought not to abuse others’ trust – the little creature was long gone. The cleverness of the small, the hare seems to say, must prevail against injustice perpetrated by the mighty.
– Patrick Lacroix, August 17, 2012