Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War is aptly titled for a memoir that narrates the waves of death that washed over Iraq and Afghanistan in this new century. Readers today might be surprised to learn that the book was published in 2006. Filkins worked as a conflict journalist for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times first in Afghanistan (from 1999 to 2003) and then in Iraq (from 2003 to 2005). The book is a masterly crafted man-on-the-scene account of what the words “civil war” actually mean.
Various words come to mind when I search for adjectives to describe the book, the events it describes, and the prose it describes it with: “harrowing,” “savage,” “beautiful,” and “deadening” are a few of them. Filkins does not provide any sort of sustained historical narrative in his book: his eye is always on the man right in front of him. But he does have a talent for showing how the isolated incidents he observes connects to the larger story. Take his account of the dynamics of warlord fighting in the Afghanistan of 2001:
People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.
Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.
One of the Afghan militia commanders with whom I traveled, Daoud Khan, was a master of this complicated game. He was portly and well dressed, and he ate very well. The Afghans spoke of him in reverent tones, but he didn’t seem like much of a warrior to me. He’d never fought for the Taliban himself, but thousands of his former soldiers were now in the Taliban ranks. Why kill them when he could just bring them back to his side? Khan captured his first city, Taloqan, without firing a single shot. He did it by persuading the local Taliban leader, a man named Abdullah Gard, to switch sides. Gard was no dummy; he could see the B-52s. I guessed that Khan had probably used a lot of money, but he never allowed me to sit in as he worked the Taliban chieftains on the radio. The day after Taloqan fell, I found Gard in an abandoned house, seated on a blue cushion on the floor, warming himself next to a wood-burning stove. His black Taliban turban was gone, and he had replaced it with a woolen Chitrali cap just like that of Ahmad Shah Massoud. “All along, I was spying on the Taliban,” Gard said, his eyes darting. No one believed him, but no one seemed to care.
On the first night of the long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, carried out at the urging of the Americans, the Alliance commanders bombarded the Taliban lines and then, as night fell, sent their men forward. Yet when I arrived the next morning, the Alliance soldiers stood more or less where they had the day before. They’d run, and then they’d run back. No one seemed surprised. “Advancing, retreating, advancing, that’s what you do in war,” Yusef, a twenty-year-old Alliance soldier, told me with a shrug. He was sitting in a foxhole. It wasn’t that the Afghans were afraid to fight, it was that they’d fought too much. And now, given the opportunity, they wanted to avoid it if they could.
“My dear, I am your brother, you know how much affection I have for you, there is really no point in resisting anymore,” Mohammad Uria, a Northern Alliance commander, said into his radio to a Taliban commander a few miles away. Of course, there were plenty of Taliban soldiers who wanted to fight forever. Fight to the death. They were the Pashtuns from Kandahar, for the most part, a different breed. “I’ve seen them run right into the minefields— they want to die,” Pir Mohammed said, shaking his head in awe. But where I was, in northern Afghanistan, many if not most of the Taliban soldiers weren’t from Kandahar, they were from the north— Tajiks and Uzbeks who’d switched sides when the fearsome Kandaharis rolled in. Now the northerners wanted to quit. The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners— that is, the Americans and Al-Qaeda. They came to kill.1
Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006), 50-54.
This passage stood out because I have written about the general issue it describes before. This was the central topic of my post “ISIS, the Mongols, and the Return of Ancient Challenges” and a secondary theme of my essay “Introducing Asabiyah.”
To restate my argument: Americans in particular and Westerners in general have an understanding of warfare that does not match the way most humans throughout human history–including the humans of the premodern West–experienced war. Americans come from a land of mass literacy and mass politics, a country where even the country rube has received a strong education in his duties, rights, and membership in the American nation. American soldiers go into battle as part of a rigid hierarchy with officers inserted deep into their ranks and receive elaborate training designed to instill in them both discipline and an overwhelming espirit de corps. They also are heirs to a political culture that has never seen a coup nor suffered from a serious military challenge to civilian leadership in its history. Because of all of this, one has trouble imagining a possible timeline where the Third Army abandons its posts to join the Wehrmacht, Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces devolve into a patchwork of hostile war-bands, or Ulysses Grant turns his guns on Washington and declares himself America’s new leader.
Yet most wars in most places for most of our civilized history were running catalogues of just these sorts of sordid happenings! The conquests of every Chinese conqueror right up to the Communists, the wars of Medieval Europe and the early Renaissance, the conflicts of ‘feudal’ Japan, most of the fighting and in-fighting seen on the Eurasian steppe, the squabbles of the Greek city states, the terrific civil wars of the Roman empire, and the greater part of Arab warring right up to the present day looked more like Filkin’s Afghanistan than the Western Front.
Solidarity is a social technology–on the battlefield, an extremely lethal one. In the pre-modern world, societies and leaders able to engineer their followers into loyal wholes often possessed an unbeatable advantage (see my post on the Mongols for more on this). But the advent of modern nationalism and the spread of professional military training has spread this technology about the world. The character of warfare over the last two centuries has been determined as much by the proliferation of this social technology as it has by the proliferation of actual weapons.
Like many advance weapons platforms, the social technology of solidarity degrades when not maintained. Thus the terrors of Filkins’ second war. The same dynamic he saw in the valleys of Afghanistan played themselves out in the alleys of Baghdad:
As the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Americans unfolded in the days before the truce, the Iraqi residents of Najaf, caught in the grip of Muqtada’s militia, had professed in near unison their undying love for the young rebel. Every souvenir shop and every pilgrim hotel carried photos and posters of Muqtada on their walls. It was uncanny. And within hours of the Mahdi Army’s evacuation of the shrine, Muqtada suddenly became a pariah to every Iraqi I could find.
“Muqtada and those people around him, they know nothing,” said a cleric who had studied under Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. We were a block from the shrine. “Muqtada, he just sat on his father’s computer. He is not an educated man.” With that, the cleric began to tell me how Mahdi Army fighters had threatened him during the tense times of the previous three months. The cleric produced a small handwritten letter. “Some clerics sell their consciences to Jews and foreigners,” the letter said. “If you are not careful, you will be killed.” “Tell the truth about Muqtada,” the cleric said to me, and then he walked away.2
In the ’80s, Iraqis fought and died by the hundreds of thousands in real trenches. It took an entire totalitarian machine to keep them in that fight. When that machine fell apart in the years that followed, so did the social technology it maintained. The tragedies that Filkins narrates were the consequence of its loss.