Writerland, Chapter 3: Dexter Filkins’s Forever War

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

I got to know Dexter Filkins when he was a war correspondent and it did not take long to see the toll the wars -- Afghanistan and then Iraq -- had taken on him. Dexter was reporting for the New York Times where he worked for my wife, who was the paper’s Foreign Editor. We’d have Dexter over for dinner whenever he was in New York, during his periodic "outs", breaks my wife had to press him to take from the relentless story.

It was clear that the war had Dexter in its grip, as it did so many other correspondents. And it was only after years of chronicling a war where the front was Baghdad, the city where he lived, that he finally knew it was time to get out. With a Nieman and a book contract, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is where I met him for dinner one night. I had seen Dexter haunted and I had seen Dexter drained but I had never seen him so anxious as he was that night. It was not the war that was eating at him. It was the story he was trying to tell about what he had seen.

He’d been sending us pages and pages to read, never numbered, which while maddening also came with a perverse logic: he was spilling and it was not clear where he was going. And that, combined with the memories of what he had witnessed, seemed close to tormenting him.

We ate and talked and I remember asking something along the lines of, “Who are you writing this book for?” I don’t recall his answer, which in hindsight makes sense. Dexter was not going to think, let alone admit, that he was writing this book for himself.

He finished the book, “The Forever War,” and it went on to win the National Book Critics Award. He also won a Pulitzer for his reporting. He eventually left the Times for The New Yorker, where he writes about the places he once covered, but no longer, mercifully, from the battlefield.

I recently wrote to Dexter to ask about that book, and the need, painful as it was, to write it. He replied, “People often ask me whether I suffer from post-traumatic stress, or if I am a nut, or whatever, given the various things I have seen and experienced. And I usually give them the same answer, which is no, and the reason is because I write.”

He continued. “Writing orders my mind. It helps me make sense of the world, even when--especially when--the world is unjust and cruel. It puts a scaffolding on the universe, and helps me to locate myself in it. Writing isn't anything more than super-distilled thinking. That's why it's so hard. I can't think unless I am writing

“I saw enough insanity to last a hundred lifetimes. And to whatever extent I'm not insane myself, it's because I've made all those things about as clear in my mind as they can be--which is a lot more clear than they would be if all that crap was just rattling around in my head on its own. I can't imagine say, being a soldier, who saw and did all the things I did not and not writing about any of them. Then I'd be a nutcase.”

Dexter took risks. There is a scene early on in the book when he is in Falluja, embedded with a Marine unit. The terror – theirs and his -- is palpable: “The wind from the bullets brushed my neck. Marines were writhing in the street, tangles of blood and legs…I kept running, pumping, flying as fast as I could with my seventy pounds of gear when I saw a pair of Marines standing in a doorway waving to me come on, come on. I ran straight for them and I could see by the looks on their faces they weren’t sure I was going to make it.”

It was one thing chronicling the war for a newspaper, where convention dictated a great deal about how stories could be told. It was quite another, he discovered in Cambridge, to tell it in a book, where he could write his story, his way. Journalists are discouraged from writing in the first person; we are not the story. We are trained to look outward, to observe, to ask and to chronicle. We can react, of course, but we are expected to keep that to ourselves.

Dexter’s career had taken him from covering the Dade County Commission for the Miami Herald, to being posted to New Delhi for the Los Angeles Times and then covering the Bronx for the Times before 9/11 hurtled him into first one war, and then another.

Finally, in Cambridge he could stop and look back, through his notes and his memories. And when his book was done an editor friend who’d gotten the galleys called and, struck by what he had read, asked, “Why wasn’t I reading this in the Times?”

I reminded him that he too had been a foreign correspondent and surely recalled the limits of what he could say, and how he could say it.

“The Forever War,” Dexter wrote to me, “It's about me, but it's also not. Writing in the first person is tricky, and there are lots of ways to do it. In my case, I didn't set out to write a book about myself. (God help me.) After nine years of touring battlefields, I was carrying around a ton of memories, some of which were so weird and so moving that I wanted to share them. But, the more I thought about them--the more I wrote--the more I realized that many of the events and people I was recalling were memorable because of what they had done to me--because of how they'd changed me.”


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