My city is cold, rainy, and covered in fog, and I think I love it even more for that. Except for the bit where my umbrella broke this morning.
I started Dexter Filkin’s remarkable book The Forever War a couple days ago and haven’t been able to put it down; it’s incredibly gripping, and his writing style shows far more than tells, and the showing speaks volumes. I’m about a hundred pages out from the end, but there are a couple passages that really stood out to me.
Page 35, Afghanistan 1998:
Dissent was best expressed in cars. Cars were among the few places you could feel safe talking to people. “Educated people don’t fight,” Humayun Himatyar, a shopkeeper in Kandahar, said from the driver’s seat of his parked car. he was looking straight ahead. I was in the back. “That’s why there are no schools. If you’re educated, you won’t fight. All the Taliban wants is war.” He wasn’t doing badly, he said, clearing a dollar a day. It was much worse before. Seven militias had controlled different parts of the city. “They put a tax on everything–meat, milk, bread. Even for parking your scooter they charged a tax. If you resisted, they beat you. Now the militias are gone, and if you go out at midnight, you will have no fear.”
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 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 underway. On Tuesday, you might be part of 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.
Page 80-81, Iraq 2003 onward:
Wijdan al-Khuzai’s cell phone would ring and a sinister voice would promise her a terrible end. Drop your campaign for the national assembly, the voice would tell her, or you are going to end up like the others. “Terrorist,” Khuzai would say as she snapped her cell phone shut. Sometimes as she drove around Baghdad to campaign for votes, Khuzai would glance into the rear mirror and notice a car trailing behind.
And then she would get on with her campaign. It was the winter of 2004 and hope was still thriving, even in the ruins. The first election for the new National Assembly was only a month away. There was a new secular constitution and a quarter of the seats were being set aside for women.
Khuzai, forty-seven, belonged to the Independent Progressive Movement, one of the many parties with earnest-sounding names that had come together as the elections approached. She was one of those people found in dreadful countries the world over, fearless and determined and unwilling, for reasons always unclear, to make the same calculations of personal safety as everyone else.
…Khuzai returned to Baghdad and, like many Iraqis, took up the promise of liberation. She wasn’t along, 7,471 Iraqis signed up to run for the 275 seats in the new parliament. Not many of them, though, were brave enough to campaign openly, like Khuzai, or to travel without armed guards. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was up against. “These people,” she told her family, “I am their worst enemy.”
An American patrol found her body on Christmas Eve 2004, on the road to Baghdad International Airport.
He was the chief, Major Ali Shamad…[he] sighed, in the weary manner of someone tired of having to explain his civilization to the unknowing. “The thing you need to understand,” the major said, “is that people on both sides of the border are related. Syrians and Iraqis–same thing.” They belonged to the same tribe, smuggled the same goods, grazed their sheep on both sides. No one had ever stopped them from doing that before. “Why don’t the Americans understand these things?”
I very much recommend it. Maybe a couple more passages as I near the end; about 2/3 of the book is about post-invasion Iraq, and the first third is about pre-invasion Afghanistan, in the ’90s around the time of the Taliban ascendancy. Filkins’ profile of Stanley McChrystal’s Long War is also excellent.
[Image by Matt Cook, via the BBC. Link takes you to a presentation of his work.]