When I was in J-school at NYU, I took a profile writing class. The final assignment in the class, which was awesome and was taught by the singular Meryl Gordon, was to write a magazine-length profile story. I chose Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Dexter Filkins. Filkins, who at that point had been writing for the New York Times but now writes for the New Yorker, had spent many years in Iraq, covering the war for the Times. But the war and being so far from home took its toll on Filkins, and I found that compelling. I wrote the story, got an A in the class and shopped the article around to lots of magazines. But no one bought the piece. However, an editor at New York Magazine wrote this to me, "
By Chad Smith
DEXTER FILKINS IS trying to narrow the distance between two worlds.
In one world, he’s in Falluja with the marines battling for the city — bombs exploding, machine guns roaring, commanders barking orders, “Move!”
In the other world — the one he’s actually in at the moment — the world of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Filkins stands in front of a rapt audience. It’s early autumn and the New York Times foreign correspondent is here at the Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue to read from his new book, The Forever War, an on-the-ground account of his last 10 years reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Like most of the book’s passages, the one Filkins chooses tonight is gripping and honest. And suddenly at the Harvard Bookstore, the remote starts to feel too immediate.
“Gunfire rang out and we scrambled for the walls on the side of the street,” Filkins reads, as he looks out on a room packed tightly with serious-faced college students in crimson and professors in tweed. “The insurgents knew what they were doing; they were bracketing us with their shells, dropping them from left to right. They were falling now, exploding in titanic crashes, more closely this time. I’d seen mortars in the movies and even in Iraq but never this close and never so big. Their booms were crushing, and I imagined the shards of metal flying away from each shell. I felt sure we were going to die if we didn’t move, and I felt sure we would die if we did.”
At forty-seven, Dexter Filkins just may be one of the bravest — or craziest — men in journalism. As a leading Times correspondent in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, Filkins earned a reputation for his willingness to push physical, personal and logistical boundaries to near breaking points, if that’s what got the story. Best known for his dispatches from the blood-stained battle of Falluja in 2004, Filkins has extensively reported on the Muslim world and the war on terror, registering scores of major scoops for his newspaper. But it’s come with a price: Filkins’ personal life and emotional health haven’t gone unscathed. In some instances, his bold actions in the field have terrified colleagues, and in one case, the push to get the story resulted in a death. Still, many say, Filkins has gone to these lengths because that’s what it took to get the full picture to the readers back home.
A few weeks after the reading in Cambridge — a college town Filkins called the “quietest place on earth,” which may not be bad considering he wrote his book there on a fellowship in late ’06 — Filkins is in Manhattan. He’s agreed to stop for some coffee before heading to his newspaper’s headquarters in Midtown to learn what his next assignment will be.
Right on time and wearing his signature attire, black blazer, collared shirt (no tie) and khakis, Filkins is holding several Iraqi political posters rolled up under his arm, which he wants framed.
The Forever War has received across-the-board critical praise for its scope, its humanistic insights and the proximity with which it was written to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book, Filkins describes everything from the bathroom habits of 6,000 marines, to the jihadi death threats his colleagues received, to the skyward eyes of a mortally wounded American soldier. Filkins is pleased with the reception, he says, but admits that the readings have left him tired.
“It’s draining and it’s exhausting and the war is a difficult thing to look back on because I keep finding myself in the middle of it, reliving it.”
Filkins, whose wispy, honey-brown hair is a bit more unkempt today than usual and whose grey circled eyes weigh down his otherwise boyish good looks, says that in each of the 17 cities to which he’s traveled for the book tour, he’s worked from the minute he’s landed to the minute he leaves — reading, signing, holding discussions, talking on radio shows and TV news programs. “It’s just a lot."
Certainly, this chink in the armor, the fatigue, wasn’t there six years ago when Dexter drove into Iraq alone in a rented car from Kuwait: The U.S. was invading and Filkins believed the best way to get closest to the story was by riding behind the tanks and sleeping in the desert.
But that was then. That was before the three and a half years of waking up day after day to car bombing after car bombing. Before nearly having his limbs torn off by an angry mob. Before the warm blood of a fatally shot marine splattered on his face.
Even so, there won’t be time to rest. Later, after the coffee, Filkins will visit the Times and learn that his editors have no intention of easing up on him. They’ve chosen the location for his next assignment, and it’s no safe place.
FOR THE PAST 11 years, it’s been this type of rhythm — a rhythm of departure and return, risk and relief, war and peace — that has come to define Dexter Filkins’ life. It began in 1997 when Filkins was working for the L.A. Times as a general assignment and political reporter. At the time, tension was flaring between Pakistan and India over nuclear weapons. Filkins happened to have a master’s in international relations, and the L.A. Times decided to take a chance on him, sending Filkins to head the paper’s bureau in New Delhi. The post would eventually lead to his foray into Pakistan and Afghanistan for stories.
Filkins would be one of the first to report on the Taliban. The extremist group even invited him in 1998 as a western journalist to watch an execution of a criminal in a Kabul sports stadium. Eventually, the Taliban expelled Filkins from Afghanistan after he started filing stories about its increasing brutality. Filkins’ reporting from the region would make him a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. It would also catch the eye of the New York Times. In fall 2000, the grey lady recruited Dexter and brought him to New York. But he wouldn’t be staying in the city for long.
“I was in the New York Times newsroom one day and 9/11 had already happened, and it was one of those things where the foreign editor was walking by me and we started talking, and he was like, ‘Wait, you’ve been to Afghanistan, right?’ and I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ They pretty much sent me on the next plane over.”
By the winter of 2001, American forces had attacked Afghanistan in retaliation for September 11, driving the Taliban, said to be harboring Osama bin Laden, from power. Filkins, now back in Afghanistan after the American military’s intervention, said he was inspired by the Afghan people’s reaction. With the Taliban gone, most were rejoicing.
So as Dexter drove that rented car from Kuwait into Iraq during the American led invasion — he had volunteered to go and report — he thought the Iraqis would have a similar response.
“I had to drop that notion pretty quickly….I had no idea what I was getting into, but nobody really — well, nobody did.” Filkins was entering a world that would consume him for the next three and a half years.
IN EARLY 2003, the New York Times, much like the other media outlets that had descended on Iraq after the invasion, was trying to find the best and most efficient way to report from a war zone whose journalistic parameters were still taking form.
Initially, reporters filed their stories from hotels, as they had in previous wars. But this war was different. In this war, reporters were no longer considered neutral; they were considered instruments of their states and thus targets. After a series of bombings rocked several downtown hotels, the Times rented a compound near the Tigris River and moved its reporters there.
Though this compound, known as the Baghdad bureau — it was where the reporters worked and slept — sat right across the river from the American Green Zone, the compound, militarily speaking, was in the Red Zone, the unknown and danger zone. As time progressed in Iraq, the difference in terminology would become clearer.
“One time a bomb sent part of a radiator from a cement truck crashing down 30 yards from where Dexter and the rest of us did our writing,” said John Burns, a senior New York Times foreign correspondent who became Baghdad bureau chief in 2004.
Meanwhile, it seemed to some that living in this kind of chaotic, stress-filled environment only stirred Filkins into working harder and at a more frenetic clip.
“What struck me about Dex,” said photographer Ashley Gilbertson, who first met Filkins at the Baghdad bureau in early 2003, “was he always had something happening. He’d be working at the most feverish pace on one story, exhaustively reporting it, and at the same time, he’d be researching and talking to people for a dozen other stories.” Gilbertson, who’d been working around Kuwait during the U.S. invasion, said he’d never seen anything like it. “Dexter was intense and came across more single minded than any other reporter I’d met. I think that came across as manic initially — I thought he was crazy."
A year later, Filkins and Gilbertson, a tall Australian who was 25 at the time of their meeting, would team up to cover the battle of Falluja. There they’d be bound by a personal tragedy.
BY THE TIME John Burns, a puffy haired, sharply eloquent Englishman officially began running the bureau in 2004, the Times in Baghdad had found its groove. It had hired a half-dozen translators and about 18 Iraqi “string” reporters. These string reporters, scattered across the country’s various provinces, would relay news as it broke to their American colleagues in Baghdad. The New York Times even hired a cook as well as several Iraqi drivers who were well acquainted with the country’s main streets, back roads and alleyways. Several of these Iraqi employees were armed, which would prove crucial.
As 2004 progressed, the violence in Iraq was skyrocketing, all hints of a civilized society were dissolving, and Al Qaeda fighters were streaming in through Syria. But Dexter Filkins still ventured from the Times’ compound — which by then had become well fortified with 25-ft blast walls and razor wire — so often that, between 2003 and late 2006, his tenure in Iraq, Filkins’ byline appeared on the front page of the New York Times 162 times.
During his time in the country, Dexter Filkins talked to hundreds of bereaved victims of violence; he interviewed insurgents, walked the halls of Saddam’s former torture chambers, watched a thousand men bow in unison at daily prayer, and mingled with throngs of people celebrating in Baghdad after the country’s first free elections. He sped through the desert in a convoy with Ahmad Chalabi and his 100 armed guards. He reported from Mosul in the north, where American soldiers were often ambushed; from Najaf in the south, where politicians strove to reach accord with insurgents; from Ramadi in the center — in the Triangle of Death — where a lone battalion of marines hunkered down for weeks in claustrophobic quarters, determined to hold the city.
“Dexter was matchless,” said Burns, who already had over 30 years’ experience as a correspondent for the Times and had reported from several war zones before assuming the position in Baghdad. Filkins says he was driven unmercifully simply by a desire to understand every part of the story.
“The whole time in Iraq, I was just trying to figure things out. That was my passion. But the story was so insanely complex that even if I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. When I’d finally unlock one door, I’d find there were a hundred other smaller doors behind it. I had to keep going.”
One of the few who knew just how determinedly Filkins worked in Iraq was Warzer Jaff, his translator and right-hand-man for over three years. On a lavender-skied rainy afternoon in Manhattan recently, Jaff, who now lives in New York City, sat down in an Upper West Side diner and talked about the time the two shared in Iraq and Filkins’ level of dedication when it came to journalism in that country.
“Sometimes we’d go out to these places that were so dangerous doing one interview could get you killed,” said Jaff, a fit 38-year-old, originally from Kurdistan. Though the New York Times initially hired Jaff in 2003 as a translator, he played several other roles, too. Jaff had been a Kurdish guerilla fighter who fought Saddam in the 80s and 90s. Working for the Times, he was known as someone unafraid to draw his gun to protect a reporter’s life. Jaff continued: “We’d spend the whole day in these dangerous places and probably interview, like, 10 or 15 people. And I thought at the end of the day, ‘OK, this is great, we did great.’ And then we’d go back to the bureau and Dexter would start writing and would be like, ‘Fuck. We don’t have the story.’ And I’d be like why and he’d say, ‘No, Jaff. We don’t have it. We didn’t get the right quote. We have to go back.’”
In addition to the peak standards Filkins required his journalism meet, John Burns said that Dexter was the best because his reporting techniques often worked so effectively, especially at press conferences. It got to the point where some of Dexter’s American colleagues in the room even took to mimicking him, Burns said.
“You’d have Dexter walk into one of these Baghdad press conferences, looking all disheveled, running his hand through his hair as he’d ask his questions, and he would just take the microphone and he’d say, ‘Hey, man’ — he was addressing a four-star general — ‘Hey, man, I’m just trying to figure this out, I’m just a little confused.’” Once Filkins had the general’s attention, Burns said, he’d hit him with a follow-up question that was “dead on,” shooting straight to the matter. The effect was jarring and often those Filkins addressed would fluster. The tactic, Burns said, had a tendency to shake loose otherwise closely guarded bits of information. “Dexter is good at disguising how bright he actually is.”
Some of Dexter’s other techniques may not have been so readily adopted. For example, Filkins was known to dress up in traditional Arab garb so he could head into neighborhoods so perilous he almost certainly would’ve been harmed were his true identity discovered. “No one looks less like an Iraqi than Dexter,” said Burns from London where he now heads that city’s bureau for the Times. “But there Dexter was, in his keffiyeh and dishdasha, about to get into one of our armored cars.”
The war gripped Filkins so fiercely, Dexter recently told Vanity Fair, that when he was sitting on a flight returning to the U.S. from Iraq in 2003 and learned from a stewardess, mid-flight, that Saddam Hussein had just been captured in Iraq, “I turned into a lunatic. I literally tried to convince them to turn the plane around in the air.”
Upon landing in Miami, Filkins immediately flew back to Jordan; from there, he drove the 500 miles through the desert to reach the Times bureau. Shortly before reaching the bureau, however, Filkins got into a car accident and nearly paralyzed himself. The next day, after being fitted with a neck brace, Filkins went to Al-Dawr to see Saddam’s spider hole for himself. Upon arrival, insurgents opened fire on Filkins’ car and his driver sped off. It one of his closest calls but it certainly wouldn’t be his last.
DEXTER FILKINS IS standing at a lectern inside Politics and Prose, a neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C., telling another packed audience a story he’s told 100 times before. It’s a perfect little story. It always gets a laugh and helps Filkins illustrate how uncertain and dangerous the landscape was in Iraq for western journalists.
“So I’m in Iraq,” Filkins says, looking out at an almost all-white, fifty-something crowd here for the reading at this bookstore not far from the White House. “I’m about to sit down for an interview with a Sunni sheik, Sheik Achmed. And it’s just me and my translator, Warzer Jaff. And so Sheikh Achmed has tea and sweets brought out for us, the whole thing. But before the interview starts, Jaff and Sheik Achmed start talking in Arabic. And it’s a long conversation, and I was getting a little impatient and I said, ‘Jaff, what’s going on?’ And he told me to hang on. And at one point the conversation got very heated; it was almost like an argument. And finally Jaff said, ‘OK, now you can ask your questions.’ So Sheikh Achmed and I had a wonderful talk, it lasted about an hour, and he brought out more tea and more sweets, great. In the way back in the car, I said, you know, ‘Jaff, what were you talking about with Sheik Achmed for so long? It was frustrating.’ And Jaff said, ‘Oh, he wanted to kidnap you. I told him he better not even think about it.’”
The crowd breaks out in laughter, and Dexter shakes his head, amazed himself at the story.
Even Jaff, as he sat in that Upper West Side diner, had to laugh when he heard how prominent the tale is in Dexter’s arsenal. “My God did it get close,” he said. But later, as Jaff would think back to just how many risks he and Dexter took together, and how dangerous most were, he’d stop laughing.
“Let me tell you something, so many times with Dexter we were this close to getting killed,” Jaff said and held two fingers an inch apart. “Sometimes he had no idea how close we were."
One of those times was in summer 2004. Filkins, Jaff and a driver, Walee, were headed back to Baghdad through Falluja after working a 12-hour day when they spotted a teahouse on the side of the road. Though it was months before the marines would storm the western-Baghdad city by fire, Falluja, since the invasion’s beginning, had always been one of the most dangerous places for foreigners in all Iraq. Though Jaff was a translator and Walee a driver, both men carried guns. Without Dexter, walking into this teahouse wouldn’t have been a problem; with him, the equation changed completely. Plus, Jaff added, it didn’t help that Dexter “looks so American” and has body language like “an army guy.” Nevertheless, the three walked inside the crowded teahouse and Jaff went to the bathroom to wash his hands. Right before doing this, he told Walee specifically: “Watch Dexter.” When Jaff returned, Filkins was gone. Walee had turned his back for a second.
“And I look around and I just almost went crazy, and I was ready to take out my gun or something. My God. He didn’t have any idea how dangerous it was, what he just did,” Jaff said. “I went outside the teahouse and I found Dexter near the road on the phone with the foreign desk in New York, talking loud in English. About twenty men had begun to surround him as he talked, but he didn’t realize because he was too involved with New York. And these Falluja guys in the parking lot looked crazy, and they were just ready to kill him — it was very easy to kill someone in Iraq — and all these guys were whispering about him, and I swear if he stood there for another 15 minutes, he was gone. They would have just put him in something and taken him away.”
Ali Adeeb, who worked at the New York Times Baghdad bureau from 2003 to 2006, managing the 18 Iraqi string reporters for the paper, said that when Dexter is in the field, “he focuses 100 percent on the story. He forgets everything around him and sort of loses contact with his surroundings. He doesn’t mean to, but it’s the way he operates.”
After an especially deadly series of car bombings at the Baghdad headquarters of the International Red Cross in 2003, Dexter wandered into a plaza in the area packed with hundreds of Iraqis; he wanted to do some reporting. Before Dexter knew it, the crowd, hysterical with anger over the chaos sweeping their country, and noticing an American was in their midst, set upon him.
“People started clubbing me,” Dexter writes in his book. “Someone stripped the phone from my hand, then my notebook and others grabbed my arms.” Walee, Dexter’s 6-foot-8-inch driver, noticed what was happening and pulled Dexter back from the grip of the crowd, saving him from what Dexter has said was certain death.
Sometimes, Filkins’ bold actions pushed his colleagues past their limits. On a hot afternoon in 2005 in the northern Iraqi city of Kadhimiya, Filkins was working on a story with another of his translators, Yusra Al-Hakeem, when about 20 men wearing all black and each holding a machine gun — the Mahadi Army — showed up to the city’s government center, where Dexter and Yusra were waiting to get an interview. Mahadi Army members began staring at Dexter, and Yusra, who had worked on many dangerous assignments, had a uniquely bad feeling this time.
“I was starting to get really nervous and something in my gut told me to get out of there. And Dexter saw how nervous I was and he said to me, ‘focus.’ And I said, ‘Dexter, I think we should go.’ And he said, ‘Yusra, please, focus on the story.’ And I said, ‘What about your safety, Dexter?’ And he said, ‘Fuck my safety!’ and I shouted back, ‘Fuck your safety, but what about my safety?!’”
In retrospect, Yusra, a sprightly and petite woman with great brown eyes, said she understood why a group of men with machine guns wouldn’t unnerve Dexter, who had already reported from the battle of Falluja. Still, even a year earlier at that battle, Filkins wouldn’t let fear deter him. The only difference was in Falluja someone got killed.
ON NOVEMBER 15, 2004, Dexter Filkins and Times photographer Ashley Gilbertson were embedded with 150 marines from the 1/8 Bravo Company, as it launched an assault on Falluja, a city 40 miles west of Baghdad that had evolved into an insurgent stronghold.
Day after day Filkins filed stories from the battle; it was reporting that would win him a George Polk award. He and Gilbertson were traveling with Bravo Company — on foot — as it fought a ferocious house-to-house style battle with insurgents. The goal was to capture the city, and both sides were taking heavy casualties.
That afternoon, The New York Times, over satellite phone, told Ashley it needed a photo of a dead insurgent for a story. The marines, at this point, had overtaken a large part of Falluja but were stationed now at its outskirts. Ashley and Dexter asked a marine commander if they could go back into the city for the photo — they had heard there was a dead insurgent lying at the top of a mosque’s minaret. The commander agreed but assigned a detail of soldiers to the journalists for protection. The group now walked back into the city, smoldering and in ruins, and headed for that minaret.
“We came to the door of the minaret,” Filkins writes in The Forever War. “Ash and I stepped in to go through the door when a pair of marines stepped in front of us. We’ll go first, they said. The first marine put his hand out...” The marines recognized that, even though the reporters were brave for wanting to go right in, it was their job to lead the way should any danger lie ahead. The two soldiers started up the minaret’s narrow, winding stairs. Gilbertson and Filkins were in tow.
“The shot was loud inside the staircase, and I couldn’t see much, because the second marine was falling backwards, falling onto Ashley, who fell onto me. Warm liquid spattered on my face...the first marine was struck…he was dead.”
The journalists were right: There had been a dead insurgent at the top of the minaret. But there was also a live one with him. As the lead marine, Lance Corporal William Miller, walked up the stairs, he was shot in the face three-quarters the way up. Later, a lieutenant in Bravo Company acknowledged that Miller would still be alive had the Times not wanted the photo but he also forgave Filkins and Gilbertson, as did most of the men in the company. “It’s a war; that’s what happens in war” is how one soldier put it, Filkins writes.
Since then, Dexter has tried to make peace with the incident and has visited Miller’s family, who wasn’t angry at him, he writes in The Forever War. Miller’s parents actually thanked Filkins for writing such an honest and full account of their son’s final moments. They said Filkins’ story added feeling and dimension, two things the military’s cold written report lacked.
On the tragedy, Ashley said:
“I think about the kid every day….I see a shrink, and, yes, sometimes we talk about him [Miller]. I, like Dexter, continue to cover the story, and that's one way of coping, and I've been focusing a lot on working on stories that might help the vets. I'm trying to humanize much of the death and killing in a way American's can relate, by photographing the rooms of the fallen marines and soldiers. I'm also focusing on post traumatic stress disorder and suicide. I worked for four months on a story about Noah Pierce, who did two tours and came home and shot himself.”
Not only would both journalists have to carry around this new burden upon returning home, but Filkins would now have to do it without the support he once had. The war had put major strain on some of his personal relationships, and after 10 years of marriage, Filkins underwent a divorce in 2005. During his tenure in Iraq, he writes in The Forever War, “I lost the person I cared for most.”
That person was Ana Menéndez, a Cuban-American journalist and author Dexter met at the Miami Herald, his first major newspaper job, in the early 90s. In 1995, the two married and, for a long time, Menéndez tried managing her career around Dexter’s. When Filkins went to the L.A. Times in ’95, Menéndez went to the Orange County Register. When the L.A. Times sent Dexter to India, she came along, and when the New York Times, on account of Filkins’ knowledge of west Asia, sent him to head the paper’s Istanbul bureau, she also accompanied. But when Dexter traveled to Iraq in 2003, Menéndez finally had to stay behind. She dedicated her first novel, which came out in 2004, to Dexter who was in the war zone. Eventually, Ana said in an e-mail message, the circumstances would prove too difficult.
“Ours was an ordinary marriage, subject to ordinary pressures and challenges. Our story was exciting in many ways, but ultimately it succumbed, like any other, to the great levelers of distance and time,” wrote Menéndez from Cairo, Egypt, where she’s on a Fulbright scholarship, lecturing at the American University and learning Arabic. Menéndez said she’d read Dexter’s book; she was glad things were turning out well for him. “I’m thrilled for his success — happy that the difficult years he lived through could be transformed into something sublime and even beautiful. And happy because I lived much of that story with him, and it’s my story also.”
DEXTER PRICE FILKINS was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 24, 1961. His parents, Helen and Cedric, met when they were stationed in southern Frankfurt after World War II — she was a club director for the U.S. Army, Dexter’s father was a lieutenant. After moving back to America the two lived wherever Cedric’s job with General Motors dictated — first in Queens, New York, then Cincinnati.
When Dexter was eight, his parents divorced. Helen, not having much money but too proud to move back to her parents’ home in Madison, Wisconsin, took the family — Dexter, his older brother Rick and his younger sister Louise — down to Cape Canaveral, Florida, because, Helen said, the cost of living in this small town near the Kennedy Space Center was cheap.
“It turned out to be a great move,” Helen said over the phone from her home in Florida where she still lives. “The kids couldn’t have been happier because the weather was so good.”
Dexter grew up playing midget football and little league and also had a passion for running, which would never leave him, even in Iraq. Though Dexter still talks to his father, Cedric didn’t play much of a role in raising him. But that didn’t seem like a problem
“Dexter’s very independent and my mother was really a saint and acted as both mother and father,” said Louise, who now works for the Center for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. “Besides,” she added, “Dexter was always too busy and had too many friends calling to worry about that.”
At Coco Beach High School, Dexter was voted most popular and elected president by his senior class. Later he went on to the University of Florida and won a scholarship to study philosophy and international relations at Oxford. It was there that Dexter decided he wanted to become a journalist. “I sort of backed up into it,” he once said in an interview with C-Span.
Helen, however, said she knew her son would be a writer, even from an early age, and could point to a specific moment.
“One day, when Dexter wasn’t home, I think he was about 12 at the time, I walked into his room. And on his desk there was this essay. It was about a trip he’d just taken to visit his father. And I read it and it just blew me away. It was so descriptive and it was letter-perfect. I couldn’t find one error.” (And Helen had a sharp eye: she had been a writer for the Kennedy Space Center as well as a college English teacher.)
Louise said that when her brother was younger he never mentioned outright that he wanted to become a reporter, but it seems a natural fit, considering his upbringing.
“When our family sat down at dinner it was like the ‘McLaughlin Group’: we all talked about politics and what was in the papers. And Dex was always — you know this was before computers, the Internet and cable news, so basically it was just Time and Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report — and he was always reading one of those.”
While Dexter wasn’t too much of a risk-taker growing up, there were hints he might grow into one if the opportunity presented itself.
“I remember one year he went on a trip to Washington,” Helen said, “and he called me up and told me he had just climbed Mt. Rainier. We live in a place that’s about six feet above sea level. What did he know about climbing mountains?”
“Well, there was this one book,” Louise added, “it was our favorite growing up. It was called Men of Daring. It was published in the early 30s, and it was about, like, just all these cool men — Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — all these sort of renaissance guys, these adventurous guys, and Dex just loved this book and wanted to be like one of those guys; we all did.”
Though Dexter actually went on to become a “man of daring,” his sister and mother say they wish he just wouldn’t be that daring. They worry dearly for his safety, even more now after having read The Forever War.
“Boy is that book something,” Helen said. “He risked his life and I’m glad it’s over. But I was horrified when I read it. As his mother, I should get a medal. You know, there really should be an award just for mothers of sons in war zones. The worry. It’s terrible."
Louise had a similar reaction. “The book was really hard for me to read. I got to see just how many times Dex escaped being killed or hurt. And when I’m reading the book, that’s my brother, it’s not just a journalist. And, you know, some of these stories I’ve heard over the years, and then I read them and I say to myself, ‘Oh my God, it was worse than I thought.’ It really stays with me.”
Though the family tries to stay in touch, mostly by e-mail — Louise and Helen both have Google alerts set up to tell them of any news Dexter’s filed or when a new book review on The Forever War has been published — having a relative who’s a foreign correspondent is difficult. The last time the whole family was under one roof was about three years ago, Louise said.
Rick, Dexter’s older brother, who works as an attorney, still lives in Florida and helps Helen who is 85. Still, Helen said, she wishes she could see Dexter more.
“We know the New York Times believes that Dexter is their man but maybe one day Dex will come back home. We hope soon.”
BACK IN NEW YORK, Dexter is checking his watch, anxious to get over to the New York Times for his new assignment, anxious because he barely ever has any time these days — or ever.
In a week he’ll be on the plane to Amsterdam. The Forever War is being translated into Dutch and five other languages, and he needs to make an appearance for the publisher.
Dexter’s finished his coffee and is now on to the bottle of Pepsi he brought with him. Filkins has even been known to drink Red Bull first thing in the morning to get, and keep, him going. As he talks about the war and what it’s all meant to him, he takes extra deep breaths, as though he’s trying to clear a tension that has built in his chest. Mostly, Afghanistan and Iraq have left him with mixed feelings. What he’s sure of, he says, is that the general mood in America today doesn’t resemble that of a nation at war, which upsets him. Dexter says he’s even loath to talk about his political beliefs on Iraq and Afghanistan. He sees it as punditry, an indulgence.
“These wars aren’t about me, they’re not about you and your opinion, they’re about the people who are fighting them, and the problem for me with America is that nothing is asked of the average person, of the typical American, to do anything. We haven’t had to pay higher taxes, there’s no war bonds, there’s no draft, there’s no nothing, and so, therefore, what are these wars? They’re something we argue about.”
Dexter brightens when the conversation lands on all the friends he made in Iraq, many of whom were Iraqi employees for the New York Times. In several cases, Filkins — in ways large or small — helped his friends “get out.” Dexter wrote letters of recommendation for two veterans of the Baghdad bureau for scholarships to study journalism in New York. Both got it. In fact, Warzer Jaff, the translator, had been on the phone with Filkins minutes before he sat down that day on the Upper West Side to recount the risks the two took together. Filkins had been pleading with him to consider accepting a scholarship at Harvard — a scholarship Filkins was trying to help him get — instead of going back to Iraq to work as a reporter.
As for going back to the country himself, a country that Filkins adopted a great respect and affinity for — he even said he now loves Arabic music — it doesn’t seem likely, though he does admit missing Iraq, especially after he first returned to the States.
“When I was there, I was thinking about home. When I finally did get home, I found myself wanting to go back.”
Ashley Gilbertson said he understood what Dexter meant. “Those of us that stayed have a real sense of mission on the story. It’s almost hardwired, that we need to be there, to see the story firsthand and relate it as honestly as possible to the people back home.”
During Filkins’ tenure in Iraq, he saw much death, sometimes on a daily basis. However, Dexter says it hasn’t traumatized him but did admit to having a hard time when he first got home, in late 2006: “I was pretty numb to everything, I wasn’t interested in anything. It took me a long time to come back to life. It really did. I was pretty tired, I was pretty worn out.”
Still, Dexter was able to point to a moment he knew he’d make it.
“I have some really close friends that I’ve known for many years, and they go surfing in Costa Rica every year. And I hadn’t gone in many years, and then in 2006, I went to Costa Rica and met my friends….It was surreal; I had been in Iraq for so long and seen so much destruction and so much violence, but then suddenly I was eating beans and rice and driving to the Pacific Ocean. The tropics helped bring me back. They’re just full of life and color, the sea breeze. That’ll save anybody.”
Filkins’ sister, Louise, said she still had her doubts.
“I think to most people, Dexter’s still the same guy. But I think, to some degree, it’s affected him deep down — probably in ways we’ll never know.”
Walking from the coffee shop near Times Square and heading toward his newspaper’s headquarters a few blocks away, Filkins doesn’t look back. When he arrives at the New York Times, and the elevator stops on the third floor, he’ll get off and walk over to the foreign desk, where he’ll finally learn his next assignment: Afghanistan. Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurging and stepping up its car bombings, where American and Afghan forces are under siege and the future looks opaque. It happens to be terrain Filkins understands better than most, and he knows that’s why he has to go. “But am I excited?” he’ll later ask. “I’ll tell you one thing, I would have been a lot more excited 10 years ago.”