Tag Archives: Dexter Filkins

The Power of Youth…and their Vulnerability

In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, and in relation to Dexter Filkin’s recent post about the lessons of Egypt to Afghanistan, I was reminded of a passage by Pankaj Mishra. It describes the winds of change that blew in Afghanistan in the 1960s and how the youth of Kabul University marched the streets. In retrospect, those events manifest the power of the youth as well as their vulnerability:

It is hard to imagine now, but for students at Kabul University, 1968 was no less a hectic year than it was for students at Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. A king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had been presiding over the many ethnic and tribal enclaves of Afghanistan since 1933. But he knew enough of the world elsewhere to attempt, cautiously, a few liberal reforms in his capital city, Kabul. The university had been set up in 1946; a liberal constitution was introduced in 1964; the press was technically free; women ran for public office in 1965. By the Sixties, many students and teachers had traveled abroad; and new ideas about how to organize the state and society had come to the sons of peasants and nomads and artisans from their foreign or foreign-educated teachers.

In the somewhat rarefied world of modernizing Kabul, where women were allowed to appear without the veil in 1959, communism and radical Islam attracted almost an equal number of believers: to these impatient men, the great Afghan countryside with its antique ways appeared ready for revolution. It was from this fledgling intelligentsia in Kabul that almost all of the crucial political figures of the next three decades emerged.

Pankaj Mishra, The Making of Afghanistan



War Reporting

Last week, it was revealed that Dexter Filkins is leaving the New York Times  for the New Yorker.  Obviously, its a massive loss for the New York times.  But for the readers? This means that Mr. Filkins will have more time and room to produce the kind of profound stories that he has done more often than any reporter of our time.
Here is a fine example of the kind beautiful writing that Mr. Filkins has given us so often and we hope to see more of. George Packer wrote about this on his New Yorker blog. Mr. Filkins is describing how he felt immediately after seeing a solider get killed:
And at that moment, you think about how the word of his death will travel; how it will depart Iraq or Afghanistan and move across the ocean and into the United States and into the town where he lives, Corinth, Miss., say, or Benwood, W.Va., and into the houses and the hearts of the people who love him most in the world. And at that moment, standing there, looking down on the dead man, you can wonder only what the family will do when the terrible news finally arrives, how they will resist it and wrestle with it and suffer from it, and how they will cope and how they will remember.
— Dexter Filkins’s introduction to Ashley Gilbertson’s book of photograps

From Ashley Gilbertson's photographs of dead soldiers's bedrooms, published in NYT

The Clever Mullah

Was it him?

It’s been a week of accusations and blame games in Afghanistan. The Clever Mullah who duped the Afghans and NATO is all over the headlines. He got his money, and quite possibly in tens of millions of dollars, and disappeared. But the shame remains, for NATO and the Afghan leadership.

How did an ordinary shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan manage to cause so much excietment, to make it all the way to the Presidential Palace, and to piss all over the hopes of an entire nation that was playing into the hype around high-level talks?

The easy way out: blame the British.

In an interview, Mohammad Umer Daudzai [Karzai’s chief of Staff] said that the British brought a man purporting to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a senior Taliban leader, to meet Karzai in July or August but that an Afghan at the meeting knew “this is not the man.”

Daudzai’s comments were the most direct assignation of blame so far, though U.S. officials have also said that the fake Mansour was primarily a British project. U.S. officials have long characterized the British as more aggressive than the Americans in pushing for a political settlement to end the war.

The false Mansour was “the Brits’ guy,” said a senior American official familiar with the case. “It was the British who brought him forward.”

While the British have messed up several times in Afghanistan, particularly in the

Mullah Zaif, on his iPhone: "we got'm real bad. LOL"

Southern province of Helmand, its harsh to lay the blame entirely on them. After all, NATO seemed entirely on board with this. General Petraeus openly said that NATO was securing the highway so Taliban leaders can make it to Kabul for Talks.

“And indeed in certain respects we do facilitate that, given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if ISAF were not witting and therefore aware of it and allows it to take place,”
The Guardian, in its Sunday issue, had some insightful comments about the Clever Mullah from the former Chief of Afghan Intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. Mr. Saleh said that “his agency first vetted the man, who claimed to be a representative of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, one of the highest-ranking figures in the Taliban, in mid-2008, but rejected him after he was unable to prove his credentials.”
Mr. Saleh puts the blame on the Karzai government:
“This became so exciting that even certain figures were thinking of either an Afghan Dayton agreement or Good Friday agreement for Afghanistan,” he said. “It shows the desperation of the leadership in Kabul, detachment from the reality and lack of sophistication on the most sensitive issues.”
And the Guardian also takes a swing at the US and NATO:
Western sources say that the UK did play a role in the debacle, with MI6 acting as a key intermediary because the CIA is not authorised to talk directly with insurgents. However, the decision for the British to proceed was taken by General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
And, to end on a light note, Foreign Policy has a nice suggestion on how to avoid these kind of episodes in the future. They have a checklist of how to tell the fake mullahs from the real ones:

10. Keeps asking if the peace talks can be held in the Maldives

9. Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting

8. Introduces himself as “Colonel Iqbal from the ISI”

7. Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul

6. Wife angling for a spot on “The Real Housewives of Kandahar”

5. Claims to be texting Mullah Omar but is actually just playing Angry Birds the whole time

4. Offers to settle Afghan War with a game of Jenga

3. Turban made of an actual towel

2. Wears trench coat, offers to sell the letters O and U

1. Agrees to trade Osama bin Laden for Justin Bieber

In the Shadows of War: the Reporter

This is first in a series of entries in which I will try to understand the effects of war on those who experience it up close.

Photographer Ashley Gilbertson closely followed US Marines in Iraq.

“Only the Soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observor knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing that makes the difference.”

Eric Sevareid, CBS radio broadcast, 1945. *

Undoubtedly, those involved in a war inherit scars, visible and not, tangible and not, that take a long time to heal. If they heal at all. The lucky few who manage to come out in one piece will be haunted by the loss of loved ones, by images of gruesome violence, and by the screams of  children they could not rescue.

The soldier, especially, bears the most extreme emotional toll of the war. He is the one carrying the gun. Whether he shoots or not, whether he saves or not, whether he acts or not will always live with him.

But what about the reporter on the ground? How does he fare after a war is over? How taxing is the experience for him?

In recent years, war-correspondence has certainly become much more intimate. The war in Iraq, especially, has seen tremendous human resource deployed for its reportage. Journalists have taken enormous risks to feed the public with details of the battlefield.

After a brief while of initial freedom for reporters, Iraq became too dangerous. Reporters could not move around on their own. They had to embed with a military team.  So, to record the happenings on the ground, the reporter shadowed the soldier, following him into battle, dodging the same bullet, walking the same number of hours without rest, and eating the same M.R.E.

In a sense, the reporter is becoming more and more involved in the experience of war. He faces similar realities as the soldier. Yes, he does not bear the same “moral compulsion” because he doesn’t make decisions of life-or-death as the soldier does. But, as American journalist Dexter Filkins and Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson would tell you, the experience of war haunts the reporter as much, depriving him of a sense of normalcy long after the war is over.

Usually, the reporter also feels up-close what the soldier only sees in passing: the pain of the civilians caught in the middle of the chaos.  He gazes at their wounds, records their screams, and notes their hopelessness. True, the soldier too sometimes, mingles with the civilians. But his contact is not as intimate as the reporter’s.

One can only get a better sense of what the war experience is to a reporter by reading their own words. Bellow, I share excerpts from the works of New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson.

Here is Filkins writing in the introduction to Ashley Gilbertson’s photo collection titled  “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”:

“War, the old saying goes, is seven parts boredom and one part terror. A soldier mans a post for hours on end, with only the crickets to liven his night. Life in the village carries on, the distant armies no more troubling than the clouds on the horizon. Then, in a flash, all is changed: lives are upended, bodies wrecked, futures destroyed. This is war’s way.

But the old formula, while true in a sense, misses war’s most singular aspect: its ability to evoke a wider range of human experience than any other human endeavor. Heroism, cowardice, joy, deceit, brotherhood, and violent death. A nineteen year old from upstate New York discovers an unknown capacity for courage as he pulls a fallen comrade from a mosque. A young Iraqi woman feels her life dissolve as she cradles her blinded son. All in an afternoon, all in a flash. War maybe a peculiar mix of boredom and terror, but within those horrifying moments lies the whole galaxy of human conditions.”

The Trauma:

In the early years of the war, Filkins and Gilbertson embedded together with Bravo Company in Falluja. Their reporting from the front-line, both the pictures and writing, is riveting.

Dexter Filkins, photographed by Ashley Gilbertson during the embed with the marines.

One incident on the mission, however, highlights the intimate relationship of the reporters with the soldiers and the trauma that they both share in.

Apparently, Bravo company came under fire from a tower. After an exchange that lasted a couple hours, the fire ceased. The marines felt that the insurgents had been taken out. The editors in New York had asked for a photo of the dead insurgents and Gilbertson felt the moment right. He notified the commander that he wanted to go up to the tower and photograph dead insurgents. The commander, Gilbertson says, insisted that they be accompanied by a group of his marines.

So Gilbertson and Filkins followed a group into the tower. However, as soon as they started climbing the stairs, shooting began again. Lance Corporal Miller, who was one of the marines accompanying Gilbertson and Filkins, had been the first to go up. He was shot. The rest ran back, but there was no sign of Miller.

Filkins describes the immediate scene in his book, The Forever War:

Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.

The firing stopped. Smoking rifles. Two more marines went up, and the minaret began to come apart. Bricks falling, dust and rocks, the tower swaying… Ashley was still seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.

Miller appeared. Two marines had pulled him out…Miller was on his back; he had come out head first. His face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.

“Please tell me he’s not dead,” Ash said. “Please tell me.”

“He is dead,” I said.

I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as they say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before.  The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and her tears move so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling  across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of the marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you have always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.

An introduction to Filkins’s book:

* Source of the opening quote is the book A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq.