Dexter Filkins witnessed a public execution and amputation in Afghanistan held on the 50-yard line of a sports stadium. He escaped from the Iraqi insurgents smashing his car with bricks and yelling in English, “Kill them!” He exercised in the dangerous red zone in Iraq, ran across a six-lane road in heavy gunfire, and saw American soldiers die in front of him.
Along with his rations and sleeping bag, Filkins carried a laptop, satellite phone and notebooks to record the war in Iraq for The New York Times. But he often lived and worked like a soldier.
“Dexter did everything the Marines did, except for fire a weapon,” said Peter Slevin, Chicago bureau chief for The Washington Post. “The hazards that they faced were his too. He was able to record the sights and sounds of the war and the Marines that were there.”
Filkins spoke at Northwestern last Monday about his experiences in Iraq, as part of a speaker series for the American Studies course Slevin is teaching. In an interview the following morning, Filkins went more in-depth about his work as a journalist.
Filkins’ coverage earned him recognition as one of the top correspondents in Iraq, Slevin said. Filkins was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002 for his work in Afghanistan, and received much praise for his Falluja series in 2004, though he wasn’t nominated. However, there was a near-consensus among foreign correspondents, even among his competition at The Washington Post, that he should have won the prize, Slevin said.
“There are reporters in every single war zone that you go to who will sit back and hear reports from the sidelines. Dexter is not one of those reporters,” said Ashley Gilbertson, a freelance photographer who worked extensively with Filkins in Iraq. Gilbertson said that he and Filkins tried to top each other in their reporting, which helps their stories stand out. “Dexter demands to be actually out there witnessing things.”
That’s how Filkins gets his stories – he witnesses them.
He said that each day in Iraq involved talking to people to find out what was going on and where the next story would break, and then doing whatever it took to get that story.
To pin down one lead he got while embedded in the military, Filkins had to tell U.S. Company Captain Read Omohundro not to shoot him. Over the radio, Filkins had heard rumors of an insurgent tunnel system in Falluja, so he and Gilbertson wanted to run across the block and check it out. They didn’t want the Marines to accidentally shoot at them during their expedition. Meanwhile, the Iraqis were trying to shoot Americans any way they could, said Gilbertson, and they didn’t care if they were journalists.
But Filkins wanted to see the tunnel and see what was there. So they ran through the red zone. They arrived at the suspected tunnel site exhausted, only to find out the tunnel was just a hole filled with sewage. No story.
Hours later, when the Marine company they were embedded with had to make the same run, Captain Omohundro decided it was too dangerous. He ordered that the company blow a hole in a house to make a safe path, instead of doing what Filkins and Gilbertson had done.
“When you’re in a situation like this you need to take risks,” Gilbertson said. “Dexter is one person who is prepared to take the risk. It’s going to get him a story that’s much, much better than the competition.”
However, safety was a real issue for Filkins and other journalists in the country. More than 100 journalists have been killed during the war, and Filkins usually worked out of The New York Times’ heavily fortified Baghdad bureau, which he described as a “medieval fortress.” It has extensive around-the-clock security, employing 70 Iraqis, mostly as guards, and supplies much of its own power since electricity is scarce in Baghdad.
“Fear is your friend. If you’re afraid of something, there’s usually a good reason for that,” he said. “But it’s also true that there are a lot of situations which appear on the face to be really dangerous and really chaotic, which actually if you keep your head about it you can navigate pretty safely and it’s not as bad as it seems.”
Although he sometimes went out into the streets in armored cars or embedded with American soldiers, Filkins often went by himself on foot or in a regular car.
However, Filkins does know there are limits.
He was once arrested in Afghanistan and expelled from the country. The Taliban was losing its grip on power, and Filkins heard about an uprising against the government. The Taliban didn’t like the questions he was asking, so they expelled him and beat his translator.
“There are also times where I miscalculate, like when I got arrested,” he said. “I’ve had colleagues there, in Afghanistan and Iraq who were killed, so the threat of death was always there. So when you forget that you’ve going to pay for it.”
Reminders of that threat can come quietly. Moving through the streets of Falluja, Filkins remembered a grim sight: not tanks or rockets or bombs, but a black flag. One black flag waved on the right side of the street, one on the left, and two insurgents had passed along the message: Americans are arriving, so come and fight.
In his article describing the black flags, Filkins called them “the insurgents’ answer to two-way radios.” It was their way of massing the troops and concentrating fire on the enemy but with one distinct advantage over the radios: the flags are terrifying.
“When you see a black flag you can pretty much figure out that we’re going to get shot at in very short time,” he said. “Your stomach tightens up a little bit. It’s pretty creepy.”
It’s Filkins’ powers of observation that capture startling details from a war that seems too familiar. He’s able to tell readers that former Iraqi interior minister Bayan Jabr’s fondness for powder-blue leisure suits hardly makes him seem diabolical. His articles allow readers to hear the “pulsing cacophony of strange and deadly sounds” from urban battlefields.
“He’s the sort of guy who will stay up until 4 in the morning trying to establish whether a guy got out on the left side of the car or the right side,” Gilbertson said. “To me those details are not important, but when you see it in a story, it’s those details that make Dexter’s work great.”
In 2005, he began hearing about Shiite death squads. These supposed government death squads seemed worthy of a story, but it would be difficult to nail down specifics.
“That’s not an easy story to get because that’s not something people want to talk about freely,” he said. To get the story, Filkins talked to Sunni wives and mothers who waited each week at the Iraqi Islam Party’s human rights’ office.
He listened to women “bearing tales of torture, kidnapping and murder at the hands of government security forces,” as he described in his article.
“I just sat with these people and they told me their stories,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get whenever you talk to somebody, that’s what so fun about it. Who is this person, what are they like and what’s their story? Everyone on earth has a story to tell.”
Filkins said he really got to know people in Iraq who provided story ideas and information. One man that he sat in the backyard and had dinner with is now one of Iraq’s vice presidents and has taught him a lot about the country.
Iraq’s more difficult to work in now though, he said. Journalists are limited in where they can go and who they can meet. The vice president Filkins befriended now lives in the green zone,and is surrounded by bodyguards.
Still, after spending so much time in Iraq, Filkins said he become attached to a lot of people, both American and Iraqi. But for him that’s compatible with good reporting.
“Yeah, they’re my friends. I tried to help a lot of Iraqis, I tried to help some of them get out,” he said. “The amount of suffering there is mind-boggling. Every Iraqi that you interview, you’re kind of overwhelmed by the helplessness of it. It’s so traumatic for so many people, that you know you wish you could save the world. You wish you could change it.”