Press Box

Dexter Filkins’ Fallujah

A New York Times reporter walks the killing ground with Marine Company B.

Witness to a street fight

War correspondents decide when they want to face death and when they want to retreat to the rear echelon, where safety and the comforts of three hots and a cot reside. This arrangement rankles the grunts who do the shooting because they don’t get to pick and choose their engagements. But the reporter who walks side-by-side with Marines taking a city an inch at a time, as New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins did this month during the battle of Fallujah, owes nobody an apology, not even the man walking point.

Filkins calls the eight days of combat pitting U.S. troops against dug-in Iraqi insurgents“the most sustained period of street-to-street fighting that Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War.” The 15 brave stories he filed between Nov. 6 and Nov. 21, some of which are co-bylined by James Glanz or Robert F. Worth, carry the reader from the outskirts of Fallujah into the maze of its streets, where rocket-propelled grenades greet the Americans and a rebel invites the Marines to accompany him to hell by detonating a bomb-laden belt.

Great war correspondents are never supposed to flinch, but they’re allowed to wince. Filkins winces when the Marines of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, seek a 1:30 a.m. nap in a house, only to recoil when the rebels attack them like vipers from tunnels beneath the structure. He winces when a dozen members of Company B are mistaken for a nest of rebels one night and are targeted for a U.S. air strike. He makes the reader wince, too, at the heads blown off, at the machine gun stitching a zipper of death down the side of a fleeing insurgent, at the Marine killed by a rebel camouflaged as a member of the Iraqi National Guard, at the black-flag semaphore of the scheming insurgents, at the enemy that alternately flees to fight on better terms and stands its ground, only to be erased by a 500-pound bomb.

The killing goes on and on as Filkins charts the Company B’s violent route through Fallujah. He writes in his Nov. 21 wrap-up:

The 150 marines with whom I traveled, Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had it as tough as any unit in the fight. They moved through the city almost entirely on foot, into the heart of the resistance, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers, working their way through Falluja’s narrow streets with 75-pound packs on their backs.In eight days of fighting, Bravo Company took 36 casualties, including 6 dead, meaning that the unit’s men had about a one-in-four chance of being wounded or killed in little more than a week.

Filkins joined the paper in 2000 after stops at the Los Angles Times, where he was New Delhi bureau chief, and the Miami Herald. Like all Herald stars, he bagged a hurricane during his stay, helping the paper win a Pulitzer for its post-Hurricane Andrew coverage. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, Filkins famously captured a Marine sergeant voicing his regrets about killing a female civilian while shooting an Iraqi soldier:

“I’m sorry,” the sergeant said. “But the chick was in the way.”

Filkins avoids the purple prose, the clichés, the antiwar declarations, and the patriotic riffs that seduce lesser chroniclers of war. His play-by-play requires almost no commentary as he collects the images and testimonials and patches them into his spare narrative. The photos of Ashley Gilbertson (a “he,” it turns out) complement Filkins’ words, as they capture the unit doing its killing business, rescuing wounded mates, ducking for cover from friendly phosphorous rounds.

Because Fallujah is the big beginning rather than the final battle of the second war, there will be other Iraq correspondents to praise. “Keep a sharp eye,” Filkins records Capt. Read Omohundro of Company B telling his men after the worst of the fighting. “We ain’t done with this war yet.” I’m told by one American member of the Baghdad press corps that some of the greatest daredevilry ever committed by journalists belongs to the reporters of Al Jazeera, who will brave any bullet, bomb, or missile to get their story. Obviously, Filkins isn’t the only reporter doing impressive work in Iraq, but in the street fight that was Fallujah, he produced a set of dispatches that whisper rather than shout war’s name.