Wednesday 7 April 2010

The secret life of war

British Journalists, whose texts get published in a book, have usually a degree from Oxford or Cambridge and are of the award-winning kind: Peter Beaumont, the Foreign Affairs Editor of the Observer, is no exception.

The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict "is the culmination of almost a decade and a half of travelling to war zones", one reads in the introduction and the question that popped up immediately in my head was: Why would anyone do that in the first place? Here's what Beaumont says: "I recognise that it is largely a question of ego, a misplaced sense of self-importance - if it is a big story I should be there." Fortunately for the reader, this book is less about what journalists consider big stories (sure, some in it are) than observations and ponderings about what Peter Beaumont experienced in conflict zones (where no journalist hops from big story to big story). Needless to say, in a world a bit more just than the one we are inhabiting quite some of these stories should have become big stories - they didn't, for a variety of reasons, and not all of them good ones. Here's one such story: "With Saddam's release of between 40,000 and 75,000 convicted prisoners, a prison-based drug culture swamped the capital's streets. Imported like a corrupted file. The result was a citywide crime wave. At the time I speak to Ala and his friends, 80 per cent of criminals being picked up by the fledgling Iraqi Police Service appear to be under the influence of drugs. Referrals to the city's clinic for drug abuse have doubled in a handful of months ..."

"He is able to diagnose his own need to return to war the way a junkie feeds on heroin", writes Janine Di Giovanni in her review in the Observer: "Beaumont is self-aware. He knows it is not normal to feel more alive in a war zone than real life, but he is helpless to contain his desire to be where the story is."

The strength of this tome is Beaumont's highly self-reflective attitude and although self-awareness does not help much when one is suffering from an addiction it sure makes, in Peter Beaumont's case, for extraordinary insights: "We talk too often about war as an alien sphere, divorced from ordinary life. We describe conflict in its specialised grammar of planning and battles, objectives won and lost, legitimacy and war crimes, with a familiar litany of damaged places, characters and societies. What is missing ist the texture how conflict smells and feels and tastes; how people go about their lives, and what happens in their heads.Too often the life of war is absent from our descriptions ..." How come? Because "war reporting, like any other kind of journalism, requires a familiar rota of drama, the clichéed set pieces that turn history and human misery into soap opera. The simple ideas that fit into a minute-long broadcast or into eight hundred words are a kind of awful entertainment most of the time. A reinforcement of how fortunate we are to be able to afford the luxury of distant sympathy or anger."

In this well-written work Beaumont reports from Afghanistan (where he visited the bombed and abandoned home of Mullah Omar as well as a training camp in Kandahar where he discovered documents describing a plan to attack London), Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Occupied Territories, and ponders the deepest concerns of soldiers - and probably of journalists: "It is not 'Will I be injured or killed?' But 'How will I perform under fire, in front of my friends and colleagues?' It is the quesion: 'How well will I do?'" A pretty sobering realisation, I find and felt reminded of Sartre's L'enfer c'est les autres.

While this is a personal book, it is not a book about Peter Beaumont, it is about how he reacts to, and has chosen to describe, what goes on around him. I wish more journalism would be as exact and pensive as Beaumont's.

Occasionally, he refers to academic studies while searching for answers yet the social scientists Beaumont cites seem to have astonishingly little to offer. I mean, that, for instance, "the first stirrings of sectarianism - the habit of inter-communal hate - were born not in school or from watching television, but came from the family, community and culture", as a professor of the University of Ulster found out, seems hardly more than common sense; or that the way we view groups outside our own fluctuates between empathy and cognition, "as social psychologists have long recognised", and that the lack of empathy is hostility's driving force ... well, do we really need social psychologists to tell us that?

Don't get me wrong, Peter Beaumont is not into theory, he is a thinking and feeling observer who says this about the Just War theorists: "But theory is too rarified and distant a thing. Theory washes clean the blood and bigotry and emotion. It obscures the human tendency to hate and to construct legitimising arguments in the service of hatred that allows acts of terror - either by the state or by groups - to be conceived as just and morally expedient, It is self-serving and self-justifying for the opposing communities involved, not least when using the word terror itself. Terror - it is then understood - is so terrible a thing that it requires responses outside of normal laws, even the ethics of war (whatever that is). When terror is invoked there is no requirement to address what led to the breakdown of peace. It justifies a new violence in kind. It explains why counter-terrorist campaigns are frequently dirty - involving assassination, torture and arrest without trial."

I thought it first rather irritating that the text oscillates to and fro between the various war theatres (from the western suburbs of Baghdad to the Gaza strip) but, after a while, felt that this not only made perfect sense but that it actually is a clever way of demonstrating that the locales of war do not really matter. Needless to say, I cannot know whether this was intended for, as Beaumont writes in the afterword, it could have also been done in this manner because the experiences documented in this tome have, over the years, "blurred into classes of things seen, categories of the dead and the injured, killers and the killed, the lost and the fleeing."

Needless to say, Peter Beaumont pays a price for this kind of reporting - and a heavy one at that. "In the end I begin to lose the ability to document the hurt of war honestly ... I am reduced to being no more than a stenographer." When he realises this, he is ready to quit "his journey to the realm of war", as he concludes this necessary and educational book.

Although this is a book by a reporter, you won't find these reports in the newspaper he is working for: "What I want to say about violence I have been unable to say in my own newspaper. We subscribe to a curious convention, all of the media, that when we write about war and violence we largely ignore the detail of the consequences - what bullets, bombs and knives do. We are happy to watch crime procedurals on television, and graphic horror films, yet it is still regarded as bad form to describe the reality of the everyday horror of conflict. But to understand conflict one must confront what people do when they kill and mutilate - because in the texture and the detail of them there exists meaning." I do not share Beaumont's conclusion that "in the texture and the detail of them there exists meaning" (what meaning? I wonder) but I totally agree that we should be confronted with what war is really like. To read such books instead of reading newspapers or listen to other daily mass media, would be a healthy first step.

Peter Beaumont
The Secret Life of War
Harvill Secker, London 2009

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