In her book ‘The Face of War’, the American journalist, Martha Gellhorn, recognises the importance of “peacemakers”, and understands the importance of a man like Mikhail Gorbachev when he ushered in “glasnost”, and effectively ended the Cold War. (Gellhorn 1998, p365). Gellhorn is a journalist who has filed reports on a number of conflicts, including the Civil War in Spain, The War in Finland, the Japanese invasion of China, the Second World War, the War in Java, the Vietnam War, the Six Day War, and various conflicts in Central America and Panama.
The history of modern war reporting dates back to the time of the Crimean War of the 1850’s and the reporting of the Irishman William Howard Russell. His canny reports covered the war between “Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark, the Crimea War, the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Zulu War of 1879.” He reported for ‘The Times.’
The language of historical reporting differs from that of modern war correspondents like Gellhorn, Fisk, Amira Hass, Graham Greene, and Seymour M. Hersch. It almost reads like a classical novel, and reflects the reality of its day when modern transport systems weren’t around. Russell’s report about the charge of the Light Brigade highlights this crucial difference:
“At ten minutes past eleven our Light Cavalry Brigade advanced…They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war…At the distance of 1,200 yards the whole line of enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame. The flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, be dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain. In diminished ranks, with a halo of steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow’s death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ere they were lost from view the plain was strewn in bodies. Through the clods of smoke we could see their sabres flashing as they rode between the guns, cutting down the gunners as they stood. We saw them riding through, returning, after breaking through a column of Russians and scattering them like chaff, when the flank fire of the batteries on the hill swept them down. Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale…at thirty-five minutes past eleven not a British soldier, except the dead and dying, was left in front of the Muscovite guns”.
MODERN WAR REPORTAGE
Modern war reportage is starker, less detailed perhaps than the reports submitted by Russell. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the toll war takes on humans. Gellhorn admits to distrusting governments, and speaking from an American perspective her words on the causes of war carry powerful weight. She recognises a stark truth in her country, that of a very powerful nation whose arsenal of weapons is frightening. She asks did we learn nothing from the “Nuremberg War Trials”, and mocks the fact that her countrymen created a fictional war hero in “Rambo” – a character who supposedly took on the Vietcong single-handedly. Her reports on actual conflicts are tales about people, and the fear they display when the ugly brutality of war strikes home. Her writing is infused with a passion that matches that of other reporters – Fisk, Jack, Pilger, and Amira Hass.
Like Russell, these war reporters are attempting to report the truth as they see it, and to hold governments responsible for their actions. It is the same spur that drives reporters like Lara Marlowe and Rory Carroll to Iraq.
The nature of war reporting has also changed. Vietnam was the first televised war, and the images being beamed into American homes at mealtimes helped to cement the anti-war views that had been building. In ‘The First Casualty’ by Philip Knightley, the Sunday Times photojournalist, Donald McCullin, speaks of the need for “detachment” when working, and notes that becoming involved with the victims causes his work to suffer. (Knightley 2003, pp450). Michael Herr describes the scene captured by camera of a Vietnamese soldier dying (Knightley 2003, pp451), and the pictures caught by Associated Press photographer, Eddie Adams, where a captured Vietcong was killed with a shot to the head, notes that this helped to turn the tide of American opinion.
Subsequent wars showed the need to control the media. During the Falklands War, the British maintained a tight censorship of war news, and the Americans also took precautions with media outlets during later wars. The two wars in the Gulf against Iraq ushered in the era of ‘embedded’ journalists, and during the first Gulf War in particular, targets were shown being destroyed by computer animation. In many ways it de-sanitised the process of killing. The Times reporter, Chris Ayres, has written an excellent account of what it means to be an ‘embedded’ reporter in his book ‘War Reporting for Cowards.”
Gellhorn’s work is also featured in the Granta Book of Reportage, and the piece by Ian Jack on the Gibraltar shootings where three IRA members were shot dead by the SAS again shows British duplicity at work, and the need by military and government authorities to suppress the truth. The ‘demonisation’ of a Spanish eyewitness who witnessed the shootings shows the power that government foreign policy can exert on the press, and an uncanny parallel can be drawn in relation to recent events where London police forces gunned down an innocent Brazilian, in response to attacks by Al Queda. The documentary “Death on the Rock” caused an outcry by purporting to tell the real truth about Gibraltar. (Jack 1998 p.209).
The next chapter in the book written by John Simpson highlights the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Chinese attempt to break the student rebellion. Simpson compares the pro-democracy rally with scenes witnessed in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Ryszard Kapuscinski reports of ‘The Soccer War’, a war between El Salvador and Honduras also features, and the essence of many of these reports, including Gellhorn’s accounts seem to suggest that anybody can be a victim.
It can be difficult to draw comparisons between the work of Ian Jack and that of Gellhorn. Jack recognises that the stories in his book were written initially for ‘Granta’ magazine and not for newspapers, and points out that there is a fine line between literature and journalism. He recognises that “reportage still stands at the gates”, (Jack 1998, pp.x11) when attempting to draw comparisons with the two disciplines. He also recognises that the craft of war reportage has changed in response to economic needs and economies of scale, and notes that what Gellhorn called “serious, careful, honest journalism” has resulted in a “crisis”.
Crisis or not, Gellhorn succeeds in getting her point across, as does Jack with his compendium of stories. In ‘The Face of War’, Gellhorn, attempts to identify some of the causes of war, and speaks of the dangers of living in a nuclear age, and the terrifying, unimaginable consequences if we were to have one hundred thousand Chernobyl’s. Having written mostly for ‘The Guardian’, she recognises the futility of America’s arsenal of nuclear weaponry, and she understood that to stand up to this might mean matching the superpower in weapons. The proliferation of such weapons today, with nations like Pakistan, India, Iran, and North Korea acquiring the technology for this devastating weaponry leaves the world much colder than at any point during the Cold War. It’s well known that Israel has this capability.
The problems of Israel, and the oil rich Middle Eastern countries have the potential to trigger another world war. We’ve already seen India and Pakistan threatening nuclear attacks on one another over Kashmir. A number of journalists have helped to capture the unique dangers inherent in the Middle East, including RTE’s Richard Crowley, Robert Fisk, and Amira Hass writing in ‘Drinking the Sea at Gaza’.
In ‘Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War’, Robert Fisk writes a mighty tome that captures the life of a war reporter. Fisk is synonymous with Middle Eastern reporting and describes in accurate detail the trials and tribulations of war reporting. For Fisk, “journalists sit at the edge of history as vulcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge through the smoke and ash at what happens within”. (Fisk 2001, pp.x) In the aforementioned books there is a rich tapestry of language used in the telling of eyewitness accounts of war. It is interesting that Fisk, like Gellhorn, notes the moderating influence on the world stage of a man like Mikhail Gorbachev. (Fisk 2001, ppxi).
In “Drinking the Sea at Gaza” Amira Hass displays much of the language used by Fisk when describing the Intifada, Jihad, and Ramadan. She also makes use of maps like Fisk, and uses tables to show “Gazan workforce figures.” (Hass 2000, pp298).
All of these reporters encapsulate the art of war reportage. It’s hard to let go of the subject without mentioning Fergal Keane and his reportage on Rwanda. In ‘Letter to Daniel’, and in stories like ‘Nyarubuye’ (Keane 1996, pp.73-93) Keane brings us the story of what happened between the Tutsis and Hutus.
One senses that all the journalists empathise with the victims, and that they all hate war having seen the reality of it. Some, like Fisk, can bring humour to the situation as he does when describing how an Israeli tank shelled him. (Fisk 2001, Preface). All manage to capture the fear.
Having visited a number of trouble spots myself, I think I can empathise with the experiences of some of these journalists. Trips I’ve undertaken myself that could be considered somewhat dangerous include Israel, Turkey, Egypt after the Luxor massacres, South Africa where the ravages of apartheid could still be seen, and South Korea – the most militarised zone in the world. In Israel there was the constant noise of sonic booms as Israeli jet fighters swept overhead. The military presence was hard to avoid: machine guns pointed at our bus as we passed along the wire fortifications on the Israeli/Jordanian border, armed checkpoints outside Bethlehem, mine-fields up in the Golan Heights, young kids armed with deadly weapons. Even in Jerusalem there was unease when travelling on public buses, as Hamas had a policy of bombing them.
In Egypt there were armed soldiers at every tourist spot, and we needed an armed convoy one morning through a place called ‘Heenan’, which to my eyes looked innocent enough, but which was reputed to be a centre for Islamic fundamentalism. The armed convoy escorted approximately 50 buses that particular morning.
In South Africa, and especially Capetown, the shanty towns were an appalling sight, but in some ways and despite the changes enacted with the freedom of Nelson Mandela, what was more shocking were the disparaging comments made by well-to-do white South Africans towards their fellow countrymen.
Within the militarised zone of South Korea there is a narrow gauge rail-line that whisks passengers three hundred feet underground to a tunnel that the North Koreans dug when they were considering invading the south. It is one of three tunnels found, and so wide, that North Korean tanks could have flowed easily through it. The train stops at a wooden door – the other side of which is North Korea. The mountains of North Korea can also be seen from the heavy militarised border – American and Korean units.
In Turkey I visited the graveyards at Gallipoli and the memorials erected by Ataturk, a Turkish hero, to the allied soldiers who fell there. It was also in northern Turkey that we saw the wooden horse of Troy used by Greek soldiers to defeat the Trojans in the Trojan War.
The kidnapping and subsequent release of the ‘Guardian’ reporter, Rory Carroll, shows that the life of a war reporter is becoming increasingly dangerous. But despite the dangers Carroll was quoted as saying that “Iraq was such a big and important story that it was important for the media to be there to hold to account the British and US involvements there.” (Newman, 24th Oct 2005, pp.3).
Ultimately if journalism is to act like the “Fourth Estate” and act as a watchdog for the public, then none of us as journalists can afford to turn our backs on such a newsworthy topic. We must all aspire to Rory Carroll’s high ideals.
Ayres, Chris, 2005. War Reporting for Cowards: Between Iraq and a Hard Place. London: John Murray Publishers
Fisk, Robert, 2001. Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War. London: Oxford University Press.
Gellhorn, Martha, 1998. The Face of War. London: Granta Books
Hass, Amira, 2000. Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege. US: First Owl Books Edition.
Keane, Fergal, 1996. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, London, Penguin Books.
Jack, Ian, Kapuscinski, Ryszard, Simpson, John, Gellhorn, Martha, 1998. The Granta Book of Reportage. London: Granta
Knightley, Philip, 2003. The First Casualty. London: André Deutsch
Newman, Christine, 2005. ‘Strong Media Presence in Iraq Vital,’ says Carroll. ‘It’s fantastic to be home, it’s been a real roller-coaster’ in The Irish Times, 24th October, HomeNews, pp3.