Tuesday, May 27, 2008

War without Frontiers

Vietnam invades me. I don't know how old I am exactly, just that I'm young and I haven't really seen this before: a soldier ecstatically killing people in a place that is not nearly so far away as it should feel. I'm only a kid and I am sick and frightened. The television is on.

It's no surprise in a story about war and how journalists negotiate it that I should find myself pulled back towards this moment in a reading of Michael Herr's magnificently sick Dispatches, diary notes from his time as a correspondent in Vietnam that resound with all the riffing energy of Jimi Hendrix playing 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

"You know how it is," Herr recalls, "you want to look and you don't want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at war photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or lots of dead lying close together in a field or a street, often touching, seeming to hold each other. Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn't clear at all, something repressed that monitored the images and withheld their essential information. It may have legitimised my fascination, letting me look for as long as I wanted; I didn't have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world."

This distress and shame in the face of such information serves as a base note for what is happening again today. For what Martin Amis once defined as the primal nature of our morality: a feeling that rises from the gut and won't go away.

The media is currently awash with metaphors comparing the situation in Iraq with the Vietnam War, likening the troubles in Fallujah to the Tet Offensive and the sordid torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prison to the My Lai massacre.

Various academics and pro-occupation exponents deplore such slovenly historical parallels. But there is one crucial element they cannot dispute: that Vietnam became a war of disenchantment with war, and that the media's part in propagating this disenchantment destroyed the will to continue. As has so-often been said, Vietnam was 'the first television war' and 'the war that was lost in the lounge room'. When it comes to the reporting from Iraq, it may well be that the media tide has already shifted the possibility of America and its allies sustaining their course.

For as another dirty war envelops an occupying force, and the idea of a frontline as we once understood it continues to dissolve - both within Iraq and internationally with the larger 'War on Terrorism' – notions like 'shock and awe' and the imperatives for a stable and democratic solution are no longer visible. The news is 'messy', the situation degenerate. We feel lost.

With such consistently troubling and confusing news comes renewed concern for war reporters and the kind of stories they tell.

The fact over a third of journalists killed across the world in the last year were in Iraq accentuates this focus. According to the committee to protect journalists (CPJ), 25 journalists have died there since March 2003, out of a total of 55 worldwide since the start of that year.

The CPJ recently announced the risks in Iraq are "unprecedented", calling it "the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist". This is especially the case for the independent reporters known as 'unilaterals', who first chose to work outside of the restrictions of being 'embedded' and continue to be active outside of a military safety net.

Clearly local insurgents and rebel forces no longer respect rules of war or the notion that journalists are non-combatants. Many see journalists as yet another example of Western infiltration and domination, someone to be wiped out or used as a bargaining chip. Their 'fixers', local Iraqi journalists, translators and drivers who work with them, are being murdered in 'shark attacks' and run even greater risks for far less reward, let alone story credit.

That many in Iraq have been wounded or killed by 'friendly fire' only adds to concerns. The International Press Institute (IPI) lists seven journalists killed by US forces in the conflict.

Nik Gowing from BBC International, in an article called 'Aiming to stop the story?' (written in the wake of the 2003 shelling of the Hotel Palestine that housed all the independent journalists in Baghdad) spoke of "a growing fear in our business that some governments...are sanctioning the active targeting of journalists in war zones in order to shut down what we are there to do."

Not everyone, however, feels quite so conspiratorial about rising mortality rates in the profession. In a story for The Age last year, the Canadian journalist Declan Hill spoke of the way Iraq had become like an overcrowded building site, with large numbers of journalists wandering around an unstable situation, under ever-increasing pressure to produce news, and lots of it.

The demands of cable channels like CNN (whose worldwide success was born out of the first Gulf War) and new competitors like Fox and MSNBC, alongside rapid advances in the instantaneousness nature of supporting information technology - faster, lighter satellite phones and laptops, digital cameras, night vision goggles and alike - fuels this pressure for "real time" war reporting and a highly competitive environment across the journalistic spectrum. News as entertainment, news as product, but, more rarely, news that has meaning - and news we genuinely care about. We are, simply, using up the world faster than we used to.

Independent English cameraman Max Stahl - who has won two international awards for the footage he took of the Dili massacre at Santa Cruz in 1991 and of people attempting to flee the UN compound in Dili in 1999 - speaks of the way technology and product-oriented attitudes are destroying journalistic depth. "I know for a fact in Afghanistan many of the reporters were reading back to their audiences what they had been told by offices back in London," he says. "The guy in the hillside in Afghanistan didn't know what was going on."

"But there is nothing else you can do if you set up this requirement that news must be instant, that news is defined as something that happened a moment ago. There is a kind of illusion that if you get it now then you are getting the truth; nothing could be further from the truth if you want to understand what has happened, you need to understand what goes on behind it, underneath it. For that you need time. In other words, the instant news machine is the enemy of truth and of real communications, but right now the instant is absolutely, oppressively, crushingly dominant."

Issues of censorship, particularly in America, only increase the indifference of such consumption patterns and homogenized views of war that fail to engage, let alone outrage, the public. No coffins of dead soldiers arriving at military bases to be shown on the American news, minimized use of extreme images of war violence or suffering. In this way a sterilized media is kept in check, as much through self-censorship as any external pressure. The grim sights in Fallujah and now Abu Ghraib serve as sudden, disillusioning punctuation.

Labouring through this analytically devalued climate on the Right and the Left, the author and war correspondent David Rieff (Susan Sontag's son) observes that, "A journalist's role is to puncture euphemisms and denounce the kind of thinking that is based on meaningless or obfuscatory language. I think writers and photographers should be as unconstructive as possible. I don't think we should become servants of our hopes either. We are their to be critical, to tell the truth insofar as one can know it."

Like Max Stahl, David Rieff's words leap from the pages of Bearing Witness - The Lives of War Correspondents and Photojournalists (Random House Australia) with bracing effect at a time when we know too much and yet nothing at all. Edited by Denise Leith, who teaches Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Bearing Witness adopts a first-person structure with conversational reflections from Stahl, Rieff, CNN's Peter Arnett, the ABC's Monica Attard, British Middle-East veteran Robert Fisk and Australian cameraman David Brill among others, offering up their experiences in the field along with insights into their profession and the personal costs of what they see.

Leith says she wanted "to look beyond the stories and pictures to the people who do these things and ask, 'Who are these people? Why do they do it? What is the cost?' It's about levels of bearing witness, really... There are just layers upon layers."

Time and again Vietnam emerges in Bearing Witness as a galvanizing moment for these journalists. Certainly, the American military was stung by what it saw as a media-propelled defeat in Vietnam. It was a major reason for the conduct of the secret or covert wars in Latin America - and for the continued isolation of the media during the First Gulf War, where it attempted to dazzle reporters and the public with aerial bombardments, exaggerated statistics and highly restricted on-the-ground reporting.

The shift in this current war to 'embedding' journalists with troops was not about an opening; rather it was more a strategic response to the internet and advanced communications, which forced a reconsideration of the media and how to control it.

Former journalist and media historian David McKnight, from the University of Technology, Sydney, speaks of the way "you can be captured by your sources, in this case the soldiers who defend, feed and sleep beside you."

"Against that," McKnight says, "any war still allows for a very old fashioned style of journalism: eye witness reporting of what happens in front of you without any filters. A good thing," he adds sardonically, "if you know what you are seeing. There's an old adage that war is a continuation of politics by other means. But in the piling up of event after event after event we start to ask what does it all mean? We see the war, but not the politics that lead up to or continue it."

It's no accident the most important revelations from the war have come from Seymour M. Hersh, an investigative reporter patiently working in Washington to uncover the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. Hersh was also the man who brought the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the attention of the American public. Hersh told PBS Radio that the current Bush administration, “don’t believe in bad information… not even bad news that can prevent a lot of trouble.” “It’s not that they’re cover-up artists,” he explained to PBS Radio, ‘they’re self-deception artists… and if you disagree you’re a traitor.”

This is why the independent journalist, the freelancer or 'unilateral' as they are lately called in Iraq, is so crucial to our interpretive and critical view of war, and of news from other forgotten fronts unsupported by network ratings and pack-like media attention.

In a sense what we are really witnessing in Iraq - and in the entire wake of September 11 - is the collapse of those divided notions of a First and Third World. It's certainly interesting to hear the American photographer James Nachtwey's thoughts as he clicked away at the falling towers of the World Trade Centre after covering so many wars in the Middle East and Africa. "This idea crystallised that I had been working on the same story all the time."

One of the great photographers of the era, Nachtwey has a crusading vision for his work as anti-war. Though it's impossible to dispute the power of his images, fellow photographer Chris Morris says: "I almost feel like you have got to say a prayer before you open up Jim Nachtwey's book Inferno. I find there is so much evil that comes out of it. I told Jim, 'I need some voodoo candle lights to keep safe.' It is a very heavy book. Do you think your mind can go through that book, the whole book, in one sitting?"

It may be that the search for truth still lies with the technology that is corrupting our news intake and fragmenting our ability to see the bigger picture. The rise of so much available and portable communications has allowed for dissenting individuals and news services to flourish, notably Al-Jazeera, the Fox network of the Arab world. Bloggers like Salam Pax who kept a web-diary of his experiences as a citizen during the attack on Baghdad have also attracted enormous interest.

In the end, however, it's the recognition of those secondary figures working alongside Western journalists that mark the next vital stage: the de-colonization of the media. Dith Pran is known to the world through a film like The Killing Fields, but there are many like him who with added training, support and due credit have much to tell us. In Bearing Witness the Sierra Leone journalist and documentary maker, Sorious Samura, asks why this is taking so long: "What are you guys so afraid of?"

- Mark Mordue

* This essay first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages under the title 'A War with no frontline', May 22-23, 2004.

* Top image is of Phan Thị Kim Phúc: born 1963 (and now a Vietnamese-Canadian)she was the subject of one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam War. It shows her at about age nine running naked on the street after being severely burned on her back by a U.S.-coordinated napalm attack on 8th June, 1972. The photo was taken by AP photographer Nick Út.

Next black and white image is of AP photographer Huynh Thanh My covering a Vietnamese battalion pinned down in a Mekong Delta rice paddy about a month before he was killed in combat on 10 October 1965. RIP. Sourced from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/05/in_pictures_the_vietnam_war_/html/4.stm

Other images freely available via internet sources and usual suspects.

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