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Jon Lee Anderson: In the Field, In Over Your Head

April 8, 2013

The veteran war reporter’s advice to young journalists on safety, story, five-sense reporting, and the uses of rumor.

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Image courtesy of Rahilla Zafar

I first met New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson in 2007 in Kabul, at a dinner with about a dozen aid workers and foreign correspondents at the French restaurant L’Atmosphere. In just a couple of conversations with him, it was clear that he was the quintessential veteran reporter, interested in talking to and hearing the story of everyone he meets. Although he had traveled to Afghanistan many times, he listened to what others had to say rather than talking about his own experiences. During that trip, he traveled to the under-reported Uruzgan Province to cover the Taliban’s response to the U.S. poppy-eradication program. When I did get to ask him about his work—he has spent much of the last few decades in war zones—he shared insights you could never learn in the confines of an Ivy League school or a Manhattan office building.

I have since kept in touch with Anderson and last summer was part of his inaugural master class called Capturing the Story at La Porte Peinte located in a beautiful village in the heart of Burgundy. Sitting in the gallery of La Porte Peinte next to a display of knits and crochet dresses by New Zealand artist Cleo Thorpe-Ngata and Moroccan lights, Anderson talked with me about living in an extraordinary time, where a writer has the ability to reshape opinions. He also spoke on the tragic death of Daniel Pearl, encounters with Charles Taylor, finding integrity in reporting and his experiences determining safety in war zones.

Rahilla Zafar for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve talked about the importance of finding integrity in everything you write, would you elaborate on that?

Jon Lee Anderson: I think that feeling of reward comes from being able to find sometimes an unexpected reflection or insight that seems to transcend the description itself, where you actually realize you’re concluding something that is a point of view, that may come across and actually touch people’s conscience or minds in a way that could change, at least if not things, change points of view.

Every so often something observed, something that you can describe, offers that possibility. For me going to war offers me the ability to write about apparently very alien, sometimes hated or despised people, who’ve been objectified in a way that restores their humanity. Hopefully for my readers, that denies them the ability to objectify them. I think that’s the point. If you can do that, that’s a good thing.

That’s what’s terrible about wars [when] whole societies adopt an impulse of objectification. Everything becomes black and white: that society is that way, this society is this way. If they are suddenly cast in a negative light, that means you as a person have decided that they are killable. Once the bloodshed starts, that’s really what you’re saying.

My point is everyone who makes that kind of little shift in their thinking, where they suddenly now are viewing a certain nation or a certain society in a negative light, have taken a position in a war. If there’s blood being shed, you’re saying they’re killable. You’re sweeping them into the dust in the street. You have already taken a step in this war undeclared and you have to confront it.

If you can find a way to confound people’s prejudices, restore the humanity of people, individuals, in that landscape, you restore them to life. They’re no longer killable in quite the same way.

That’s why, really, these “embedded” experiences are so puerile and sterile ultimately—all they do is tell their own stories back to us.

You may have a troubled reader or group of readers on your hands, and that’s a good thing, because you stop them from simply dismissing these people and consigning them to death. When you have influential readers, believe me, they are consigning them to death, they are. It becomes much more difficult when suddenly they have to deal with someone who has an inner life, a family, parents, difficulty paying the mortgage, and is suddenly a three-dimensional, very believable human being, that seems awfully like you, your brother, your sister, your aunt, your cousin, your grandfather. It becomes difficult.

Guernica: Do you think it’s possible for mainstream American reporting to evolve and be more substantive?

Jon Lee Anderson: That’s the biggest challenge, I think, in reporting the world today and in cross-culturally reporting it. It’s vitally important that we have people who were able to do that constantly, and more and more and more. That’s why, really, these “embedded” experiences are so puerile and sterile ultimately—all they do is tell their own stories back to us. Sure there’s a virtue in going and writing about embeds, but it’s essentially an American story, which is somehow what we always do. If you go back to pre-’60s and try to find books in English about India or the countries that had different names then, Bechuanaland, all these places, Burma—they’re all written by Brits. The entire history of the world for a long period of time was written by a handful of people from the colonizer class. It’s extraordinary, the degree to which that was the case.

We live in an extraordinary time, in which one still has the ability to mold opinion. Also, it’s up for grabs. Perceptions are up for grabs in a way that it hasn’t been before, which makes it really interesting. Societies that have always defined other aspects of human experience, or histories, try to hold on to it and try to find ways to continue to be the ones who do the interpreting.

That’s why I’m a little bit resistant to say, “Yes, it’s valid. The American experience abroad is a valid experience,” but it’s not the whole experience. If all of our reporting is from within the frame of the embed, the America-centric’s version of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, what are we ending up with? It seems very self-referential and self-indulgent.

There may be positive aspects to it, but it doesn’t satisfy me. Ultimately it doesn’t serve history. How much do we even know of the Vietnamese experience, or the Vietnam War? Very little. Have they written it? I’m unaware. They probably have.

Maybe it’s very ideological and counter-opposed to ours. I don’t know. I don’t know of many Americans who know the Vietnamese version of it. We should at least know of it, surely, but we don’t. We wrote entirely our own version and that is what we are content with; it’s too difficult to look at what really happened.

Guernica: You travel to many of the most volatile places in the world. What guidance can you offer in determining safety?

Jon Lee Anderson: You need to have someone who interprets the local terrain for you until you can find your own antenna. You can apply a certain amount of instinct but you need to have someone who can help narrate the terrain to you and who speaks the language and so on.

I went into Aleppo with the rebels and I had someone at my side always saying, “They love us, everything is fine.” But I was looking at people’s body language and it wasn’t lovey-dovey.

Experience helps because you can tell when some things are chaotic. If you’re young and inexperienced you might accept what people tell you, that everything’s going to be fine, it’s okay. It’s usually other young people saying that, who don’t know any better. It’s good to have a survival instinct because increasingly, especially in the whole Arab Spring sort of violence, you’re mostly with young people who have not experienced what they’re doing before.

It’s all something they’ve been learning on the street, day after day, or that they sort of picked up from movies and video games—no kidding. A lot of the ones who were out there and are fighting, that’s their experience. In the case of Syria, a few have been soldiers; but really, it’s only now that the fighting is playing out in real life. You have to be very aware of what’s in the side case, watch people’s faces. I went into Aleppo with the rebels and I had someone at my side always saying, “They love us, everything is fine.” But I was looking at people’s body language and it wasn’t lovey-dovey. I was not at all comfortable in Aleppo. I didn’t feel that the rebels amongst us were a necessarily friendly or loyal constituency. I thought that at any moment it could flip—that’s the kind of thing you get from experience. You need to be hyper-aware because it’s your survival at stake. In the end, if you’re the outsider, if you look like the outsider, the attention is going to turn to you at some point. It can flip in a moment.

We have this idea that it’s okay to go off and do war. You come back, you can have an iPod, you can drive a Mustang, you can go on vacation.

Guernica: You spend a lot of time in war zones, what observations do you have on the long-term societal impact of war?

Jon Lee Anderson: The more I’ve traveled to war zones, the more I’m convinced that the impact and the effects are way beyond anything we can even begin to imagine. I distinctly remember how the United States changed after Vietnam, but we still live in denial of that and, God forbid, what’s been going in the last few years. We have this idea that it’s okay to be armed, it’s okay to go off and do war. You come back, you can have an iPod, you can drive a Mustang, you can go on vacation. Everything’s cool, what’s your problem? War is just what we do. Yet, of course, the effects of it are repeatedly deeper, then deeper, then deeper.

What war does to a society is deeply damaging. Look at the Russians. What kind of society do the Russians have? They have a violent, criminal state with a Mafioso as their President, and everyone in the world knows it. The only reason he’s getting any respect for the time being is because he has nuclear weapons. That’s it. He and 2,000 guys have raped that country and appropriated its natural assets for themselves.

That’s what happens when you decapitate intelligentsia and repeatedly traumatize and brutalize a country for decades on end: you do not get virtue. Victims do not make nice people.

How is it possible to live in world where people can rule millions of others? It’s incredible! It’s like we’ve gone back to the 12th century. That’s what happens when you decapitate intelligentsia and repeatedly traumatize and brutalize a country for decades on end: you do not get virtue. Victims do not make nice people. I just happened to choose Russia; we could use plenty of other examples;.

That’s the danger I see: you begin to have ruffian societies where it’s all about coercion. Then you dress it up so it’s less apparent, ritualized coercion. I go to war a lot, but make no mistake; I think it’s the worst thing on earth. There’s nothing worse that we do.

Guernica: You’re well respected for going into the field and taking the time to talk to everyone from the most influential to common people on the streets. What are some things you often find?

Jon Lee Anderson: It is important to know how influential people think and perceive their countrymen, let’s say, especially when you are talking about people in power. I think it can be very revealing how they regard themselves and their relationship or their responsibility to their countrymen. That is vital for us all to know and in order to be able to judge them and evaluate them.

On the other hand, I think it’s deeply important for us to know, especially when we come from the outside, how “ordinary people” think and feel and what their expectations are and what their concerns are. Also what’s in their imaginations, what’s in their minds, even what their rumors are and what their gossip is.

So often I am struck in different countries, in pretty much every country now, the degree to which you can know a society or know its problems, its lack of social incorporation, I guess you could say, by what people rumor. What they say about each other and especially about their leaders. In Liberia I found out that a lot of people in the capital city believed that Charles Taylor bathed each morning in a bucket of fresh human blood. They actually believed that of their President.

I had to ask him whether he did or not because so many people said so and swore that he did. Even influential people in that society believed it, including the Archbishop. He told me so. I suddenly felt I was transported back to Transylvania during the time of the horrific Countess Elizabeth. She killed over 600 virgins from the town and she had a whole staff that brought them to the castle and they were bled and she bathed. This really happened. She was the most prolific serial killer in history and somehow informed our post-literary imagination about Dracula and vampires and the rest of it. I felt, “God, so that’s what it’s like.”

In that case it was real. In [the case of Charles Taylor] it probably is imaginary. It tells you something, though, about the disassociation between people; that different levels of reality exist within. I think it’s fascinating. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve found many others over the years since.

Guernica: What did President Taylor say in response?

Jon Lee Anderson: “Oh my dear, people say such silly things.”

Was he proud of it?

He didn’t deny it outright. He laughed. He knew that it was a source of power, clearly, these rumors. He didn’t deny it outright. He said, “People say such silly things.” He stopped, he didn’t say any more.

Guernica: What are your feelings on the tragic death of Daniel Pearl?

Jon Lee Anderson: Well, it was a very particular time. It was so related to 9/11 and of course it was an iconic death. It terrified everyone and really cast a pall over everything, that region, the profession, the kinds of things you could do, for a long time. It’s one of the reasons why Pakistan in particular was so under-covered. Everybody knew that that could happen to you. Nobody likes to talk about it.

Out of respect for a colleague, his parents, his loved ones, a bunch of people who were still around, again, not too much detail is talked about. He did what a lot of reporters had done in other situations, without those consequences, which was take someone on blind trust. We’ve all done it. You hope for the best, sometimes. In his case, the nightmare happened. At some point, you have to put your trust in someone to take you somewhere you don’t know.

That, in retrospect, was a mistake. It’s kind of what journalists do all that time at different levels. You go into someone’s house and get passed on by people. Suddenly you’re with people you don’t know, in a car you don’t know, going somewhere you don’t know. Where are you? Where are you going? Who are these people anyway? You have to ask yourself these questions.

That was a really terrible, cautionary note that you need to make fail-safe plans or fallback plans, or not go off with people you don’t know. Like I say, we’ve all done it. I did that kind of thing many times. [If] you’re meeting urban guerrillas, you have to go on blind faith that you meet somebody, someone else, someone else; there’s not always been a journalist there before you who can vouch for somebody. It came up a few times [on] this recent trip to Syria. I would stop and say, “Wait a minute. We’re going with whom? Where? Who knows him? Remind me who knows him,” that kind of thing.

I don’t trust people anymore. I know a few people I really didn’t trust. I made a couple of probes into a different part of Syria before deciding on Aleppo. I took about five days to suddenly think, “Okay, this feels okay. Let’s do this one.” I spent four or five days going slow, making sure. I’m glad I did, because we could have ended going in where the jihadists were, where the foreign fighters were where they kidnapped two guys that they knew there. They fortunately got out after a week, but they were shot, they were beaten, they thought they were going to be killed. They escaped, [and] that’s why they’re alive today.

The cruise missile literally came between us and the building next to us—the vacuum that it caused was so great that we all fell on the ground… I looked down and I saw a family sitting on chaise lounges in the middle of the street.

Guernica: You talk about the importance of using the five senses in reporting, could you give an example how they helped you reach that extra dimension?

Jon Lee Anderson: I always think about a state of mind that I was in when Baghdad was being bombed. Again, this is an extreme example, but nonetheless I think it’s one that you can find in ordinary life. I remember being hyper-aware of how surreal my circumstance was because I was standing on the balcony of the hotel watching as American bombs and cruise missiles were hitting Saddam’s Republican Palace in front of me. I actually watched as these missiles hit these huge buildings and destroyed them.

Yet, I was somehow safe. I also remember one moment: I was standing with several friends and there was this gigantic ‘whoosh’ next to us. Only later did we realize that it was a cruise missile that was flying in at hundreds of miles an hour and had been probably sent from a submarine in the Indian Ocean. It literally came between us and the building next to us. The vacuum that it caused was so great that we all fell on the ground. Only when we got back up did we realize because of each other that we were all shouting involuntarily.

It had just ripped the screams out of us. It wasn’t pain, it was just literally a kind of involuntary physical reaction, and we were all doing it. I looked up—I there were three or four of us, we were all yelling. Then I remember there was a moment of lull. I looked down the street and I saw a family sitting on chaise lounges in the middle of the street.

In other words, I became acutely aware suddenly of routine differences and routine differences in ritual, what was normal, what wasn’t. I noted everything that was in its place or not in its place. These moments you have kind of heighten, I think, the ability to perceive. When routine is violently, or even not violently, displaced, you become aware of those routines.

You can see societies for what they are in a way that you normally don’t. I find these experiences incredibly valuable. I think that these same ways of seeing can be found without violence. I think these are tools we have at our disposal that are just sitting there, waiting to be picked up, but we so often don’t see them. That’s why I think it’s good to go through an exercise of being plunged in over your head somewhere, without too much violence or danger, much like the exercise we’ve done during this workshop.

Rahilla Zafar frequently travels to and writes pieces highlighting women’s issues in the Middle East. She has worked for international agencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and reports on entrepreneurship and innovation throughout the world.

Jon Lee Anderson began contributing to The New Yorker in 1998 and became a staff writer in 1999. He has reported frequently from Iraq and has covered the conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, and Lebanon.

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