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The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism

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June 15, 2012

What Martha Gellhorn teaches us about the morality of contemporary war reportage.

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Images courtesy of Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

War correspondent Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was a household name—epitomizing bravery, glamour, and political commitment—to previous generations of Americans, especially in the 1930s and ’40s when she covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Nuremberg trials for mass-publication magazines such as Collier’s. Gellhorn is no longer well-known outside of journalistic circles, but that may change due to a mini-revival of works by and about her. Her 1940 novel about the fall of Czechoslovakia, A Stricken Field, which Eleanor Roosevelt, admittedly a friend, called a “masterpiece,” has recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press. Love Goes to Press, a play she co-wrote with fellow journalist Virginia Cowles, is currently playing at Manhattan’s Mint Theater on West 43rd Street. Perhaps most prominently, HBO recently aired (and continues to re-air) Hemingway & Gellhorn, which portrayed what the network called “the passionate love affair and tumultuous marriage” of the two writers (played by, respectively, Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman). The film was frequently ludicrous—see, for instance, the scene in which a young Chou Enlai, then a guerrilla (and looking, mysteriously, far more Amer-Asian than Chinese), tells Gellhorn and Hemingway that A Farewell to Arms was miscast. Still, it was nice to see a mainstream movie at least give lip-service to anti-fascism and show a real, live Communist as something other than the devil incarnate. There is little chance that the HBO film would have pleased Gellhorn, though: after her acrimonious divorce from Hemingway in 1945, he was her least favorite subject on Earth, and she bitterly resented being known as his ex-wife. “I simply never want to hear his name mentioned again,” she wrote to her mother. “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

In a career that spanned six decades, Gellhorn covered wars in, among other places, China, Finland, Israel, Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Some of her pieces can devastate us anew. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice,” she wrote from Dachau in May 1945. Her words still sting; in another dispatch from a just-defeated Germany, she mocked the self-pity and denial of ordinary Germans: “I hid a Jew for six weeks. I hid a Jew for eight weeks. (I hid a Jew, he hid a Jew, all God’s chillun hid Jews).” The unadulterated fury of these pieces often shocks my journalism students—Gellhorn herself later termed the Germany articles “paeans of hate”—and it is doubtful that they would be published (or written) today. But there was nothing in her tone that would have shocked American readers at the time (or, for that matter, those in England, France, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia . . . the list goes on). And it is awfully hard to imagine how one could write a balanced dispatch from Dachau.

At a time when the perils of war reporting seem to be on the increase, as evidenced by the recent deaths in Syria of journalists Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin and photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya (not to mention the hundreds of journalists and media workers killed in Iraq since 2004 and the dozens in Mexico in the last few years), Gellhorn’s approach to journalism is fascinating to revisit. To read her work, and talk to contemporary war correspondents about it, is to understand a paradox: Gellhorn’s approach to war reporting was utterly modern, indeed prescient—and, at the same time, has become completely outdated.

Gellhorn arrived in Spain in 1937 with the explicit purpose of aiding the Republic. But she didn’t know how—much less how to be a war correspondent. Years later, she recalled: “What made a story, to begin with? Didn’t something gigantic and conclusive have to happen before one could write an article?” A journalist friend of hers suggested that she write about Madrid. “Why would that interest anyone? I asked. It was daily life. He pointed out that it was not everybody’s daily life.” She added, “What was new and prophetic about the war in Spain was the life of the civilians, who stayed at home and had war brought to them.”

“Gellhorn’s despair is now the norm. Maybe in 1959 it was a crushing revelation; in 2012 it’s what reporters should expect and usually do expect.”

The civilians who had war brought to them: could there be a better encapsulation of the twentieth century’s trajectory of armed conflicts? “That statement shows a real clarity on Gellhorn’s part,” says Jon Lee Anderson, a reporter for The New Yorker who has covered wars in Central America, Iraq, and Syria. Statistics confirm Gellhorn’s insight: the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, has estimated that in World War I, soldiers constituted 95 percent of casualties; in contemporary conflicts, most of which are intra-national, unarmed civilians account for 80 to 90 percent of casualties. In many of today’s wars, civilians are the deliberate—indeed, the primary—targets: think, for instance, of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Ugandan group that enslaves children; of the militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are systemic practitioners of mass rape and vaginal mutilation; of the Taliban’s bombings of schools and marketplaces; of Al Qaeda’s attacks on Iraqi mosques; of Al Shabaab’s assaults on medical students, teachers, and soccer fans; of the recent wars in Darfur, Colombia, Chechnya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Political theorist John Keane has dubbed these conflicts “uncivil wars” whose perpetrators practice “violence according to no rules except those of destructiveness itself—of people, property, the infrastructure, places of historical importance, even nature itself . . . Some of today’s conflicts seem to lack any logic or structure except that of murder on an unlimited scale.” Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics has written that these new wars replace “the politics of ideas” with “the politics of identity” and cannot, therefore, be understood in conventional political terms. Kaldor argues that whereas the traditional goal of modern wars, including guerrilla wars and liberation movements, has been to win over native populations and establish a new state, the new warriors seek to sustain chaos, sow “fear and hatred” among their countrymen, perpetuate failed or imploded states, and expel (or murder) civilian populations.

This shift in war-making has been echoed by a shift in war reporting. Christina Lamb, now Washington bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London, spent more than two decades reporting on wars; yet it is people, not battles, which interest her. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I know about weapons,” says Lamb, author of Small Wars Permitting. “But for me the real story is daily life, particularly for women. They have to feed their children, educate them—even living on the edge.” Kim Barker, former South Asian bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Taliban Shuffle, agrees. “I don’t go out to the front and do the ‘bang-bang.’ The most interesting part for me is not how people die through war, but how they live through war.” Anderson, author of Guerrillas and The Fall of Baghdad, remembers a seemingly inconsequential but revealing detail of civilian life as the war in Iraq began:

“It was the first night of shock and awe, and it was hot. Looking down from my hotel in Baghdad, I saw people—Iraqis—had pulled their lawn furniture into the street. The bombs were all falling on the palaces of their leader across the river, and they were sitting in the street! That tells you something about the ways that humans behave, and reassert order and normality, no matter what. I’m not sure if that was reassuring, or surreal. And after the first night of bombing, everybody went to work the next day and pretended it wasn’t happening; they didn’t even look at the smoking ruins. This was a society that had been profoundly terrorized by its leader, and was terrified of what was to happen.”

But there is another reason, too, for the contemporary focus on civilians. Gellhorn called Spain the Causa. This commitment was the source of her deepest insights and her greatest failures: she did not report on the atrocities and executions perpetrated by the Loyalists. In fact, Gellhorn took a clearly partisan stance in virtually every war she covered; as her biographer Caroline Moorehead wrote, Gellhorn was “more committed than almost any journalist of her generation to promoting the cause of oppressed people everywhere.” She was fervently pro-Israeli (in 1948, in 1967, and after), and equally fervent in her opposition to U.S. policies and actions in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. I can’t predict what she would say about any particular contemporary war–speaking for the dead is always dangerous—but I’m pretty sure she agreed with her friend Robert Capa when he told her, “In a war you must hate somebody or love somebody, you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on.”

For many contemporary journalists, though, the political issues that compelled Gellhorn—especially those of fascism/anti-fascism—are much harder to discern. This does not mean that “neutrality” rules the day. John F. Burns, who has spent almost four decades covering conflicts for the New York Times, harkens back to Bosnia. “I could say from my reporting that there was a principal aggressor—the Serbs—and a principal victim: the Bosnian Muslims, and any attempt to make equal what was not equal would have been completely wrong. Once you report the facts there is an obligation—an obligation—to draw from those facts certain kinds of conclusions. I am not a stenographer.” But the Bosnian War may be the exception that proves the rule: like Spain’s, it drew large numbers of reporters and photojournalists, among them David Rieff, Roy Gutman, Samantha Power, Peter Maass, and Gilles Peress, who openly supported the Republic, and who vehemently argued for Western intervention against the Serbs. The Bosnian War was one of the first to reveal what the post-Cold War world order would look like, and yet in many ways it was the last of the “old” wars.

The political paradigm that defined the “old” wars is nowhere to be seen in many of today’s conflicts. “The ideologies that we had during the Cold War don’t exist any more,” says Elizabeth Rubin, who has reported from Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “It’s not about siding with the partisans against the imperialists. The landscape of war is far more complex now.” Indeed, there are now millions of people suffering through brutal conflicts in which causas, even impure ones, are as impossible to find as peace; these conflicts resemble auto-exterminations more than traditional wars, and they often last for decades. And ground zero for such conflicts is, undoubtedly, East and sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the world’s most tenaciously savage— and often forsaken—wars in places such as Congo, Somalia, Chad, Uganda, Burundi, and Sudan. “The West has its responsibilities there,” says Burns, who won the George Polk Award in 1979 for his reports from southern Africa. “But this is the emergence of anarchy.”

Jeffrey Gettleman, Burns’s colleague, is stationed in Nairobi and won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of East and sub-Saharan Africa. In many of the area’s wars, he says, “You don’t see ideological battles. This is indiscriminate, predatory violence. You put an assault rifle inside a woman[’s genitals] and pull the trigger: what is the strategic value of that? Many of these groups have no interest in spreading ideas or winning support. They don’t do things like that anymore.” Raymond Bonner, who reported for The New Yorker and the New York Times for thirty years and is the author of Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador, notes, “Salvador was a simple war. An absurd war. There were two sides: the government and the rebels. Somalia is much, much more complicated. There are no sides, just factions.” Anderson describes today’s postmodern combatants—he cites in particular Al Shabaab and the gangs of Latin America—as “utopian thugs,” and he is simultaneously wistful and clear-eyed about the gulf that divides Gellhorn’s time from ours. “Gellhorn was partisan in a way I can’t be,” he says. “It had to do with her generation. If I had been covering Spain in the 1930s, I hope I would have been partisan too! But that’s been denied me. I grew up in a more complicated time.” The key to covering such conflicts is not to impose a left-right grid on opponents who adhere to none of the political ideas traditionally associated with these terms, nor to magically transform drugged-out teenagers with AK-47s into noble freedom fighters. Rather, says Gettleman, journalists must “put ourselves in the shoes of the suffering.”

Gellhorn, too, spoke for the sufferers—or rather, for some of them. For reasons of both safety and ideology, she rarely passed over to the “other” side. (This was true of Capa, too). Fascists in Spain, Americans in Vietnam, contras in Nicaragua, death squads in El Salvador: none of them really interested her. (She did interview Palestinian refugees, albeit unsympathetically). For contemporary journalists, that paradigm, too, has changed. Some of Burns’s best dispatches from southern Africa, for instance, brim with empathy for the dilemmas of white South Africans and Rhodesians. “The stereotype is the enemy of good journalism,” he explains. “There were Afrikaaners who did to death the Steve Bikos. But others were fundamentally decent. Some of them were to be found even in the government, misguided as they may have been. It’s our job to tell the story.” Barker makes a distinction between perpetrators and those who might support them—a distinction that was, I think, entirely foreign to Gellhorn. “Who’s going to be pro-Taliban?” Barker asks rhetorically. “No no no. You can’t come out on the side of people who are willingly doing civilian killings: there is no way you can defend that. But you can understand the perspective of people who support the Taliban because of corruption, or because, ‘The Americans killed my brother.’” Rubin explains, “You end up sympathizing with civilians who are caught up in the middle. Take the guy from the Mahdi Army [in Iraq] who is picking up a gun—maybe his entire family has been wiped out. It’s hard not to have sympathy. That doesn’t mean you are siding with an idea or with the Mahdi army. You’re siding with ‘the people’; you’re going to take the side of people whose lives are being shattered.” The struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible did not compel Gellhorn, but it haunts the journalists of our time. “There is an unfathomable quality about some of these conflicts,” Anderson admits. “How does one understand the Shabaab? It would be very difficult for a Westerner to feel sympathetic in any way because of what they do. Or Al Qaeda: theirs is an almost medieval violence. We have to overcome a revulsion first. But I think it’s important to try to understand them.”

“For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind.”

Gellhorn’s relationship to her profession was as demanding as those with her husbands, lovers, and son. In 1959, she wrote a scathing, heartbroken essay in which she looked back on the journalistic work that she and others had published in the ’30s, when they warned the Western democracies about the fascist threat. This “Federation of Cassandras” had, she charged, turned in “a perfectly useless performance”: “The guiding light of journalism was no stronger than a glow-worm . . . For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind.”

It is this sense of anguish—or, some would say, realism—that many of today’s journalists share. “I don’t expect to have an effect beyond changing perceptions and consciousness, and that is such a small thing compared to changing behavior of the public and the government,” says The New Yorker’s George Packer, who has reported from Iraq, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. “Gellhorn’s despair is now the norm. Maybe in 1959 it was a crushing revelation; in 2012 it’s what reporters should expect and usually do expect.” Rubin, too, understands Gellhorn’s deep disappointment, but warns that this might be a form of arrogance. “Who told you that you could write an article and change the world? There is both a hubris and a despair that we labor between.” She adds, “We think there’s somebody who will care, who will intervene—but who is that somebody? I think what you’re seeing in the Arab uprisings is that there is no ‘who,’ no moral authority coming to save the oppressed. The people are the ‘who.'”

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Martha Gellhorn, Photo courtesy of Sarah J. Coleman

It is a sentiment that, I think, echoes Gellhorn at her best—which is to say, at her most democratic. And it can, perhaps, bridge the chasm between the moral and political certainties of her time and the anxious confusions of ours.

G

Susie Linfield‘s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence is out in paperback. She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU, where she teaches journalism.

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6 comments for The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism

  1. Comment by Alex M. Pruteanu on June 15, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Fantastic piece. She has been one of my long time hero journalists. Her collected columns in “Once There Was a War” are outstanding. In many ways, for me, she surpassed Hemingway’s prose, as well as reportage. What a wonderful journalist.

  2. Comment by Stephen Hopkins on June 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    My response to Susie Linfield’s pieces is coloured (or informed – you choose) by the fact that I had the good fortune to work with Marie Colvin on a TV documentary for the BBC about Martha Gellhorn, made around the time of the invasion of Iraq, and my partner happens to be a Spaniard, born and raised in Madrid under Franco. An unusual perspective – you don’t tend to forget your presenter taking phone calls from senior Iraqi politicians whilst filming in front of the ovens at Dachau, or visiting the bullet scarred ruins of Belchite in Zaragoza, deliberately left so by Franco as an example of the irresistability of his forces, with someone whose family and friends, like so many Spaniards, still find it difficult to talk about a war they feel was effectively continued until the Caudillo’s death in 1975. Much is made in the piece about Gellhorn’s anguish and the relevance, if I can put it that way, of that today. But it should also be remembered that Martha felt very strongly that what she – and all other correspondents – could do – ‘put it on the record’ – was of value. Was, in fact, of vital importance: “If nobody puts it down on the record anywhere, then the monsters win totally”, she said. “It must be some place on the record because otherwise they can get get by with anything. Does it stop anything? I have no feeling that anything I’ve done has been of any use, but at least it is better than silence. Because if you are silent then they can rewrite it any way they want. They can make it look great afterwards wards. So there is a point in the record.” Being able to give a copy of her record – ‘The Face of War’ – to a guide at Finca Vigía, the house she shared with Hemingway just outside Havana, and drawing the attention of a curator at Dachau to the fact that Martha had been there, it had changed her life, and she had written powerfully about that, seemed important and valuable. One other thing. For the 1986 Virago press edition of ‘A Stricken Field’, Martha wrote an ‘Afterword’. In it she said (of the Munich Agreement), ‘The moral of that moment in history has lasted for me permanently: never believe governments, not any of them, not a word they say; keep an untrusting eye on what they do’. Two lessons, then, to bear in mind alongside the eternal truth that, as another American famously said, ‘The first casualty when war comes, is truth’.

  3. Comment by Carl Rollyson on June 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

    As Gellhorn’s biographer, I also learned that she could turn a blind eye to what was politically inconvenient for her to acknowledge.

  4. Comment by shaun darragh on June 22, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Carl Rollyson’s comment above is most telling, and one to which one can only add: “…as can we all.”

  5. Comment by Ivan K. on June 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    The interviewed Elizabeth Rubin speaks of a world where ideologies from the Cold War don’t exist anymore. The aim at retaining USA worldwide military supremacy as well as the West’s antagonism toward the (pro-NATO) Kremlin can be easily seen as ideological in nature. And, of course, there is at least one new ideological doctrine: humanitarian interventionism a.k.a. the Responsibility To Protect.

    Anderson admits: “How does one understand the Shabaab? It would be very difficult for a Westerner to feel sympathetic in any way because of what they do. …..”

    Someone is: Thomas C. Mountain.

    http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/03/10/un-somali-surge-vs-al-shabab-expansion/
    http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/07/26/world-food-program-in-somalia-angel-of-mercy-or-angel-of-death/

  6. Comment by Colin Holden on June 25, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    I just have to say the statistic from WWI can’t possibly be true and has to be from a work that described the UK efforts alone (I mean come on Russia?). But any even conservative look at WWI civilian deaths puts them in the millions on millions.

    And while there are horrible acts committed around the world, that scale of death is not hapeening any more. A look at ongoing conflicts show how low the bar is, as a conflict claiming less than 1000 lives gets to be on the map while before this would have hardly counted as a punitive expedition.

    I’d like to float another theory. The era of lines of litterally millions of men being run against each other is over. And with that over, war is now left to amateurs. Brutal, adolescent psychotic amateurs.

    Take the Missouri guerrilla civil war without the more edifying real civil war going on in Virginia and environs (cf: Ride With the Devil). If states choose to stop investing in the scale and brutality of the old-style war in the east it doesn’t stop the brutal war in the West. It makes that kind of war, which was always there, the only one left to look at.

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