“Devil-may-care heroics of movie version of “war” correspondents” by Robert Fisk
“It took a lot of courage to get into Homs; Sky News, the BBC, and a few brave men and women who went to tell the world of the city’s anguish and, in at least two cases, suffered themselves. I could only reflect this week on how well we got to know the name of the indomitable and wounded British photographer Paul Conroy, and yet how little we know about the 13 Syrian volunteers who were apparently killed by snipers and shellfire while rescuing him.
No fault of Conroy, of course. But I wonder if we know the names of these Syrian martyrs – or whether we intend to discover their names?
There’s something colonialist about all this. We have grown so used to the devil-may-care heroics of the movie version of “war” correspondents that they somehow become more important than the people about whom they report. Hemingway supposedly liberated Paris – or at least Harry’s Bar – but does a single reader remember the name of any Frenchman who died liberating Paris?
I do recall my television colleague, Terry Lloyd, who was killed by the Americans in Iraq in 2003. Yet, who can remember the name of one of the quarter or half a million Iraqis killed as a result of the invasion (apart, of course, from Saddam Hussein)?
The Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was killed in Baghdad by an American airstrike the same year. But hands up who remembers his name? Answer: Tareq Ayoub. He was a Palestinian. I was with him the day before he died.
The flak jacket has now become the symbol of almost every television reporter at war. I’ve nothing against flak jackets. I wore one in Bosnia. But I’ve been increasingly discomfited by all these reporters in their blue space-suits, standing among and interviewing the victims of war, who have no such protection.
I know that insurers insist correspondents and crews wear this stuff. But on the streets, a different impression emerges: that the lives of Western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the “foreign” civilians who suffer around them.
Several years ago, during a Beirut gun battle, I was asked to put on a flak jacket for a television interview by a journalist wearing one of these 12lb steel wrap-around. I declined. So no interview.
A similar and equally uncomfortable phenomenon appeared 15 years ago. How did reporters “cope” with war? Should they receive “counselling” for their terrible experiences? Should they seek “closure”? The Press Gazette called me up for a comment. I declined the offer. The subsequent article went on and on about the traumas suffered by journalists – and then suggested that those who declined psychological “help” were alcoholics.
It was either psycho-babble or the gin bottle. The terrible truth is that journos – and for God’s sake, we must stop demeaning our profession by calling ourselves “hacks” – can fly home if the going gets too tough, business class with a glass of bubbly in their hands. The poor, flak-jacketless people they leave behind – with pariah passports, no foreign visas, desperately trying to stop the blood splashing on to their vulnerable families – are the ones who need “help“.
The romanticism associated with “war” reporters was all too evident in the prelude to the 1991 Gulf War. All kinds of foreign journalists turned up in Saudi Arabia in military costumes. One, an American, even had camouflaged boots with leaves painted on them – even though a glance at a real desert suggests an absence of trees.
Oddly, I found that out in the loneliness of that real desert, many soldiers of the genuine variety, especially American Marines, were writing diaries of their experiences, even offering them to me for publication. The reporters, it seems, wanted to be soldiers. The soldiers wanted to be reporters.
This curious symbiosis is all too evident when “war” reporters talk of their “combat experience”. Three years ago, at an American university, I had the pleasure of listening to three wounded US Iraqi/Afghan war veterans putting down a journalist who used this awful phrase. One of the veteran journalists said politely:”Excuse me, Sir. You have not had ‘combat experience’. You have had “combat exposure”. That is not the same thing.” The veteran understood the power of quiet contempt. He had no legs.
We’ve all fallen victim to the “I watched in horror”/”screaming rockets”/”I was pinned down by shellfire/machine-gun fire/sniper fire” reporting. I suspect I used this back in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. I certainly did (use them) in southern Lebanon in the late Seventies. I am ashamed.
While we do bear “personal witness” to wars – a phrase I am also deeply uncomfortable with – this kind of Boy’s Own Paper stuff is a sign of self-regard. James Cameron caught this best in the Korean War. About to land with US forces at Inchon, he noticed “in the middle of it all, if such a thing be faintly conceivable, a wandering boat marked in great letters, ‘PRESS’, full of agitated and contending correspondents, all of us trying to give an impression of determination to land in Wave One, while seeking desperately to contrive some reputable method of being found in Wave 50”.
And who can forget the words of the Israeli journalist Amira Haas – Haaretz’s reporter in the occupied West Bank, whom I often quote. She told me in Jerusalem that the foreign correspondent’s job was not to be “the first witness to history” (my own pitiful definition), but to “monitor the centres of power“, especially when they are going to war, and especially when they intend to do so on a bedrock of lies.
Yes, all honour to those who reported from Homs. But here’s a thought: when the Israelis unleashed their cruel bombardment of Gaza in 2008, they banned all reporters from the war, just as the Syrians tried to do in Homs. And the Israelis were much more successful in preventing us Westerners from seeing the subsequent bloodbath.
Hamas forces and the “Free Syria Army” in Homs actually have a lot in common – both were increasingly Islamist, both faced infinitely superior firepower, both lost the battle – but it was left to Palestinian reporters to cover their own people’s suffering. They did a fine job.
Funny that the newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs. Just a thought. A very unhappy one.” End of quote
There are pieces of intelligence circulating in Lebanon testifying that the secret services of at least five western States are stationed in North Lebanon and aiding “foreign journalists” dispatched to Baba Amrou, a suburb of Homs. All these journalists and “war correspondents” entered clandestinely and exited clandestinely. The order to the Syrian military to invest Baba Amro was given on Feb. 24, and the attack was delayed three days in order for the diplomatic negotiations to vacate the foreign reporters succeed. Apparently, the reporters were held hostage by the rebels so that the incursion may be called off. The fate and suffering of these foreign “correspondents” are the responsibilities of their States who wanted badly to tarnish the image of the Syrian regime by any means possible.
Those rebels, not necessarily Syrians, who were harvested trying to sneak out the reporters to the Lebanese borders were fodder to a bigger nasty war game: The leaders of these rebels cashed in the ransom for liberating the wounded reporters.
It appears that the Syrian forces have rounded up about 1,500 “foreign mercenaries”, among them scores of parachutists from France and England. The term “cleaning up” used by the Syrian regime after the battle of Baba Amro was initially used by the Israeli forces when they invaded Lebanon in 1982 and directly killed 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians, and killed and injured far more during their stay in South Lebanon for 25 years.
Note 2: A few of Robert Fisk’s latest articles The new Cold War has already started – in Syria; ‘If only Hague and Clinton would listen to Yusuf Islam’, Poisoned spring: revolution brings Tunisia more fear than freedom; Could there be some bad guys among the rebels too? Robert Fisk: From Washington this looks like Syria’s ‘Benghazi moment’. But not from here