The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism

June 22, 2012


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.”

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 ofGuerrillas and The Fall of Baghdad, remembers a seemingly inconsequential but revealing detail of civilian life as the war in Iraq began…

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