We like our anniversaries in blocks of 50 or 100 – at a push we’ll tolerate a 25. The 100th anniversary of the Somme (2016), the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain (2015). Next year, we’ll remember the end of the Second World War, the first – and so far the only – nuclear war in history.
This week marks only the 74th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It doesn’t fit in to our journalistic scorecards and “timelines”. Over the past few days, I’ve had to look hard to find a headline about the two Japanese cities.
But, especially in the Middle East and what we like to call southeast Asia, we should be remembering these gruesome anniversaries every month. Hiroshima was atomic-bombed 74 years ago on Tuesday, Nagasaki 74 years ago on Friday. Given the extent of the casualty figures, you’d think they’d be unforgettable. But we don’t quite know (nor ever will) what they were.
Roosevelt, Churchill and the representatives of Russia and China signed the United Nations Declaration on New Year’s Day 1942, two and a half years before D-Day. After that, those words “United Nations” became the formal name under which the allies were fighting Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan.
The declaration, which would cover the aims of the 6 June 1944 landings, declared that victory was “essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice”. It also supposedly – and very significantly – upheld the Wilsonian “principles of self-determination”.
I’m old enough to have met the soldiers of the First World War – at Ypres in the late Fifties with my 1918 veteran dad, when the men of Passchendaele returned to their former battlefields on holiday. And later I met, on my own Normandy holidays, the men of D-Day.
I’m getting a bit tired of the US Espionage Act. For that matter, I’ve been pretty weary of the Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning saga for a long time. No one wants to talk about their personalities because no one seems to like them very much – even those who have benefited journalistically from their revelations.
From the start, I’ve been worried about the effect of Wikileaks, not on the brutal western governments whose activities it has disclosed in shocking detail (especially in the Middle East) but on the practice of journalism. When we scribes were served up this Wikileaks pottage, we jumped in, paddled around and splashed the walls of reporting with our cries of horror. And we forgot that real investigative journalism was about the dogged pursuit of truth through one’s own sources rather than upsetting a bowl of secrets in front of readers, secrets which Assange and co – rather than us – had chosen to make public.
Why was it, I do recall asking myself almost 10 years ago, that we could read the indiscretions of so many Arabs or Americans but so few Israelis? Just who was mixing the soup we were supposed to eat? What had been left out of the gruel?
“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and “ha, ha, I
hit them” say the pilots of a US Apache helicopter in jubilant
conversation as they machine-gun Iraqi civilians on the ground in
Baghdad on 12 July 2007.
A wounded man, believed to be the Reuters
photographer, 22-year-old Namir Noor-Eldeen, crawls towards a van. “Come
on buddy, all you have to do is pick up a weapon,” says one of the
helicopter crew, eager to resume the attack. A hellfire missile is fired
and a pilot says: “Look at that bitch go!” The photographer and his
driver are killed.
Later the helicopter crew are told over the radio that they have killed 11 Iraqis and a small child has been injured. “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle,” comments somebody about the carnage below.
As fighting between
rival forces rages on the outskirts of the Libyan capital, thousands of
refugees and migrants locked up in detention centres inside Tripoli say
they are terrified of what might happen to them.
Renegade General Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a parallel administration in the east, to march on Tripoli, the seat of the country’s internationally recognised government which is protected by an array of militias.
A three-month old baby shouldn’t look like this. It shouldn’t be a
tiny, motionless bundle with feeble, wrinkled skin stretched over its
bones. It shouldn’t have to be kept alive with a feeding tube and
intravenous fluids in an incubator.
The baby’s name is Saifullah, or “Sword of God,” and that is almost
all the nurse knows about it. At least it survived the first three days,
says the doctor. Statistically speaking, that is cause for optimism.
For the 20 to 30 children and infants that arrive each day at this
hospital in the Kurdish-controlled city of Al-Hasakah, Syria, the
biggest danger is that they’ll be “dead on arrival.” The name of the
hospital cannot be disclosed due to safety concerns. The same goes for
the name of the doctor.
This is where the weakest and most innocent members of Islamic State are taken — the sick children of the caliphate. The adults who remain loyal to the group were locked for months in a game of cat-and-mouse with Kurdish-commanded militias around their last remaining refuge in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. The vast territory once under control of IS — which at one point covered roughly the same area as Jordan — is now gone, the last of the extremist fighters having been dislodged over the weekend.
When young women come to me and say, “I want to be a war
reporter!” after seeing Hollywood films that glamorize the job, I
always tell them gently to consider the life that it entails. Perhaps
the mantra that first-wave feminists gave us is not true after all: you
cannot have it all. Or at least not without dark consequences.
In 2012, while working on a story about war criminals in Belgrade,
Serbia, I got a devastating early morning phone call: my colleague and
friend Marie Colvin was dead, killed by Bashar al-Assad’s bombs in Homs,
Syria. Her roller-coaster life is captured in a new film, A Private War, currently in theaters.
The director of A Private War, Matt Heineman, won accolades for his brilliant documentaries on the drug war (Cartel Land, 2015) and the Islamic State (City of Ghosts, 2017). He struggled, as did the actors, to make the film truly authentic. But because it is not a biopic (Heineman resists the term) and some characters are composites, the movie is confusing to those of us who know the real story. There were no good guys at the Sunday Times, where Colvin worked, who cared for her well-being. There were instead editors who wanted scoops at the expense of the safety of their reporters. Colvin had many friends in London, but none of them were similar to the Bridget Jones–style girlfriend character (portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird) in the film. Her last boyfriend was not a caring and loving Stanley Tucci but rather a man who gave her immense heartache and distress. There were no “heads on sticks” in Bosnia, as the character meant to be Colvin’s first husband, Patrick Bishop, says in one of the opening scenes (heads were on sticks in Chechnya). Colvin’s second husband, Juan Carlos Gumucio, is erased from the script altogether, though he played an important role in her life.
Every so often a lengthy newspaper or magazine article arrives that
all but demands a fuller and even longer treatment. Such was the case in
the Oct. 31 issue of The Sunday Times magazine in London, which
published translated excerpts from the diary of a Russian Spetsnaz officer who served for more than a decade as one of the Kremlin’s fighters in the Chechen wars.
Below is the full Sunday Times article…
An account written over 10 years, this is a chilling record of
executions, torture, revenge and despair during 20 tours of duty in
The war in Chechnya was one of the world’s most brutal conflicts. The Russians abducted, tortured and executed suspected militants in extra-judicial killings — brazenly violating Russian and international law. Up to 200,000 Chechen people, mostly civilians, are thought to have died in the Russia’s two bloody occupation, the first of which began in 1994. At least 5,000 Chechens simply disappeared.
War reporting is easy to do but difficult to do well. No one taking part in an armed conflict has an incentive to tell the whole truth. This is the case in all forms of journalism, but in time of military conflict the propaganda effort is at its peak and is aided by the chaos of war, which hobbles anybody searching for the truth about what is really happening.
Military commanders are often more aware than reporters of the complexity and uncertainty of news from the battlefront. Citing such reasons, the Duke of Wellington doubted if a truly accurate account of the Battle of Waterloo could ever be written.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson made a somewhat different point. Surveying the scene of recent fighting with an aide, he turned to him and asked: “Did you ever think, Sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”
He meant that war opens wide the door to deliberate mendacity because it is so easy to make false claims and so difficult to refute them. But there is more at work here than “the fog of war” that over-used phrase which exaggerates the accidental nature of the confusion and is often conveniently blamed as the cause of misinformation.
Propaganda, the deliberate manipulation of information, has always been a central component of warfare and never more so than at present. It tends to get a bad press and is the subject of much finger-wagging, but it stands to reason that people trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other.
La prima guerra mondiale è stata e rimane uno dei miti fondativi dello stato-nazione, soprattutto nei paesi vincitori. Gli anni tra il 1914 e il 1918 sono stati avvolti da un’aura di sacralità che ancora oggi si può cogliere nei monumenti, nei cimiteri e nelle cerimonie che ricordano la grande guerra.
Per anni il conflitto è stato sottratto ad analisi obiettive ed è stato letto solo attraverso la lente deformante dell’eroismo, dell’onore, della patria, della propaganda bellica. In Italia la letteratura ne ha affrontato i tabù, spesso con fastidiose conseguenze per gli autori: Emilio Lussu fu accusato di disfattismo e antipatriottismo per Un anno sull’Altipiano, mentre La rivolta dei santi maledetti di Curzio Malaparte incappò nella censura e fu sequestrato. Negli anni settanta sono stati pubblicati saggi critici e analisi storiche rigorose e obiettive, come quelli di Mario Isnenghi, Giorgio Rochat, Enzo Forcella, Alberto Monticone e Piero Melograni.
Tuttavia, con la ricorrenza del centenario della fine della grande guerra e le celebrazioni previste per il 4 novembre, il velo di retorica che con tanta fatica era stato sollevato è tornato ad avvolgere quegli anni. Ci sono state iniziative storicamente accurate, ma la propaganda nazionalista e militare nel tempo si è riappropriata dell’evento. Mentre fiction tv semplicistiche come Il confine e Fango e gloria – andate in onda su Rai1 – hanno favorito il ritorno di una visione patriottica della storia.