[Reprinted from Senior Correspondent.]
By Philip E. Jenks
“War,” said Martha Gellhorn, “happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say.”
In two sentences, Gellhorn captured the essence of war reporting.
No matter how graphic the videos of shock and awe on CNN, no matter how insightful the pundits’ advice about how to kill terrorists, no matter how piercing their denunciations of extremist jihadists, it all comes down to this: war happens to people.
Temporarily obscured in the mists of Hemingway when she was his third wife, Gellhorn emerged as a clear-eyed interpreter of human conflict.
It was important to tell the true story of war, she said, because so many people are indifferent to it. “Unless they are immediate victims,” she observed, “the majority of mankind behaves as if war was an act of God which could not be prevented; or they behave as if war elsewhere was none of their business. It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.”
Gellhorn saw more of war than most of her contemporaries. She covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the D-Day landings, the liberation of Dachau, the Vietnam War, the Six Day War in the Middle East, and more.
Woven tightly throughout her prose was a common thread: war is caused by human stupidity and injustice; war mutilates human bodies in grotesque and ghastly ways; and war happens to people one by one. Twenty-first century journalists have had ample opportunities to weave their own rhetorical threads. Bloody wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Ukraine, the Middle East, and God knows where, make it clear war correspondents will always be in demand.
What is less clear is whether journalists will be able to convince their viewers and readers that the basic truths of war have not changed: no war is an act of God; no war is inevitable; and wars elsewhere are everyone’s business.
CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and others have their pundits, but few of them work to get beneath the surface of the causes of war. Most discussions focus on whether President Obama is showing wise restraint or weak hesitation, whether ISIS can be defeated without boots on the ground, why Hamas keeps hurling missiles into Israeli territory, forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to retaliate with troops and bombs.
The result is a public left largely uninformed about the human beings who are directly affected by war, or the underlying reasons wars begin. Is it merely madness and sectarian fanaticism that inspire young men to join ISIS militias? Is Hamas firing missiles into Israel solely because of an ideological bias that Israel should not exist? Are Russian rebels infiltrating Ukraine just because Vladimir Putin has megalomaniacal designs on territory?
If the public accepts those simplistic views, it’s largely due to the headline grabbing summaries of reporters and pundits. In order to attract viewers and advertisers, video coverage of wars makes them look like trailers of blockbuster summer movies, featuring noise, fire, and smoke, and starring two-dimensional politicians.
It takes more than a looping five-minute video clip to tell the whole story of a war. It takes a reporter willing to spend weeks or months on the ground, talking to people, learning their history, observing the oppressions and injustices that spawn the desperation that leads to war. And it takes editors and producers willing to provide sufficient time to peer beneath the headlines to tell the complex stories that rarely rise to the surface. Perhaps if more people understood why wars begin, wars would be easier to prevent.
Very often, detailed and nuanced reporting of complicated stories is the province of freelance reporters who risk their lives to get the details.
One of these reporters was James Foley, a teacher and journalist from Rochester, New Hampshire, who worked for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse during the Syrian Civil War. Twice insurgents captured Foley, the first time in 2011 when he was released after 44 days. He returned to Syria the following year and was captured again on November 22, 2012. He became the first person with U.S. citizenship to die at the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria caliphate movement (ISIS). A crude video shows him being decapitated by his captors on August 19 in the Syro-Arabian desert.
The gruesome nature of Foley’s death sheds little light on ISIS ideology, except to confirm the assumption they are a group of madmen with a theology forged in the seventh century. Sadly, the impressions left by Foley’s death will only harden the riddles Foley returned to unwrap.
In memorial services for Foley, Roman Catholic Bishop Peter Libasci of the Manchester, New Hampshire diocese, said Foley “was living his faith by bringing images t9 the world of people suffering from war and oppressive regimes.” According to Fox News, Libasci read aloud a letter from the Vatican expressing the condolences of Pope Francis. He also prayed for another captive journalist, Steven Sotloff, and all captives.
“Jim went back again that we might open our eyes,” Libasci said. “That we might indeed know how precious is this gift. May almighty God grant peace to James and to all our fragile world.”
What James Foley knew that many of us miss is that Mideast violence is not the exclusive domain of violence and sectarian bigotries. Much of it has to do with millennia of strife between Sunni and Shi’a sects, and centuries of brutal European colonialism. It has to do with U.S. and European powers propping up brutal dictators to ensure access to oil and ports. In Israel and Palestine, it has to do with walls and roadblocks that prevent Palestinian farmers from attending their livestock or crops, and forces Palestinians — Muslims and Christians — to pass through abusive checkpoints to purchase groceries or visit the doctor.
Unfortunately, too many producers and publishers think it would take too long to tell these stories, which they fear would bore the viewing masses.
But it is in this hidden reality that people live. Without a deeper understanding of the causes of wars — the “atrophy of imagination” Martha Gellhorn feared — peaceful solutions in the Mideast seem forever futile.
The only hope, it seems, is in reporters like Foley and Sotloff and others who put their feet on the ground and risk their lives to remind us about Gellhorn’s truth:
“War happens to people, one by one.”
And wars will continue to happen to people if we don’t invest the time to heed the reporters who remind us.