Chris Hedges on War and the Press

By Robin Sloan
Online Reporter

Chris Hedges is a former war correspondent with fifteen years of experience in places such as El Salvador, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf. He's worked at the Christian Science Monitor, the Dallas Morning News, and most recently The New York Times, where he shared in a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of global terrorism.

Now he's written a book called "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." It's a slim but stirring volume, a meditation on the culture of war and war reporting.

Chris Hedges recently spoke with Poynter Online by phone; here's an edited transcript.

Poynter Online: In your book, you write about war reporting as an addiction, and about the clique of war correspondents who go from conflict to conflict, trying to reclaim the high of danger and risk.

But most of the reporters in and around Iraq today aren't war reporters, and for many this is their first war assignment. These aren't adrenaline junkies; they're people who are simultaneously nervous and excited and quite new to this. How do they fit into your vision of war and war reporting?

Chris Hedges: Well, in short, they don't. People like that are very pliable, which is why the military likes them. Usually in any war zone only ten percent of the journalists want to go out and actually cover a war. Most of them are hotel room warriors and that's why there's a great deal of enmity between those of us who spend all of our time in the field and the majority of the press that doesn't.

As far as I can tell, most of the press coverage of this war is going to be carried out by embedded journalists. They will be completely dependent upon the military for logistics, including transportation. Most probably don't want to get very near fighting, and I think the military will be only too willing to oblige.

We will end up with a situation that will be similar to the first Persian Gulf war. The problem is that when media organizations send reporters to cover a conflict they have no experience at all, they have no language skills, they've probably not been in the military. And this really hurts the coverage because they just don't have either the skills or the self-confidence to strike out on their own.

And that's what the military really fears. It fears the independent reporters who break free from the pack, who have their own transportation. We saw this in Afghanistan, we saw it in the first Persian Gulf war, and I am sure that we will see it once again.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, you said: "In wartime, the press is always part of the problem." Is that what you're talking about here?

Partly. If you go back and look at the role of the press since the Crimean War, when the modern war correspondent was invented, the press has almost always seen itself as an important part of the effort to sustain morale and promote and support the war, whatever war effort it is.

The press gives war a kind of mythic narrative that war, in fact, doesn't have. We saw it in Bosnia. Most of the wars I reported did not involve U.S. soldiers -- they were conflicts in which the United States wasn't involved, so that if I went into a town in El Salvador, a town in Kosovo, or a town in Bosnia, I reported straight out what I saw: the bodies in the central square, the burning houses. But if a Serb or a Croat or a Muslim journalist went into the town, they saw it through the lens of their nation at war. So they went and searched for that home-town hero, or the refugees or displaced people from their ethnic group who had been liberated, or evidence of the perfidious crimes carried out by the enemy. They gave it a kind of story, they gave it a kind of narrative that war and combat usually doesn't have.

You see this when you go through a fire-fight. You have a lot of emotions that you wouldn't expect. One of them is humilitation, because you just don't have control. It's a very humbling experience.

But as soon as it's over you try to piece it together as a story: "How am I going to talk about this event that frankly was just confusing for the most part?"

Doesn't that happen with all reporting? The image of a journalist on the way back to the newsroom, already working out what the lead is going to be -- that's very familiar --

I think you're right in a way, but I think in war it's different, because you need a hero. We turned Schwarzkopf into a hero. You need a hero in wartime. That mythic narrative of war boosts ratings, it sells newspapers -- it's how William Randolph Hearst built his empire -- and sensory reporting, without that imposed mythic narrative, doesn't.

So yes, I think journalists always think about how they're going to tell the story. The problem is in wartime, we need the hero, we need the evil enemy, we need the hometown boy, we need the story of pathos. We fill the slots on the stage to fit the myth. And that's part of the danger, I think.

We have seen -- I think Vietnam was a good example of, you know, eventually it was impossible for the press to report on Vietnam as a mythic narrative. They reported on it in a sensory way. Once that veil of myth is pulled aside, and people see war -- especially modern war -- for what it is, which is organized, very impersonal industrial slaughter, it becomes pretty unpalatable.

William Powers had a column in National Journal on Friday with tips for journalists who are going to have to cover and quantify that industrial slaughter. He wrote:

The phrase "collateral damage" is notorious, but there are lesser variants that have the same effect, making the abominable seem downright benign. "Civilian casualties" itself is a pallid little phrase that evokes none of the horrors -- or the human beings -- it contains.
What's your advice to journalists writing about civilian casualties?

Well, I don't think they're going to see many civilian casualties. I think that's part of the plan.

If everything goes as the army says it's going to go, if "shock" and "awe" is carried out as it's portrayed -- 3,000 precision-guided weapons dropped in the first 48 hours -- what we're talking about is large numbers of indiscriminate civilian dead, and I suspect they're going to do their best to keep the journalists from reporting that. They don't want pictures of that on Al Jazeera or CNN or anywhere else.

In terms of the phrases, I think that's a really good point. You know, one of the things that always happens in wartime is that the state gives us the language by which to speak. It hijacks language, and the press parrots it back to us. "Showdown with Iraq," "Countdown to Iraq," even using the term "shock and awe" -- I have this notion of Iraqis standing back in Baghdad being shocked and awed. Well, you know, what they are going to be is dismembered, eviscerated, and killed.

So whatever disquiet we feel, we're almost robbed of the vocabulary with which to speak. I think the press would be well-advised to carry a copy of Politics and the English Language by George Orwell in their pocket. All of these phrases are meant to mask the horror show that war is, and that this war is going to be.

Generally, local coverage of the buildup around Iraq, has focused on local soldiers -- the hometown heroes -- and their experiences. What other stories can local reporters tell about this war?

The problem is not between local and national. The problem is between embedded and independent. Once you're embedded, it doesn't matter whether you're with The New York Times or The San Antonio Light, you're still going to be at the mercy of the army. You're going to see what they want you to see, report what they want you to report, go where they want you to go.

What I worry about is that we will have very little or no independent coverage, and this will -- as in the first Persian Gulf war -- become one giant commercial for the army. I think you have to look back at how willing the Pentagon and the first Bush administration were to lie to us.

I was up on the Kuwaiti border with the U.S. Marine Corps, and night after night there were waves of Vietnam-era B-52 bombers dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of iron fragmentation bombs all over Iraq. We watched these huge fireballs and could feel the concussions go through the air.

Yet, the way the air campaign was portrayed was very different, because of the packaged video clips that were handed to the networks and then quite willingly disseminated by the networks. People had a vision of precision-guided weapons hitting specific targets, when in fact that was a tiny percentage, I think about four percent, of all the ordnance used on Iraq. We devastated Iraq. The Iraqi dead were nameless, faceless phantoms.

We saw in Afghanistan what happened when the Washington Post reporter Doug Struck was trying to investigate civilian dead outside of Kandahar. A Special Forces unit threatened him at gunpoint, said they were going to shoot him if he went any further. For me that's a clear indication of what they're going to tolerate and what they're not going to tolerate. I think in this war, because it will be so messy in a way that Afghanistan and certainly the first Persian Gulf war weren't, it will be exceedingly dangerous for independent reporters to go out and get the story.

So, whether you're a local reporter or a national reporter, once you're embedded, you're essentially part of the team. That's what this whole Boy Scout jamboree experience was all about, going down and playing soldier for a week -- it's so silly and ridiculous and has nothing to do with war. It's gotten the Pentagon tremendous coverage because everyone has done a silly story about it. I think it's like much more like being initiated into the fraternity than it is being trained in any real sense.

Let's say I'm a journalist who didn't go to the "Boy Scout jamboree," and I'm not interested in participating in the mythmaking, and I'm in Iraq -- but I know it's going to be tremendously dangerous to head out into the field on my own. What's your advice to me?

Being a war correspondent is a personality type. I speak Arabic, and by the time I got to the Persian Gulf war, I had spent five years covering the war in El Salvador. Even then it's very dangerous. I think if you don't have the stomach for it, and you don't have the skills for it, especially in this war, I'd hesitate to push reporters to do it.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't be embedded -- I think they should. But we should recognize it for what it is, and we can't allow that to become our picture of the war. If it does, we're going to have, as we did in the first war, a very distorted sense of what's happening.

There will be people who try to strike out on their own. That happens. But it just seems to me that this time around, this administration is going to have very little patience with it. I mean, they're talking about bombing the El Rashid hotel in Baghdad as a legitimate target. I spoke to the BBC reporter Kate Adie a few days ago, from London, and she told me that the BBC has been told that if they uplink from Baghdad to their satellite after the war starts, they'll be considered a target.

And then you have the Secretary of State yesterday calling on reporters and inspectors and people from aid groups to leave Baghdad. So I think -- when you look at the real disdain people like Rumsfeld have expressed in the past towards the press, Cheney as well -- I don't think they're going to have any tolerance for real reporting.

Is there any work you've seen in the last couple days or weeks, maybe from the international press, that's left you feeling more optimistic?

Well no, because, you know, the Iraqis are even worse than the Pentagon. Standing in Baghdad you're going to be controlled probably even more than you are if you're embedded.

And also the war hasn't started, so we're just going to have to see. But I think to wander into Basra alone and try and get anything out -- I admire those who are going to try and do it, I think it's essential, but I think it's going to be very, very difficult. I think neither the Iraqis nor the Americans are going to want to put up with it.

Your book is filled with references to classical literature. What classics could instruct us as we try to process what's happening today?

Well, the great book on war is The Iliad. Maybe the greatest book on war ever written. [More on The Iliad.] And the great book on the struggle to recover and fit into a civilian society and purge oneself of the disease that is war is The Odyssey.

Thucydides is great. Thucydides understood the dangers of raw militarism and what it did to a society.

The great thing about the classics is that they struggled with all of these issues in a different time. You can read it and it frees you from the cant of modern society. And when you see great minds -- look at Aristotle, for instance, who didn't think that we would ever abolish slavery, although he opposed it -- when you see great minds limited, finally, by the circumstance in which they are, then when you go back to your own society it's freeing.

It's important. It's really important.

  • Robin Sloan

    Robin Sloan is a 2002 graduate of Michigan State University, where he majored in economics and minored in Nintendo. He also spent a semester in Bangladesh.


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