Anderson (AP/file 2007)

Jon Lee Anderson on courage and journalism

Last week, I attended an unusual event called the Courage Forum at which half a dozen speakers, from tightrope artist Philippe Petit and Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal to Virgin founder and chairman Richard Branson, talked about about overcoming fear.

The event was sponsored by the Americas Business Council, a consortium of Latin American business leaders that hosts discussions and seminars featuring an eclectic group of inspiring speakers. I’ve attend a forum on philanthropy in Miami, and one on reconciliation in Washington. This forum on courage took place in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Anderson (AP/file 2007)
Anderson (AP/file 2007)

CPJ was asked to suggest a journalist to speak at the event, one who embodied courage. For me, that’s The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. Jon Lee has covered wars from Afghanistan to Somalia, but as he noted in his remarks he is no adrenaline junkie. His dispatches are beautiful chronicles from ugly places; they are full of empathy and humanity.

In his speech at the courage event, Jon Lee noted that “to tell the story of our times, a journalist has got to go to wars. It is unlikely that any side in a war is going to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Without journalists there to document and analyze the conflicts, how are we to know and understand?” 

His prepared remarks are below.

“When I received the invitation I was told I was invited to speak because of the supposed courage I show by working in the conflict zones of the world.  That was a cause for some introspection on my part. But, in fact, people often ask me why I go to wars. 

“I usually say that it is so that I can document the history of my time. As a child I dreamt of being a witness to the times of my life. Reporting, as a journalist, has given me that opportunity.  But there is, I confess, another reason, too.  It is not, as many think, a war addiction or an adrenaline fix. 

“I was born in the postwar 1950‘s, after World War II and Korea, and I came of age during one of America’s most traumatizing wars: Vietnam. I think I cover conflicts because I am an American who has grown up in many countries around the world at a time when my country was at the apogee of its superpower status. In my lifetime, my country—rightly or wrongly, and for better or worse—has defined itself in much of the world as a military power, and an interventionist one at that, known for sending in troops wherever and whenever it perceives threats: from Grenada and Panama to Iraq and Afghanistan, or in more covert roles in many other places around the world.  In all of the countries were America has intervened, or aided and abetted proxy wars in the name of anti-communism or anti-terrorism—in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East—very little has been done by the United States to make amends for the damage that it has left behind. Truly, American power often collides with American principles.

“So if I have gone to war it is because war has been the defining ingredient of the times I live in.  And the reason I keep going is because I have found that I can find out things that no one else is telling me, and which seem important. Perhaps it is a vain hope, but I suppose I do cling to the notion that such knowledge can help us all and maybe even save lives.

“A couple of years ago, in Baghdad, I met a man named Ali. He had embarked on a killing spree to avenge his brother who had been murdered by militiamen of his own sect a few months earlier. Ali had vowed before God to kill 10 men for each of his dead brother’s fingers.  

“Ali told me that he would not stop until he had killed 100 men, whether members of the militia responsible, or if not, their brothers and fathers. At that point he had killed 20. From each of his victims, he informed me, he sliced off a piece of their bodies—a hand, a toe, an eyeball, an Adam’s apple—and took it to his mother, who then travelled to the gravesite of her son, Ali’s brother, and buried the pieces in the soil next to him.

“Ali’s mother confirmed the story. She told me that as she buried the pieces she spoke to her dead son and told him the name of the latest man’s life taken by Ali to avenge his death. Ali said to me that ever since he had begun his revenge killings he no longer felt any fear, and he felt closer to God. God, Ali told me, approved of what he was doing because the men he was killing were evil and did not deserve to live.

“What made Ali’s story so disturbing was that he was also a secret collaborator of the American military forces in Iraq. He called in targets against the militiamen in his neighborhood for the American troops to raid and capture.

“Ali’s blood vengeance — endorsed by and participated in by his mother — came out of old, deep-seated tribal traditions of honor that predate their religion, Islam, but which has become suffused with it. The Americans who paid him had no understanding of Iraq’s culture. And that was the terrifying truth:  They were colluding with a serial killer in order to end a war, and who knew what the effects of that would be? They didn’t, and we still don’t. Like a mutating gene, human history keeps moving on, accumulating its own DNA which continues to show up in what we do and how we behave.

“Ali’s story is extreme, maybe, but is not an isolated case. Revenge is a concept that, to a greater or lesser degree, is universal. Revenge is one of the keys to understanding war itself. Once the killing starts, it becomes very difficult to stop, for every drop of blood that is shed demands another to avenge it. When President Bush declared the “War on Terror” after 9/11 and then invaded Iraq, it would seem that he unwittingly opened Pandora’s Box to further war, which continues unabated.

“Though troop withdrawals are now scheduled for Iraq, that country is still a seriously disturbed place. And in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan it seems likely that a lot of fighting must still take place before there is anything like peace or stability.  However well these wars ultimately end for the United States and its proxies, their legacies will be long-lasting.

“Again, Ali’s story is just one example of the submerged parallel universe that the United States blundered into when it invaded Iraq and then bogged down in bewildered fighting. But it illustrates how the American government has often been ignorant of what some of their darker policies really meant, and therefore, ultimately, of their consequences, too.

“There is an old Somali proverb which says that “when elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”   The United States, as the most powerful country on earth, is like an elephant and whatever it does sends shock waves around the world. The effects of those shocks affect all of our lives. In today’s globalized economy, it affects how you do business. Like it or not, it also affects what our families’ futures look like. 

“If I can say two things with absolute certainty it is, first, that there will be more wars. In my lifetime we have been at perpetual war for perpetual peace.

“And second, all wars leave wounds that take many years to heal. In fact, the healing usually takes much longer than the actual duration of the wars.    

“But no matter where they are, and no matter how long they last, somebody has to be there to watch, to document, to analyze, to make everyone see and understand. So I go to wars.

“Everyone in the world has an opinion about Americans, of course, and nowadays it is often negative. The election of President Obama brought us a short respite on the negativity, but it was a brief bubble, alas. Sometimes the negativity is justifiable, but just as frequently it is based on false information or conspiracy theories that flourish paradoxically more than ever in today’s age of instant and constant global communication.

“How many times have I heard that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wars waged by Jews and Christians against the Muslim world. This perception is what has helped turn the conflict that began as a reprisal attack against terrorists into something like a clash of civilizations.

“One of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered as a journalist is the perception that the U.S. media was complicit with the Pentagon in preparing the pretext for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and that nowadays no real news emerges from those countries because it is all somehow stage-managed propaganda orchestrated by the Pentagon working through its own ‘pet’ reporters.

“To combat these perceptions I have turned the question back on my skeptical interrogators. I ask them: How did you learn about the American abuses against Iraqi prisoners in the prison of Abu Ghraib? How do you know about what happened in the prison in Guantanamo? To the blank looks I usually receive I say, ‘You learned about them from journalists.’

“Millions of people persist in believing that Osama bin Laden was a paid agent of the CIA before he turned against them, or that the Jews who worked in the Twin Towers had prior knowledge and evacuated the buildings before the 9/11 attacks, and that it was not Al-Qaeda but Mossad that provoked the U.S. war against Islam—and so forth.

“But there is misinformation everywhere, some of it deliberate, some of it simply misguided.   Sadly, in spite of globalized communications, many people continue to be isolated physically, economically, or culturally, or really don’t seek any news that is contrary to their own closed worldview. That happens in all our countries.

“We have learned at great cost, or perhaps are beginning to learn at great cost, that history is never past, that we cannot simply sweep it under the rug. The triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the untreated wounds of the Cold War to fester throughout the ‘90s. The “Mission Accomplished” scene with President Bush on the deck of an American aircraft carrier was meant to be a triumphal end, but it was actually just a newer, more toxic, beginning.

“My point is this: To tell the story of our times, a journalist has got to go to wars.  It is unlikely that any side in a war is going to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Without journalists there to document and analyze the conflicts, how are we to know and understand?   

“Without journalists taking risks to be there we compromise our ability to understand the world at all. When I say understanding, it is not simply a tale of boots on the ground, battles, or blood. We must comprehend how these wars shape perceptions, and what effect those perceptions, or misconceptions, will have on our lives. 

“At this time of economic crisis, when newspapers and magazines question their very existence due to changing consumer patterns and the rise of the free Internet technology, journalists talk fretfully about the still-elusive “economic model” that will sustain the media and provide journalists with a livelihood. Many wonder if what they do is still meaningful, or is offering anything of value to the average citizen.

“If anyone wonders about the value of the role of the media, go to Russia, where the government and its henchmen murder journalists at will for the sole reason of silencing them.

“In Mexico, in Guatemala and in Honduras,  journalists are regularly murdered, mostly by drug traffickershugely violent and powerful criminals at war with the state. Why do they murder journalists? Because journalists can report the truth, and in a war, the truth can hurt one’s own side and aid that of the enemy.

“Facebook and Twitter, podcasts, Webinars and blogs are  interesting new phenomenon. But the disturbing trend is that more and more of these informational offerings are often PR peddled as “news.” I’ve seen government officials stand before a background that highlights the key words of the daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what’s going on is public relations too. We must not be crucified on the poverty of our own expectations.

“Journalists have to sail in these waters and some don’t navigate very well. We can say that what some journalists fail to do is tragic. But what so many journalists do is truly heroic. They choose what is right over what is easy. They daily risk political persecution, physical injury, and death in their efforts to expose corruption and champion the truth. Many journalists endure continual threats to their lives and often the lives of their families too. Some are forced into exile outside their home countries. Journalists sometimes feel helpless. Journalists have to cope with greed, duplicity and despair. Their revelations are not always recognized. Yet they have the determination to defend the least, the last, and the lost. They insist on their right and responsibility to write the truth.

“I would like to say a word about a special kind of journalist too. Whether or not there is an economic model to sustain those of us in the affluent West, who can come and go from far-flung lands and conflicts, dropping in and out of foreign countries like visiting tourists, it is the local journalists, who must stay and brave the front lines at perhaps the greatest sacrifice. They usually eke out the most humble of livings. It has always been this way, and still somehow, they manage to forge on with absolute courage, in spite of the contempt of their governments, in some cases, and let’s face it, too, at times the apathy of their fellow citizens. 

“At the best of times, such journalists are not only courageous, they are true heroes, rare individuals who actually believe that without their work their society runs the  risk of being informed only by the propaganda and coercions of the warring sides, whether it is a repressive regime they are dealing with, or two sides in a civil war, or narco armies and the gunmen of corrupted security apparatuses.

“Last year I was in Mogadishu, Somalia. The president of that tragic country and his government hold no more than a few blocks of the capital city, as radical Islamic insurgents daily bombard them, held back only by U.N. peacekeeping troops. But in the midst of it all are local Somali journalists who risk their lives to cover what is happening. Some of them get blown up by suicide bombers or get shot in an alleyway. They get threats for broadcasting music on the radio. But they persevere.  

“Some years ago, I gave a workshop in Colombia to reporters from around the country who were reporting on their conflict. In a private session, one of my ‘students’ said to me: ‘Jon Lee, it’s all right for you. You are American. You work for a powerful magazine which has resources to send you everywhere and you are protected by your visibility. But what about us, here, how can we do it?’ He explained that in his province, the violent paramilitary army was the real force on the ground, and that his own editors were secretly allied with them. He could not come out with the truth of what the paramilitaries were doing—massacres and so forth—or he would be killed.

“It reminded me of a dilemna I’d faced years before, when I collected raw information from the war zones of Central America where I worked as a young reporter and found that my only outlet, Time magazine, was not interested.  I felt a moral duty, however, to get out the news, and so I sometimes handed off this information to human rights investiagtors. I hoped that it might save lives. 

“To my Colombian friend, I told this story and he nodded unhappily. He could do that, but did this mean he was condemned to a life of stifling self-censorship? He was a writer, he said, so how could he write? 

“I urged him to keep a diary. If he couldn’t share his words with his public today, he could exorcise those demons in private and one day, hopefully, he could share his truth with the rest of the world, without fear of reprsial. At the time, it was the only solution I could think of for him.

“Eight hundred and eight journalists have died for their profession since 1992.  Last year alone 70 journalists were killed because of their work. The deaths of many journalists are ignored, since it is often the powers-that-be that killed them. Nobody is charged, nobody is convicted. In some countries, it seems, it is not a crime to kill the messenger. The victims of this impunity are people like  Anna Politkovskaya of Russia,  who documented the Chechen conflict and was tossed into a pit by Russian soldiers, nearly died of poisoning, and finally was assassinated, shot in the back of the head outside her apartment door. Hayatullah Khan of Pakistan was abducted and starved to death for investigating U.S. Hellfire missiles used inside Pakistan. Armando Rodriguez of Mexico died for writing about drug traffickers. Norbert Zongo of Burkina Faso was shot while investigating crimes in the president’s family; Elmar Huseynov of Azerbaijan was killed for criticizing his president.

“We must honor them all and so many others who fight daily for the truth and the freedom to tell it. Without their courage, we are all well and truly lost. Thank you.”