JOURNALISM : Love in a Time of War: My Years with Robert Fisk, by Lara Marlowe,

Review by Farrel Corcoran

Love in a Time of War: My Years with Robert Fisk, by Lara Marlowe, Head of Zeus, 440 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1801102513

There is now a well-established critique of the intimate relationship that evolved throughout the last century between the news industry and the defence establishment in many countries, especially in the US. Radio, television, newspapers and multiple online sites constitute the spaces through which whole populations experience mediated war. Ideally, these spaces function in line with the norms of a democratic public sphere, in which the media function as a “fourth estate”, pressing governments to be more open in their justifications for war and military elites more transparent in their conduct of battlefield operations.

Philip Knightley’s 1989 book The First Casualty, which set the agenda for later studies of war and the media, emphasised that, far from adopting a critical or oppositional perspective, the PR value of a great deal of war reportage actually serves to legitimise government narratives and allows them to dominate discussion about war in the public sphere. The voice of the victims is lost. British correspondents, assigned to report on World War I, began to blur the distinction between military and civilian personnel by wearing army uniforms and consenting to being chaperoned by official army “guides”. The role of reporters in publicising official sources, on which they come to depend for their news copy, was greatly expanded later in the twentieth century by media organisations choosing to “embed” their journalists with troops going in to battle.

The idea that journalists are impartial, independent actors keeping democracy healthy by critically monitoring the behaviour of soldiers in war is cherished in many parts of society, but not universally.

Much of the debate can be traced to divergent views about how Western media covered the progress of the Vietnam War fifty years ago. One view is that the democratic “watchdog” role of the media triumphed magnificently, that media were able to shrug off strong White House ideological restrictions and confront the narratives shaped by powerful voices in the Pentagon. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both blamed the media for swaying public opinion against the war and ultimately bringing the slaughter in Southeast Asia to an end.

But as several critics have argued, the myth of a critical media corps needs to be challenged with evidence of the opposite: reporters abandoning any notion of objective journalism and becoming instead partisans of American war logic. Media coverage, in this alternative view, began to turn against the war only when the collapse in the public pro-war consensus was well under way. The voices of the anti-war movement, as well as the motives of the Vietnamese people and government, were almost totally excluded throughout the war. The idea that the US, not North Vietnam, might be the aggressor in the conflict was unthinkable in mainstream media. As Noam Chomsky has argued, views that ran counter to official sources were deemed unacceptable, so media discussion was ideologically bounded. The media reproduced the discourse of political and military leaders and, in so doing, provided propaganda to the population rather than truly disinterested or critical journalism.

The practice of embedding journalists has become the norm since Vietnam. In the preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, hundreds of American reporters participated in Pentagon programmes to learn basic battlefield survival, weapons-handling skills and military policy.

At the same time, it was controversially revealed that Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, a loud pro-invasion voice, was advising George W Bush to “take the harshest measures possible in retaliation for 9/11”. Dissenting voices were silenced as Fox and others pushed dominant notions of “terrorism” and mobilised popular American enthusiasm for “self-defence” against “rogue states” and their “weapons of mass destruction”.

Lara Marlowe offers a timely intervention in the debate on war coverage as propaganda. Her new book constructs an intimate portrait, more fine-grained than any academic work could be, of one of the greatest war correspondents of modern times, who worked in the Middle East in a manner that went completely against the grain of the “embedded reporter” model of journalism.

Journalists such as Bill Heaney of The Democrat, pictured here on assignment in Kenya, were talked into wearing UK Army uniforms. Top of page picture is of a party of Scottish journalists on a visit to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The book is about her relationship with Robert Fisk as they traversed the battlefields of the Middle East together for over thirty years, she writing mostly for Time magazine, he for the London Independent. It is also about the brutality of war, the horrific details of battle in a time of Cruise missiles, as experienced by civilian victims at the receiving end.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Middle East has emerged as the major theatre of war, crucial to global energy supplies and central to Cold War proxy power struggles. The primary blame for the failure of the hopeful Arab Spring of 2011 and the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamic extremist organisations must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and advanced capitalist administrations to intervene in the Middle East at every level. As Christopher Davidson argues in his influential Shadow Wars: the Secret Struggle of the Middle East (2016), the threat to wealthy Western states from self-determining Arab Spring movements has not only been foiled, but has covertly been redirected into a pretext for striking at their other enemies. Hidden behind ever more carefully layered veils of agents and intermediaries across the Middle East, the same imperial powers that have distantly ruled the region for a very long time are now making sure that their grip gets even tighter.

Based for most of his professional life in Beirut, Robert Fisk was a journalist who would have had little argument with this perspective. One of the hallmarks of his reporting was his refusal to ever use the word “terrorism” without quote marks, because it is so commonly employed to suggest “what others do to us” and leaves no space to refer to “what we do to others”. “Most of the acts of terror we write about,” writes Fiske in his monumental The Great War for Civilisation, “for instance, the shooting down of the Iranian Airbus by the US Navy; the US bombing of the Amariya shelter in Baghdad; renditions and torture of Arabs by US agents; Israel’s massacre of Lebanese refugees at Qana; the slaughter of thousands of civilians in Israeli assaults on Gaza ‑ have been committed by ‘our’ side.”

This encapsulates an important basic value in the work of both Lara Marlowe and Robert Fisk. Her book is full of detailed accounts of terror in the broadest sense, perpetrated by the military and security services of the US and its allies, as well as by Middle Eastern despots, breakaway ethnic separatists, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters motivated by religious fervour or sectarian politics.

Fisk’s message about war never varied. He regarded it as the total failure of the human spirit. He railed against the double standards that led journalists and politicians to regard violence by Muslims as “terrorism” while Israel, the US and NATO were never given this label when they knowingly slaughtered civilians.

Fisk was not blinded by one-sidedness. About Israel, he protested endlessly that the Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust but that Arabs needed to admit that genocide happened. He roundly denounced those who equated criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Through his cataloguing of atrocities and injustices with intense detail he was an unrelenting crusader for wronged and oppressed people. He thought the job of a journalist was to be “neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer”. Yet despite the fact that many colleagues in the British and American media would regard these views as radical left, Fisk published and broadcast his work in a wide range of mainstream media in Europe. After his death, a former sub-editor colleague remembered being told by his boss to be careful with Fisk’s copy ‑ “he’s very sensitive about how it is handled”. Told not to rewrite anything, he adds “Rewrite it? I memorised it, so honoured did I feel to be given the tiniest trim and heading jobs on the work of a great man.” Fisk won more international press awards than any other foreign correspondent of his generation and he valued his awards as very helpful armour against his critics.

Lara Marlowe’s compelling book offers not only an intimate record of her own and Fisk’s work as war correspondents, and how love between them began, flourished, waned and finally evolved into a strong friendship-at-a-distance. It is also a gripping portrait of war, in all its horrific detail, observed not from the point of view of the White House press office or a remote drone weapons operator at a desk in Louisiana but from the engaged perspective of reporters literally on the ground, embedded among civilians, as the landscape of towns and villages was bombed into a hellish, Bosch-like grotesquery of human carnage.

When Marlowe and Fisk described the effects of Israeli, American and NATO attacks in their news articles, they were often accused of “war porn”. Fisk had a robust response to this. The politicians who initiate wars and the weapons manufacturers who enabled them are the pornographers, he said, not journalists who report the impact on people: “If people saw what we see, they would never, ever support war.”

Among the very worst of these slaughters are those involving military attacks on civilians, usually brushed aside by Pentagon press officers as “collateral damage”. In the worst American atrocity of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, two US Stealth bombers dropped 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs on the Amariya air raid shelter in Baghdad, bursting through its thick concrete shell. Over four hundred people sleeping inside, including many women and children, were incinerated. Their charred remains are discovered later, body parts fused by the intense heat onto the concrete ceiling. The official American explanation is that the shelter was a military bunker, but a high-level whistle-blower from a senior level in the air force reveals to Fisk that “there’s not a single soul in the American military who believes that this bunker was a command-and-control centre”. Iraqi military were known to bring their wives and children at night into such bunkers during night attacks. When that happens, the Americans do not hesitate to bomb them, the source explains. A BBC reporter visited the site of the carnage soon after the attack and found no evidence of military use by the Iraqi army.

A few weeks later, another military massacre generated international outrage, the infamous “turkey shoot” as the defeated Iraqi army was ambushed as it attempted to flee from Kuwait. For four hours, Apache helicopters, A-10 “tank busters” and other aircraft swooped down on them from the skies and left over a thousand Iraqis dead, sprawled across the Highway of Death, face down in the sand where they tried to run into the desert, many carbonised in their vehicles. After the end of the war, evidence emerged of a wave of cancer afflicting both soldiers and civilians. Suspicions grew that the Pentagon used depleted uranium made from nuclear waste in its tank shells. A coalition of US veterans groups said it believed that 40,000 servicemen were exposed to uranium dust on the battlefield. Depleted uranium is used to harden armour-piercing projectiles. When the shells explode, uranium is dispersed, contaminating water, fish and vegetables in the target area. Some of the Western media described the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure in 1991 as “Bomb now, die later.”

Ten years after the turkey shoot, the US used depleted uranium again in the NATO attack on Kosovo. French researchers traced the uranium to three plants in the US where spent fuel rods from military nuclear reactors were made into missiles, much of it contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium.

Fisk and Marlowe worked in the midst of all this carnage and human misery in Kosovo, bringing news of it to the outside world. Marlowe’s prose is a fitting tribute to Fisk, who was a master stylist himself. “The mountains in the distance [in Kosovo] are beautiful. Yet we hear the constant drumming of the bombardment. Funnels of grey-brown smoke scratch the horizon, either burning Albanian homes or NATO targets. We stand in a field littered with carbonised corpses, amputated limbs, clothing and personal belongings. A man’s head sits upright on the grass, a handsome, bearded head with long brown hair and large, staring eyes. The Old Testament name Absalom pops into my mind and attaches itself to that image.”

Tenacious as ever, Fisk travels to Brussels to question NATO spokesmen about the use of depleted uranium. NATO says is it “a harmless substance, found in trees, earth and mountains”. Fisk reports that this is a lie, that depleted uranium comes from reactor waste. Pressed by Fisk, NATO refuses to release details of where it has been used in battle. So Fisk persists with his investigation, visiting hospitals and bomb sites throughout former Yugoslavia.

He uncovers evidence that in addition to increases in civilian cancer cases, NATO troops are also dying from unexplained cancers. The headline in his story for The Independent is “This is not a scandal. It is an outrage.”

Marlowe’s book documents her own and Fisk’s experience of war in Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Lebanon, former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. For people not familiar with the politics of these places, some brief historical framing would improve the reading experience. There is also sometimes a need to provide a wider context for and comment on some of the shocking horrors that are encountered in almost every chapter, such as the American army gunners sitting in their Humvees in the Saudi desert, eager to attack the Iraqi army across the border, worrying about their phosphorous shells melting in the 50 degree heat of the desert. The sergeant explains that if the filter melts, the liquid phosphorous leaks out. “If it gets on your hands, they catch fire and you can’t put the fire out.” No one speculates on what phosphorous bombs would do to Arab skin. No one wonders what the Chemical Weapons Convention says about using white phosphorous in war.

Marlowe and Fisk live in extreme danger for much of their work, sometimes from incoming cruise missiles launched from an aircraft carrier or Stealth bomber, sometimes from local militia manning checkpoints in isolated mountain regions, where irregulars routinely shoot journalists asking too many awkward questions. During the civil war in Lebanon, to outsmart kidnappers, who seem to operate everywhere, Fisk books flights under an Arab name but uses his real initials. He travels first-class and does not check bags, because on the return flight the kidnappers will have lookouts at the airport studying passengers as they disembark and wait for luggage. Every foreigner knows – and fears ‑ the fate of Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and dozens of other hostages, who were unlucky in running the gauntlet of kidnappers. Danger is a constant ‑ and so is bravery. Sometimes Fisk’s reporting, like his persistent investigation of the horrific massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila carried out by Phalangists with Israeli army support, is widely translated and reported in Arab media and he hopes this may give him some protection from Lebanese kidnappers.

What comes through the book again and again is Fisk’s enormous energy and zest for life – and for investigative journalism – despite the misery and despair in evidence all around him. The yawning asymmetry in weaponry deployed by the combatants feeds his tenacity in pursuing a story to the bitter end. In the spring of 1996, as Southern Lebanon is under heavy bombardment from Israeli military forces, an Apache helicopter fires two US-made Hellfire missiles at an ambulance that is evacuating civilians from a village. One missile goes through the door of the ambulance. It kills two women and four girls, as well as a camerawoman from Reuters who is filming the evacuation. The ambulance is thrown twenty feet into the air and lodges in the living room of a house.

Israel claims it is owned by member of Hezbollah and was carrying a Hezbollah fighter, none of which is true. The ambulance is actually the property of the village, donated by expatriate Lebanese.

Fisk succeeds in getting his hands on the missile casings, engraved with tell-tale encodings. He is able to determine that the missiles were made by Rockwell, which has since been taken over by Boeing. He gets the casings shipped to Washington via Paris, then travels to Duluth, Georgia for a scheduled interview with Boeing executives about the performance of their weapons in the Middle East. He takes the Hellfire shards out of his bag and sets them down on the polished conference table, along with photographs of the victims’ bodies. Details of the conference room confrontation are published widely. Later a whistle-blower in the arms industry tells Fisk the coding indicate the missiles were the property of the US Marine Corps and given covertly to the Israelis.

None of the combatants in these wars emerges as in any way heroic, or untainted with the worst human instincts of brutality and savagery. But it is the US that has the loudest global megaphone to declare always that it has only good intentions in going to war, always struggling to occupy the moral high ground, even when evidence to the contrary is everywhere. But is it everywhere?

Reading a book like this drives home the point again and again that without the media maintaining a robust watchdog role, large and powerful countries that are supposedly built on a commitment to human rights are in real danger of become despotic, especially during war.

Marlowe eventually quits her job with Time magazine because the editors are afraid to criticise Israel, which tries to present every exposé of atrocities committed by it as “an anti-Jewish vendetta”. On the battlefield of Southern Lebanon, reporters lay bare the unspeakable suffering inflicted by Israeli F-16 bombers on the people sheltering in the UN base in Qana. The Israelis fire proximity shells at the UN compound, terrifying anti-personnel weapons designed to explode high above ground and amputate human bodies below. In Time’s coverage, there is no mention of words like “atrocity”. “massacre” or “war crime”. Time’s headline is “Israel stands tough after a disastrous error.” Its editors, but not its reporter in the field, automatically accept Israel’s assertion that the bombardment was not deliberate. This is a turning point for Lara Marlowe, who leaves Time for the more discerning and less ideologically blinkered Irish Times.

America and its allies were still waging war in Afghanistan when Marlowe’s book went to press. They succeeded in chasing Osama bin Laden out of the country to Pakistan (where Robert Fisk interviewed him three times during the course of the war) but not much more than that. The longest war in US history (longer than World War I, World War II and Vietnam put together) ended in defeat and an ignominious evacuation from Kabul in August 2021. Media since then tend to fall back on the belief that Afghans were never capable of creating or sustaining a modern nation-state. The truth is a little more complicated. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole, drawing on Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, argues that American policy in Afghanistan was not to impose or even encourage democracy, as the US claimed. Instead, it was clearly standing in the way of democracy and institutionalising violence. As the “war czar” of both the Bush and Obama administrations put it, “we didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking”. A US ambassador to Kabul was blunt about the mindset of Rumsfeld and Bush in the wake of 9/11: “Our job is about killing bad guys, so … We’re not going to get involved in nation-building.” And this, despite the US spending more money than it spent on the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

Following a pattern already established in the Middle East, the American intervention in Afghanistan was compromised from the beginning by its alliance with selected, indigenous warlords whose chaotic misrule had been ended by the Taliban in the late 1990s. The Taliban had been funded by the US in an earlier period, to fight the Soviet Union as Mujahideen.

Even the noble aim of insisting on the equal dignity of Afghan women and girls, much heralded in Western media as a sign of progress, was morally undermined by America tolerating and enabling organised paedophilia among the Afghan elite, the kidnapping and raping of boys kept as sex slaves by senior police and army officers. This was an institutionalised practice well known to American officials and tolerated even on US military bases.

Turning a blind eye seriously undermined the principle of the universality of human rights on which American support for female equality was based. Yet there were few headlines in the Western media about how local Afghani support for the Taliban was based partly on a promise by them to put a stop to this organised paedophilia.

The Americans also knew that corruption in the Afghan government was widespread and they responded not by reform but by feeding the well-established system of corruption with billions of taxpayers’ dollars. This policy was a version of the trickle-down theory of economics beloved of conservative Americans. “Money will get to some villager maybe through five layers of corrupt officials, but still get to some villager,” as one senior American official noted.

Lara Marlowe’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of war in all its corruption, cruelty, cynicism, death and destruction. But it also shines a light on how two war correspondents find themselves in love as war rages all around them ‑ war in a time of love. The writer’s dilemma is to do justice to love and to war and to figure out how to interweave them successfully in the overall architecture of the book. The reader is drawn into two very different moral frameworks at the end of the book. One is the moral framework of war ‑ indiscriminate cruelty, barbarous reprisals, torture, cynical spinning of stories, corruption of religious devotion, bravery, the asymmetry of twenty-first century armaments engaging with improvised, often medieval weaponry, and so on. The other is the moral framework of the very private world of love between two people, sharing intimate emotions with the reader through the story of the growth, the flourishing and the decay of love between them as their marriage imploded. This engages issues of privacy, self-obsession, joy, disappointment, forgiveness, anger, exclusion, loyalty, betrayal, blame, accusation, sexual jealousy, depression. The contrast in emotional rhythm between the two frameworks is abrupt. A small change in the book’s chapter arrangement might have eased the shock for the reader of moving so sharply from deep immersion in the details of the massacre at Qana in Lebanon to the exploration of the intimacies of love and divorce, and then back again to the thundering violence of war in the last chapter ‑ the invasion of Iraq. It is a minor question of editing in a book that generally flows very well over the rapids of war in different regions and times. And the book’s epilogue goes a long way towards reconciling the themes of love and war, detailing the last time the two lovers met, by chance, both arriving at the same time in Dublin Airport.

The Middle East has for a long time been crucial to global energy suppliers and central to proxy power struggles between rich and well-armed countries. These have a history of cultivating the most fundamentalist religious forces there so as to suppress progressive movements and reverse Arab efforts to control their own resources and destinies. Encouraging sectarian divisions in the Middle East has a long pedigree, as Christopher Davidson points out. A British official in India once observed, “the division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage … The bitter clashes of Mohammedans are already a source to us of strength and not weakness.” A century later, it was the goal of the Reagan administration not only to push Sunni extremists into a holy war against the Soviet Union, but to turn a religious schism within Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism, so that the US could contain the influence of the Iranian revolution as a minority affair.

For the confused American citizen and taxpayer, asked to pay for endless wars far from home, it is impossible to understand why 9/11 took place or what the latest blood-curdling Islamic State atrocity means. Just after 9/11, George Bush gave a speech to the US Congress in which he posed the rhetorical question: “Why do they hate us?” He provided the quick answer: “They hate what they see here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. They hate our freedom: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” That many people around the world, especially in the Middle East, would disagree with this is obvious. But it is not obvious inside the US, where it matters most. Bush’s statement was not picked up on, mostly because of the failure of the media to explain to the American public and opinion-makers how the rest of the world sees America. Anyone wishing to start understanding how imperial projections of power across a world region like the Middle East generate reactions of hate, revenge and resistance, would do well to get immersed in the details of war victims so well explored in Lara Marlowe’s book.

1/12/2021

Farrel Corcoran is professor emeritus, School of Communications, Dublin City University. He is a former chairman of RTÉ.

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