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War, peace, and journalism

By Dilip D'Souza

What is the duty of a journalist reporting on the horrors of war? To join the chorus of chest-thumping outrage against the enemy? Or to tell the story of war in such a way that we understand and value peace? Honest journalism about war and violence must ask the hard questions, challenge authority, and never be blinded by what passes for patriotism

War

During the 1999 Kargil war, Pakistan returned the bodies of six Indian soldiers killed in the fighting. The bodies had been mutilated. This one incident triggered a storm of outrage and hatred in India, with all manner of evil being attributed to Pakistan.

Like many other Indians, I thought a lot about this episode at the time. The more I did, the more it seemed to me that what had happened was an inevitable consequence of war itself. Certainly the mutilations were horrifying and nauseating -- but where there's war, there are going to be atrocities like this. It doesn't excuse them, but it explains them.

In fact, there were reports (far less widely publicised in India, of course) that our soldiers did equally horrible things to Pakistani soldiers. Men from the Naga regiment, for example, decapitated the Pakistanis when they reached the heights where the intruders had established themselves; they even took photographs of themselves posing with the heads. In 'Guns and Yellow Roses', a collection of essays on the Kargil war, Sankarshan Thakur wrote:

Troops of the Naga and Jat regiments told us quite plainly they had killed a few intruders they had captured alive in the heights above Drass. "It was rage, just rage," one Naga soldier said. "They had killed many of our mates, we were angry. When we got them, we butchered them." As and when they brought bodies of intruders back from the heights, they tied them with ropes and dragged them down. "We had enough load to carry as it was, who was going to bother carrying their bodies? Dragging them down was a favour." There was no sense of guilt or remorse there, just plain retelling; it was as if a fire of emotion had cleansed the act of murder.

This is not restricted to Indians and Pakistanis. Take Eugene B Sledge, a US Marine during World War II. Like thousands of fellow American soldiers, he fought the Japanese fiercely across the Pacific, and after the war ended he wrote the finest war memoir I have ever read. His With the Old Breed is not literature, and I don't know if Sledge would have called it journalism either. Yet it is a brutally honest account; it paints a vivid picture of what the war was like for Sledge and his fellow soldiers. And in the end it is a profound, powerful statement for peace.

So what was the war like for Sledge? After a battle on Peleliu island, another Marine came up dragging what Sledge assumed was a Japanese corpse. Only, the man wasn't dead. He "had been wounded severely in the back," writes Sledge, "and couldn't move his arms". The Marine sat down with the wounded Jap, took out his kabar, his Marine knife, and began... but let me just give you, in full, Sledge's own words about this incident:

The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier's mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery". All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier's brain and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.

Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth that was the infantryman's war.

Sledge's book opened my eyes like never before. This was a man who fought hard in his war, who made no bones about his hatred for the Japanese enemy. But this was also a man who saw and didn't shrink from recounting the horrible things his American colleagues did too, things we hardly hear of. This was a man who understood that the business of war itself turns ordinary men into brutes.

Again, none of this is to suggest that there is some convoluted justification for what happened to the six mutilated Indian soldiers. But war, the pressures and horrors of battle, does terrible things to soldiers. After all, the Pakistanis had been shooting down at the Naga and Jat troops as they climbed the slopes. After all, the Japanese had been doing ghastly things to American soldiers fighting their way across the Pacific. How do we expect young men to maintain self-control and remember niceties like the Geneva Convention when they finally meet and overwhelm their tormentors?

This forms something of a context for thinking about journalism during war, about where journalism travels during war. I believe the inherent responsibility of journalists -- be sceptical, ask questions -- is only underlined in war time. For us in India, it's been underlined again by the November terrorism in Mumbai, when we saw plenty of public anger and also serious questions about how the media responded.

In other words, and again, yes what happened to the six soldiers was horrible. But what is the duty of a journalist reporting on this horror? Join the chorus of chest-thumping outrage against the enemy? Or work towards peace, which is the one sure way to ensure that such atrocities don't happen again?

If it is the latter, that tells us something about journalism and peace. For I believe it must be the role of journalism to make the case that Sledge's memoir does -- tell the story of war so that we understand and value peace.

***

Patriotism

Brutality like I've discussed above isn't just about men on the frontlines of wars either. It's soldiers elsewhere, it's us civilians too, and again that raises questions about the responsibilities of journalists.

For one example, consider the infamous massacre of 36 Sikhs in Chhatisinghpora in March 2000. Under enormous pressure to find the killers, our armed forces produced five dead bodies within a week and announced that these were the perpetrators of the atrocity. The dead men were dressed in fatigues and the army said it had shot them in an 'encounter'.

It turned out that these were ordinary Kashmiri civilians who were rounded up by some soldiers, shot and then dressed in uniforms to make them look like militants. In the uproar, the Jammu and Kashmir government ordered an inquiry into the whole sordid episode and sent DNA samples of the dead men and their relatives for testing. Early in 2002, we learned that most of those samples were fake. More than once, a woman's sample had been passed off as a man's.

Such are the lengths to which our security forces can go, as they scramble to respond to public outrage, to meet public expectations.

And nearly lost in all this was the army's bland, but quiet, announcement in August 2000 that it had arrested the men who killed the 36 Sikhs. In itself, that was a tacit admission that the five killed earlier were innocent, but few of us noticed or even cared.

Think of the questions this episode raises.

One, what is the state of mind of our soldiers in Kashmir if they can pick up and kill five villagers because they feel pressured to produce the perpetrators of a crime? What is such pressure doing to our army?

Two, given that and the deliberate subversion of the DNA tests, why would people not begin to think that perhaps our own men murdered the Sikhs? Sure enough, some journalists reported that people in Chhatisinghpora were asking this question. Relatives and neighbours of the murdered Sikhs were themselves wondering whether their own country's armed forces had killed their loved ones. The thought alone makes me queasy.

Three, and this is what most alarms me, is the complacency with which the rest of us react to news like this. Even in the face of disturbing questions, people shrug and say: This is war and there's no other way to fight it. We accept brutality and lies as necessary, or inevitable, not least because we think the enemy does worse things. We think our patriotic duty is to support whatever is being done in our name, even if it's deceit and crime, in pursuit of victory.

Yet there are questions that journalists must ask. If patriotism blinds us to lies and brutality committed in its name, what kind of patriotism is it? What kind of country are we being asked to love? What kind of country do we turn ourselves into?

There are those who will say: "We will preserve our territorial integrity at any cost." And, "We will not give up an inch of our soil". Such people are lauded as great patriots. But after years of hostility, I wonder why we cannot instead say: "We will preserve the lives of all Indians, and our soldiers first, at any cost." I wonder why we cannot say: "We will not give up a single Indian life."

Why should this not be patriotic? Or ask this: Why is it patriotic to go along with the lies that kill innocent fellow Indians, fellow human beings?

***

Truth, the first casualty

Indeed, a twisted sense of patriotism is likely the main reason wars bring us a web of doublespeak, lies and cover-ups. From "collateral damage", to a coffin scam, from exaggerated claims of damage caused, to outright falsehoods, we've seen them all.

During World War I, the British Army initially refused to let war correspondents report from the frontlines. When they did, the army heavily censored their reports. If that seems routine to you, consider that some correspondents even censored themselves. They felt it was their patriotic duty not to report the true brutality unfolding before their eyes, but instead to pretend that British soldiers were winning. In fact, some even painted a picture of jolly Englishmen greatly enjoying the war; jolly patriots fighting for the glory of the country.

C E Montague, an assistant editor of the Manchester Guardian, who had done his share of fighting, wrote at the time:

The average war correspondent... insensibly acquired a cheerfulness in the face of torment and danger. [He usually implied that] officers and men enjoyed nothing more than "going over the top"; that a battle was just a rough jovial picnic, that a fight never went on long enough for the men, that their only fear was lest the war should end this side of the Rhine. This tone roused the fighting troops to fury against the writers. This, the men reflected, in helpless anger, was what people at home were offered as faithful accounts of what their friends in the field were thinking and suffering.

And if journalists rendered the home country's soldiers in such rosy colours, they managed to depict the enemy as fantastic brutes. For example, Germans were accused throughout the war of burning British soldiers' corpses to distil glycerine for their arms industry. The truth? They were indeed distilling glycerine, but by boiling dead horses and other animals. Yet this far milder account was not news and found no takers. Building on all this, the Daily Mail managed to call the German Kaiser a "lunatic", a "barbarian", a "madman", a "monster", a "modern Judas" and a "criminal monarch" -- all in one article. For their part, and not to be left behind, the Germans alleged that the Allies were gouging out German soldiers' eyes. One 10-year-old German boy was widely reported to have seen a "bucketful" of those eyes. No truth there either.

Move forward 80 years, and we find A M Sethna writing during the Kargil war. In his article 'Information is Half the Battle Won' (Times of India, June 1, 1999), he says: "We are dealing with a country which has shown itself capable of extreme cruelty... In such hands, officers and men reported missing face being skinned alive or horribly mutilated before being killed."

How different is Sethna's prose from that of the World War I journalists?

I don't know of examples of similar writing in Pakistan, but I feel certain there were some. If war does things to soldiers, it does things to journalists as well.

***

Honesty, instead

Rupert Murdoch's father Keith was an Australian correspondent during World War I. He went to Gallipoli, the scene of some of the most futile massacres of the war. In particular, his Australian countrymen died there by the thousands, so much so that this desolate spot in Turkey is a favourite and revered destination for Australian tourists even today, nearly a century later.

By all accounts, Keith Murdoch was angered and horrified by the killing. Defying the censors, he wrote an 8,000-word report to the Australian prime minister. This 'Gallipoli Letter', even with some factual errors he made because he was relying on memory, remains one of the most important documents of the war. Here's how the writer Philip Knightley, in his The First Casualty, described Murdoch's effort:

Although the war correspondents in Gallipoli faced the same difficulties over censorship and were subjected to the same pressures from the [authorities, Murdoch] succeeded in getting out a fresh eyewitness account of what was happening there. If the war correspondents in France had only been as enterprising, the war might not have continued on its ghastly course.

In other words, honest journalism about this horrific war was a weapon that might have stopped the killing. It might have brought peace. It was only with the voice of the occasional dissenter like Murdoch, and the enormity of the truth itself that could no longer be suppressed, that the world finally woke up to what was happening in those blood-soaked battlegrounds of Europe and the Middle East. Men were being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, for no reason at all, and this killing went on for four years because generals on both sides did not know how to put an end to it.

What a tragedy that it was only after the war, after tens of millions lay dead, that we understood all that.

And on a smaller scale and in a different way we understand it after the Mumbai terrorism too. For just one example, questions are being asked about whether TV channels should have been showing footage of commando operations, or telling the world which important people were stuck in which nook of the Taj. There is evidence that the terrorists learned all this and acted on it, to tragic and deadly effect. So consider: If TV reporters had been less eager to hit the air with the latest 'exclusive' information, we might just have defeated the terrorists faster. We might just have lost fewer lives.

The lesson? Here's Sledge again:

I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how "gallant" it is for a man to "shed his blood for his country" and "to give his life's blood as a sacrifice," and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.

And if only the flies are benefiting, I think all of us should be asking some questions. Journalists first.

***

Perspective

All of which serves to put into perspective the idea of peace journalism. It's not about platitudes or easy mantras. Peace means bringing an end to bloodshed and killing, and platitudes can't make that happen. Peace means the steady, unflinching, forthright work of bringing enemies together, getting them to talk and find common ground. Peace is hard, let's have no illusions. Waging it is a difficult task that allows no breaks, no sabbaticals. And yet think of the rewards, the vast benefits to us all of a real and lasting peace.

At its best, journalism -- and now I deliberately don't qualify that with the word "peace" -- is just as hard and demanding; and therefore, just as rewarding. It must remain true, it must ask the hard questions, it must challenge authority, it must never be blinded by what passes for patriotism.

When journalists shy away from those musts, as too many invariably do during war, the killing carries on. Peace remains a mirage.

And maybe that's the ultimate challenge for journalism of the kind we are discussing: to turn a mirage of peace into reality.

(Once a computer scientist, Dilip D'Souza now writes. He has won several awards for his work, has published two books and a collection of essays, and is working on a third. He lives in Mumbai.)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009