Everything you always wanted to know about war reporting but were (very) afraid to ask.
Acclaimed BBC reporter Ben Anderson’s new book covers the conflict in Afghanistan from the thick of the fighting. For Esquire, he reveals the stories behind the story.
The first documentary I made, Last Rights, for which I spent six months undercover with a hidden camera in a Salisbury undertakers, won an award. Every other winner at the ceremony had filmed foreign conflicts. The overall winner had given up a lucrative career in law and filmed beautiful images while under fire with Kosovan resistance fighters. Another had been blown up in the back of a truck in Chechnya and the first thing he’d done was press the red button on his video camera.
The people handing out the awards were heroes from older wars, and for the first time in my life I was surrounded by people I admired. I was sure they had all fearlessly interviewed dictators, almost died reporting famines, smuggled tapes across borders, survived ambushes and were on speaking terms with guerrilla leaders, peacemakers and presidents. I wanted to be them, and I wanted my life to be like theirs.
Fourteen years later, I’ve almost got what I wished for. I’ve spent time in Gaza, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Colombia and India. I’ve been detained in Iran, played badminton in the Burmese jungle with a man who was once the world’s most wanted opium dealer, been tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and met a 650lb silverback gorilla in the wilds of Eastern Congo.
I have been to Afghanistan on several occasions, where I’ve nearly been shot or blown up more times than I can remember. I’ve also seen many of the foreign correspondents I had dreamed of joining at work, and the awe I once felt in their company has been diluted.
And while I can still talk too fast for hours about the great pictures, books, articles and films many of my colleagues have produced, I’ve also seen enough vanity, fakery and spite to make me want to chuck it all in and get a job in banking. Here are 12 things everyone should know about war reporting. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
1. You can be a war reporter without going to a war
Many reporters will fix you with their best Clint Eastwood stare when they tell you they’ve just got back from Afghanistan. Yet it’s possible to travel to any war zone — Somalia, Helmand or Baghdad, for example — and never leave the safety of a military base, which is exactly what most reporters do.
Live in a war zone, and you’re suddenly one of the richest one per cent, and societal rules no longer apply. Even in war-torn Congo, Iraq or Gaza there are hotels where you can eat and drink well, have affairs or sleep with the prostitutes hanging around by the gates. You can have whatever, and whoever you want.
On military bases, I’ve seen what I thought were hardened veterans throw hissy fits because they couldn’t get a private tent, a hot shower or their own helicopter. Most reporters leave the luxury and security of these places as little and as briefly as possible.
2. If you do go, it won’t be like the movies
Battles don’t happen at close range, like they do in films, and they are rarely as bad as they sound. One of the first war zones I visited was Liberia, as part of a BBC series I was making about the conflicts along the west coast of Africa, from Sierra Leone to Nigeria.
In Liberia, the main rebel group LURD — Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a name slightly undermined by their habit of cutting out their enemies’ hearts and eating them raw — had almost taken the capital, Monrovia, which they had shelled and shot up indiscriminately.
We were due to spend some time with LURD and before we left home a rather macho producer told me to expect an ambush by government soldiers where there would be a “low survival rate”. “What the fuck is a low survival rate?” I asked, startled. “About 40 per cent,” he replied, deadly serious.
I spent the next few weeks terrified of this actually happening. Of course, it didn’t. There had been some bloody and chaotic fighting, but the warring factions had settled into an uneasy stalemate, holding their ground with roadblocks manned by small groups of drunk, high and traumatised child soldiers.
I’ve seen plenty of fighting since, but there aren’t many battles, anywhere, where the casualty rate goes above one per cent.
3. IEDs are a different story altogether
On a recent trip to Sangin, in Helmand province, I didn’t see a single shot fired in anger. I had filmed there in 2007, with the Grenadier Guards, and it was already the most violent town in Helmand, which was itself the most violent province in Afghanistan. One-third of all British casualties have occurred there, mostly from improvised explosive devices.
I returned in December 2010 and January 2011 because the US Marines had just taken over and were confident they would succeed where the British had failed.
The unit I joined, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines (nicknamed “The Butchers of Fallujah”), lost 26 men and had more than 140 horrendously wounded, mostly from IED strikes, in less than three months. Most Marines and soldiers I’ve met love to fight, but nothing saps morale more than an invisible enemy, whose booby traps blow up one of your friends every few days.
4. Often the most important story isn’t the obvious one
It’s easy to become obsessed with the research you did before you got on a plane and then be blinded in your hunt to confirm it. This has become much worse since the advent of 24-hour news, where journalists are told they must say something about the story of the day, no matter how banal and ephemeral it is.
The urchin who taps on your window as you drive to the latest press conference, demo or NGO tour, probably has much more to reveal than whatever it is the pack are racing towards.
Last year, as the US Marines cleared buildings in Marjah, Afghanistan, I caught sight of what looked like a five-year-old boy. Then I noticed he was making very adult, New York-style “fuck you” hand gestures. It was only luck that led to me meeting him, and finding out he was a 20-year-old dwarf and heroin addict named Mohammad. He’d been a refugee in Iran for eight years, but had come back expecting to be able to find work in his soon-to-be-liberated and rebuilt homeland.
I filmed him over the next few weeks as he bummed cigarettes, complained to anyone who would listen and was regularly picked up and passed around by the Afghan Army, who hadn’t been taught how to be politically correct around dwarves.
He was later beheaded, probably by the Taliban, and probably for being too friendly with the American infidels. His was the story of a million Afghans, and the one that most people remembered — and I could have easily missed it.
5. Just because you’re embedded with a military unit doesn’t mean they have to like you
It’s often said embedded reporters can’t be impartial, because they get too close to the troops they are with and sometimes depend on them for security. It’s not true. I’ve been threatened with “major, major problems” if I made one unit of US Marines “look like baby killers”. “There’s a simple way to stop that,” I replied, “don’t kill babies,” which didn’t help.
It was the start of a long and difficult embed in Sangin (as mentioned, infamous as a casualty black spot for British forces), where many of the men I would be living with for the next month were openly hostile. “BBC?” asked one US marine, “you’re just like CNN — the Communist News Network. We don’t like reporters round here.”
But their ignorance can work both ways. I later filmed the same unit demolishing almost an entire neighbourhood, including a mosque, rather than clearing it of IEDs, a long and dangerous process that is rarely without casualties.
Just over a year earlier, on the same dirt roads, staff sergeant Olaf Schmid, the British bomb disposal expert and George Cross recipient, had cleared 31 IEDs in a single day.
He was killed 24 hours later when an IED he was attempting to defuse exploded. I was still shocked to see innocent Afghans’ homes being flattened. Everything we did was supposed to be for the Afghan people, even if it meant our troops taking greater risks. The policy had been called “courageous restraint”.
I kept my distance for hours, making sure I got everything on tape before anyone had a chance to stop me. When my batteries finally died and I walked back into the derelict house the Marines were occupying, I was expecting to get punched in the mouth and sent home. But no one batted an eyelid.
One of them even asked me if I’d got some good bulldozer action. I knew the US Marines didn’t care what anyone else thought of them, that’s why I’ve always loved filming with them (as opposed to filming with the British, which always involves being trailed by a “media-ops” minder), but this level of callousness, despite making my job easier, was disturbing. What, I had to think, do they do when I’m not here?
6. Sometimes, the only person stopping you getting the story is you
I’ve been on many other much better embeds and made friendships that will probably last my entire life, but that never made me feel that there was a scene I couldn’t film or a question I couldn’t ask. I was once invited to film a meeting with an Afghan family in Helmand province who were being paid $10,000 in compensation for four of their relatives who had just been killed when an American rocket destroyed their house.
After the meeting, the family invited me to film the bodies, but as they pulled back the bloodstained sheet, I put my camera down, put my hand on my heart, thanked them and walked away, thinking I’d already intruded on their grief too much. I should have filmed it, and let them show their story in its full horror, but I was the only censor.
7. You’re probably much tougher than you think you are
If you do venture out and see what’s happening for yourself, and the shit does hit the fan, you’ll soon find you can cope far better than you’d think. Your brain will probably work so well it will surprise you. Eighteen months ago, I found myself in a ditch with a unit of US Marines.
They had landed in the middle of Marjah, one of the Taliban’s largest remaining strongholds, in an effort to show the world President Obama’s new policy could work. The operation to take the town had been announced weeks in advance, so the Taliban had ample time to prepare.
As the sun came up, it became clear we had been dropped into the middle of a perfect ambush. The Marines either side of me were hit, one of them badly, and no one had any idea where the fire was coming from. I was sure I was about to die.
I’d even accepted it and went slightly limp, resigned to the fact metal was about to enter my body. I thought I’d discovered what cowardice was and that, in the face of death, I was a coward. I promised myself if I somehow survived, I would never go out with the Marines again.
But when I looked at my footage, I got good pictures, kept everything in focus and even managed to ask a few fairly lucid questions. I spent a further four weeks with the same Marines and became comfortable even when pinned down in an open field. The human body, your body, is an amazing thing, and can get used to just about anything.
8. Nearly dying is not a thrill
Getting shot at or having a close shave with an IED does not turn you into an adrenaline junkie. Seeing people die does not enrich you, or your appreciation of life. When you get home, normal life often feels mundane, but that doesn’t mean that war reporting is exciting. It’s a stressful endurance test that offers little or no satisfaction.
9. Women won’t be attracted to you
Actually they will be, until you tell them that although it was lovely to meet them, you will continue to be a war reporter. Then you love your job more than them, and it’s usually curtains. They will look at you with pride as you tell war stories over dinner, but say you’re going back and they’ll threaten to chop off your balls.
10. The real heroes are not those you’d expect
On that early visit to Liberia, I remember checking into the Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia (after first being told about the bevy of gorgeous Moroccan hookers that had just been imported).
I looked around the bar crowd and thought, “In among heroes, at last.” A few days later, I realized I was among drunken, depressed and cynical hacks running away from miserable family lives, failed careers, bills, rules, laws or themselves.
Most war reporters care more about beating their rivals than they do about telling an important story. If they wanted to end it they’d be working for Médecins Sans Frontières or Unicef. Or they’d hang around and help once they’d filed their story; the need to be impartial is a convenient excuse for this. The famous story of a reporter once shouting: “Anyone here been raped and speak English?” at a crowd of Congolese women sounds apocryphal, but I find it easy to believe.
I know of a reporter who charged around every hospital to be found in southern Iraq, demanding a quadruple amputee after a rival filed a report about a young boy who had lost all four limbs in an air strike. Sadly, we are often just vultures.
Around us are people who actually have to go out and fight, or the wretched civilians who are stuck in the middle without anywhere to go or anyone to help them. Then there are the local fixers, who always know far more than even the most dedicated foreign correspondent.
They are also much easier to kidnap and murder, because everyone knows where they live, and their disappearance or death will not cause an international outcry. We always have that return ticket in our back pockets.
11.You won’t change the world
Even with the best story you ever did, the few who saw it probably knew the issue already and had an opinion that you may only have nudged slightly to one side, or just reinforced. If your story is in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America, you have already lost most of your potential audience. Brown people are always killing each other so most people would rather not let it ruin their day.
Even Afghanistan, a conflict that, for now at least, still involves “our boys” being brave, will have most people reaching for the remote. The public has warily decided our troops should come home, so their curiosity has evaporated. Once they’re back, Afghanistan will vanish again and you probably won’t find anyone willing to send you there, no matter how good you are. Forget changing the world: you will rarely even change minds.
12. But it’s worth doing anyway
I could retire tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter a jot to any conflict or anyone’s knowledge of it. But if we all retired, the world would be even more violent, corrupt and unjust. That is why I will continue taking the risks. Perhaps I still believe I might make that one film, or write that one book which really does change the world.
Perhaps I’m just continuing to get the best education the world can offer, until I can come up with a better use for it. Or perhaps I just like saying I’m a war reporter, and don’t like the idea of saying I’m anything else.
I have many colleagues whose work sometimes prevents injustice, reduces suffering, exposes lies, educates nations, or stops tyrants from getting away with murder. Television shows about cooking probably get double the viewing figures but without war reporting, the world would undoubtedly be a much worse place. For me, for now, that’s enough.
No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of Our Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan by Ben Anderson is out now (Oneworld)