An interview with author Peter Beaumont.
The Secret Life of War obviously aims to go further than ‘pure’ reportage. What were you hoping to achieve, and which received ideas were you trying to correct?
Books on conflict seemed to fall into broad categories: memoir, history, politics and a form of reportage that is descriptive. I felt that there were few non-fiction books that dealt with the inner life of conflict. I wanted to look at big questions about violence – about the nature of hatred for instance – but in an intimate and personal way. In the end I found that to do that required me to look at my own experiences and reactions.
In terms of received ideas, I felt to that it was necessary to get beyond all of the ideological arguments that inevitably surround war to attempt to describe a more fundamental reality. There has been a recent tendency too towards a deliberate censorship based on the idea that it is only acceptable to write from the ‘victim’s side’ – that you cannot observe the military side without becoming absorbed by its justifications. I believe it is important to reject that. I also wanted to go beyond judgements over the rightness or wrongness of individual parties to conflict because the object was to examine the mechanisms of war and violence. What makes it possible for individuals to hurt.
Can you describe how you go about reporting from such dangerous places as Afghanistan or Lebanon, how you deal with the risks, and how your methods differ from other reporters’?
Everyone has their own methods. What I was interested in for this book – what attracted me to journalism – was the opportunity to tell discreet and often personal stories. Small moments set against large events. I think that is what people respond too. The result is that what I find most satisfactory is long conversational encounters, even in difficult situations. Coming in as a stranger, an outsider, into conflict situations, you are always confronted with the same hurdles. In every situation we have largely well-rehearsed explanations for what we do and what is happening to us. It is deliberately conscious, in wartime, encompassing all the facts and history of your community’s shared conflict ethos. What I look for is the stories that people haven’t had a chance to process and fit into these neat narratives – that are contradictory, often unformed, but always revealing. I hate writing on conflict that is full of pat quotes that sum up what is going on at the end of each article or section. It does not feel real to me. Reality is messy. The reality of conflict even more so. And part of the challenge is reflecting that.
In terms of how I negotiate risk, that is a difficult question. To understand conflict you have to make a choice. It requires that you put yourself in danger because without that sense of peril, without the fear and uncertainty about yourself, you cannot get to the heart of it. There has also been a trend of late to say that un-embedded journalism is preferable to being embedded. While there is a lot of truth in that, where it means avoiding the combatants on one side to me seems to another kind censorship – self-censorship for ideological reasons.
That doesn’t mean that I do not have a preference. I have found it far more rewarding to travel independently. But eventually an issue interposes itself. There has got to be an honest cost-benefit analysis over what you expect to get for the risks you are taking. If you cannot tell the story – because you are arrested, held hostage or worse – then I think you have to ask about your motivation. And because it is exciting – in the sense that it excites, rather than in the more general meaning of pleasurable anticipation – there is also the danger that it becomes compelling. I have certainly fallen into that trap on occasions, choosing to do things, take risks, because of the fact of the risk taking rather than being clear what purpose that risk taking took.
In terms of methodology, I would rather spend time looking for those small indicators to hidden trends, throw away remarks in conversations, the two-paragraph story in a local paper than chasing the generals and officials at the press conferences where there are a hundred people writing down the same quotes. If I turn up somewhere, following a hunch or a lead and there is no-one else around – and I get to spend time chatting to someone about an aspect of their life, something that challenges what I know or builds on my understanding – I usually feel pretty content. For example last time I was in Gaza, at the beginning of 2009 just after the Israeli attack, I finally asked a friend about the huge painted candles you see around some doors. I guess I’d always thought that it was something to door with martyrdom. I discovered it was what young men do to the bridegroom on his wedding day to wish him luck. I still feel excited about learning tiny details like that. And maybe one day I’ll be able to use that idea.
Are there other writers, reporters or photographers who have influenced the way you think about war?
I mention Vasily Grossman, the great Russian war correspondent and novelist in the book. I always remember an anecdote from his diaries about how he got his assignment covering the war, how a Soviet official tried to block his appointment because he had no military experience. His editor shot back that he had a novelist’s understanding of the human soul. The writers and photographers I admire most for me demonstrate that same quality. Ryszard Kapucinski’s Another Day of Life is incomparable. He says so much in so few words. It has a lapidary quality about it. I love Michael Herr’s Dispatches too, not simply for its gripping observations, but for making me think about how you can organise material in a non-linear, almost hallucinatory way.
Photography has always played a major role in the way I like to work. I’ve always had cameras and found just the discipline of framing the scenes that I witness is tremendously helpful in remembering the telling details. It has a way of imprinting what I see.
I have always admired the ability of great photographers to break down stories in discreet images pregnant with meaning – photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Larry Burrows. Of contemporary photojournalists I particularly like the work of Kai Weidenhofer – which is invested with this remarkable sense of persistence and patience – and of Ron Haviv, and my friend Antonio Zazueta. They manage to peel back the layers of emotion and refine what is going on in an immediate way that writers often struggle to achieve. There is a picture of Ron’s of a Bosnian Serb militia kicking a corpse to check it is dead. Dead checking. There is so much going on in it that it would take a 1000 words to describe.
What does reporting war for so many years teach you, about other people – the combatants and the civilians caught up in war – and about yourself?
One of the difficulties of covering conflict for a long period of time is that it genuinely changes you. In inculcates a general sense of pessimism about humanity. A frustration. You end up having a close knowledge of how things break down, not how they are built back up again. But I think one thing I have brought away from war is a knowledge of how close to the surface violence and hatred are in all of us. How casually people kill and hurt. Which we are protected from most of the time. In Europe and the US we have fought our wars abroad for such a long time that even when our soldiers are fighting we have successfully developed a way of keeping it separate from the main stream of our societies. I think it is partly because our media has not been as successful as it could be in dramatising the reality of conflict. But it is not simply the media. Where once it might have been normal for artists and intellectuals to have experience of war, now it is extremely rare. It has become specialised and alien. I think that has been one of the biggest lessons that I learned.
Personally too, I think it leaves a very deep imprint. Covering conflict becomes part of your identity. Inseparable. It does not scrub out. I’ve tried therapy a couple of times with the object of giving up covering these events. I guess I’m working on it.