On being a (Western) war correspondent

Matthieu Aikins
Jan 12, 2015 · 7 min read

This is a version of the notes that I wrote for a speech that I gave in December at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, on the occasion of receiving a medal for “courage” which had been renamed after James Foley, as result of a story I wrote about war crimes in Afghanistan. As you can see from the speech, I’m a little conflicted about the award, and the role of the (Western) war correspondent in general. I’m posting it here because it represents an attempt to think through these issues publicly, and I’d appreciate your thoughts as well. I also think it has some relevance to our considerations of the Charlie Hebdo murders. — MA

It’s an honor to receive this award, especially at the same time as Jim, and especially given the immensely talented group of finalists. Thank you. I also thank my two Afghan friends who helped me report the story, Fazal Rahman Muzhary and Ruhollah Ahmadi. They stuck with me in some very dodgy places over the course of the five months it took to report the story and whatever courage involved was theirs as well.

When I was in Baghdad last week, I ran into a close friend of Jim’s, and we started talking about him and about this award. I never met Jim, and so I asked her what he would have thought about this. She said that he’d be honored, of course, especially because Medill was such an important place for him, but she also thought that he would be uncomfortable and worried that the focus was on him, and not on the stories of the people he cared about so deeply, the victims of the wars that he covered.

It’s ironic how well Jim’s death illustrated something that he had dedicated himself to trying to change: that some lives matter more than others. That Western lives are mourned in a way that non-Western ones are not.

I’m not talking about personal grief, the grief of his friends and family, or the grief of this institution, which has quite rightly commemorated him in this manner. I’m talking about mourning as a public and collective phenomenon, which we as journalists, as writers of news and obituaries, play an integral role. Millions of people who never knew Jim felt sorrow for his death. And yet none of us know the names or stories of the hundreds of Syrians and Iraqis who were killed that week, or indeed of the dozens of Iraqi and Syrian journalists who have also been murdered by ISIS.

This is true in general of the media’s coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the victims have overwhelmingly, by almost two orders of magnitude, been Afghan and Iraqi civilians, the stories we tell are dominated by Western lives. It’s something so obvious and ordinary that we might be tempted to consider it natural. After all, why shouldn’t American media outlets care more about Americans? But we’re not talking about the hometown paper. We’re talking about a global discourse that has power over millions of lives. What’s printed in the New York Times or Washington Post can matter as much to Iraqis or Afghans as it does to people in New York or Washington. So I think this is something worth scrutinizing.

The philosopher Judith Butler, in considering the way in which some lives are publicly mourned, and some are not, refers to a concept of “grievability.” That is, some lives can be publicly mourned in ways that others cannot. Like a lot of things in our society, it’s unevenly distributed, in a way that reflects power structures and inequality. And the media plays a central role in doing so. The obituary section, she writes, functions “as an instrument by which grievability is publicly distributed.” And it doesn’t just apply to international stories. If a homeless person freezes to death in Chicago tonight, you might not see a writeup in the Tribune, but if a prominent banker does, you certainly will. Some lives are more grievable than others.

What are the consequences of a public discourse where grievability is unequally distributed, where some lives can be mourned and others cannot? For Butler, it means that certain kinds of violence can be legitimized, and its effects concealed. Grievability is produced by power, and also helps to maintain it. Consider for a moment some of the famous non-Western victims of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, individuals whose names we remember. Of course there’s Malala Yousufzai, shot by extremists for fighting for her right to education. Can you think of any one else? Maybe you remember Ayesha, the Afghan girl who adorned the cover of TIME magazine, with a gaping hole where her nose had been cut off, ostensibly by the Taliban, a claim that later turned out to be highly misleading.

Now think of the thousands of children killed and maimed by American weapons since 2001 — can we bring a single name and face to mind? Where is this war’s Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl struck by napalm in Vietnam, whose photo became a symbol of the horror that war? Some of these Afghan children were deliberately murdered — the American Sergeant Robert Bales massacred 16 people in their own homes one night in Kandahar in 2012. Nine of them were kids — can we call their names and faces to mind?

We cannot, because they are ungrievable lives.

It’s a been a tough year for journalists working in conflict zones. I’ve lost several good friends. It hurts. But when we mourn them, I think it’s important to consider whether we’re doing so in a way that brings us into solidarity with those who are suffering from wars overseas, and not in a way that heightens our own sense of vulnerability, that marks us off as distinct and that closes down our empathy. As Butler puts it, “I am as much constituted by those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I avow.” Again, it’s ironic that Jim’s murder — and it’s intense grievability — has helped provide impetus and public support for renewed American military intervention in the Middle East, something that he was highly critical of.

Where does that leave us as journalists? It’s not easy to write about non-Western lives. Any foreign correspondent will tell you that it’s harder to pitch stories about them. But I think we have an ethical responsibility to fight to admit their lives and stories into our public discourse, to render them grievable. We have to become radical obituary writers. That’s what I was trying to do with this Rolling Stone piece — these victims were at the far end of the spectrum of grievability in Afghanistan: rural, bearded, illiterate villagers who in their death were easily labeled Taliban by the US military. And that’s what Jim succeeded at, again and again, with his stories that illuminated the human costs of the wars we’re waging overseas.

That is a cause worth dying for. Let me tell you, in the six years that I’ve spent covering conflicts, I’ve witnessed plenty of physical courage, enough to know that it is a common thing. What is for us here in America death-defying is, for millions in the developing world, commonplace. “Courageousness” can be a product of privilege.

And I’ve seen enough courage to know that there isn’t anything moral about it per se. Killing takes courage. Terrorists, if you want to call them that, can be courageous. It’s certainly not cowardly to take on the American military, whatever the rhetoric of our politicians and generals.

I’m not a stranger to the thrill and macho gamesmanship of combat zones — and neither was Jim. He took crazy risks, and loved them, until they cost him his life. But he wasn’t a braggart about it. He understood that what redeems you from being just another boy in a war zone trying to prove himself a man are the stories you tell, because those stories are about people who desperately need our empathy, who live in a world where violence and oppression are commonplace.

In the end, it’s moral, not physical, courage that counts. The world has enough brave boys. Our courage has to be in service of a struggle for justice that is far more important than us. I confess that I’m increasingly troubled by the figure of the war correspondent as a hero. Is it linked somehow to the American cult of the soldier and cop, which idolizes power and sanitizes violence? To me the Navy nurse who refuses to force-feed prisoners at Guantanamo demonstrated a courage rarer and more necessary to our world than the Navy SEAL who says he killed Bin Laden. The dignity and perseverance of parents who try to provide some kind of emotional and physical security for their kids in a place like Aleppo astounds me more than any gutsy scoop there by me or my colleagues.

I’m honored and grateful for this award, and I do think that we, as a profession, should celebrate and encourage each other, especially in such troubled times. And I applaud Medill for naming it after Jim, so that his example will continue to inspire future journalists long after we’re no longer around. What we — I mean all of us — are trying to do is important. But we should also remind ourselves that our importance is derivative in nature; our stories matter because of the people they’re about. Without them, we’re nothing.

PS: My profound thanks to Asim Rafiqui for the discussions that inspired much of this speech.

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