The modern war canon

A longtime BBC war reporter talks about five books that provide deep insights into recent conflicts

Topics: The Browser, Books, Vietnam War,

The modern war canonU.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp near the Cambodian border, in March 1965 during the Vietnam War. (Credit: AP/Horst Faas)
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Former BBC war reporter Martin Bell picks out essential reading on the Bosnia and Vietnam wars and explains why a book of poetry speaks more to him about the reality of conflict than any other writing.

The BrowserYou were a war reporter for many years. In the past few weeks, the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and other journalists have been killed in Syria. Do you think it has become more dangerous?

Infinitely. I have just written a new introduction to my book about the Bosnia war to mark the 20th anniversary of its outbreak in April. One of the points I make there is that the whole landscape changed for war reporters after 9/11. Before then, and Bosnia was an example, if you were wounded as I was, it was just because you were caught in the crossfire. After 9/11, journalists, not just Western journalists but others as well, have been targeted for execution and for ransom. As you saw with the case of Marie Colvin in Homs, the makeshift press center of the rebels was itself targeted because it was challenging accounts of events coming out of [the government in] Damascus. So one of the many points I have been making for years now is that the age of bystander journalism is long gone. You just don’t shine a light on events. Whether you like it or not, you are a player and a participant and sometimes quite an important player. Marie Colvin’s last report the day before she died was so powerful that it was implicitly, even explicitly, a plea for intervention to save the people of Homs. Now that places the journalist in a very vulnerable situation.

When you were a reporter, the public relied on you and a few of your colleagues to report what was happening. Today, with mobile phone footage and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, anyone can report from the front line. Is that a good or bad thing?



It’s positive and negative. It’s positive in that it is very hard for a total close-down of information to occur. Even in Burma, images of resistance were coming out. It’s negative as you are never sure how reliable the information you are being fed is – whether it is authentic, whether indeed it is what it says it is. The Internet is a marvelous tool for information, but equally it is a marvelous tool for disinformation. There will always be a need for believable people of the caliber of Marie Colvin to be on the ground and trusted by their readers and viewers because without that you can’t be sure that you know what’s going on.

To what extent has the culture of celebrity affected war reporting and the type of journalists who are on our screens?

There are still some terrific people out there doing the business. Marie Colvin was not the only one. Bill Neely of ITN is another. But what has happened is that as it has become more dangerous, there has been this tendency to retreat to fortified compounds away from the front line – hotel rooftops, TV station rooftops, building a platform next to a couple of palm trees 20 miles from the action. Then television becomes performing art. Yes, it tends to be done by good-looking, crisply dressed young people. But there are folk still out there who continue to do it in the old-fashioned way – Anthony Loyd at the Times is one of the best. Celebrity journalism is a relatively new phenomenon over the last 20 years. I think it’s fairly deplorable, but we live in a celebrity culture.

Let’s take a look at your book choices now, starting with “Trusted Mole” by Milos Stankovic, which you wrote the introduction to. Stankovic was British army liaison officer in the Bosnian war who was arrested, but later exonerated, for breaching the Official Secrets Act. Before we talk about the book, can you tell us more about the author?

He has a very interesting personal story. Shortly after the British arrived in Bosnia, which was at the end of 1992 or maybe early 1993, I met a British officer identified as Captain Mike Stanley of the Parachute Regiment. Now he spoke very good Serbian and it was very obvious that he wasn’t really called Mike Stanley. His real name was Milos Stankovic, but they gave him this nom de guerre to protect him from accusations of bias, because his mother and father were Serbian refugees. He was a very good officer and spent more time in Bosnia than any other British soldier. He was used not just to interpret but as liaison. Stankovic and another officer were the U.N. liaison officers to Pale, the headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs. There he liaised with Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and reported back on their actions and feelings and so on. He did it with great distinction and was awarded an MBE. Two years after he came out he was at the Joint Services Staff College in Bracknell [in the UK] and was arrested by the Ministry of Defence police on suspicion of spying for the Serbs. Somebody didn’t like it that the British commanders of the U.N. force were getting information from a source the Americans didn’t have information from. He fell under suspicion quite falsely. He spent years trying to clear his name. His name was cleared, he was absolutely blameless. He was a British hero.

But of course he had to leave the army and while he was under investigation he wrote this extraordinary book “Trusted Mole.” It’s very idiosyncratic. I think it’s the best book to come out on the Bosnian war, including my own. It’s a sort of “heart of darkness” book. When he went over to the Bosnian Serb side he called it “going to the dark side.” If you want to understand how wars develop, how the U.N. tries to cope with things that are beyond its mandate, it’s absolutely the perfect read and really gripping.

Is it a day-by-day account of his experiences in Bosnia?

It’s more episode by episode. A lot of it is a dialogue with his then girlfriend. They are the most vivid accounts of the changeover of command between Gen. Rose and Gen. Smith, both British commanders of UNPROFOR. There is a fantastic account of how Gen. Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, visited Ratko Mladic, and Mladic persuades Clark to exchange hats. So there is this famous photograph of this American general wearing the Serbian general’s hat. This caused huge outcry. Stankovic is marvelous at explaining how the Serb mind works, about how clever they were. It isn’t a pro-Serb book or an anti-Serb book, it’s just a fascinating individual account of one soldier’s adventures in a war he understood better than the rest of us.

Are there conclusions to be drawn from this book?

Yes, I think so. I think we have to understand much better what we are getting into. You have to understand the culture of the people. Why are they fighting? How can they be persuaded to stop fighting? Remember all this happened at a time when the doctrines of the British army were still geared to the Cold War. Well, if you’re dealing with a mixed military operating group at a roadblock in Bosnia, the lessons of the Cold War aren’t going to apply. I used to lecture at the Army Staff College and was astonished at how slow they were to adjust and how little of their time they spent in what they called “operations other than war.” For the most part, Bosnia was an “operation other than war” – it’s also called peacekeeping. In those days they didn’t study very much the Geneva Convention. They certainly do now and they work much more closely with the NGOs and charities and so on. So everything is changing. But we’re talking about nearly 20 years ago when the army was slow to adjust.

From Bosnia to Vietnam now. Was Vietnam the first war you covered as a war reporter?

I started off doing tribal massacres in Nigeria. Then in early 1967 I went to Vietnam and was back there in 1972. David Halberstam was the main New York Times correspondent in Vietnam during that time. Lyndon Johnson lent very heavily on the newspaper’s editor to get him withdrawn because he didn’t like his reports. Halberstam was very truthful about what he found.

“The Best and the Brightest” is an account of how the Americans got into this war. How brilliant people devised schemes that went against all common sense. One of them of course was [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara who had been president of the Ford Motor Co. They thought that simply by the application of force and intelligence they could make things happen on the ground. But they didn’t understand. It’s much the same as what I was saying about Bosnia – if you don’t understand the people or the place nothing is going to work. I saw in 1967 and 1972 this massive application of firepower. But you don’t change people’s minds with firepower. You can, in fact, just alienate them. What Halberstam delivers is an account of how this happened. In the end, Robert McNamara, who was the architect of the Vietnam War, came to agree with him. In the early 1990s, when he was then a man in his 80s, he wrote a book called “In Retrospect,” in which he said very bravely that they had been wrong, terribly wrong, and that “we didn’t understand the nature of them and what they were doing.”

One of the reasons I have chosen Halberstam is because I think it applies today to what the Western powers are trying to do in Afghanistan. There are so many parallel structures – the massive application of firepower and not much understanding of the people. To the Afghans, we tend to be just another foreign invader, however well-intentioned. Which is why, like Vietnam, I think it’s an unwinnable war.

Halberstam was extraordinarily insightful given that the book was published in 1972 without the benefit of hindsight or the release of classified documents.

Yes, it was written when the war was going on around him.

It’s very interesting but I remember that there were definitely two categories of American war reporters out there. One were the “Pentagon correspondents” who tended to believe what they were told at the official briefings, the “five o’clock followers” as we called them. The others were the younger correspondents – David Halberstam was one, Jack Laurence of CBS was another. Because of the amazing access they had – the press accreditation card meant you could get a helicopter anywhere so long as there was space – they got out to see what was actually happening on the ground and that the war really wasn’t working. The younger correspondents saw this and a real rift developed between them and the old hands who thought they were reliving the Second World War – a fight for survival, good guys against bad guys and so on.

It’s extraordinary the free access reporters had to the front line in Vietnam. It contrasts with the embedding of journalists to specific army units in conflicts today.

We didn’t go straight from full access to embedding. There was an intermediate phase when there was no access at all. The officers who had been majors and colonels in Vietnam went on to be generals and because I think they needed a scapegoat, they blamed the press. The American defeat was all laid at the door of the press. And so when the Americans invaded Grenada in 1983, there was no press access whatsoever. They did the same in Panama with the overthrow of Gen. Noriega, where there was a tiny press pool. When the British task force went to the Falkland Islands in 1982, there was a strong faction in the Ministry of Defence who wanted to have no reporters there at all. They were overruled by Margaret Thatcher and there was a degree of access but not much. After that the Ministry of Defence worked out embedding. I have claimed to be the father of embedding because I had an authorization card to accompany a British operational force in February 1991, in the first Gulf War, which had the serial number 001. All it is, is the trade-off of freedom for access. You go where they let you go, but on the other hand you’re up there with the front line troops. So it is vivid, it is fragmentary, but if it is not supplemented by any other source of reporting I think it is very misleading.

Is there any war correspondent who wouldn’t have ["Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh] in their top five?

I don’t think so. The older I got and the more wars I covered – I have done about 18 – the more true it became. It’s just a snapshot of what things were like in what was then called Abyssinia [in the 1930s]. But everything is there. It was before television, but they had the cinema newsreels with their boxes of stuff. They have this grandee correspondent, I suppose he’s the Max Hastings type, and the news agency guys and our innocent William Boot who of course was [based on the journalist] Bill Deedes, though he denied it. It was the world I found myself in when I started reporting from Vietnam, Nigeria, Angola and everywhere else.

Can you give us a brief summary of the book’s plot?

This harmless nature correspondent called William Boot is plucked out of obscurity because he is mistaken for somebody else with a similar name and he’s sent off as a war correspondent to what was then Abyssinia in Africa where there is a revolution and all kinds of shenanigans.  He has to learn the basic craft [of journalism], which he learns from two news agency men. And of course he stumbles quite by chance upon a scoop. It’s a great satire of the ways of foreign reporting and we all love it.

Does any of it still ring true for war reporters today?

This books belongs to a more innocent age when you took your chance and the worst thing that could happen to you is to be caught in the crossfire. The world of Marie Colvin and Homs is a world away from William Boot and Evelyn Waugh. But some of the people and adventures are similar, and there’s the competitiveness and the romances in the field happen as well. And it’s the togetherness of the press corp, the way the press hunts in a pack.

Let’s stay in Africa and talk about Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which was published in 1903Why did you pick this book?

It’s a marvelous novella. I’ve worked in the Congo and I’m now an ambassador for UNICEF and went on a trip there four or five years ago that was pure Conrad. The main highway in the Congo is the river. This is a book about the river, about the ivory trade, about the rapacity of the white man, it’s about the things that happen to the white man. Its enduring strength is that it’s very ambivalent about the whole imperial enterprise. A bit of Conrad sees it as a noble shedding of light into the darkness, but in a memorable passage he says, “What are you doing taking land away from people with different shaped noses and different coloured skins than ours.” So it’s both pro and anti-imperial. It’s an exploration of the darkness in our own hearts.

Can you tell us a little more about the story?

The principal character is a river boat captain. The story starts at the lower reaches of the Thames and a yarn among old sailors about this guy Charles Marlow who is out of work but through relatives in Brussels gets a job as a river boat captain on the River Congo. The previous captain was killed by natives in a row over a chicken and the boat was incapacitated. Marlow finds the boat and there is a marvelous account of putting it together again and descriptions of the people he meets from the trading company and their ambition and their rapacity. He gets the boat going. And there is talk of the agent who produces more ivory than all the others, whose name is Kurtz. And it becomes a mission to find Kurtz and when he finds him, he finds that Kurtz has gone completely mad. The film “Apocalypse Now” was modeled on this. Lots of unspeakable things happen and Kurtz dies. Marlow then comes back and reports to Kurtz’s betrothed.

It’s a story inside a story. It’s a story about the darkness at the heart of us all. I’ve read it over and over again. It’s quite short, only about 35,000 words, but it is incredibly eloquent. And to think that he wrote it in his third language is quite extraordinary.

Conrad was Polish wasn’t he?

Yes. Polish was his first language. French was his second. English was this third.

I found this book helped give me an understanding of the Congo even today. It’s ungovernable and ungoverned today, as it was then.

So not much has changed in more than 100 years.

There are still no proper east-west roads in the Congo. Mobutu [Sese Seko], who ruled it for 32 years, looted it just like [Belgium’s] King Leopold looted it. He wouldn’t have any roads built from east to west in case the eastern tribes marched and overthrew him, which is essentially what happened in the end. So it’s very up to date.

Why have you included this collection of war poems [by Wilfred Owen]?

It may seem odd. You may ask what war poems have got to do with reportage. But in this case they have a lot. There are not many poems by Owen as he died so young. He died venerably in his early twenties the Sunday before the armistice in 1918. But he wrote so vividly of war. I think he’s the most influential writer in English in the whole of the 20th century. This body of work shows you the reality of war. And I think before 1914, the British people tended to take a “Boy’s Own Paper” view of warfare – it was a glorious enterprise, medals were to be won, you tested yourself and so on. When the reality of life in the trenches, which Owen describes so vividly, became known, the view of war as a terrible waste of time and lives entered the national bloodstream and it really stayed there until the end of the century because it was reinforced by the dreadful events of the Second World War. Only in the late 1990s did you get a generation of British politicians coming to power who had no experience of that and they then tended to embark on the types of military adventures that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.

I had a battered edition I used to carry around with me. Owen speaks to me about the reality of warfare more than any other book about war.

The works of the war poets seem incredibly enduring, and are as popular now as they have ever been. Why do you think that is?

It’s nearly a hundred years since the beginning of the Great War but that body of work endures. And I think that our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever these are or were, they will not be victories. And the bodies coming home, the Wootton Bassett effect if you like [after the English town where military processions were held], has drawn us back to the work of the likes of [Siegfried] Sassoon and Owen and we question the rationale for going to war, we question whether warfare is in itself a glorious enterprise. This book in particular, his Anthem for Doomed Youth and the others, stand as monuments, in my mind, to the reality of warfare. Everything I have seen on the world’s battlefields I have seen through that light.

Do you have a favorite?

Yes. My favorite is Anthem for Doomed Youth.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

This interview has been edited for length.

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