Why I weep while I work: What it means to experience America’s wars from a computer screen away

I’m crying for a simple enough reason: because my job in communications breaks my heart

Published November 1, 2019 7:30AM (EDT)

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (AP)
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (AP)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Think back to the last time you cried at work. Did the tears come after your boss sent you a curt email? Or when you accidentally cc’d (instead of bcc’d) everyone? Maybe you just had a really, really long day and that one last little misstep pushed you over the edge.

In my case, I cry at work — often quite profusely — about once every two weeks. And that’s if I’m lucky. The past couple of months? More times than I can count. And not over a nasty email, a rude response, or a mean coworker (of which, I’m proud to say, I have none). No, I’m crying for a simple enough reason: because my job in communications breaks my heart. It does so over and over again. And yet I stay. I keep doing it, tears and all, because I want to make a difference, because I just hate the world I’m trying to change and how cruelly it treats so many people. And I cry because some days (most days, perhaps) I’m not sure I can make a difference at all.

So, what could cause this public relations professional to get that upset? Well, I think it has something to do with what I work on, day in and day out. Most so-called PR flacks I know have portfolios that include things like consumer goods, public health campaigns, or corporations in crisis. Not me. My focus at work is on America’s wars and how they are being waged.

As for the crying, it could have something to do with the uplifting — I’m kidding, of course (if you can kid about such things) — Google alerts I receive every single morning, afternoon, and evening. They arrive like clockwork in my inbox just waiting for me to open them and scan the headlines for mentions of drone strikes, airstrikes, or civilian casualties.

On a good day, those headlines in my inbox are, if not uplifting, at least irrelevant to the work I’m doing, which is always a relief: stock market updates or, say, the results of a Jamaican race horse someone thought to name Drone Strike.

But on bad days... On bad days, the e-newsletter I write is filled with weddings that were turned into funerals, civilian death counts that only continue to rise, government denials of wrongdoing, and angry questions like “How could they do this to us?” I wish I could tell you those bad days are rare, but given America’s wars that would be a lie. In all honesty, I don’t recall a single week since I started working on the issue of drones in March 2017 that they haven’t poured in.

For example, in just one week this September, news outlets reported that:

  • a US drone strike killed at least 30 farmers harvesting pine-nuts in Afghanistan;
  • a US-backed strike in a different region of Afghanistan hit a wedding partykilling upwards of 40 civilians; 
  • a BBC report alleged that, on average, more than a dozen civilians died every day in Afghanistan;
  • a TRT World investigation presented evidence that in the span of three months this year, U.S. air strikes killed 21 civilians in Somalia;
  • an Afghan airstrike killed two civilians, instead of the Taliban militants it was meant for.

And that was only the worst of that week.

Unfortunately, when it comes to America’s forever wars, such stories are just a drop in the bucket. Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office more than 1,000 days ago, the U.S. has only expanded its war on terror, increasing both the number of countries we’re bombing and the number of people we’re killing. In the Trump administration’s quest for “annihilation,” the president has, in that period, prioritized might over right, letting the military loosen the rules designed to protect civilians in its war zones and then classify the results, which makes it likely that we’ll never know just how many innocent men, women, and children we’ve actually killed.

At first, I tried to keep a spreadsheet on every strike I saw recorded in the news, separating as best I could civilian deaths from those of combatants and unidentified parties. Unfortunately, the task quickly became so overwhelming that I had to let it fall by the wayside, hoping that others were already on the job.

There’s a lot about our wars that we don’t know, however, what we do know isn’t encouraging. A report from the U.N. found that, for the first time since it started tracking the conflict in Afghanistan 10 years ago, U.S. and Afghan government forces had killed more civilians than the Taliban and other militant groups. In Somalia, human rights organizationshave accused the U.S. military of recently killing between 17 and 21 civilians (of whom, it has admitted to just two). While in Syria, the city of Raqqa largely remains rubble two years after thousands of American airstrikes left more than 1,600 civilians dead and the entire city in ruins. To this day, Washington has admitted to just 10% of that number and only after Amnesty International and the civilian-harm-monitoring group Airwars spent almost two years compiling “the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict.”

At the most basic level, my job is to show the world how the U.S. wages war, who it hurts, and why we should care. How do I do that? By tracking all the developments I can in our wars, especially ones involving drones. I particularly focus on stories about and from those most affected by Washington’s policies, working with journalists to make sure that the American public knows what is being done in our name thousands of miles away — the (rarely) good, (mostly) bad, and (usually) ugly.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

When people think of public relations, they generally associate it with mindless press-release blasts, unconvincing or irrelevant sales pitches, and an inability to take no for an answer. On the industry’s worst days, that may be all too true. When national security reporters get emails asking them to cover a documentary on flip-flop injuries or anyone gets a holiday season pitch in August, it makes sense to get annoyed — especially given that there are now more than six PR professionals for every journalist in this country. And I would totally get hating every one of us, if that’s what we all did.  But it’s not.

Journalists despise it when people lump them together.  There are tens of thousands of them making millions of individual decisions about how the world is to be characterized and they're regularly all categorized under the behemoth label of “the media.” Yet many of them do the same thing to communications professionals daily. This one-size-fits-all view of us is inherently frustrating for someone like me because it represents such a fundamental misunderstanding of what I — and others in the peace and security universe — do everyday. But more important, this kind of attitude breeds a constant cascade of indifference and cynicism towards our attempts to highlight matters of life and death — and that’s enough to make even the most passionate communications person feel like she’s screaming into the void.

Let me be clear: there are an incredible number of journalists who care deeply about how the U.S. uses force abroad, but for whatever reason that often doesn’t translate into their coverage. Airwars recently conducted a survey of U.S. journalists who report on such issues and while most of them believed that civilian-harm reporting was critical to news coverage about war-making — particularly when alleged against the U.S. military — the actual news simply doesn’t reflect that attitude. Airwars’ survey found, for instance, that news reporting on civilian casualties from international and U.S. actions was largely absent during key periods of the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Worse yet, in the Trump era, an already exhausting news cycle has become supersonic and focused largely on you-know-who, making it even harder for issues like civilian casualties in Afghanistan to garner media attention or break through to readers. Trump news is the wave that never ceases to break on all our shores and we’re starting to drown in it. A 2018 Pew survey found nearly seven in ten Americans felt “worn out” by the news cycles of this moment, resulting in what it termed “news avoidance.”

As someone constantly immersed in the news about the costs of war, I’m disappointed by such willful disengagement, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it. I’ve often finished the news of the week, only to find myself unable to shake the horrors that I’d read about. Sometimes they even make their way into my dreams. For a while last year, I had a recurring dream that the plan to end the war in Syria was under my pillow, but every time I woke up, it was gone.

The irony is not lost on me that a lot of my job revolves around trying to make others feel like they have the power to change how America engages with the world and yet here I am, regularly overcome by a sense of helplessness.

The pervasiveness of vicarious trauma today

After Reuters reported that a U.S. drone strike that was meant to hit an Islamic State target killed 30 pine-nut farmers in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Just hours after those farmers, laborers, and children had finished their day’s work of plucking pine nuts in a heavily forested area and lit bonfires near their tents, a U.S. drone hit the site, killing 30 civilians and injuring 40 others.

I sat stunned, staring at my computer screen, unable to comprehend how my own country could repeat the same mistakes over and over again, never thinking to stop and reassess. The rest of my day was a blur of flagging that particular nightmare for anyone and everyone who might be able to bring it to the awareness of the public. In the end, while the strike did garner some outrage from a few political pundits like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, most ignored it. By the next day, of course, the world — our world, at least, if not the Afghan one — had moved on.

The silence was so deafening that I did what any self-respecting millennial media professional would do in such a situation: I complained on Twitter. Ab Qadir Sediqi, the Afghan-based Reuters journalist who broke the story, responded that, unfortunately, no, there wouldn’t be any outrage because, “Afghan li[f]e doesn’t matter to the world, the world forgot Afghanistan, if it wasn’t so, we wouldn’t have been suffering since decades.” Reading those words, I felt overwhelmed by the desire to help and then immediately paralyzed by the soul-crushing knowledge that I had next to no power to do so.

I knew, of course, that anyone on the front lines of conflict, from soldiers to civilians to journalists, was regularly exposed to trauma of many sorts and that what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, could result. What I had never really thought about was how those of us separated from such conflict by vast distances but, in another sense, only a computer screen away might be affected.

I should have, though, because my tearful reactions were obvious evidence that repeatedly seeing images of, and learning about, violence and trauma takes its own toll. According to a 2017 report from Eyewitness Media Hub, if you are exposed to distressing experiences, even when not physically present, your brain has the capacity to produce symptoms of distress similar to those you would feel if you had indeed been there. This is sometimes called vicarious trauma, which is acquired through working with people who have experienced trauma, hearing their stories, and becoming a witness to the pain and suffering that they continue to endure.

Common signs of vicarious trauma include experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage, and sadness. In some more extreme cases, intense exposure to such subject matter can lead to anxiety, stress, burnout, and PTSD. A recent survey of 346 human rights advocates found that 19% of them indeed did appear to have PTSD, or at least symptoms long associated with that syndrome; 15% seemed to be experiencing depression; and 19% reported burnout. Curiously enough, such rates are comparable to those found among first responders and even combat veterans. Additionally, perfectionists who viewed their efforts, no matter how fervent, as ineffective exhibited even more severe symptoms of depression.

I know I’m just one person working on issues that affect millions of people across the world so much more deeply and immediately than me. I also know that many others, including local residents, aid workers, and soldiers experience the brunt of the trauma in such situations. Still, a majority of my day is spent bearing witness to the pain, fear, and terror that America’s actions have been causing across the Greater Middle East and North Africa. I know perfectly well that I can’t necessarily change any of the outcomes there, since I’m not the one directing those strikes or making the rules. However, I also know how important it is to hear directly from those impacted, so I’ll continue to do whatever I can to make sure the stories of the victims of America’s seemingly endless wars are told.

Or at least I can try (and cry).

Copyright 2019 Allegra Harpootlian

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By Allegra Harpootlian

Allegra Harpootlian, a TomDispatch regular, is a senior media associate at ReThink Media where she works with leading experts and organizations at the intersection of national security, politics, and the media. She is also a political partner with the Truman National Security Project. Find her on Twitter @ally_harp or subscribe to her newsletter here.

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